“A Corvette?” Nadine repeated. “You’re kind of old for a mid-life crisis, aren’t you? And besides, don’t they cost $100,000?”
“Not a new one,” George replied. “A used one. One of the curvy models. I’ve got my eye on one for $20,000.”
“What’s wrong with our Camry?”
“Not a thing. I just want something with some oomph.”
“So do I. Maybe I’ll get a new husband.”
“If that’s a condition, I need a little time to think about it.”
She laughed and hassled him some more, but eventually told him she was okay with him making the purchase.
He was definitely beyond middle age, so he couldn’t blame it on a mid-life crisis. More of a bucket-list item. He’d always wanted a Vette and had found just the one he wanted. He took it to a Chevy dealer and had it checked out.
“You picked yourself out a good one, Colonel,” the mechanic who ran the computer analysis informed him. “This baby’s near-perfect.”
Near-perfect, of course, was mechanic-speak for $1,200 in repairs, but George happily paid it. He polished it way too much and spent more time just sitting in it and drinking beer than driving it.
“Maybe we should have it bronzed,” Nadine needled.
Message received. He thereafter made it a point to get the Vette out of the garage at least once a week and blow some carbon out. It got to be the thing he regularly did each Sunday after dinner. Nadine would occasionally accompany him but lounging around their shady lanai and gazing out on the shimmering salt-water canal was more her idea of how to spend late afternoons in Florida.
He invited her to join him for a ride one Sunday. She begged off.
“Back in an hour or so.”
“Be careful, Hon.”
Lots of daylight, even though it was seven p.m., EDST. Virtually no traffic. He reached a stretch of straight and level and brought the Vette to a stop. He held a stopwatch in his left hand and clicked it on as he stomped the accelerator. The Vette surged to life and snapped his head back, a hungry cheetah igniting its chase of a fleeing gazelle. The rush of wind and roar of the engine were exhilarating. When he reached 60 mph, he clicked the stopwatch off and let the car slow to 40. He smiled at his time. He’d cracked the five-second barrier and was now down to 4.9.
He’d been intent on monitoring his run and hadn’t noticed the police car trailing behind him. Red and blue lights began flashing. He spied some flat ground on the side of road and pulled over. The patrol car eased in behind him. Two cops were in it. He could see in his rear-view mirror that the cop in the passenger seat was speaking into his radio mike, probably calling in the Vette tag number.
He hadn’t been pulled over by a cop since he was a teenager. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience then for a black, and he doubted it would be now. Be polite and do exactly as told.
The two cops exited their vehicle. The driver approached George on his left side, while the passenger-side cop stopped at the rear of the Vette. Both cops were white. He noticed they’d unsnapped the safety catches on their holsters. Standard operating procedure, he assured himself, when approaching a vehicle they’d pulled over. And, if there were two cops, one always lingered in the rear.
The cop who’d been driving reached George’s side and studied him for a moment. “This your car?” He asked in an accent more southern than George especially liked.
“It is, officer.”
“Know how fast you was going?”
“Too fast,” George answered affably, hoping a friendly affirmation of guilt might encourage the cop to cut him some slack.
“Don’t get smart-ass, boy. I asked you a simple damned question. Now, how fast was you goin’?”
“60 miles per hour.” No slack today.
“You know the speed limit here?”
“40 miles per hour, Officer.”
“And you was doing 60. You know they’s kids what ride their bikes and play in this area?”
Not a house in sight. “No, officer, I didn’t realize that. My fault. I sincerely apologize.”
“Lemme see your license and registration.”
George pulled his wallet from a pocket and removed his driver’s license. He reached into the glove compartment for the registration and handed both documents to the cop.
The cop studied them, then looked down at George’s shirt pocket. “If this here’s your driver’s license, what that danglin’ from your shirt?”
“License to carry a concealed weapon, Officer.”
The cop stiffened and grew more alert. “You carrying a gun, boy?”
“He’s carrying a gun, Mitch,” the officer shouted to his partner.
Prequel – Service to His Country
“Lock and Load” is a term dating back to WW Two, when the M-1 was the standard rifle issued to U.S. Army personnel. It meant to insert a loaded clip into the rifle and move the slide assembly forward, locking a round into the chamber and making it ready to fire.
George first heard the term in basic training in 1962.
“Shouldn’t it be load and lock?” He asked an NCO.
“What the hell you talking about, Gatewood?”
“Well, you load the magazine into the rifle first and then you push the slide assembly forward to lock a round into firing position,” George explained. He was new to Army ways, and he looked naively at the NCO, expecting him to acknowledge he had a point.
The grizzled NCO came nose-to-nose with him. “How long you been in the goddamed army, Gatewood?”
“A month, Sergeant.”
“You been in my army a month, and you’re saying we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing?”
“No, Sergeant. I didn’t mean that. It was just a suggestion.”
“A goddamned suggestion? Well, ain’t you one smart son-of-a-bitch. Why don’t all us cadre just sit back and let you conduct the training? Why, we got a goddamned genius here. We’ll just call you General Gatewood from now on.”
And they did. “We gonna run three miles if it’s okay with General Gatewood. We gonna go to the range if it’s okay with General Gatewood. Is it okay, General Gatewood, if we have ham and scalloped potatoes tonight for chow?”
Thereafter George only spoke three words. “Roger that, Sergeant.”
A valuable lesson, and it served him well through jump school, officers candidate school, and ranger training. He questioned nothing. He shut up and did as told, and somehow that made everything they threw at him easier, even the agony of earning the ranger patch.
He bought into the army way of doing things. He readily accepted the regular commission they offered him and decided to make it a career. A life of discipline appealed to him.
He was assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne, which was stationed in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam at the time, 1965. He spent 26 months in Nam, volunteering for a double tour in order to command a company, a nice ticket to get punched for a career man.
He seldom saw the VC or NVA. They always saw him, and lots of bullets came his way. He was a small man, barely five-eight, and glad of it. Many a bullet whizzed just over his head.
“I’ve never even fired my 45,” he told a fellow officer one day.
The officer nodded in agreement. “Can’t shoot what you can’t see.”
“Seen a lot of dead ones on sweep-throughs, though.”
The NVA was smart, but it was hard to hide from artillery and napalm.
He rotated home as a major. He’d been promoted at warp-speed, not unusual in times of mobilization and the need to rapidly build up combat forces. He returned to Fort Campbell, where he met Nadine, his future wife and daughter of the battle group sergeant major.
“I swore I’d never marry an army man,” she said when he proposed.
“You can’t say no. I already spoke to your dad.”
“What’d he say?”
“That he swore he’d never let you marry a civilian.”
She was pregnant when he was sent back to Nam in 1968, just in time for Hue and the Tet offensive and later on, Hamburger Hill. No hide and seek this time. The VC and NVA came at him in waves, and he fired his 45 cal often.
He returned to Fort Campbell. After several months with Nadine and his new son, George Gatewood, Jr., he volunteered for his fourth tour in Nam, this time as a lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of a battle group.
Nadine wasn’t crazy about him volunteering. “You suicidal?”
“I’ll be mostly In the rear doing paperwork.”
There was no rear in Nam. He was hit several times by shrapnel from mortars and earned two Purple Hearts to go with his two Silver Stars from Tet and Hamburger Hill.
He hadn’t told Nadine about being wounded, and she chewed him out when she saw his scars upon his return. “If you volunteer again, I’ll shoot you myself,” she threatened.
“It’s all over now, babe,” he said, holding her as she cried.
He was stationed in and around Fort Campbell for most of the next 20 years as part of the Air Mobile Defense Group, which meant he and his unit stayed locked and loaded, ready to move out within 24 hours of deployment orders. He went to Grenada and Panama, but these combat incursions were like training exercises after what he’d been through in Nam.
He and Nadine had four kids, and none had to repeatedly change schools as did most other army brats. Fort Campbell was essentially their home. He had to wait eight years before he made full colonel and was given his own battle group. It was an accomplishment for any officer, but especially a black. Prejudice towards black existed even among army green – just not enough to hold back a black man as capable as George Gatewood.
“I’m the wife of a bird colonel,” Nadine bragged.
“Never thought I’d get to sleep with a bird colonel’s wife.”
Their kids were grown, and he had 30 years of service. He was contemplating retirement, but it was 1990 and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. George’s battle group was airlifted to Saudi. He and his men trained in the sand and intense heat for six weeks, while the coalition air forces softened up the invading Iraqis. The Iraqis had fought a long war with Iran, had easily subdued Kuwait, and had a reputation as competent desert warriors. Given the extra incentive they’d have defending their homeland, George expected fighting equivalent to Tet. He was pleasantly surprised when the Iraqi army turned out to be just a bunch of fleeing thugs.
Desert Storm was enough for Nadine. She practically filled out his retirement papers for him when he returned. “I’m no expert on world affairs,” she told him, “but that mid-east shit scares the hell out of me. You’ve done enough for your country. Time it did something for you.”
The general presiding over George’s retirement agreed and was very gracious and appreciative when he reviewed his record of service.
“Four tours in Vietnam, service in Panama, Grenada, and Desert Storm, two Silver Stars, multiple Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts,” he read aloud. “That’s quite an accomplishment, Colonel Gatewood. You should be wearing these stars instead of me.”
He was among the last of the Vietnam era officers to fade away.
A Much-Deserved Retirement
He and Nadine had planned their retirement years earlier. One of his mentors, Colin Thursday, the battle group commander he’d replaced, had retired to Florida and bought a home on a salt-water canal minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. Beautiful weather and fishing right off the dock. Come check it out.
He told them about a large home near him. Most of the houses in the area were in the $200,000 range, but the seller wanted $300,000 for this one. It’d been on the market for a while, and Colin thought it could be picked up for less.
George knew how to wage war, but Nadine made most of the financial decisions. She sensed this might be an opportunity for them to have the kind of retirement home they wanted. They had $50,000 saved, and she urged him to make a low-ball offer.
“Even if he takes it, how’re we going to pay for it?”
“We’ll let a realtor rent it out for us. We could pay the note and even make money on it. I’ll get a job if necessary.”
George liked the security of having $50,000 banked. “Maybe something less expensive,” he suggested. “That’s a big house.”
“We’ve got four kids. Guess where they’ll want to spend their vacations when they’re married and have kids of their own? We’re going to need every one of those five bedrooms.”
“How much you going to offer?”
“I’m thinking $200,000.”
“He’ll never go that low.”
“You’re right, but I’ll bet you 20 bucks he counters with $280,000.”
“Still too high.”
“We’ll counter with $220,000.”
“He won’t take that either.”
“We make a final offer of $240,000.”
George reckoned that would be futile, too, but he reluctantly told her okay. They made their final offer of $240,000. The owner turned it down, only this time not so quickly. Nadine said they’d look elsewhere.
“Told you it wouldn’t work.”
“Bet you another $20 he calls us and says he’ll take $260,000.”
They stayed a few more days with Colin, then drove back to Fort Campbell. They’d no more than walked into their quarters than the phone rang. The seller would take $260,000 if they settled immediately.
“You owe me $40,” Nadine smiled.
They accepted and arranged for the broker to handle the house as a rental. He kept the home rented at a high enough price to pay the PITI and maintenance and deliver them a modest profit for the ten years they’d owned it.
Their renters moved out a month before their retirement. Their retirement home was waiting for them. They put their military life behind them and moved to Florida.
The Switch-Blade Robbery
They dined out once a week. Most of the restaurants in the area were small plates and large prices. If they drove out of the coastal area a few miles, though, they could find more reasonably priced food. One place they liked in particular was “Bubba’s”, a steak house among a land of seafood restaurants. If they went during the week and made a reservation first, it was more hassle-free. The crowds were less, and they could find a place to park in the main parking area instead of the overflow lot. George disliked parking there. It was unlit, and he urged the management to install security lighting.
“We’ll get right on that,” they assured him.
They’d been to Bubba’s many times. Each time the food had been excellent and their visit uneventful. Their anniversary was on Saturday that year, though, and they wanted to celebrate that particular date. They made a reservation, but the earliest booking they could get was eight. They arrived on time, and George dropped Nadine off at the door. As expected, he had to resort to the overflow lot. Even it was almost filled. He finally found a vacant spot at its darkest, deepest edge.
Nadine was waiting, and she smiled at his irritation. “That bad, huh? You gonna give them hell again tonight?”
“Doesn’t do any good. But no more weekends.”
They had a leisurely dinner and enjoyed a few more glasses of wine than usual. The place had pretty much cleared out when they finished. The main parking area was nearly deserted, as was the overflow lot.
Nadine was a little high from the wine and in a cuddling mood and insisted on walking with him to the car.
“I need some fresh air,” she explained. “It gets so warm in there.”
He laughed. “It’s a steak house, not a deli.”
They’d been just holding hands walking across the main parking lot, which was paved, but the going got a little trickier when they reached the overflow lot. He put an arm around her to steady her in the dirt and grass. Fortunately, there’d been no recent rain, and there was no mud.
They eventually reached their car. He was about to unlock it when two men rushed out of the woods and ran towards them. He pushed Nadine against the car and positioned her behind him. He faced the two men.
“They’ve got knives, George.”
The light was dim, but he’d noted that.
“Help you guys?” he calmly asked.
The two men were both taller than George, one considerably so, although slight of build. The shorter man was muscular and had the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to better display them. They both had dark cloth tied around their noses and mouths. Muscles pressed close to George and held his switchblade a few inches from George’s chest.
“Yeah,” Muscles growled, “You can hand me your watch and wallet and tell your old lady to pass her purse and watch over.”
“Give me your watch and purse, Nadine,” George said.
“Please do as I ask, Sweetheart.”
She unclasped her watch and passed it and her purse to George. He held them up, and Slim collected them.
“Now, yours, nigger,” Muscles ordered.
George held his watch and wallet up. Slim put them in Nadine’s purse.
“it’s bad enough you rob me. You got to call me nigger, too?”
Muscles laughed. “Ain’t that what you are?”
“I’m a black American.”
“Look like a nigger to me.”
George had been holding his car keys in his hand. Muscles took them and threw them into the woods. He and Slim disappeared into the darkness.
“You okay, Babe?” George asked.
“I’m suddenly very sober.”
They walked back to the steak house, and the manager called the police. They told them all they knew. George said he suspected the two men worked at the steak house. Muscles reminded him of a guy he’d seen clearing dishes.
They never caught the guys, or, as George suspected, never really tried. Although Nadine pushed back a little, he decided to get a gun and a license to carry a concealed weapon.
He found a used Glock, a 40 Cal and a police trade-in, The Glock was one of the finest handguns in the world but required careful handling. It had no safety and a hair trigger. The safety was not to lock and load it. It was standard issue for the FBI and most police departments. He took the required Florida instruction course and paid $75 for a license to carry a concealed weapon.
“I don’t want to ever be in a position like that again,” he told Nadine. “Suppose they’d decided to kill me and drag you off with them?”
“It wouldn’t have been a very happy anniversary,” she quipped. She trusted him. She knew he could safely handle the Glock. Besides, being robbed at knifepoint by Muscles and Slim had scared the hell out of her. George wouldn’t let that happen again.
He changed his mode of dress and wore his shirts loose and untucked, as open carry wasn’t permitted. He had his license to carry a concealed weapon laminated and clipped it to his shirt pocket when he left the house. People noticed and asked if he were a cop.
“Just a gun-owner,” he’d explain.
The DMV Shooting
The years slipped by, and he could hardly remember a time when he didn’t carry the Glock. It never left his holster except for cleaning and trips to the range, where he could easily put all 15 rounds from the standard Glock clip into a 12” by 12” target from 15 yards.
He’d bought the Glock for self-protection. It never occurred to him he’d be called upon to use it to protect someone else.
He was in the DMV, waiting to renew his driver’s license. There were maybe 50 people in the room. He was way down on the sign-in sheet.
“How long a wait?” George inquired.
“About an hour,” the clerk said.
He’d anticipated a wait, so he’d brought along a novel.
Although his military days were behind him, George’s instincts remained. He heard the unforgettable sound of lock and load. He looked up and saw a man wearing a raincoat. It hadn’t rained in weeks. The man in the raincoat was tall, thirtyish, and dazed looking. A highway patrol officer was to the man’s left. He shot the officer three times with an AK-47. The officer dropped instantly. The shooter then turned to the crowd of waiting people to spray the remainder of his clip at them.
George observed all this as he went through his prep. He’d withdrawn his Glock, locked and loaded, and then framed the shooter’s head in his sights. George was about 15 yards away. He squeezed the hair-trigger on the Glock and watched unemotionally as the man’s head exploded. George’s shot propelled the shooter backwards, and his feet sailed into the air. It was fortuitous, as he’d pulled the trigger on the AK-47 and the shots it released hit the walls and ceiling instead of anyone in the crowded waiting room.
Two highway patrolmen who had been outside the DMV rushed in when they heard shots fired. George presumed they were locked and loaded and ready to shoot anyone who moved, especially if the person moving had a weapon. George holstered his Glock and quickly sat down. Shocked and terrified faces surrounded him.
“What the hell happened?” One of the highway patrol officers yelled.
“Looks like this perp shot Cooper.”
“Is Coop dead?”
“Two to the body, one to the head. He’s gone,” replied his comrade.
They checked the perp. “He’s gone, too. Looks like Coop got him as he was going down,” the first cop said admiringly.
“Hell of a shot. Took out half the perp’s face.”
“Let’s get all these people out of here.”
The two highway patrol officers stood and waved everyone outside.
There was a rush for the door. George joined it. He found his Vette, climbed in, and returned home. He explained to Nadine what had happened.
“Why didn’t you stay?”
“I had to stop the shooter. I didn’t have to stay. They think the dead highway patrol officer killed the shooter anyway.”
Maybe they’d figure it out, maybe they wouldn’t.
At first it looked like they wouldn’t. The media proclaimed the slain officer a hero. Even though shot three times, he’d killed the shooter before he could empty his clip into the DMV crowd. The shooter may have killed even more, as he had two additional 30-round clips in his raincoat. Then, the investigators realized the officer’s Glock hadn’t been fired. A DMV clerk recalled someone in the DMV crowd standing up and aiming a pistol at the shooter. A woman in the crowd said the same thing. A black man.
Someone from the crowd had felled the shooter, they now realized. The authorities asked him to step forward. He was a hero.
George preferred anonymity.
It didn’t require Sherlock Holmes to eventually solve it. They’d recovered the bullet that’d killed the shooter. So, interview everyone on the waiting list until they found someone, possibly a black man, who owned a 40 cal pistol. A week later two white cops were knocking on George’s door.
“Were you in the DMV last Wednesday, Gatewood?’
“You own a 40 cal pistol?”
The police immediately grew cautious. “You have it on you?”
“Do you mind if we search you?”
One cop stood back, his hand on his own Glock, while the other searched George. He found no weapon, but he asked George to turn around, so he could be handcuffed.
The cop turned George around rather forcibly and snapped handcuffs on him. “Because as of this moment, Gatewood, you’re under arrest. Now, show us where your weapon is.”
George led them to the master bedroom and gestured to the closet.
“In there, on a holster hanging on the wall.”
The cop who’d cuffed him held George’s arms while his partner located the gun in the closet. “Glock, 40 cal,” the searcher cop announced. He smelled the barrel. “Been fired recently.”
“Yesterday, as a matter of fact,” George informed them. “I went to the range and fired 45 rounds.”
“You a good shot, Gatewood” The cop holding George’s arms asked.
“You know Arthur Knox?”
“The DMV Shooter?”
“Ten seconds or so.”
“You shoot him?”
“You have a concealed weapon permit?”
“Clipped to the shoulder holster.”
“We have your permission to search the house?”
They did a perfunctory search of his house, lingering a bit when they came to the bedroom he’d converted into an office. Dozens of plaques and certificates and awards were affixed to the wall, including a photo of George with LBJ and Westmoreland.
Nadine lost it when they led George out in handcuffs and unloaded on the two cops. “You realize this man is a retired U.S. Army colonel?”
“Don’t worry about it, Nadine,” George said in the quiet command voice he used when he’d made a final decision. “I’ll sort it out.”
“Should I get a lawyer?”
It was a ludicrous arrest and an insult to handcuff him. An intelligent lieutenant ordered the handcuffs removed after only a few minutes of questioning. He gave the two arresting officers a dark look.
“How’d you know so quickly, Colonel?”
“I heard him lock and load the AK-47.”
“Guess you’d heard that sound before.”
“Many times, Lieutenant. Unfortunately, not in time to stop Knox from killing the highway patrol officer.”
“Not fond of post-game ceremonies.”
“You were a hero, Colonel. Knox had two more clips in his raincoat. He could’ve killed everyone in the DMV. Those people were lucky that an armed combat vet like you was there. A guy with an AK-47 and you calmly put a bullet between his eyes. My hand would’ve been shaking like crazy if I’d been you.”
“It’s a useful skill to have in combat.”
“You shouldn’t have left, Colonel.”
“I apologize. I hoped the story would end with the highway patrolman the hero. Can we make that happen?”
“I don’t think so, especially if ballistics confirm your bullet killed Knox. And the officer still had his unfired weapon in his holster.”
“I’ll testify the officer fought with him. That gave me the time I needed to lock and load and take him out.”
The lieutenant nodded. “Let me talk to my superiors. It might fly if you say that’s the way it went down. But what really happened?”
“Knox just walked up and shot the officer three times. He was dead before he hit the floor. Then Knox turned to fire at the rest of us, but by then I had him in my sights.”
With George’s testimony, the fallen officer received a good deal of the credit, just as George wanted. George focused on getting the job done and not caring who got the credit. He asked for his Glock back. He declined interviews. Even his good friend, Colin, had to pry the complete story out of him.
Back to the Two Cops and the Pull-Over
George unhappily heard the sound of still another lock and load. He watched with concern in the rear-view mirror as the cop identified as Mitch quickly unholstered his weapon, racked it, and locked a round into the chamber. George recognized the gun as a Glock. He put his hands on the steering wheel.
“Where’s your gun, boy?” The cop at his side demanded.
“In a shoulder holster under my left arm.”
“You reach carefully under your arm and pass that gun over. I just wanna see your thumb and forefinger on the butt when it comes out.”
“Officer, with the upmost respect, I’d rather you take out my weapon.”
“You just do what the fuck I told you,” the cop said angrily.
George looked in his rear-view mirror again. Mitch, the cop behind him, had his Glock pointed straight at him, and he had his finger on the trigger. It was a hair-trigger, and if Mitch breathed hard it would fire.
George wasn’t fond of the suggested disarming protocol, but the cop at his side was about to lose control. As instructed, George withdrew his Glock with just his thumb and forefinger on the butt. He held it up carefully for both cops to see.
“Gun, gun!” A wild-eyed Mitch screamed and fired his Glock.
The 40 cal slug shattered George’s skull.
“Goddammit, Mitch,” the cop yelled, “what the fuck you done?”
“What I done?” Mitch questioned. “That nigger was gonna shoot you.”
“I told ‘im to take the gun out.”
“Maybe we can git ‘im to a hospital.”
“You dumb son-of-a-bitch, he ain’t got no head left!”
No one had seen what happened. The cops decided to cover it up. They removed George’s license to carry from his blood-soaked shirt. If anyone said he’d been wearing it, they’d contend it blew off when he was speeding in the Corvette convertible. They’d maintain he became unruly after they pulled him over. They tried to arrest him, and he pulled his Glock. Mitch had to shoot.
They locked and loaded George’s Glock, wiped off their prints, and put the pistol in his hand. They called it in. No hurry, the perp was dead.
George was ruled to have been at fault by a police board of inquiry. The board noted that his belligerent actions may have been the result of PTSD. The police officers involved were commended.
George Arthur Gatewood, Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired, was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Nick Gallup is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. He is an Army veteran and retired Department of Defense contracting officer. Nick grew up in the Jim Crow south and bases a lot of his writing on the racial injustices he witnessed there. He lives and writes in Cape Coral, FL.
If you enjoyed ‘Lock and Load’ leave a comment and let Nick know.
Photo by Ramon Perucho
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