04.04.09

Confessions of a Man Who Almost Went Postal

When a gunman killed 13 in Binghamton, N.Y., last week, reactions ranged from sorrow to fear, anger, and—self-recognition? Mansfield Frazier explains the time, 40 years ago, when he nearly went postal.

Each of the recent mass murders—14 dead in Binghamton, N.Y.; 10 in Samson, Ala.; four police officers dead in Oakland, Calif.; six left dead in an apparent murder-suicide in Santa Clara, Calif.; and eight dead in a North Carolina nursing home—brings memories of my own period of madness flooding back to me. Over 40 years ago, I quite literally came within one day of becoming a mass murderer. Fate, fortuitously, intervened to avert the tragedy, and I am forever, eternally, grateful.

Can my telling of my tale prevent maybe at least one future tragedy? While I would like to think so, I’m just not sure. However, I am sure that the spate of recent shootings are symptomatic of a deeper malaise in America, and, tragically, I suspect there are going to be many more mass shootings to come. After all, we’re a nation that loves—nay, idolizes—guns. More than one model of handgun has been named “The Equalizer.”

We’ve created the perfect storm for such killings: a gun cult, ill-treatment of individuals by functionaries of faceless corporate entities, and a widening of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

And equalization—of power—is, I think, is what drives many individuals to “go postal.” For quite some time, I’ve been totally amazed that more people don’t go off the deep end every day and start spraying gunfire in crowded places, particularly workplaces.

After all, we’ve created the perfect storm for such killings: a gun cult (weaponry as the answer to all our problems, which is part of our Old West culture and militaristic mind-set); ill-treatment of individuals by functionaries of faceless corporate entities; and a widening of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots that creates deep-seated anger among those locked out of the prosperity.

I also firmly believe that the ill-treatment of minorities by racists in positions of power in our society spills over and causes ill-treatment of others, who are members of the majority culture. Bad karma spreads like a fungus, a disease.

In my case, I got my girlfriend pregnant at age 17, and unlike the Palin story unfolding in Alaska, I was raised to “do the right thing” and marry the girl (who actually was a 17-year-old going on 40, a fact that would come back to haunt the relationship).

Nonetheless, I was raised by a strong and wise father, so leaving home at age 18 with a wife and daughter (a son would come two years later) was no big deal; I’d been raised by a man to be a man, so I quickly became a man—or at least, so I thought.

In 1962, I got a job at a public utility. At the time, virtually all such companies throughout the U.S. had been exclusive in their hiring practices: If you didn’t have a family member working there, you didn’t get hired, and it didn’t matter if you were black or white. John F. Kennedy instructed his brother Robert to change all that, and he did. Blacks like me were now being hired, but we didn’t know why.

I was hired as a helper in the repair shops (machinists, carpenters, blacksmiths, painters and welders) and due to being innately handy with tools—I certainly didn’t get that from my father, who was a saloon owner and, as we used to say around the shops, “clumsy as a cub bear playing with his pecker”—I quickly rose to the top of my craft: a certified high-pressure steampipe welder. I lived near the facility, and when snowstorms arose, I could be counted on to be among the first employees there. I had something to prove, and, according to my co-workers, I proved it. I never took a sick day in the nine years I worked at the company. But then I hit that ceiling.

Part of my duties was to train young white guys, with far less talent, to promote past me. After a year or two, I was livid, and approached management. I was told that while I was certainly qualified, the other workers would not stand for a black to be promoted to the position I deserved. The position I direly wanted. It wasn’t about the money, I had something to prove, and had the requisite skills to prove it. Besides, they were lying; my white co-workers had recently voted me in as the union steward.

I also had—and still have—a deep-seated sense of fair play. I’m going to treat you right, and I damn sure expect (really, demand) the same in return. If I don’t receive it, there’s going to be hell to pay—which pretty much explains why, to this day, I’m somewhat of a loner. I have the reputation of a straight-shooting (albeit somewhat curmudgeonly) son-of-a-bitch. I’ve learned over the years how to live without letting anyone else have very much power over my life and am usually in a position where no one can fuck me over—at least, not without suffering consequences. This, to my mind, is critical for people like me, it’s a release valve. I know I can be dangerous.

But back in 1968, I didn’t have such a relief valve, so when I was passed over again and again I became angry. I’d been given a seat at the table and was quite willing to play the game of life, only to find out “they” were dealing from the bottom of the deck; the dice were loaded; the game was rigged. I was devastated, and then I got very upset.

The FBI has experts who can tell us in detail why an individual went postal, but what they can’t do is spot them before the fact. Indeed, they can’t find their asses with both hands. In my hometown of Cleveland in 2007, a firefighter, Terrance Hough, took a Magnum over to his neighbor’s house on the Fourth of July and killed three people because they were making too much noise with firecrackers. His co-workers knew he was about to explode. (The joke around the firehouse was “I hope I’m not around when this dude goes off.” And yet, as trained as they were, his co-workers did nothing.) If you know of a co-worker or family member who is on the edge, do something. It might take courage, but for God’s sake, do something.

At the same time my work life was disintegrating, I realized that my marriage was out of kilter: A 17-year–old woman had married a 17-year-old boy, and when I grew up and attempted to renegotiate the terms of our marriage and put it on fair, adult footing, I was soundly rebuffed by my wife. Two years of counseling did nothing to solve the problem. My marriage was falling apart and I was being dissed at work, so my rec room became my place of solace, and my .30-06 rifle became my best friend.

I’d been raised hunting and fishing by my father, and had a love of both. I knew what a well-aimed projectile from my Browning .30-06 could do to a man’s head, so I incessantly practiced working the slide of the bolt-action rifle. I was already a crack shot. When I felt that I was fast and smooth enough to get off 10 rounds in less than 15 seconds, I’d be ready.

I had the rooftop picked out (less than 30 yards across the street from the shop), the crosshairs of my Hawke scope were sighted in, and I knew the order in which my antagonists would exit the door. I’d make sure that cocksucking bastard Steve Grabowski would be first. Of course I was slipping into madness, but it felt so goddamn good, so right, and so fair. The thirst for revenge is a blinding motherfucker.

I was going to avenge the wrongs and make them right, and there are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, out there right now in this county, feeling just as I did back in ‘68. A man can only take so much. Take note, America.

The only thing I had left to do the night before was to place my beagle (a loyal and faithful dog that my wife detested) with a friend who lived nearby. When I arrived at his house, he and his wife were in the backyard with a friend. The pudgy, blond-haired Polish woman with thick glasses got up robustly and shook my hand, saying “You must be Alan’s father!”

“How’d you know?” I responded.

“Well, he looks just like you, so it wasn’t hard to figure out,” she beamed.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you there is no such thing as love at first sight. I know different. Judy was my son’s preschool teacher at Aldersgate Methodist Church, and he’d been talking about her nonstop since he’d enrolled two months before.

“Well, then you must be Judy.”

Within three months, I’d moved out (I moved back to my parents' home at first since I didn’t want tongues wagging that I’d left my wife for a white woman, but in essence, that’s what happened) and Judy and I had the cutest apartment in Shaker Square, an upscale, integrated part of Cleveland. Within six months, we’d both shed 50 pounds, she’d gotten contact lens, and people we’d known all of our lives could not recognize us. I bought a classic 1951 MG roadster, and we were the talk of the town for the summer of ‘69.

Judy worked as a manager at a large bank, and some of her friends were going camping at Malabar State Park (near Mansfield, Ohio, of all places) and she decided to take a drive down to visit them since she’d been largely removed from her “old girls” group right after we’d hooked up.

The dashboard clock in her car stopped at 8:15 in the evening, when she smashed head-on into a vehicle on the wrong side of the two-lane back road at the crest of a hill.

When her mother (whom I’d never met) came to our apartment to tell me of her death, in broken English she thanked me for making her daughter’s final year of life a happy one. I don’t remember much after that. I had the mental breakdown I so needed and deserved.

Fortunately for me, our next-door neighbor was an elderly psychiatric nurse, who took me into her apartment, spoon-fed me for weeks (I quite literally did not have the power to raise my head off of the pillow) and sent me on my life journey once I was well enough.

As I write this it’s 3 am, I’m half drunk, and crying… for the people I didn’t kill, and for the people who are going to die. We have to learn one lesson in America: Quit doggin’ people. That’s the answer we’ve been seeking.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.