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Survivor

October 4, 2018

Current events necessitate I write this post…  they trigger memories of personal trauma.  Specific news reports of Christine Blasey Ford’s memories of sexual abuse by Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee.   Do I know Christine Blasey Ford or Brett Kavanaugh?  No, I don’t.  I do not know the details of their lives but I do know how it feels to fear for my life…   please let me tell you my story which has nothing to do with sexual abuse and everything to do with surviving trauma.

I was held up at gunpoint when I was 18, in 1974, while working at our family-owned convenience store in northern Minnesota.  I remember the date, July 21st, because the thieves were caught within 16 hours & I spent over a year in communication with the local law enforcement before the case finally went to court.  I am not sure I would have remembered the date & time had it not been drilled into me with questions like ‘Do you remember the events of July 21, 1974?’  and ‘Can you tell us about what happened on July 21, 1974?’

During the hold-up, the LAST thing on my mind was the date & time.  I was living moment-to-moment, breath-to-breath, hoping & praying I’d survive.  Even now, some 44 years later, talking about the event triggers a very STRONG emotional response.  The same response I felt on July 21, 1974.  My breathing becomes shallow; my heart races.  My hands shake & my palms become sweaty.  My field of vision narrows.  I have to remind myself that I am talking about a memory.  I have to remind myself to take a deep breath…  that I am talking about a moment in history.   All this happens in spite of the fact that I have seen a therapist to help me put the trauma behind me.  Therapy was successful… I am much better in my daily activities than I used to be!  Feelings of trauma never leave…  you have to learn to live with them.  To re-define ‘normal’.

As a result of the robbery, I developed an irrational fear of guns…  I have since learned to use a gun to conquer my fear.  That worked.  This is NOT about gun control.  The gun did not point itself at me.  It was not to blame.  Two young men chose to rob our convenience store with a gun.  THEY were to blame.  Entirely.

After the robbery, when I thought they must be gone, I managed to re-lock the door.  It was locked when they arrived…  I had closed and was restocking the shelves before I left the store.

After I was robbed, and the perpetrators left, I realized I remembered two phone numbers:  one was home, and the other was the police station.  I did not recall which number was which.  (This happened pre-911).  I dared to walk across the windowed front of the store from behind the counter to the telephone on the other side of the small space.  I stepped into the adjacent closet, closed the door as much as I could, and reached my right arm out to dial the rotary phone on the wall next to the window.  I did not know for sure if they had gone.  I felt as if I was in a fish bowl or under a microscope and the thieves were watching my every move.  It was after 10 p.m.  The store was well lit and the entire storefront was glass.  It was a very eerie feeling.

I dialed the first number…  my mother answered and upon hearing her voice, I went to pieces.  She heard something about a gun and ‘call the police’.  I hung up, then realized that the second phone number MUST be the police.  I dialed, again with just an arm sticking out of the heavy steel closet door.  It was answered ‘Police Headquarters’.  I managed to tell him who and where I was and that I had been held up.  Within minutes, the cops arrived.  Two squad cars were nearby when I called.  One gave chase to a car that had blown through two stop signs onto the southbound highway sans headlights.  The other came to my rescue.  I think I might have insisted the officer show me his badge before I let him in.  That detail is a little fuzzy in my memory.

I don’t remember the officer’s name or what he looked like…  I could look it up, but I choose not to.  I remember that he treated me with kindness and gentleness.  He talked me down, first making small talk, then after I calmed a bit, he said ‘Karen, we have to talk about what happened here tonight’.  I remember the compassion in his eyes.  He looked around for somewhere for me to sit.  There was only a small stool in the corner (like a 1960’s era kitchen step-stool).  He quickly decided not to use the stool (maybe he thought I’d fall off?) and picked me up by the waist and sat me on the counter.  (I was 18 and under one hundred pounds back then).  The cop asked me if I smoked.  When I nodded, he stepped behind the counter.  ‘What brand?’  I whispered ‘Marlboro’.  He grabbed a pack from the rack, asked where the matches were, found an ashtray for me, handed me a smoke & lit a match.  ‘Want a Coke?’  Again, I nodded.  ‘How about a candy bar…  maybe a Snickers?’  Another nod from me.

He asked questions, I answered as best I could.  I had locked the door and was restocking the pop cooler.  I was turned partially away from the storefront but I remember seeing headlights zip past on the highway.  There was a tug on the door.  I turned and saw a man wearing a face mask, despite the hot, humid summer weather.  He asked me if I was closed.  I said ‘yes’.  He pulled a shotgun out from behind his back and demanded I open the door.  If I hadn’t left the keys hanging in the deadbolt, as was my habit, I wouldn’t have been able to insert a key into the lock because my hands were shaking so badly.  They pushed me behind the counter, the business end of the shotgun a mere six inches from my face, demanded I open the cash register and put the money into a paper bag.  I tried, I really did, but I wasn’t acting fast enough for them…  they pushed me into the corner, grabbed all the paper money and ran out of the store.  I remember hearing tires squealing a few seconds after they left.  I didn’t see or hear a car pull up when they arrived;  I had a small window open and can only assume they killed the engine as they came off the highway and coasted in to the store.

I described what I remembered for the officer… the gun (a 12 gauge double-barreled shotgun) accurately, right down to the color of the shoulder pad & the condition of the stock (light-colored wood with minor scratches).  Both robbers wore yellow ‘Handy Andy’ gloves.  I described those yellow ‘Handy Andy’ gloves in great detail, including the fact that the stamp on the back of the hands on the gloves of both men were in pristine, brand-new condition with no cracks, etc.  The yellow fabric of those ‘Handy Andy’ gloves wan’t pilled.  They had never been washed.  My description of both men included them wearing dark-colored knitted face masks, jackets and dark-colored long pants… which was odd because it happened in July.  The temp was in the nineties & it was very humid.  I thought they were wearing navy, black, dark brown or dark green.  Maybe dark gray.

The thieves abandoned the car in the chase and ran into the woods.  The car was towed to the police garage within 2 hrs of the robbery.  I was called downtown at about midnight to identify a car I had not seen or heard.  I stood between two officers as the trunk was pried open.  Inside the trunk was a paper bag with $182 + change, receipts bearing the name of the store, the gun & two HUNTER ORANGE jackets as well as two HUNTER ORANGE knitted face masks. The officers cracked open the 12-gauge shotgun… both barrels (side-by-side, not one on top of the other) were LOADED.

They brought me around with smelling salts.

My point, you ask?  We don’t remember every detail accurately at times of great stress. Our minds are selective that way… dates, times, locations, color & type of clothing, etc are not always recalled.  We are focusing on SURVIVAL.  We remember specific details that are indelibly etched into our brains.  WE REMEMBER EXACTLY HOW WE FELT, and that feeling never goes away.  Because we do not remember every single detail accurately does not, in any way, make the experience less real.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to live through traumatic events are changed FOREVER by those events.  We develop trust issues.  We experience paranoia.  We don’t feel safe.  We are suspicious of people.  We need to tell our story, and we need to be believed.  Even if there were no witnesses.

We are SURVIVORS and we are BLESSED, not to have gone through horrible events, but to have lived to tell our stories!

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One Comment
  1. Susan permalink

    Good job writing about it Karen. Writing makes you relive it again and in my experience brings more clarity to the event. I suspect when allegations come to light in the media it brings back unwanted memories to other victims of crimes.

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