It was Tuesday night, and I was unable to sleep. I decided to go pick up a book-Can Humanity Change?-a dialogue between Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti and Buddhist scholars, from my darkroom studio on East Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Austin.
I was driving there when I saw two women beating another woman in the street. I steered straight at them, thinking the attackers would back off as I approached, but they kept kicking and beating their victim, who was curled up into the smallest ball she could make of herself. They were hitting her so furiously that I didn’t feel I had time to call 9-1-1, so I jumped out of my car, intending to break up the fight. The women finally looked up, angry at the interruption, and sprang at me, throwing wild punches. That gave me an opening to shove them away from the woman on the ground, who slowly got up and began dusting herself off. That’s when I was hit twice in the back of my head, shocking me and turning my reflexes to mush.
I managed to turn around and face my attacker, and saw an African-American man in his mid-20s wearing knee-length shorts. I could see his left hand coming up to hit me again, but I was unable to jump back or raise my arms to deflect the blow. He hit me across the right side of my face with a metal object, then for good measure hit me three more times, as though he were working a speed bag. The pain from the blows nauseated me, and I turned away. One of the women took my wallet.
Someone from the nearby apartments must have called the police, because the three suddenly disappeared, leaving me stunned but still standing. Their first victim was sitting on the curb. With my mind on autopilot, I got back into my car and continued to my darkroom, where I could see in the mirror there that my right eye was swollen nearly shut, there was an inch-long gash over my left eye, and two of my front teeth were cracked.
I picked up the book and my laptop and drove back down Chicon Street toward home. Police and emergency vehicles had gathered at Rosewood and Chicon, so I stopped to talk with the woman I’d tried to help. Her name was Tracey, and she thanked me. Plenty of cars had driven by, she said, and some of them honked, but no one else had stopped.
The EMTs took my vital signs, looked into my eyes, checked my reflexes and asked a series of simple questions to determine whether my mind was functioning properly. I explained that I lived only a few blocks away. They reluctantly let me go. Knowing how awful I looked, I called my wife to warn her.
When I got home she took me to St. David’s hospital, where the doctor who stitched me up told me about a man who’d been brought in the night before. He’d stopped to help a woman with a flat tire, only to be beaten and robbed.
The psychological fallout has been complex. For weeks I was edgy. At night I dreamt of being attacked. Realizing that I had failed to watch my back, I became hypervigilant. Driving down Chicon felt like walking trails in Vietnam in 1968. Instead of watching for tripwires and punji pits, I began peering down alleys and between parked cars. An old high-school buddy delivered a 12-gauge “home defense” shotgun to my bedside, and I admit it gave me some degree of comfort.
Still, the old saw that “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged” hasn’t turned out to be true in my case. Getting hit in the face with a tire tool simply highlights the necessity of being able to defend oneself in an occasionally savage environment. Bad air, worse water, rare jobs and inequitable health care are their own forms of social violence, but as threats go they don’t carry the immediacy of a knife at the throat, a gun barrel in the ribs, or an iron bar to the face. The political right often seems unable to address social pathology without resorting to quasi-fascism, and the left wing sometimes appears almost programmatically incapable of defending itself.
What’s a self-protecting person of humanitarian instincts to do? If I’m philosophically opposed to employing potentially lethal physical force in self-defense, then isn’t it hypocritical of me to ask the police to apply that force on my behalf? Physical violence may not be the best way to solve a problem, but if I’m confronted by someone who intends to kill me, loaning them my copy of Can Humanity Change? isn’t likely to be the most effective defense.
My personal history of violence began when I got punched in the nose in the first grade. My father asked me how it happened, explained that I’d be meeting other bullies at school, and taught me how to box so I’d be prepared to take care of myself. There’s usually a bully in every class, and I changed schools often. I took judo lessons at the YMCA.
There was no fighting at St. Edward’s High School in Austin, but W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi was rougher. Two upperclassmen there singled me out for harassment, but after I bested them in boxing matches, no one else bothered me.
Attending the University of St. Thomas, in Houston, I finally had a chance to study shotokan karate. My instructor, Sensei Richardson, introduced me to aikido techniques as well. In San Francisco I was able to use those aikido moves to save a man from a beating by deflecting, but not hurting, his attacker.
In 1966 I received my draft notice and said goodbye to California. We practiced hand-to-hand combat in basic training, but my first real fight for my life took place in the latrine at Fort Carson, Colo. A soldier with a knife had me cornered at the end of a long row of sinks. Fortunately, I was able to dodge his attempts to stab me. The military police took care of him after that. In all my previous fights, I’d never had to worry that my opponent might kill me if I faltered. My boyhood was over.
In Vietnam, at different times, I carried an M-14 rifle, an M-16 rifle, a .45-caliber machine-gun, and a .45-caliber pistol. I almost always carried hand grenades. My chaplain had me carry his weapons as well as my own so no newspaper photographer could snap a picture of the armed man of God. The machine gun and pistol were his, the big sissy. The M-16 rifle was mine, even though, as a medic, I never used it. I managed to give away all but one of my ammunition clips so I could carry more bandages. I knew we shouldn’t be there, and I harbored no fascination with fully automatic weapons.
I’d grown up in Corpus Christi, close to Kingsville and “uncle” Mike Gallagher, my fifth cousin. Uncle Mike, at 21, had been the youngest man ever to be made a foreman at the King Ranch, but he was in his late 50s when I first met him. He used a straight razor to shave. He trimmed his thick fingernails with a fine Italian switchblade and filed them with a heavy triangle file. He was very kind and very tough. He never married and had no children of his own, so he “adopted” me and two other boys, David and Ernesto, took us to roundups, bought us baseball gear, and taught us how to ride and rope.
He also taught me how to use guns, so my association with firearms is a positive one, and inextricably entwined with my memory of him.
Uncle Mike had me out shooting cans with a .22 when I was barely old enough to hold a rifle.
Uncle Mike gave me a .410-gauge shotgun for my 10th Christmas and took me deer hunting on the King Ranch that same year. He handed me a Winchester .30-.30, lever-action rifle that I had never fired and told me to hold the butt of the gun firmly to my shoulder because it kicked so hard. Don’t press your cheek to the stock when you’re sighting, or it will rub a burn on your face, he told me. Aim right behind the deer’s shoulder.
With that sage advice taken, I shot my first deer.
My father had given me a Remington repeating, bolt-action .22 rifle when I was 9, and he took me hunting for dove, duck and quail, but he didn’t care for deer hunting. Only years later did I understand his reasons: He was proud that I could shoot better with my little .410 than he could with his 16-gauge Browning with its gold trigger.
My father’s father drove train for the Southern Pacific and the Katy. When he died, I inherited his pocket watch and the pistol he carried to ward off train robbers: a nickel-plated, Colt .44/.40.
Those who grow up without any functional or familial relationship to guns may associate them solely with crime and war. They’re not likely to understand, never mind share, the passion that many people-even nonviolent people-have for gun ownership.
Back in the 1970s, I lived in a small, windowless room in the University YWCA on the drag in Austin. Late one night, someone tried to get into my room. I knew it was no one who belonged in the building since I was the only person who lived there. The incident bothered me enough that I purchased a small 9 mm pistol to keep on the bed in my little cul de sac. One day I got a call from a sweet reader of The Rag, a long-defunct alternative paper, saying that an aggressive heroin dealer was downstairs and would I please photograph him. I went down and took his picture. He charged at me with a small crowbar. I ran toward Les Amis CafÃ©, and when I got to the outside seating I picked up a metal chair and threatened to hit him with it. I asked the cafÃ© patrons to call the police, but they all just sat there transfixed. The heroin dealer finally turned and ran off. I published his photo in The Rag and gave a copy to the police. I carried my pistol until he was arrested.
Another time, I was walking down West 22nd Street around 9 p.m. when I saw a man trying to rape a young woman. I got him off of her, but then he attacked me. My martial arts training allowed me to subdue him even though he was wild on drugs and seemed not to feel any pain. A friend walked by and called the police.
Back in the Y late one evening, I heard the sound of a hammer striking metal. I put my 9 mm in my back pocket and looked out into the hallway. A young man, maybe 15, was attacking a vending machine. He pulled a pistol and pointed it at me. I could have shot him, but I did not. The glance I got of his gun made me think it was only a starter pistol, not a lethal weapon. We had a standoff. In the end, I was not going to shoot anyone over robbing a Coke machine, so I let him pass. I called the police, and an officer came out and took my report. He spotted the 9 mm in my back pocket and berated me for not having shot “the little punk.” In the hallway I found a book with a girl’s name in it. She was a client at the Women’s Center, and from there we learned the name of her boyfriend, the Coke robber.
The “little punk” is still alive because he encountered me and not the police. They would argue that my kind of restraint would get them killed; I’d say they’re too ready to use maximum force.
That encounter at the Y made me realize I’d better augment my 9 mm with nonlethal pepper spray and handcuffs so I’d have more options. One afternoon I was chatting with friends inside Les Amis when a distraught young man burst through the front entrance with a beer bottle in his hand. He rushed onto the wait-stand, broke off the neck of the bottle, and started screaming at the waitresses and cooks, waving the broken beer bottle at them. I approached so he couldn’t see me and grabbed him, pinning his arms to his sides, and threw him to the floor. He dropped the bottle to catch himself and then bolted out the door. Everyone was surprised mild-mannered Alan had done this. Surprised but happy.
Time passed. I lost the handcuffs, and the pepper spray turned stale. The 9 mm stayed locked in a filing cabinet. There have been other incidents, but nothing on the order of what happened to me last April 29. After thinking about the fellow who hit me in the back of the head I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m going to help people in distress, then I better get some more pepper spray and another type of pistol-one I’m willing to use on a human. There is a pistol on the market that fires .410 shotgun shells, as well as .45 caliber bullets of the same diameter.
I’m thinking about using the .410 shells. A small amount of birdshot would hardly be lethal, but it would be loud, it would generate a huge muzzle flash, and it would hurt. It would be a convincing deterrent.
Some would argue that this arrangement won’t have the stopping power a “real” bullet would exert on the worst-case scenario: a 300-pound homicidal maniac on drugs. Maybe so, but I’m more worried about being able to keep multiple attackers at bay-a situation in which a mere taser would be inadequate. Not killing anyone is as much a priority as not getting myself-or an innocent victim-killed. Until I have to deal with a sniper, a shot pistol will be good enough for me.
Paying attention to your surroundings is the first line of defense. Avoidance is best. Running is good. If I ever again have to save someone from being raped or beaten, I promise to call 911 first, use my pepper spray, and perhaps, as a last resort, deploy my .45/.410.
In addition to psychological trauma, I also now have $38,000 in medical bills to deal with. My present battle is with the insurance company. Tracey has left Austin and is receiving counseling. My attacker is in prison. Tracey’s attackers are at large.
A word of caution. Anyone who owns any kind of firearm must keep it under control. If it is at home, it must be locked up in such a way that no unauthorized persons can unlock it.
When I was a boy, I kept my .22 rifle and my .410 shotgun in my closet. Children were not shooting children in those days. I didn’t own a bicycle lock, either, because no one was stealing bicycles where I lived. No one worried about their children going “trick or treating.” Those days are gone. I wish we had them back. Until they return, I’m relying on more than wishes.
Alan Pogue has photographed for social justice organizations since 1968. He studied martial arts intensively at John Blankenship’s Cha Yon Ryu and Jo Birdsong’s Aikido of Austin. He apologizes to them for his recent lapse in attention.