Since I sometimes treat the space in which Raleigh and Company allows me to write as an online therapist’s office, let’s do a deep dive into arguably the closest I’ve been to death yet.
This particular experience of almost having my lights permanently turned out happened during my college days at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. What I’m about to describe will almost certainly not be included in future WCU pamphlets or mentioned alongside my picture in the notable alumni section of the university’s magazine.1
My first semester of college introduced a level of freedom into my life that I had never experienced. Although I had my first beer at 14 and began a dedicated 26-year hard drinking career a year before graduating from high school, being at WCU provided me with opportunities to intoxicate myself that I had only heard about from a couple of older friends.
Put simply, I partied pretty much every night from move-in day until cooling my jets just a little bit during Christmas break. I was put on academic probation after one semester with a 1.8 GPA. Campus and Jackson County police were familiar with me.
During the second semester, my grades improved while I continued to maintain a demanding drinking and drugging schedule, and as a kind of karmic reward for my hard work in and out of the classroom, the party of the year was scheduled.
When final exams were wrapping up, 40 or 50 students gathered around a bonfire in a big field beside the Tuckasegee River to drink keg beer, listen to all kinds of loud music, engage in college level mating rituals and yes, use a lot of drugs.
An hour or so into the festivities, several of us congregated at a buddy’s pickup truck and put a joint in rotation. I grabbed a seat on the driver’s side rear wheel cover and as I was passing after puffing for the second time, I felt a small piece of metal press against my temple.
A second or two later, our little party within a party came to an abrupt halt when my predicament became clear for all to see. Someone had pulled a gun on me.
I successfully passed the joint — still a point of pride — an instant before having the revolver make contact with my head, but I’m quite sure if I had had anything else in my hands at that moment, I would have dropped it.
Instead, I slowly, almost involuntarily raised my hands until they were level with my shoulders and solemnly, silently contemplated if I was soon going to have my brain splattered on the truck’s rear window, but the man with the gun broke the silence before I had much time to consider dying this way.
While giving the gun a little extra push that tilted my head to the side, he said in a forceful tone, “Get the hell outta here before I do something I regret.”
Most members of the joint circle crew immediately scattered like roaches when the lights come on, but I felt weirdly attached to the pistol and was pretty sure just jumping off the side of the truck and running might not have been the smartest move, so I sat there for a beat or two longer as I watched most of the people at the party turn their attention in the direction of the truck after hearing from my fellow dope smokers what was happening.
The man saw all those eyes fix in various states of focus on us too, and that’s when he pulled the gun away from my head, pointed it skyward and fired two shots as he walked around the back of the pickup toward the fire and the partygoers. He screamed at everybody to get off his property right away, and we obeyed that request posthaste even though most of us had no idea if he owned the land or not. Gunshots were more binding than property deeds that night, and probably every night.
My escape route led to a nearby off-campus apartment where I reconvened with a couple of friends who had also beaten a hasty retreat on foot. Since I suddenly felt sober, they offered me beer and weed, like the best college buddies do, and I readily accepted both.
After listening to my tale, an older student asked me to describe the man with the gun.
“Tall, skinny dude. Looked crazy to me, but I mean, he just put a gun to my head,” I quipped.
“Oh man, that’s Johnny Johnson,”2 the older student said. “He’s a real estate guy, rich as hell. I hear he does a lot of coke and has been arrested a few times.”
At that point, I was conflicted on how I was supposed to feel about the man with the gun.
Sure, he pressed a loaded pistol to my head and prematurely ended what was shaping up to be a potential all-time great bash, but apparently, he also had some cocaine and in my teenaged mind, that meant he couldn’t have been all bad.