During my college summer break of 1976, my father landed me a job in his friend’s meat provisions company in Louisville, KY. This company sold and delivered to small and large groceries everything from hanging beef, deli items, and frozen foods. My job was to be do whatever was needed, which mostly consisted of helping load 6-8 delivery trucks every morning, driving my own city route, and filling in for the salesmen as they took summer vacations.
One morning, after loading several trucks including my own 16′ refrigerated box truck, I took off from the plant and quickly arrived at the second stop of the day – a small neighborhood corner grocery store, the type you see in any major city. I parked, jumped out of the truck, and as I opened the back doors to climb into the box, I noticed a young man leaning against a metal fence, hanging around the delivery entrance.
A little suspicious I thought. I reached down, picked up the forequarter of beef I was to deliver, threw it on my shoulder, and briskly walked into the back of the store.
Little did I know how accurate my initial hunch on that guy proved to be.
After getting the owner to sign the delivery form, I walked back to my truck to drive to my next stop. Suddenly, I felt a hard metal tube pressing against my lower back.
“Put your hands up” was the first thing I heard.
I raised my hands above my head, and for some reason still unknown to me today, I slowly turned around to face the criminal. He was holding a snub-nosed 38 with open chambers. I could see the heads of what seemed like a thousand massive bullets just waiting for the trigger to be pulled. Frankly, it looked more like a Civil War cannon than a small handgun.
He demanded, “Give me your wallet – turn around – and put your hands on the seat.”
I slowly reached into my back pocket and handed him my wallet. As I turned to open the driver’s door, for some reason I had the clear state-of-mind to say, “Take all the money, but please leave the driver’s license. You don’t need that.” I remember hoping all he would take was the $7 I knew that was in my wallet (college boy remember). It was replacing the license that would be the real hassle.
I heard a whistle over my head and saw the small, black billfold hit the rider’s side door and fall onto the floorboard in a gentle puff of dust.
With my hands resting on the drivers seat, I braced myself for what I knew was about to happen – the gun hitting me on the head…to knock me out… while he ran away. I closed my eyes and waited.
In what seemed life a lifetime, I finally heard the now familiar high-pitched voice say, “Get in the truck and sit down.” From the driver’s seat, I could see what was happening in front of me and, by looking at the outside door-mounted rear view on the passenger door, what was happening behind me on the right side of the trick. Since the driver door was wide open with its mirror pointing uselessly away from me, I could see nothing behind me on the left side – where he was standing and where I was robbed.
So I waited.
My first thought was that the criminal was going to get into the back of the truck and steal some hams, lunch meats, or fresh beef. Go for it. Just get out of the truck and leave me alone.
No noise from the back. No movement on the right side. After what seemed to be an eternity (probably less than three minutes), I slowly reached for the door handle and began to close it, all the while looking into the mounted mirror as the left rear of the truck came into view.
Nothing. No sign of him. He must be gone. I slammed the door closed, quickly started the truck, and did my best James Bond driving impersonation all the ten blocks back to the plant.
Then it hit me. I could have been killed! Just one nervous finger away from the grave.
For the first time in my life, I came face-to-face with death. My heart was pumping furiously. I felt the sweat forming on forehead and beginning to trickle into into my eyebrows. My only thoughts were to park this truck, get out, and get away! I had never felt fear like this before. I hoped I would never feel this way again.
When I walked through the open bay door on the loading dock, the dispatcher looked up with a smile and proclaimed, “You look white as a ghost.” For a fair-skinned Kentucky boy, I really must have looked pale. I told him what happened.
We called the police, filed out a report, looked at mug shots (to no avail), and I stood up to go home.
“So where do you think your going,” he asked with a slight smirk.
“Oh no you’re not. “You’re getting back in the truck and finishing your route.”
That’s NOT what I expected or wanted to hear! When I told him what I thought of his lamebrain idea, he just laughed. He was a quite accomplished and proficient at cussing, and in the moment, I attempted my second impression of the day – to impersonate his language skills! (Hey, I was a Speech Communication major – thank the Lord I don’t use that language anymore.)
The old, well-seasoned dispatcher gently sat me down again, and quietly said, “Jim, I’ve been robbed several times and so has every driver in this place. The worst thing you could do right now is go home and stew about it. The best thing you could do is jump back in the truck and finish your route. So get back in your truck and finish your route.”
As mad as I was at his obvious insensitivity and disregard for my “feelings,” I angrily got back into my truck and finished the day.
Looking back, I now see the wisdom this man of the streets imparted to me. Although painful at the time, his timely advice was exactly what I needed.
Here are six lessons I learned about fear from being the victim of an armed robbery: three during the robbery, and three after the robbery.
Three “Can Dos” During the Crisis
1. You can remain calm. I learned that when in the midst of crisis, I can remain calm. This was critical for me to learn. No I know that regardless of the situation, I have the ability to maintain a sense of composure and focus. This has served me well in a number of life incidents since the armed robbery.
2) You can think rationally. During the armed robbery, my first reaction was to think – not react. I forced myself to quickly apply logic, to think through the key outcomes I wanted (safety, drivers license) and not fall into the unpredictable emotions generated by fear. If I did, then the robber could also “go ballistic” – the last thing I wanted.
3) You can control your fears…for a while. As I look back, during the holdup, I did not focus on my fears. I focused on the outcome. I was able to control my emotions for a while, until the danger passed. Then they poured out as they should. This was an important lesson for me that had served me well in far less dangerous situations I’ve faced since this day. I know I can control my emotions long enough to get to a place I can safely release them.
Three “Must Dos” After the Crisis
4) You must move forward. Running away and looking back would have only caused me more fear, uncertainty, and worry. Who knows – I may have decided not to risk my life anymore driving a truck. But I had to move forward and not allow myself to mentally and emotionally remain inside my fears.
5) You must finish your route. Although I hated the thought at the time, I had to get back in the truck, to saddle up again, and finish the route. Why? To satisfy the customers? To make the company money? To keep the dispatcher out of trouble? No, not at all. I needed to get my mind off the fear and get back to the work at hand. It was my route. It was mine to finish. It was up to me.
6) You must listen to sage advice. The dispatcher knew what he was talking about. He had been in my situation before. He was someone who spoke from deep experience, not from a theory or some new management technique. He had wisdom and the courage to tell me what I needed to hear even though I did not want to hear it. I thank God I listened to and, although begrudgingly, followed his advice.
Facing Your Fears
During the crisis: You can remain calm, think rationally, and control your fears.
After the crisis: You must move forward, finish your route, and listen to sage advice.
These are the lessons I’ve learned in facing fear. Now go apply these “can dos” and “must dos” to your fears. Then email me at Jim@ToaHigherLevel.com with your results.