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An inch away from death - Greg Gelpi

I froze. I panicked.

"What the? What are you doing?" I squealed uncontrollably as he pushed the barrel of the gun into my chest.

Two men signal 69 with a gun and a signal 34, police scanners across Clayton County announced.

The numbers spit and chirp from the police scanner incessantly in the newsroom, almost musically. Each note of the song unconsciously reveals a different crime, a different drama unfolding.

But, behind each of those numbers, each of those lines of police prose, is a person.

Regretfully, it took the gentle pressing of a handgun to my chest to shake me and remind me of that fact.

Back in the day, back during my fellowship at the Poynter Institute we did a simple exercise that poured a strong foundation for my work as a journalist and until last week I let slip into the depths of my subconscious.

Pairing up with other fellows in the program, we interviewed each other briefly as if writing an obituary and presented it to the group. Names were butchered, facts bent and distorted and details dropped. Each of us cringed, not from the morbidity of hearing our obit read, but from the utter disgust of hearing our life story hacked into pieces of wrong information.

But, that was the point of the exercise. While stressing the importance of "getting it right," it more importantly taught empathy and gave us, the fledgling reporters, a taste of our own medicine, a glimpse into what it's like to be on the other side of the pen and paper.

That, though, was a couple of years ago.

Weak and shaking as I spoke with police, I heard the all familiar codes and signals pop and crackle across the police radio, only those numbers referred to me.

Often, all too often, I fail to see the humanity behind the numbers and even behind sources in stories. I see stories, sides, titles and positions, but through time have slipped away from seeing people as people.

Prior to my near death experience, I created scenarios in my head, placing myself in such situations as I found myself. I envisioned testosterone welling up from deep inside me in a sort of modern day Incredible Hulk.

Hearing the calls on the police scanner and watching stories unfold on television, I would act differently than those victims. I would smirk, grin and laugh just so that the thugs wouldn't get the satisfaction of claiming me as a victim.

I would beg for them to pull the trigger simply to deflate their sense of superiority and reclaim some form of power. Watching as hostages begged for their life in Iraq before being inhumanly and sadistically beheaded, I imagined how I would laugh and joke and refuse to provide my soon-to-be killers any satisfaction.

Yet, when roles were reversed and I was actually in the position facing possible death, I folded and cowered. A mere inch between the resting position of the trigger and a bullet piercing my chest separated me from that big newsroom in the sky.

"Take everything. I have nothing," I managed to mutter, my hands frozen above my head. One guy shoved his hand into my pocket taking a $5 bill, the only money I had to eat on the next day, and a well-used cloth handkerchief. Still, I offered my wallet. I offered the little I had, and yet they took more.

Jumping into my car, they just took it all - Christmas gifts for my two little nieces, a turtleneck sweater that had been a gift and my briefcase with months worth of notes, papers and an array of other stuff.

But, they took more, forcing me to cancel my cell phone, change my bank account numbers and put life on hold as I consider how to financially move forward.

Still, they took more. On many an occasion, I've been quick to admit my stupidity when it's appropriate, and this is one of those instances.

I'm frequently called na?ve, a trait I adamantly deny. The car-jacking made me reconsider the term as it relates to me.

Only two houses from where I live, I turned my car around in a cul-de-sac to park in front of the house. Two men motioned for me to stop and, be it na?vet? or over-zealousness to be a "nice guy, I did.

One gun to my chest later, the rest is history.

Sometime in high school I remember a friend writing me a letter and telling me not to be too nice because some would take advantage of it.

I'm sure she meant that in a non-criminal way, still it's apropos.

The situation leaves me, though, mulling over her comment. I'm tossing around in my head the word "na?ve." I'm wondering about each of those numbers that spurts out of the police scanner.

Other questions continue to stream through my mind:

Did they value my car, my money, my junk more than my life? It's disturbing to realize that a used, base-model compact car is worth more than my life to some.

Could I value any material thing over any random person on the street?

Is it worth being the "nice guy" to risk falling victim yet again?

What would they tell my young nieces about their missing Christmas gifts?

Do they care that I just took out another loan to make ends meet?

Do they care at all? Do they care about anything or anyone?

Still, I forgive them, and I hope they enjoy my collection of folk music and are able to squeeze into my niece's little pink sweaters.

Greg Gelpi covers education for the News Daily. He can be reached at ggelpi@news-daily.com or (770) 478-5753 Ext. 247.