Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ordeal in Cordele: Aunt Polly

There is no more riveting tale born of travel than the one single crystalline slice of danger that Aunt Polly survived in Cordele, Georgia.

Aunt Polly has been indulging the inborn urge to wander her entire life. Retired from a career as a beloved kindergarten teacher known for her creative and highly effective teaching methods, she never settled down to the white picket fence, 2.5 kids, suburban life that was so prized by women in her generation. If she gets a hankering for kid interaction, she just goes to a brother or sister's house, soaks up some niece and nephew fun, and blithely leaves on the next leg of her life's journey.

Everyone knew Polly was addicted to adventure from the very beginning. She began her professional career by shaking off the dusty bonds of a potentially mundane life in St. Louis, Missouri to teach school in Hawaii. With a few wildly global stops along the way, including another story involving an Arab prince trying to add her to his harem, she eventually settled, as much as she could be settled, in South Florida to teach. Her brother, my father soon joined her there, and started his family.

Frequently, she would scoop my brothers and I up for trips to sailing regattas or to Sanibel Island where we "shelled" for the most beautiful conchs, whelks and cat's eyes and where we reenacted with gusto pirate shenanigans. Naturally rambunctious and sometime foul-mouthed, we were not the most well-behaved trio, so we responded well to her form of discipline - the dreaded "sorry corner" where we would have to cool our heels while all of Aunt Polly's great activities swirled around us. To be isolated from all the fun was torturous! And the burden of our favorite Aunt's disapproval was withering.

The School of Real Life is the most fascinating classroom to Polly, and she still infects those around her with a deep curiosity about human nature and nature itself. It is her life's mission to share too.

To travel with Aunt Polly was to learn to be organized and on schedule. That's why her experience in Cordele, Georgia a few years back is as vivid in the telling as the day it happened. Some guy messed up her carefully planned routine in a big way.

Polly had driven her pre-set goal of eight hours on this leg of her trip north going to see one or another of our kin in St. Louis. The hotel in Cordele was probably a welcome sight for her, since she knew it meant engaging in a comfortable linear set of activities - check-in, unload, take a swim, a short nap, then, by 4:00 p.m. dinner and a smoke at the restaurant fronting the hotel. Nice and neat and predictable.

So with her signature short hair still wet but coaxed into a salt and pepper pixie style hairdo, and wearing her uniform of cotton Capri trousers and a light cotton button up sleeveless shirt with flats, Polly strolled to the restaurant, sat down and relaxed.

There was a older couple there, some men, waitresses and other normal denizens of a restaurant catering to travelers using I-75. Reading with her head down, probably puzzling over a crossword as is her habit, Polly didn't notice the door open to reveal two men struggling, one with his arm around the other's throat and a gun to his head. It was the deafening gunshot that brought the situation to her attention...Reflexively she put her pocketbook down between the wall and the booth in which she was sitting and she tucked her cigarettes, for whatever reason she cannot say now, in her belt.

The Man with the gun was wide-eyed and tall and wired. Sweating and grunting with effort, he pushed his male hostage into the restaurant and waved the gun around. The older couple began crying out as the bullet that had been shot to get everyone's attention had grazed the old man's ear rendering him bloody and her hysterical.

"All the men get out!" growled the Man.

Polly remembers hearing the old lady pleading to go with her injured and shocky husband and astonishingly she was allowed to go.

Once the men and the old lady got out leaving a slipstream of sweat and noise behind them, the Man aimed the gun at Polly and told her to get up.

And she did.

Why he picked her, Polly isn't sure. Could have been her height which approximated his stature, the fact that she was looking at him in her penetratingly curious way, that she was closest to him, she doesn't know. He wrapped his arm around her throat, lifted her to her tippy-toes and barked orders to the four other women remaining with Polly in the restaurant.

The strangest things went through Polly's mind, like that her captor didn't smell like anything; there was no scent to the Man.

He pushed the women, stumbling and trembling, through the kitchen area and into a back windowless pantry where they were forced to kneel on the floor.

This was when Polly started "talking."

"I am a teacher. I taught for a long time and you could've been one of my students, you know. I had lots of little kids in kindergarten who grew up to look just like you. Do you remember any of your teachers? I had pets like bunnies and guinea pigs right there in my classroom. And I taught art too. My kids always enjoyed painting on big easels. How about your Mom? Got any sisters? What are they going to feel when they hear about this. What's your name?"


He pushed Polly's head down into a tray of yeast rolls where amidst the heart wrenching scent of bread and escalating panic, Polly began praying out loud. She intoned a fervent rendition of the rote Catholic prayers that give so many of us comfort when things seem dangerous or hopeless, or both.

"O my God, I am heartily sorry...Hail Mary Full of Grace....our Father who art in heaven....I believe in one God, the Father Almighty..."

"What is that you are saying there?" shouted the Man.

"My prayers." answered Polly.

"Say them to yourself and close your eyes!"

There was a pause. A long pause during which Polly heard a hard to identify jingling sound. It took a full minute to figure out that the Man was clumsily reloading his small silver gun. That jingling Polly heard was the loading of six bullets. There were six of them in that pantry.

Then she blurted out with all the randomness of someone who thought she was condemned:

"I need a cigarette. Want one?"

"NO!" he thundered.

Then he paced, and paused, and paced and paused and then said, "Yeah, I'll take one.''

A tiny "Me too!" squeaked from one of the other captive women.

Polly was allowed to pick her head up from the bread tray, open her eyes, reach into her pocket for a lighter and pull her cigarette pack from her belt. She gave the Man a cigarette and lit it for him, shared another with the bulging-eyed panicked waitress who had requested it and finally treated herself to one. Always defiant about her smoking, and under the circumstances, Polly probably enjoyed that first delicious drag on the cigarette to the point of absolute rapture.

Then she began thinking of what to talk about next.

Although they couldn't directly see, they could all feel the gathering of police cars and bystanders pressing in outside the restaurant to witness the end game spectacle. The Man knew the storm was building to a thundering crescendo outside and was jittery and nervous to be so cornered. Like public executions in the middle ages, people had flocked to that parking lot with their children and neighbors in tow so see if there would be blood.

The incident with this desperate man had begun miles down I-75 where running blindly from authorities he had ambushed a car of military men, killed one, and took as hostage another. He then sped away in their car, and crashed it right in front of that restaurant where his journey would also crash to a halt. The radio was alive with blow by blow commentary about this hostage situation in a truck stop restaurant in Cordele. Put on your hat Mama, we're going to the hostage show!

"It doesn't matter what you have done, you know, if you just give up and walk
out of here, it'll be better for you than any other idea you might have."

"There is no justice for blacks in Georgia. Forget it."

"Why don't you give me the address of your mother then so I can write her after all this is over and tell her what happened. So she gets the real truth of it."

"NO! Just shut up."

"Look let us go, and I will walk out there and tell them to just let you come peacefully. I will stand up for you. I will. They'll listen to me."

"NO! No, they won't. Close your eyes!"

And the sound of five women breathing what they all thought were their lasts breaths was the only sound heard in that pantry for a spell. Tears pooled from beneath their closed eyelids and ran down their cheeks. Breathing gave way to hitching sobs. They heard him walk up to and look at each of them, muttering to himself under his breath. They braced for that loud noise and flash of light that would end their lives.

A moment, a teardrop, an ash fell to the floor. And he said:

"You, teacher, you get out of here. Tell them the others will follow one by one."

Polly placed the cigarettes and the lighter on the counter of the pantry, looked the black Man squarely in the eye, put her hands in the air, and then turned around to walk to freedom. With every step she took, she could've been shot either by her captor or by the agitated gun-toting hair-trigger people outside.

It was a dangerous moment.

It was a long walk out the front door into the late afternoon sunlight.

The police met her and, quick stepping her out of harm's way and only half listening to her pleas to not shoot the man, placed her in a trailer parked across the street where she could watch from a window what happened next.

One by one, the other four women emerged from the restaurant. Polly remembers one waitress running and screaming hysterically as she swung open the door and sprinted to collapse dramatically in the arms of a uniform. The others were like Polly, scared but reasonable.

No shots rang out in a barrage that day. The restaurant was spared the constellation of bullet holes it would've sustained had the black man come out blazing. The hungry crowd was disappointed. No blood, no guts, no suicide by cop. What a gyp!

In fact, the small silver gun barely made a sound deep within the restaurant pantry.  The black man, who would get no justice in Georgia, shot himself in the head amidst the echoes of a school teacher's prayers and the lingering scent of fresh baked dinner rolls and cigarette smoke.

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