I was seven years old and with my family enjoying a vacation in Chicago. We had spent the day seeing the sights and were riding an elevated train back to our hotel. It was somewhat late at night so we were quite tired. There was only one passenger in the car with us. He was a rather nondescript soul who sat muttering to himself and staring at the floor. We thought nothing of him as we laughed and spoke of the fun that we had enjoyed that day. I suppose that our enthusiasm may have been a bit loud and over the top, but we were children. It’s the way that little ones react.
Without warning our fellow passenger focused his gaze on us and began loudly cursing. When our only response to his outburst was to quietly look at him in astonishment he stood up and began gesturing wildly as he spoke directly to our father. He insisted that Daddy either remove his “brats” from the train or face the consequences. Our dad immediately lost his cool and suggested that the strange man was the one who needed to leave the train which by then was already rumbling down the tracks. The two men stood within striking distance of one another in a contest of wills, and I found myself astounded that my father was capable of becoming as ferocious as he now appeared.
I was suddenly quite terrified and I sensed that our mother was feeling as frightened as I was. She pulled us behind her tense body and quietly watched the proceedings unfold in a posture that told me that she was ready to pounce into protective mode if needed. The man was out of control and noticed my mother’s demeanor. He immediately began to curse at her and call her horrific names that I remember to this day. Daddy turned red and it almost seemed as though smoke was coming from his ears. As he attempted to step forward to answer the man’s taunts with a clenched fist Mama grabbed his belt and pulled him back with all of her might.
This prompted our attacker to hurl even more insulting epithets at both our mother and our father. He boasted of violent things that he was going to do to both of them, and he promised that when he was done he would throw me and my brothers onto the train tracks where we belonged. This outburst so enraged Daddy that he broke away from Mama’s hold spewing threats of his own. Mama in the meantime kept begging both of the men to calm down and move away from one another. Just when it seemed that a bloody battle between the two men was about to ensue the train arrived at the next station and as the doors opened Mama ordered all of us to follow her out of the train while she tugged with all of her might on our father’s hand. Within seconds we were free, and the train sped away with our attacker still cursing and flailing his hands.
I have never forgotten that episode even though it has been six decades since it occurred. I have always believed that had it not been for my mother’s cool thinking there might have been a terrible tragedy on that night. Somehow she understood that the only way to deal with the deranged man was to ignore him and flee as soon as possible. While she never again mentioned our dangerous encounter, she often reminded us to walk away from insulting taunts from out of control individuals. She even used yet another story as an example. It involved a time when our grandfather attempted to aid a young woman who was being verbally harassed by the man accompanying her. Grandpa ended up being badly beaten by both the man and the woman because of his ill timed intervention and felt lucky to get away alive.
I have thought of my own family stories in light of the recent verbal attack of two young Muslim girls in Oregon that resulted in the fatal stabbing of one man and the injuring of another. It seems that the perpetrator of the crime somewhat randomly began insulting the two women drawing the protective ire of two Good Samaritans. Little did they know that he was bearing a knife or that he would even think of using it on them.
I have since seen a number of articles outlining what people should do in such situations, and I can’t help but think of my mother’s quick thinking. I have generally found that the first level of defense is to silently ignore the rants because they are usually indicative of someone whose mental state is out of control. Only when the verbal assaults turn into dangerously violent physical action is there any need to react. Words may hurt but they are nothing compared to the harm from actual fights, and it is very unlikely that anything someone does or says in such a super charged moment will change the assailant’s mind. In other words, the most heroic maneuver is to quietly shield the targets of the rage and then help them to leave the scene as quickly as possible. Any arguments no matter how logical they may seem have the potential to inflame the situation. My advice is to get out and get help.
Years after I had been so traumatized on that train I learned that an acquaintance had been killed as he attempted to help a woman who was being assaulted by her boyfriend in a bar. Just as with my grandfather both members of the couple turned on my friend slamming a metal bar stool into his head in retaliation for his interference. Ironically my friend had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam only to be cut down for an heroic act in his own hometown.
We have given a great deal of press to individuals who are coming to the aide of people who are being harassed with racist rants. Ellen even presented a monetary reward to one kind soul who stood up to a contemptuous and vile verbal attacker. While it seems to be the noble thing to do, I would humbly suggest that everyone be careful in assessing the situation before jumping into the fray. Sometimes the very best thing for everyone is to do nothing other than get away from the situation as soon as possible. There are truly crazy and evil people whose actions cannot be predicted. Giving them a wide berth and ignoring their remarks may in fact be the best reaction.
As a teacher and school administrator I often encountered people who lost their control. I’ve had individuals threaten to follow me home and beat me to a pulp. I have been called some vile names. I found over and over again that I had to be the one to maintain my composure by staying calm and refusing to react in such situations. As my mother often advised, I had to consider the source and understand that there was far more happening inside the minds of such individuals than anything that personally affected me.
Our father wanted to protect his family on our train ride from hell, but it was our mother who understood what needed to be done. We should all try to think first before attempting to deal with such insanity, or our original intent may end up leading to even greater problems. Sometimes remaining silent and running away is the most courageous route that we might choose.