1. THE SETTING:
It was a dark, quiet night in Sewanee, Tennessee. No moon or stars. A narrow paved road, dark silent woods on one side, horse pasture on the other. The road to the school's main building and the dormitory for teenage female students. No street lights. My cottage sat a few yards off the pavement, beside the pasture on one side, near a narrow dirt road that led beyond the barn down a winding mountainside to an unknown number of active stills, operated by local moonshiners, studiously ignored by local law enforcement. I'd been warned by our school handymen to turn a deaf ear to the nocturnal trips on the dirt road. "If you don't bother them, they ain't gonna bother you."
The moonshiners were related to the handymen, to all the other daily workers in the small academic town and their relatives who lived in the nearby "hollers", putting bread on the table by selling their "white lightning," or crawling to early deaths on their bellies in the coal mines a few miles away.
Subbing as the school night watchman, I kept my rifle by my bed. About 2 A.M. I heard the sound of a car coming up the road. I jumped out of bed, threw on a dark raincoat and grabbed the rifle.
I could see the outline of a car. No lights, crawling up the road, just enough noise to be scary. Bootleggers usually came by in rusty trucks with grumbling motors. This was the soft purr of a well-maintained motor, coming closer, ominously.
I'd formed a nightly ritual of lifting my gun to the sky, shooting off a few rounds—this seemed to work in keeping interlopers away. The sound of gunshots reverberated through the maze of mountains—it sounded like a whole battalion, with the echoes, not one lone rifle. The shots echoed in the hills. Then I raised the rifle and pointed just above the top of the car. One, two, three shots.
Suddenly, to my horror, a familiar round-shaped red light appeared on the roof of the vehicle.
Ohgodpleasehelpme, I prayed.
I'd almost shot the local sheriff!!!
There are no rules or scripts for such a moment.
Terrified, I lowered the gun and slowly walked to meet the car as it stopped in front of my house. A tall man in uniform, complete with stiff hat and shiny badge stepped out.
"Good evening, Sheriff, I'm so pleased to see you!" I stammered, as if we were at a cocktail party!
I was stiff with fright, aware I had no papers - nothing to show legal ownership of a gun!
2. THE BACKSTORY:
Since all the local candidates for the job as night watchman for a girls' school were kin to one another, we'd had no luck in retaining men for that job. Every qualified male was related either to someone who moonlighted as a moonshiner, or their cousins. Families stuck together. No one was going to squeal on or report a bootlegger—or intruder at the dormitory. With the centuries-old customs regarding local "Town and Gown" the dividing lines were deep and strong.
So I decided to try my hand as night watchman. I asked Fred, our chief maintenance man, to get me a rifle. I'd never even HELD a gun—and I figured a rifle would be safer to handle than a small weapon. This was mountain territory where every man hunted. He showed me how to hold, point, load and shoot. I practiced by aiming at the far hills behind the barn and soon felt comfortable in holding the thing. I kept it on the passenger seat of my car when I drove into town at night. The word got around like wildfire—beware that lady at the girls' school with the gun! I felt safe on those lonely dark mountain roads. The moonshiners slowed down their nocturnal trips to their hidden, illegal stills.
After that night, the Sheriff and I remained friendly. He respected the unspoken rules of "Town and Gown." The academics versus the native townspeople. He was Town. I was Gown...
Soon after, a qualified man stepped up to the plate and I had no further need to shoot at the hills in the night.
The establishment of the ruling class in the small university town (often called the Princeton of the South) went on its law-abiding way, keeping a friendly surface peace alongside the illegal moonshine business, that continued to thrive...
I moved on with my life and relocated to Manhattan.
3. FAST FORWARD - TO THE PRESENT:
Today if this incident with the Sheriff happened, I'd probably be writing this from a narrow grey cell, sans window, dependent on the state for three squares and a hard cot.
That night in Tennessee took place in real time—but on a different planet!
I have become a spinner of tales around crime. Murder is often our beat. We research crime, we attend trials, we take courses in criminal methodology. Visit jails and psychiatric institutions, study millions of people on subways, planes, streets, in bars and parks.
But after these last years of abominations involving guns, most of us who walk these mean streets take a hard look at how we express violence through guns.
The death of the Martin child in Sanford, Florida, was a recent wake-up call. The increased maiming by guns in Colorado, Arizona and Connecticut have focused us on a deeper examination of the tools we use in our stories.
Our readers see the reality and horror daily on screens. No longer is the written word closed off from real life.
I find my experience that night—knowing I'd almost shot a law enforcement officer—haunts me constantly.
I shrink from writing about a gun as a killing weapon.
My brain sees the experience as both a form of self-preservation and atonement.
Would I shoot at a person again?
We all recall Mary Higgins Clark's famous challenge… "What IF"
That episode in Tennessee will haunt me as long as I live… the " What IF?"
As I think of the various possible endings to my true story—my own crime writing increasingly has a firm center:
"Justice will be served."