But for the Grace

How quickly it happens.

Drove Judy to her annual physical last Monday. It was a beautiful day–the kind of spring day we don’t get around here until the middle of May. We were going to stop at TJMaxx afterwards for a little bargain hunting and then find a spot for some alfresco lunch. The birds were singing the day’s praises and I probably was, too–my earworm lately is the Creedence version of “Midnight Special”.

As we were about a quarter mile from the clinic, a fairly large satellite of University of Wisconsin Health Systems, I saw emergency lights approaching behind me and pulled over. The police vehicle went by at a high rate of speed before turning left toward our destination.

The way things have become, I immediately considered the possibility that someone was shooting at someone, a fairly common occurrence even in a smallish city like ours. Mostly it is drug gangs hunting each other down in dark sedans and a minimal threat to us–not nearly as threatening as going to see the doctor at seventy.

But this wasn’t that. We were on the very edge of Madison, in a modern business park generally insulated from that kind of action by malls and car dealers and an interstate highway. Corporate country. Where people get fired and lose their dreams. Their will to live. A different kind of threat.

And so I looked left to see if the cruiser turned up the drive to the clinic. It did. My situation moved to DEFCON 3. Above normal readiness.

Coming up the drive to the clinic doors, though, things looked normal. The cruiser was in a lot off to the right–so maybe it was just an argument in the parking lot or something, I thought. There was no unusual activity at the entrance. I hadn’t tipped Judy off to my concerns as she prepared to get out of the car.

In the rearview mirror, I saw a cop with an assault rifle hustling toward the entrance. Not good.

“Don’t get out,” I told Judy, and began to drive away from the door. By the time we pulled around the perimeter of the parking lot, headed for the exit, a steady stream of police vehicles began arriving. While we watched in horrified disbelief, three cops blocked the inbound driveway lanes we had just used two minutes earlier, grabbed assault rifles, and started running for the building. At the doors, people were streaming out, yanking their kids along with them as best they could.

It felt like watching the news, but I had enough sense to know it was time to move. We pulled out.

How quickly it happens. A shock event, instinct ruling the moment. There were still police arriving from every direction, so I pulled into the lot of a neighboring building, to keep out of the way, or was it fascination? I heard no gunfire, so I assumed whatever might be happening was contained within the clinic. In the fog of war, fascination can become deadly in a hurry. It was a big mistake.

A young man quickly approaced us, holding a phone to his ear and his other hand unnaturally close to his waistband. Dreadfully close. With a plummeting feeling, I realized he might be the shooter, and worse, that we were a big, juicy carjacking plum just begging to be picked. He was in scrubs, so it was clear he was not armed with a rifle, but like a deer in the headlights, I stared at that hand by his waist.

He walked by, still on his phone and glancing back at the clinic. His pants were wet–apparently he was just trying to cover that up. He’d had the piss scared out of him. We were still stupidly close. We were lucky.

We moved a couple of miles away to a gas station and tried to pull a bulletin from all those media outlets that are always bragging about their readiness. Nothing.

Judy called the clinic. After ten minutes or so someone came on the line. False alarm. Somehow, an active shooter alert had been put out to emergency services and on the PA system. Something like, “Active shooter alert! Clear the building!”


Uncertain, we headed over there. There was still quite a presence out in the lot, so we verified the all clear with a supervisor-looking deputy and Judy headed up for her appointment–hey, lord knows how soon a reschedule with an actual MD might happen, right?

In the aftermath, we didn’t settle down much until we got our beers with lunch (inside). It was a powerful experience, and a learning one. More than anything, I will never forget that horrible, sinking feeling when that young man approached our car, and how careless I had been.

But how quickly it happens.

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