Birthday Week: May 17

May Seventeenth

By Ken Billett

The metal slug lies in a small slot inside my wooden lap desk—the kind of old item you might find at an antique store or a second-hand shop. I’ve never used the lap desk as a desk, nor has it ever sat in my lap. Mostly, my lap desk is used to store papers, mementos, and other detritus accumulated over my adult life.

I don’t know the bullet’s caliber. The remains aren’t large and are badly deformed. The bullet was fired inside a concrete breezeway. Was it a warning? I don’t know. Or out of frustration, Who knows? And all these years later, who cares. I’m alive today and on May 20th, I celebrated another birthday.

For good or bad, that morning changed our lives – especially mine – forever.

Tuesday May 17, 1994, was nothing special. Our baby daughter Emily had been home from the hospital just over two months, after the ’94 Mid-South Ice Storm. Later that week, the three of us — my wife Vicki, Emily, and I — would be flying to Houston, Texas, for a friend’s wedding. Eager to see their granddaughter again, Vicki’s parents would also be in attendance.

The concrete breezeway, enclosed by a mesh screen on one side, led from our kitchen down to a tiny one-car garage. Bailey, our golden retriever, accompanied me out onto the breezeway. She waited patiently while I pressed the garage-door button, slowly raising it up. With Bailey in tow and a trash bag in my hand, I walked out onto our driveway.

I headed to the right, where our trash bins sat by the side of the house, while Bailey wandered over to the waist-high chain link fence surrounding our equally tiny backyard. Our home at that time was a two-bedroom bungalow near the University of Memphis.

After putting the trash bag in the bin, I watched Bailey, who typically followed me everywhere, standing at the fence and wagging her tail. Was she looking at a squirrel? I wondered. A raccoon maybe? Bailey was a typical golden, not aggressive and pretty much friendly with everyone.

I walked to the gate and looked past the fence, and everything became surreal.

A man stood in our backyard. To this day I can see him, but I can’t. What he looked like isn’t important. Who was he? Also not important. What was important was that he held a gun — now pointed at me.

That’s all my brain focused on. The gun.

Fear is a crazy thing. Many people describe fearful experiences in a variety of ways. My fear manifested into tunnel vision, pure tunnel vision. I saw nothing but his gun. I heard him speak to me, tell me not to move, not to try anything, and that we were going back inside my house.

That last part ignited a related emotion. Panic. Vicki and Emily were in the house, likely still in the hallway bathroom. Vicki, getting ready for work, fixing her makeup and hair. Emily, sitting in her car carrier, either asleep or watching her mom.

Emily wasn’t even three months old.

No way would I allow this danger in my home, there with my family. This man, who stepped through the gate, gun pointed at my chest, telling me to walk back through the garage, was not coming in our house.

Bailey, of course, stood there wagging her tail. Confused I imagine, yet not picking up on the tension or my fear.

The man came through the gate, ignoring our dog, and motioned towards the garage.

I’m not a brave man, not by any stretch of the imagine. I wasn’t going to wrestle the gun away from this guy, not like you see in the movies. Even with my tunnel vision and panic quickly overtaking my senses, I formulated a plan, if you can call it that.

Our breezeway was narrow, with steps leading up to the back door. Several steps also led up to the breezeway from the garage floor. Although this guy pointed a gun at me, he kept his distance, never coming closer than three or four feet.

Afterwards, I realized this guy was probably making it up as we went along. Apparently, I’d interrupted whatever he was doing in our backyard. Why was he back there? We’ll never know. All I know is he had a gun pointed at me, and my innocent family was inside.

To enter our kitchen from the outside you first had to open an iron security door, which swung out. Then, a wooden door opened into the kitchen. Since the iron door opened out, you had to back up from the concrete steps in order to get inside. As habit, when outside, we always left a spare key in the iron door’s lock. From inside the kitchen, with a quick twist, the lock was secured and the door could not be opened from the outside.

With a narrow breezeway, multiple steps up and down, and this guy keeping his distance from me, the genesis of my plan took shape. I’ll admit, I’m not sure if I was thinking, or if some part of my brain registered the danger and told me the easiest and safest thing to do was get back inside the house and lock the door.

But I needed a distraction, something to freeze the guy, even for a moment. Then I could get in the house and lock the iron door behind me. 

Off the top of my head I came up with something. Looking back on it now, my idea was really stupid. And dangerous. In the end however it worked.

Where was Bailey? Either in the backyard or standing on the driveway. I honestly can’t remember. I walked up onto the breezeway, just a foot or so from the iron door. The guy was now at the bottom of the garage steps. Time to execute my plan. I had to distract the guy.

I turned, stomped my foot, and yelled, “You’re not coming in my house!” Whirling around, I yanked open the security door, leapt up the steps, and slammed the door shut. As I turned the lock, a shot rang out. To use the cliché, the sound was deafening.

There may have been a second shot, but at that point everything was distorted.

I yelled for Vicki to call 911. Of course, she had been blow-drying her hair and never heard a sound. I literally bounced around the house, staying away from the windows, making sure the front door was locked, which it was.

As I write this, I chuckle to myself. Was there really a plan? Or, had my flight or fight instincts completely taken over. My emotions were blurred by tunnel vision, while time totally ground to a halt.

After we called 911, a small platoon of MPD patrol cars arrived. We weren’t the only ones who heard the gun shot (or, shots).

The guy had crashed through the breezeway screen and ran up the driveway. He headed down our street to a wooded area near a storm water drainage ditch. The police never figured out who he was, or what he was up to. Lots of speculation. An MPD detective interviewed me, followed up on some flimsy leads, but nothing ever came of it.

And Bailey? We think she ran along with the guy all the way to the ditch. Either one of the MPD uniforms found her, or a neighbor, I can’t remember, but she was covered in mud with a few scratches, but otherwise, unhurt.

When I reflect back on that day, a variety of emotions and thoughts fill my mind. Was I really brave? Or just incredibly lucky? Why did this guy keep his distance? Did he want me to do exactly what I did, so he could get away? But he had several chances to run off. Naturally, I don’t ever want to speculate what might have happened if I let him inside.

We flew to Houston later that week for the wedding, but we never mentioned anything to my in-laws, or said anything to my parents or other family members.

Sometime after we returned from the wedding, and after the breezeway screen had been replaced, and after the neighborhood association called an emergency meeting, held in someone’s backyard (I attended but stayed in the shadows, not wanting to draw any further attention to myself), I found the slug lodged in the garage’s wooden doorframe. The same doorway I used every day — before May 17, 1994 and afterwards — until we moved.

I used to wonder why I noticed the slug that day. A tangible reminder of that surreal experience? I’m not sure. For many years, I completely forgot about that morning. It was so long ago, and so much life has taken place since then. Other times, like this year, I think about that day and realize how incredibly fortunate we were.

Writer’s Note: To me this piece felt a little self-indulgent. But I believe many adults—at some point in their lives—treat birthdays as a time of reflection and, perhaps, revitalization. Much like making a New Year’s resolution, your birthday can be a catalyst for deciding which direction the next trip around the sun will take you.

Last Thursday I celebrated my 59th birthday. At my age and given my health challenges, my birthday is both a milestone and a celebration of triumph. I’ve written about three distinct events from my “birthday week.” Events that may resonate with many of you on this Memorial Day Weekend.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively.

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