I’ll never forget that day as long as I live — which, at the time, did not seem much longer! My friend Jesse and I had walked into a Southwest Atlanta burger joint called The Split-T.
As we entered the restaurant, a tall dark-skinned man with his 10-year-old and 7-year-old sons turned toward us as they sat at the dining counter.
“Is that them?!” He asked his sons. One of them nodded, yes. We didn’t know what was going on. The man put a gun in the hand of his oldest son and gave his youngest son a derringer and told him to point it at me. My hands quickly went up in the air!
“If he move you shoot him!” the father said. I froze.
I could tell this wide-eyed child was determined to do as his father said. He was far more afraid of his dad than of me! My heart was pounding. None of this made any sense!
I watched as the angry man grabbed Jesse, who was 13, and slung him against the counter and drew a knife on him, putting it firmly against his neck! I noticed his oldest son holding the other gun, watching his dad manhandle Jesse, but not aiming it at anyone.
The angry father was crying — tears streaming down his face, and yelling at my friend, “You pulled a knife on my son!!! I’ll kill you!!!”
In that moment, everything seemed to move in a quiet slow motion. I now knew what was happening and why. I saw Jesse looking terrified at the crazed man, eyeing me simultaneously. I saw the manager of the restaurant noticing the commotion and easing toward the enraged man.
I saw the oldest son watching his father without any expression. I saw the youngest child, wide-eyed and alert, aiming that derringer with both hands, at my chest, determined not to fail his father! I could almost feel that gun going off at my slightest move. I could hardly breathe.
Why, this whole incident was a mistake. About an hour earlier, Jesse and I had walked into that same restaurant and he was showing me his new knife. When he pulled it out and flipped it open we heard a little boy start screaming! It was the man’s youngest son.
We thought nothing of it at the time. The child quickly calmed down. We paid him little attention. We left the restaurant, walked around the block and returned to warm up from the frost outside. Only this time the child had told his outraged father what he thought he saw.
Jesse was pinned between the father and the counter with a knife to his neck when Mr. Cooke, the manager, carefully inserted himself into the situation. Cooke said firmly to the man that he was wrong, his son was mistaken. I can’t recall if it took seconds or minutes but Cooke was able to calm the man and convince him to let Jesse go.
Once he was released, Jesse nervously started to talk for himself, stumbling over his words, speaking rapidly about how the little boy had started crying when we walked into the restaurant as he was showing me his new knife.
It took what seemed to be an eternity for them to notice that child still had me frozen with my arms in the air! The father finally took the derringer. He composed himself, apologized, wiping away tears, sniffling and left the premises quietly with his boys.
Jesse and I walked out of the restaurant, around the block again, this time discussing what just happened. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to go home and get his mother’s gun and come back! I just wanted to go home.
I knew those boys. They were always nice. I had seen their father many times. He was also nice and polite, but I had heard he was mentally ill. That day I witnessed it for myself.
Within two years, the man had a nervous breakdown less than 50 yards from that incident. I remember being in the crowd of people surrounding him as he lay in a fetal position, crying, amid broken glass on a beer-drenched asphalt parking lot.
At times I feel like that child still has the gun aimed at me. I don’t always feel safe. I have seen misunderstandings end in tragedies — from family members to work mates to nations at war — all because people did not get all the facts before they acted.
As James 1:19-20 says, “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” — Common English Bible.
Proverbs 18:13 says, “When anyone is replying to a matter before he hears it, that is foolishness on his part and a humiliation.” — New World Translation.
Over the years I have seen the importance of listening first, getting all the facts and acting mercifully whenever possible. Life is just too short to have to worry about someone with an itchy finger about to pull the trigger.