It happens all the time.
You’re driving along, mind on the political yammer of the day or what you forgot to get at the grocery store, when someone makes a mistake and eight thousand pounds of hurtling metal crash and come at last to a smoking, awful stop. Or you climb up on a roof where you know you really don’t belong, except those leaves collecting up there have begun to annoy you, and suddenly you’re airborne, heading for a landing that breaks your neck. Sometimes when people are kind or blunt enough to ask what happened to me—why I walk slowly with a cane—I reply, because I don’t want to tell the story again and have to see the shock on their faces, “Oh, I was in a car wreck.” Not that a car wreck is a trifle; those all-too-common crosses staked in bar ditches to honor a loved one are our most poignant art form. Sometimes I think of saying, to add some exotic spice to my story, “I got thrown by a mule.”
But the truth is, ten years ago this month, I was shot by a Mexico City thug at a distance of about fifteen feet. He looked me in the eye and meant to kill me, and he ran away assuming he had. Three friends—Mike, John, and Dave—crouched around me in panic and disbelief. We had gone off on a three-day lark. We would roam the streets of a vast and ancient city, act foolish, throw down shots of tequila, and lend some moral support to a boxer friend who had been deported (he has since resolved his difficulties with the immigration authorities, returned to Texas, and won two world titles). We were on our last taxi ride back to the borrowed apartment, our friend’s boxing match handily won and a fine trip behind us, when the cabbie jammed on the brakes, allowing his two gun-wielding chums to jump into the car.
In the blink of an eye, your life can change.
When the cabbie finally stopped on a street that looked like the urban end of all time and the thugs ordered us out, my survival instincts summoned me to try to fight, instead of making a run for it. To the extent that the Mexico City police expressed much interest in the matter, they maintained that the bullet, which went in just under my ribs, barely missed the aorta, ricocheted down several vertebrae, and was later plucked out by neurosurgeons, had been fired from a 9mm pistol. But 9mm’s are semiautomatics, and this was a revolver, an old scratched-up .38 caliber. I know what it was because the main thug had taken pleasure in hitting us over the head with this, and I’d gotten a pretty good look at it. A pistol fired at night ordinarily emits a trim, pointed blaze, like that of, say, a cutting torch. The thug’s .38 threw out a crackle of lightning that sparked crazily in front of his silhouette, from his head to the pavement. My point in going into such detail is to demonstrate the possibility that things could have easily gone the other way. That old gun could have blown up in his hand.
Time has a way of erasing terror and agony, or at least giving it a helpful blur. You don’t forget—the damage you carry around won’t let you—but you don’t dwell. I’ve never dreamed about that man and his gun. I wouldn’t know him if he walked up to me on the street. The way he spent his time, I have a hunch I’ve outlived him. When I tell people what happened, I always say, “I’m lucky to be walking at all.”
If I were religious, I’d use the word “blessed.”
The Mexico City doctors, nurses, and emergency technicians who came to my aid were as expert and dedicated as the police were indifferent and slipshod. They saved my life, and when my wife, Dorothy, and daughter, Lila, arrived, they gave them the care of compassion. Two Texas friends who came to the hospital knew that the one essential gift they could bring to our ordeal was their fluency in Spanish. Others caught flights just to be with us, to let us know we weren’t in this alone. The publisher of this magazine directed and facilitated the scramble to airlift me to Houston and get me started in physical therapy, once I astounded everyone in a postsurgical recovery room by moving my toes. The friends who were brutalized with me are all on the magazine’s staff. Dave had been celebrating his thirty-second birthday that night. Mike, John, Dave, and I have since observed and raised glasses of salute, wonder, and sharing to fortieth, fiftieth, and sixtieth birthdays. Mike and Dave have become fathers. We don’t talk much about the nature of our bond; we don’t have to. I’m the oldest, hobbling along at 63. I was the one, by virtue of my seniority, who was supposed to have had some sense.
Once upon a time, in that different life, I was an athlete. Never an exceptional one, but I was in terrific shape. On the downhill slope of life, I discovered that, of all things, I possessed some gift for boxing. I was just a gym rat, a banger of the bags. I could make them pop loudly enough that the genuine athletes, like my friend the future world champion, would turn to give the old guy a look. I sparred infrequently, in part because I never overcame the displeasure of being hit in the nose. I can’t remember what magic of stamina, combinations, and footwork I found in myself, but one hot spring afternoon the trainer who owned the Austin gym I worked out at commended me on a just-completed two-hour routine.
“Best workout ever,” I gasped. “On my forty-eighth birthday.”
He laughed and gave me a whomp on the shoulder. “You and George Foreman!”
Well, not quite. But those afternoons