You Have To Get Close To the Knife
After reading Bill Whittle's wonderful essay on trust, I couldn't imagine having a moment of panic and life-threatened fear like that in my life. However, in telling my sister about it, and reading his piece to her, I realized that that was not so; I HAD had a moment like that--and every word Bill wrote it true. You have to kick it's ass.
In about 1988, I was working in a group home with autistic and emotionally disturbed teenagers. This was a group that acted out--and on a daily basis. We governed and taught the boys using principle of behavior modification/positive reinforcement and extinguishing negative behaviors.
There was a 14 year old boy named Arlen. I did not know him well. He was as tall as I was--and about as big--and he was, by turns, slick, manipulative, needy and confused. Unstructured Sunday afternoon was a popular time for cooking up some nonsense. Favorite activities included locking the blind kid in the closet, swiping candy from the local 7-11, and sneaking out to diners wherein they'd order a meal, eat it, and then play the-poor-retarded-kid-didn't-realize-he-had-to-pay-for it (and didn't bring any money) routine. It didn't usually get any worse than that, maybe some food or dishes thrown. We occasionally got bitten, hit, or scratched.
But Arlen was a step or two smarter than most of the others; he'd been in the system. One such Sunday he and his roommate, Jerry, thought they'd cook up something. I didn't know what it was but, I'd worked there for a coupla years and had good instincts. I called for a time out; Jerry and Arlen needed to spend some time apart. I sent Arlen to the livingroom to watch basketball with everyone else, and sent Jerry upstairs to find something to do. I sat on the stairs to prevent a regroup by the two, for which Arlen angrily nagged.
Instead of going to the livingroom, however, Arlen strolled into the kitchen and, in two seconds flat grabbed a 14 inch butcher knife. And, in 2 seconds flat, I had instrument failure at 30,000 ft. Such fast fear steals every breath you've ever had (it's so palpable, I can feel it to this day in the retelling.) But Bill's right; you not only have to kick it's ass--you have to take the fear completely outside of yourself and not even look at it. (You sure as hell can't think about it. If Bill couldn't think of JFK Jr., I couldn't think of Freddie Krueger.)
In that maybe 2 seconds that I came off the stairs and sprinted into the kitchen, Arlen raised the knife over my head to slash at my face. I knew I couldn't let him out of the kitchen. The gal I worked with said "Come on Donal, we can't handle this"--and she ran off. I was all that stood between that boy and the 6 other boys. I was all that stood between Arlen and himself. I knew whatever I did that day would be a large part of Arlen's future; it might be a large part of mine.
In that two seconds I had, fighting with my older brother growing up taught me that I had to move in. I had to get close to him. It's one thing to be able to move a butcher knife 3 inches--it's quite another thing to have the full swing of your arm behind it, and the weight of a deliberate move. I had to get close to the knife.
As he slashed towards me, I grabbed this arm on the downswing before it got to me those 4-5 times. I jammed his body into a niche between the stove and refrigerator. I pinned the knife to his side with the weight of his body where he could not swing it. We stayed that way for the full 40 minutes it took for my supervisor to arrive. She came and we stayed pinned for another 20 minutes until an hour of unmoving boredom--and the prospect of it's continuation into the night--with the suggestion he talk about what was bothering him rather than use the cutlery to express himself, made him drop the knife at my feet.
I said "you want a bottle of pop, hon?" We sat at the table to talk. And that was it.
And it is about trust. I had to put my fear completely away, and trust I knew what was going on, trust I could handle it--and by myself. I had to trust my instincts enough to not let him out of the kitchen, trust that perhaps he was not a slasher as much as simply acting out, trust that moving in close was the right thing to do, trust that his--hopefully--small experience with such a large weapon would give me the instant or two I needed before he could summon a short swift jab or hold the knife so that I might be impaled.
I had the moment between seeing the knife in his hand and when I came off the stairs in which to make up my mind; I was already at a safe distance. I had a second to decide if I fought him now--or if I faced a worse fight later--perhaps with injuries, or even a hostage or the police. How I handled it would determine if it happened again. It never did.