You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Mighty Fitz was a Great Lakes ore boat and, at more than 700 feet, among the largest of her kind. Forty-two years ago, in a raging late-autumn storm, she broke in two and found the bottom of Lake Superior, taking 29 men with her. You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald because Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about her. But you’ve never heard of my Uncle Bill, because no one ever wrote a song about him.*
Bill was a cop’s cop and a detective sergeant in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. That Monday he and his partner, James Toth, visited Blonder’s Paint Store with books of mug shots. The store had been robbed five weeks before, and there still was no arrest. Bill was a sweet man, but that kind of thing pissed him off, so he was going to work the case until something broke.
Nobody was in the front of the store, so Bill walked through to the back. Michael Manns was waiting for him, hiding behind a bathroom door, because he was robbing Blonder’s Paint Store again. Manns and his crew had the employees held hostage in the back room. The moment Bill came through the door, Manns put a pistol to Bill’s neck and pulled the trigger, blowing out Bill’s spine and carotid artery. Bill fell flat to the floor, shattering the big glasses he always wore -- except his official photo.
Manns knew exactly whom he was killing when he murdered my uncle. Bill hadn’t wanted to startle store employees, fresh from the prior robbery, who might be jumpy at someone coming through the door unannounced. So he’d called out “Sgt. Prochazka, police department!” as he walked through.
After firing the shot, Manns fled with his accomplices, George Clayton, Dwain Farrow and Duran Harris. Store employees, now having seen the robbers twice, were able to identify them and Clayton, Farrow and Harris were arrested within a day or so by Cleveland police. Manns was on the run for several weeks, until police caught up with him in Detroit.
The funeral procession drew police cars from 49 states, every province of Canada and most of Northern Mexico. Bedford Heights was a small department, but despite all the other lawmen there, the BHPD wouldn’t let anyone else stand honor guard over the coffin, day and night, until they put it in the ground.
Bill, with his twin brother Bob – also a cop – was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He left my Aunt Loretta, a daughter and three sons. Over the days of viewing, I saw the strongest people I knew – the strongest people I thought there could be – reduced to mewling, groveling beasts by their grief. During the service, someone played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. Bill’s youngest boy stood before the coffin and saluted, exactly like John John in Stan Stearns’ iconic photo.
All four men were convicted of aggravated robbery and murder. Our family had people at every day of trial. On the day each man was sentenced to death, all eight of Bill’s surviving siblings, and dozens of cousins, nephews, and nieces stood witness. Not long after that, all of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when a court ruling banned Ohio’s death penalty. Harris was granted parole and freed in 2003. Corrections officials had failed to inform the family of the parole hearing, so no one was there to oppose his release. Now, as the other men’s hearings periodically arise, someone is always there – led by Bill’s son Robert, a cop in Willowick, Ohio.
However much we love or are loved, however deep our connections to our wives and husbands and children and friends, there is a sense in which we each travel through life aboard a ship with a single passenger. Even shared experiences are felt uniquely, individually. Standing in the same storm, each of us hears the thunder at a slightly different moment, feels the wind from a certain, personal angle. So it was that, drenched in sadness that entire miserable, sleet-soaked funeral week – and although I loved him so much – I did not cry for Bill.
I was too busy making an acquaintance of Hate, whom I hadn’t occasion to meet before then.
Twenty-nine sailors, a good cop and a teen boy’s faith all died that day forty-two years ago, to be buried under steel gray waves, or brown earth, or black despair. I said I was through with God that day, and for twenty years I made good on that vow, except to make war on Him from time to time. But He wasn’t done with me. So today I can pray for Bill, and for his family – and even for Manns, Clayton, Farrow and Harris.
But that’s another story.
*Actually, as it happens, I wrote a song about him -- which amounts to the same thing.
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Recent events are having the effect that events always have when they are recent: Folks are thinking and talking -- at least for now -- about issues that are ever present, but are most often ignored by most. It's human nature to do this of course. In the words of the fictional Matthew Harrison Brady, we don't think about things we don't think about. Indeed, this tendency is itself so predictable that investors have name for the phenomenon: Recency Bias. Still, one supposes it's better to think about these matters episodically, or reactively, than not to think about them at all. Here, of course, we think about these issues pretty much all the time.
So with that, I recycle, for the third time, the most read -- and I think probably most important -- column ever to appear here. Because recent events are going to be future events. And the time to decide how you will act -- who you will BE -- when that happens is now.
Some folks like a triad. You will also hear lots of discussion about three-legged stools. Others prefer to slice a pie into four pieces. Some would rather disassemble the device into components. Whatever your favored metaphor, the simple notion of “self defense” implicates many considerations.
You have to have tools that work, every time, and are suited to you. You have to be able to use those tools effectively, so that means adequate marksmanship and competent, reflexive gun-handling. To achieve those, you have to train, and the training has to be realistic and relevant. Then you have to practice often and effectually – recognizing that training and practice are not the same thing. Your ancillary gear has to be suited to your particular use of it, and as reliable as your primary tools.
But while all of these are necessary, none of them is sufficient. All of these considerations matter, but there is one thing that is lord of them all: Mindset.
Robert's Rule is that "Mindset Matters Most." Fighting mindset determines outcomes. Mindset implicates the largest questions: How do you believe you came to occupy the universe? Mindset invades the smallest of moments: Will you keep fighting for this next second?
Not only will the better mindset prevail “all things being equal,” but the man with the better mindset can prevail over an adversary who is better equipped or trained or both, while a poor mindset renders expertise irrelevant. This is not a new notion. Sun Tzu** said 2500 years ago that every battle is won or lost before it is fought.
Proper mindset drives you toward the satisfaction of all the other necessary elements: You are determined to expend the time and sweat and money to train realistically and practice effectively. You have done the research and trials necessary to know what weapons and gear will work best for you, and you have not stinted on buying the best you can afford. But mindset stands apart from and above all these other factors.
Proper mindset means that you have decided that you are a human being and that human beings have the right to defend their lives and wellbeing, and the lives and wellbeing of those in their care or charge. You have decided that you concur with the Founders' belief that your right to life is natural and inalienable. You have decided that the image of an armed woman standing over the bleeding body of a would-be rapist is morally superior to the image of a battered woman lying on the ground, watching as her rapist flees.
To have a proper mindset is to be utterly ready for that which you earnestly pray will not occur. Proper mindset means that you can walk away from any insult or offense that does not warrant a fight, no matter the injury to your ego. But proper mindset means that you are ready to fight when it is time to fight, because you have decided you will fight long before the fight. Proper mindset is what spares you the paralysis of “this can’t be happening,” so that you can get into the fight when it will do you the most good. It is proper mindset that will keep you in the fight – when you are afraid or exhausted or shot – until you prevail or die.
Proper mindset means you have thought about what this kind of fight really looks like, even if you have never engaged in or witnessed one. You know that you are willing to do great harm to a determined assailant, to wet your hands with his blood, if that’s what it takes to end his aggression. More than this, you know if you are capable of ending the life of another human being if need be. Proper mindset means that you have examined your heart of hearts with unflinching honesty. If you are a person of faith, proper mindset means you have reconciled these issues with that faith before the moment arises.
Mindset is not magic; it is not an incantation or a prayer or a mantra. It is neither esoteric nor theoretical; it is, instead, the most practical thing there is. Mindset is a set of decisions, considered with greatest care, resolved to a moral certainty and then followed through, come what may. Proper fighting mindset may come easy or hard for you, but the having or lack of it is not a matter of luck or heredity, nor is it the exclusive province of any particular profession. Mindset can be learned.
* Those facts really are very simple and boil down to this -- fewer weapons in the hands of law-abiding citizens equals more crimes committed against them by criminals unconcerned with silly things like gun laws.
** I will leave it for others to debate the question of whether Sun Tzu actually existed as a single historical figure.