Men who have been in combat will often say that there is no comparable experience to it in the whole of the world. They say it's like a car accident, that it is totalizing terror, that it is like watching yourself in a movie, that it is like many things. The usual metaphor is the old story of the three blind men and the elephant. One man touches the trunk and says, "It's like a hose." One man touches the elephant's side and says, "It's like wall with a tapestry." One man grabs the tail and says, "It's like a rope." But until you see the whole thing, at once, you'll never know what it really is. This is the reason that men have often called their first combat experience "seeing the elephant."
In his book, Acts of War, British military historian, analyst, and soldier Richard Holmes identifies apprehension over seeing the elephant for the first time as a soldier's greatest fear. Fear of becoming afraid, of freezing up and letting down your buddies, of acting "unmanly", is a greater anxiety for most soldiers than even concern for their own personal safety. It is this fear of fear that drives men out of foxholes and towards the enemy. Seeing the elephant is a big deal. It is the Hemingway moment that generations of young men under arms have been obsessed with. Some see it as a measure of their manhood. This is a pretty barbaric and unregenerated sentiment, but for many men it is true. For someone who has filled their head with war stories and books, it is almost unavoidable. You are simultaneously terrified of the elephant, and boyishly overeager to have it take its measure of you. Never mind that the elephant may want your arm, or testicles, or legs, in the bargain. Or worse. Seeing the elephant is some serious shit - as serious as it gets, so let me be right up front with this: I have not seen the elephant. I have glimpsed it, however - and that little peek was enough for me.
I had a new job. I was hired as a technical projects manager at a mid-sized advertising agency in Los Angeles. They brought me in at the height of the dot com boom to try and save a project that was probably 2 months behind the eight ball when I walked in the door. It was a good job, and I eventually wound up working there for nearly two years. At the beginning of things, however, I was a contractor, and the agency and I were in a courtship. I was on my very best behavior. I spoke like a consultant, using words like "critical path" and "rollout." I wore my hair short. I wore J Crew khaki pants and button down shirts with a mechanical pencil in the pocket.
I was careful about what I spoke about, about the things I would say at lunch. I didn't voice my idle speculations about Merv Griffin lording over West Hollywood with the telescope on his mansion's veranda like a gay Thomas Jefferson, scopeing in on the acres of tight manflesh walking the sidewalks in cutoff sweatshorts. I didn't chime in when people started blathering on about serial killers with a bunch of junk they picked up from the movies. I didn't tell people that I really wanted to be a writer, and that working as a project manager was some kind of strange exercise in method acting for me. For the folks at the office, I was soft spoken, systematic, a left brained, All American Boy Scout, just the guy to get to the bottom of this website thing.
We were coming back from lunch, an easy stroll down to a burrito joint and back. Our offices were on the 3rd floor of Sunset Plaza. It's an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex. If you're from Los Angeles, it the home of the Laemmle Sunset 5 movie theaters, the Crunch gym, Wolfgang Puck's, and the Virgin Megastore. Poised astride the gateway of the Sunset Strip, it was a pretty hopping place by the standards of late 1990's global capitalism. All these stores opened onto a central courtyard, overlooked by balconies on the 2nd and 3rd levels. The 3rd floor was only for offices. The ad agency was on the eastern side and the bunch that does Dawson's Creek, Outerbanks Entertainment was in the western penthouse. That's what they were called. Penthouse East and Penthouse West. It was pretentious and confused every delivery service that served the office.
But it was a great balcony. Nobody really thought to look all the way up to the 3rd floor, so you could see and not be seen. You could watch all the lovely empty porn starlets and soap actors and meth snorting tweeker gigolos and call girls float in and out of Crunch. You could watch Penn from Penn & Teller holding forth down out in the plaza by Buzz Coffee. You could watch Bernadette Peters having a salad and sparkling water down at Pucks, all her Maidmen-in-waiting twittering around her in a haze of worried motion. There were Japanese exchange students buying guitars at the music shop, dazed Iowan tourists blinking in the uncut sun. It was a bit like being God. A snide American god who only likes to watch - a kind of deist reality television.
So it's me and the Art Director and my sitebuilder, and we're back from a very satisfying burrito lunch. The entrance to our reception area is down a long curvilinear balustrade - which makes up the balcony over the courtyard. It's open to the bright California sun. At the very end are emergency exit doors that open onto utility stairs that pass to street level. It served as the unofficial smoking deck for the office. Today, as we come back from lunch, there's a very shaggy haired guy standing there in a ratty black t-shirt and black jeans. Black combat boots. His hair is down in his face and he's clutching his head in his hands and cursing himself, pacing in circles. I smell "chemicals," an acetone kind of smell. I'm wondering who the fuck this guy is, and how he got onto our floor? Security at the Sunset Plaza is fascistically efficient at barring entry to the homeless. I had actually been stopped once by them when I wrecked my bike on the way to work and came into the office bleeding. So he didn't walk off the street - he drove here, deliberately? And then walked up the utility stairs? Why? To huff model glue out of a paper lunch sack - he could do that at home. All of this is tracking through my head while we walk towards reception. My compatriots are oblivious. They are beaming the Grade-A tail flouncing out of Crunch.
Then it pops out at me - like a bad zoom effect in a gimmicky action film. Gun, GUN, GUN! Propped against the wall is the unmistakable silhouette of a rifle - a long gun. It looks to be a carbine, maybe a Mini-14 or M-1. I look at where the guy is standing. He has magnificent line of sight on all the outdoor diners at Pucks, and the coffee drinkers at Buzz. He can lay the forestock across the railing and shoot rock solid right into the mass of them, and they'll be lined up like ten-pins. Then he can just fade out the back. There are a couple of hundred people down there, and he's got a rapid fire weapon. He's having a psychotic episode and is huffing to self-medicate, a classic paranoid schizophrenic presentation. The thoughts all come together, just like that. I'm kind of standing back watching myself knock all this together at 100 miles an hour.
"Do not panic. Do not look up. Walk inside the office. That crazy dude down there has a rifle." I say it low. I say it calm. I feel my guts lug down into a lower gear. Time seems to accordion out. I am watching my co-workers go inside, watching the man in black, watching the sun.
Everything tunes up to a crystalline hardness. The world becomes very, very three-D. I can see every single tile laid into the surface of the balcony. I can taste the air - it's some kind of spray paint, that's the smell. I can hear every crazy fucking thing the man in black is muttering to himself, stuff about television - more paranoid presentation. I can hear the change rattling in his pockets. I step inside and pull the door to behind me. It locks with an electromagnet, which is good. It's made of glass, like the rest of the office, which is bad.
I tell the receptionist to call security and inform them that there is a man on the eastern 3rd floor balcony with what may be a rifle. He is positioned near the utility stairs at the end of the balcony, and appears to be agitated and in an altered state of consciousness. I tell her to relay that same information to the police. There are people in the reception area. I tell them they should move away from the windows, maybe try the large conference room.
The security guards at the Plaza are unarmed. The police will be at least five minutes in getting here. I'm the unfortunate son-of-a-bitch that has put together this very bad picture. Somebody has to stop this guy, and I guess that somebody is me.
I can feel an amazing rage fill my body, like I'm being pressurized with hydraulic fluid. Kill me? Kill my friends? Fuck it, I just got this job, and now this? I actually thought that, about how I had just gotten this job, and it enraged me. Who the fuck does this guy think he is?! What about those people down there having a cup of coffee, talking up the stupid projects that they're never going to get made. They're just a bunch of dumbfuck civilians having a cup of coffee that did not sign up to have their guts shot out by some glue-huffing headcase.
In that moment, I decide I am going to kill him. It drops over my eyes like a filter. Suddenly, I am seeing the world in murdervision.
I walk down the hall to an office with a window that might afford me a better view. The tinted windows and bright afternoon sun should mean that I can see this guy without being seen.
"J, you're going to want to get out of here. There's a man outside your office who may be armed with a rifle."
"Honestly?! I love this shit!" He seems genuinely jazzed that there is a potentially psychotic potentially armed potential mass murderer ready to cut loose about 3 feet away from his desk, only separated from him by a window of double-paned thermal glass. I look over J's desk. There - the butt of the gun protruding around the column by the window. I look for shadows. I listen. The guy is gone for the moment. A plan comes together in my head.
I run back down to reception. I pull the change and keys out of my pockets and I tell the receptionist not to let anyone follow me. I pull my spyderco pocket knife out, lock it open, and hold it behind my back. I start telling myself to go for his femoral artery if it comes to that - it will immobilize him and incapacitate him fast. Or that's what I'd read. I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm no Filipino knife fighter. I'm a dumbass Eagle Scout. I backburner that thread and track on the task at hand - I have other shit to worry about.
I ease the door open and slip out onto the balcony. I slice the pie. Slicing the pie is where you methodically control your movement and line of sight around a corner, scanning each sector as you go, so that you fully perceive what's in front of you. All clear. No man in black - rifle still propped against the wall.
I am going to take control of the rifle and neutralize this entire fucked up situation by any means necessary. There are several scenarios here:
1. The rifle is unloaded. The man in black has no additional small arms.
In this case he might charge me. I plan to throw the rifle down into the courtyard and punch the guy out. Hopefully, some other people from the office will hop in and back me up.
2. The rifle is loaded. The man in black has no additional small arms.
If this is the case, I take the gun and begin to backpedal towards reception. I'll check the load and safety on the gun. That's it. Situation over. If the Man in Black charges, I'll shoot low and give him one in the legs.
3. The rifle is loaded. The man in black has a sidearm or backup rifle.
If this guy has an assassin personality, he'll probably have at least 1 backup. Charles Whitman had several rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, and a .357 magnum revolver with him at the top of the Texas Tower. I'll take the rifle, and backpedal towards reception, and take up position behind one of the load-bearing pillars that face the balcony, which will provide me partial cover. If he's got a gun, I shoot for center of mass and empty the magazine. Like my shooting coach used to tell me, "When in doubt, empty the magazine."
I start moving along the balcony. I've got about 60 feet to cover between me and the rifle. I think of all the hours I wasted as a boy, trying to sneak through the woods, sneak up on people, move in silence. I am tapping every one of those hours in this instant. I am praying to all those childhood gods of invisibility and silence to hide me, protect me, country boy in the city. I am asking my dead grandmother to watch over me, the guardian angel that has kept me and my brothers in one piece for the last decade or so. I am asking dead Mr. R, crazy-ass Vietnam Era Marine, father of my high-school girlfriend, shooting coach, and personal god of war to watch over me, guide my movement, and give me the strength to do what needs to be done to protect the people below.
My heart is in a new place. It is no longer a multi-chambered organ of muscle and bundled nerves. It is centrifugal pump whirling in my chest at fifty-five hundred rpm. Blood is slamming through every muscle in my body. I could smash my head through a cinderblock wall. I could lift a piano. But now its time to be quiet, like Dad taught you. One duck footed, roll-forward-from-the-heel step at a time in your stupid Banana Republic Italian leather shoes.
Halfway there. 30 feet to go.
I am part of the wall. I am the wind rustling a discarded plastic bag, a CD wrapper tossed aside by some eager shopper at the Virgin.
Zero. I'm there. I take control of the weapon.
It's not a rifle. It's just the wooden stock to a rifle.
It's the stock of a Ruger Mini-14. The active ingredients, the barrel and the receiver are pulled out. I pick it up. It's tacky, coated in new spray lacquer. That's the chemical smell. I look around the corner of the utility stairs. There's no sign of the man in black. I can hear voices from the office door.
It's F, the managing director of the office. The only time I've spoken with him was my first day introduction and handshake.
"Are we going to need to evacuate?" He asks.
"No. The police will be here soon. It's just the stock. Keep everybody inside"
"What is that?"
"This is the stock from a Ruger Mini-14. A two two three cal carbeen"
"Why do you know that?"
"He's from West Virginia" the receptionist chimes in.
"Put that back before the cops shoot you." F says.
I replace the stock and walk back into the office. I can't feel my hands or feet. I feel light headed. The air conditioning is chilling - my whole body is covered in sweat. I walk into the kitchen and pull a cold Coke out of the fridge. It feels great in my hand, round and solid, that pleasing simple geometry. I crack it open and drink it down in one gulp, then walk back to my desk.
I could feel stupid, or silly. I guess I overreacted. But I don't feel stupid and silly. I feel great. I feel better than I've ever felt in my whole life. My legs feel great - I give my quads a squeeze with my hands. My legs still work. I have a massive jolt of retroactive anxiety about my legs. What if I was crippled? No more bike, no more running, no more six foot plus. But it didn't happen. It feels great to be breathing in the cool dry office air. My hands work, my eyes work. I work.
Sirens surround the mall. I look down into the courtyard. A platoon of LAPD - some 40 officers in blue-black, with body armor, tactical helmets, shotguns, and AR-15's hit pour into the courtyard in a swarm and fan out. When the LAPD shows, they show up to kick ass. About 10 minutes later, I can see them leading the guy out to the street in handcuffs. Other officers are carrying a black duffle bag with them.
We get a call later from building security, thanking me for being observant and proactive. Apparently, the guy had a history of mental illness and was having some kind of episode. He had the barrel, receiver, and several magazines of ammunition for the Mini-14 down in his car. He had pulled off the stock, walked up to the balcony, and then applied a new coat of spray lacquer while overlooking the courtyard. Then I showed up.
This made me feel weird. I mean, what the fuck was going on here? Was it a rehearsal? Why did he feel compelled to recondition the Ruger's stock? Just wasn't shiny enough? Was he harmless? He did have the guts of the gun down in his car. He might have let it dry, then come back up and opened fire. President Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, had selected his murder weapon, an Ivar Johnson .44 revolver, with the comment, "That's going to look great in a museum someday." Did this guy want his gun to look good before it was invested with historical significance? Maybe I prevented something. Maybe I didn't, and was just an amped-up dork.
Near the end of the day, a coworker stopped by my cube.
"You OK, White?"
"Yeah. I'm great."
"Just what were you going to do out there?"
"I was going to kill that guy."
She walked off. I had glimpsed the elephant. I didn't choke. I was going to kill that guy, I knew it to a certainty. But I didn't have to. I think if I had it would have changed me forever, and I didn't want to be changed that way. I was happy though, happy to be alive, happy that I had been willing to sacrifice myself to save those people. Or maybe that was just what I was telling myself. Maybe I had a hero/martyr complex. Maybe the murder that I had felt in my heart all through high school, that Columbine kid psychosis, wasn't gone at all. Maybe it was still there, biding its time, waiting for the moment to finally get weapons-free and take a life. Maybe it was time-tolerant, undissipated after all these years, just capped under better feelings and patterns of thought, the better angels of my nature. Maybe I was a hero, maybe I was a dork.
I had glimpsed the elephant. I was going to kill that guy but I didn't have to. That was good enough for me.