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Chicken Soup for the Soul: Action Hero

A few years ago, I stopped at a neighborhood market for some late-night ice cream. As I got out of my car, a young man hailed me from across the street. He was college-aged and dressed to the nines: expensive pullover, dress shirt and slacks so sharply creased they could have cut frozen fish. I thought he wanted directions; he had that urgent late-for-a-party look. When he reached me, he pulled up his sweater and smoothly drew a pistol from inside his waistband. “Get in the car,” he ordered.

My brain went into hyperspeed. I remembered watching a personal-security expert on a talk show advise victims not to stare at an assailant’s face. His reasoning was that if a robber thinks you cannot identify him, he’s less likely to kill you. No one asked how much less likely. Given its importance to my future, I focused instead on his weapon—a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver, blued steel, short barrel. I’d fired others like it at pistol ranges. This was no mouse gun. Nervously, I directed my gaze lower. His shoes were highly polished. Strange as it sounds, I admired his sense of style.

The click of the revolver’s hammer being cocked snapped my head up eye to eye with his. So much for not looking at his face. Contrary to the belief that when death appears imminent a person’s entire life passes before him, I was completely focused on the moment. Instinct told me that a car trip with this guy would turn out to be a one-way journey for me. I held out my keys. “Take my car,” I said in a tone I prayed would inspire calmness and reason. “I’m not getting in.”

He hesitated, then ignoring my proffered keys, thrust out a hand and yanked off my shoulder bag. In it were my wallet and a couple of rented videos. He took a step back, his gun still aimed at me. Neither of us spoke.

Laughter broke the silence, making us both turn. Several couples were leaving a Chinese restaurant on the opposite corner. The gunman gave them a fast scan, then lowered his revolver. Holding it against his thigh to conceal it, he began to stride quickly across the almost trafficless street, my bag clutched under his arm.

Incredibly, I took off after him. “Hey,” I shouted to the people in front of the restaurant. “This guy just robbed me.” I was halfway across the street when I realized my would-be posse was not mounting up. The gunman, now aware of my proximity, pivoted in my direction. As I watched him raise his gun, everything went into slow motion. A tongue of flame flashed from the snub-nosed barrel, followed by a loud crack.

I lost my balance. I felt no pain, but when I looked down, I saw my left leg flopped out sideways at my shin. A half-dollar-size spot of blood stained my jeans. When I looked up, my assailant was sprinting down a dark side street.

Later that night at a nearby hospital, I was told that the bullet had fractured my tibia and fibula, the two bones connecting the knee and ankle. Doctors inserted a steel rod secured by four screws into my leg. They also gave me a “prosthesis alert” card to show security personnel if the rod set off a metal detector.

Almost immediately a remarkable thing began to happen—my popularity soared. When friends introduced me as “the guy who got shot,” women who a moment before had no interest in me came after me like groupies. Men wanted to buy me drinks. They considered me “brave” for running after the gunman. I’m reminded of war movies in which the green infantrymen behave reverentially around the grizzled vets who have “seen action.”

I found it difficult to forgive myself for what I considered an act of colossal folly. Sometimes I thought I had chased the kid out of anger at being victimized; other times I attributed my actions to an adrenaline rush that needed a physical outlet. Whatever the reason, I knew it had nothing to do with bravery.

Clearly, I was being given credit for something I didn’t deserve, yet I was reluctant to give up my newly acquired status. After all, it wasn’t as if I were taking an active part in any deception; I was merely allowing people to come to whatever conclusions they wished. I finally rationalized my decision to maintain the status quo: I considered any misperception to be my compensation for having gone through a horrible situation.

Things went well until the day I was approached by a panhandler. On a whim, I told him I had no money because I’d been unable to work since being shot in a robbery. His eyes grew large, and it was obvious that the information impressed him. “That’s heavy,” he said, then leaned closer, conspiratorially. “Did you get caught?”

Rulon Openshaw