Friday, November 15, 2019

STICK 'EM UP (complete version)

I often write about the neighborhood where I grew up.  It was made up of about 10 blocks and was bordered on one side by a large rock fountain and on the other side by a tall skinny sign that told everyone the name of the place: IDYLWOOD. We moved there when I was four and when I left at 18, my parents were still there. The families all seemed to have kids within the same age range: my age or a few years younger or a few years older. When I'd ride my bike around the neighborhood and would pass each house, I'd know the name of the family and the name of their kids and sometimes even the parents first names. We lived in the suburbs and the parents believed that kept the kids safe.

Most of the time, it did.

One day I came home from playing, although where or with whom, I can't remember. Everything that happened earlier in the day paled in comparison with what was to follow. When I came inside the house my mother looked worried and excited at the same time. She said half the neighborhood was blocked off to cars by the police and she'd had to drive way around to even get back home.

"It's down by the Jacobsen's. You go down on your bike, see if you can find out what's going on," she told me.

I set off on this assignment, pedaling the block and a half and the closer I got, the quieter everything was. And then I was across the street from the Jacobsen's house, looking at a strange, busy scene. There was an ambulance in the Jacobsen's driveway and a second ambulance in front of the house. Both had their lights and sirens turned off. Across the street were two firetrucks, and their lights were off too. Starting from in front of the house and lined up all down the street to the right side and all down the street to the left side were police cars: 14 in all.  None of the cars had any sirens on but all of the police cars had the lights going on top. The gumball machines, that was what my big sister called them. They all had their gumball machines going.

The Jacobsen's house was still, and no one was going in or out.

I stood astride my bike, and noticed, a few houses down, the Manteys were outside, standing in front of their front door, faces serious, their eyes on the Jacobsen's. I went to school with their son, Chris. I parked my bike and walked over and asked them what happened.

"We don't know," they said and the words came out sounding heavy and thick.

She was a PTA lady and he was a barbequeing type dad, both of them pretty social types, so seeing them standing so quiet and looking scared was almost worse than all the police cars. The three of us stood, staring at the Jacobsen's house.

I knew the Jacobsen's daughter, Tina. She was in my fifth grade class and we played sometimes. She had a big brother, Brandon, who was in the seventh grade. I didn't know Brandon very well but had said Hey to him a few times when I was with Tina and often when my mom and I would drive past their house we'd see Brandon mowing their lawn.

After a while, I said goodbye to the Manteys and pedaled home. I told my mom what I'd seen and that the Manteys looked scared. The next day we found out what had happened, and we heard about it on the TV news.

What happened next should have been a simple story: there were two boys playing with a gun.

You hear those words and think you already know how this story is going to go. Everyone who heard that beginning thought the same thing. The grownups thought it, the kids thought it. The rest of the story would be that someone had been shot by accident. It would be a tragedy for one boy's family and a horrible thing for the surviving boy.

But that isn't what happened.

We learned the Jacobsen's grandpa lived with them and kept a pistol from the Korean War. Brandon and a classmate had been in the garage playing with the gun and it had gone off and Brandon was killed. His friend Jared, who was a 13 year old, a good student, a nice kid from a decent family and who had no criminal record, was being considered a suspect. It was what they called "a continuing investigation."

The surviving boy had called the police. When they arrived they found one 13 year old boy in tears and another 13 year old boy lying dead on the garage floor. He had been shot twice.

That twice was going to be the problem.

Jared told them he and Brandon had been playing with the grandpa's gun. It was kept in a case with a broken lock and the boys thought it was unloaded.

The game they played was called Stick 'Em Up. One boy would be the cop, holding the gun, and the other would be the bad guy. The kid playing the cop would point the gun at the other kid and yell "Stick 'em up!" and the other kid would hold both his hands up and surrender. Then the boys would trade places and play the game again.

Jared told the police Brandon had been the cop first, and then they traded places and when he was the cop and said "Stick 'em up!" the gun had gone off and shot Brandon in the chest. After that, he couldn't remember if he dropped the gun or if he threw the gun down, but either way, the gun hit the cement floor and went off a second time. The second shot had hit Brandon in the forehead.

The police weren't satisfied with this version.

And so they peppered the hysterical boy with one question after another. The boy had been taught to tell the truth and that policemen are the good guys so with no lawyer or parents present, he answered every question they asked.

No, he hadn't been right next to his friend every second when they entered the house. Yes, his friend had gotten a glass of lemonade. No, he hadn't had one. Because he wasn't thirsty. No, he hadn't gone into the kitchen with Brandon while he got the lemonade. Yes he had used the bathroom. Just one time. No, he didn't know where Brandon was while he was using the bathroom. Had Brandon used the bathroom? He didn't remember. No, he didn't think he had. How many minutes had it taken from the time Brandon left to get the lemonade until he saw Brandon again? He didn't know. A couple of minutes. He wasn't sure exactly how many.

He was clear on the fact that at school Brandon liked to talk about his grandpa's gun and had invited him to come over to see it.

The police asked him if other boys had heard Brandon talking about this gun. Jared didn't know. "Probably," he told them.

They asked if he and Brandon had been in an argument, if they'd been mad at each other about anything.

"No," he told them. Brandon was his friend.

At some point they took him home. What Jared didn't know was this wasn't the end of the investigation; it was the beginning.

A bunch of stuff happened then. It was kind of a race between people trying to find out who to blame and everyone wanting to say it shouldn't be them.

The police went to the junior high and interviewed teachers and students who knew the two boys. Naturally there were no attorneys or parents present because they didn't work at or attend the school. The police wanted to know if the two boys had been getting along and if they had seemed to be in an argument that day. Had anyone seen any angry looks between them? Any angry tones of voice?

No, the teachers and students told them. They got along great. There didn't seem to be any argument at all.

The police made a list of the boys who had been friends of Jared and Brandon and then went to their houses, one by one, and sat across from one scared 13 year old boy after another. The boys had a dad sitting on one side and a mom sitting on the other and they all answered the questions the same.

No, they would never play with guns. They never heard Brandon mention his Grandpa's gun. They had never seen the gun. They never heard of any Stick 'Em Up game. If they ever saw a gun, they wouldn't touch it. They'd tell a grownup right away.

But they were American children so those were the answers they'd been raised to say, right along with No, I'd never get into a car with a stranger and No, I'd never steal anything from a store. Warnings they knew as well as they knew the Pledge of Allegiance they stood up and said every school day.

The parents of each of the boys were glad to hear those words; relieved their kid was safe and maybe proud they had taught their kid so well.

But Brandon's parents told the police the same thing: our son would never play with a gun. His dad said Brandon had been taught gun safety and that he and Brandon and his Grandpa would go on hunting trips every few months, same as he'd done when he was that age. It was a family tradition.

The police learned Brandon and his dad would use hunting rifles on the trips but the Grandpa would use the Korean War pistol. As soon as they got home, he'd unload the gun.

The Grandpa was less certain. He thought he'd unloaded the gun but he wasn't sure. The broken lock on the gun cabinet? He'd told his daughter about it and she was supposed to take it in to get fixed.

And then back to Brandon's mom who said she'd told the Grandpa he needed to take it in, not her, and she'd thought he'd already gotten it fixed weeks before and it wasn't her gun, it was his, and she couldn't be expected to keep track of everything.

Meanwhile the police seemed to be working on the theory that Jared either a) knew the gun was loaded or b) had used the time Brandon was getting his lemonade to secretly go load the gun himself. True, the kids at the school said the boys were getting along, but they also said they'd never heard of any Stick 'Em Up game.

As far as the gun went, the Grandpa and the parents could argue that one; there was no law saying the gun had to be kept unloaded or locked up and no law holding the gun owner or parents responsible if a child in the home got into the gun and it resulted in a death.

That was the law in my home state at the time of this shooting, in 1978, and it continues to be the law over 40 years later. In fact, it's the law in 49 of the 50 states, with only Massachusetts saying anything different.

The TV news kept repeating the facts they knew, and showing Brandon's school picture. One reporter had the idea to go to the store where they'd purchased the gun case and then asked the store manager how much it would cost to repair a broken lock on the case. The manager said "about $3.75."

I was sitting with my parents watching the news when they heard that and my mother's voice was low but furious and she said "They didn't need to include that."

And then something good happened.

The police spoke to the youngest person in the Jacobsen house, who was only 11 years old but had a habit of noticing everything. They talked to Tina.

The police wanted to talk to Tina but another neighborhood girl, Jill, and I wanted to see her too, not to ask her questions but just to see if she was OK.

There was a black wreath hanging on the Jacobsen's door, the first time I'd ever seen such a thing. My mom had seen it as she drove past the house and she said it meant the family in that house was grieving. Jill and I stood in front of the door and seeing that wreath made everything seem real in a way the TV news stories hadn't.

We were kind of scared to be there, so close to where such a bad thing had happened, but Tina was our friend, so we knocked on the door anyway.

Tina herself answered, and she looked OK. She said she wasn't allowed to go outside and play. Her mom had said she had to stay home.

We'd brought her pictures we'd drawn, to cheer her up. It was all we knew how to do. She smiled as we gave them to her, and then told us the things we'd wondered about but hadn't dared to ask.

"The funeral was kind of weird," she said. "You couldn't tell Brandon had been shot. He didn't look hurt or anything. I think they put makeup on him so you couldn't tell. He just looked like he was sleeping, except his face was kind of pale."

She didn't cry as she told us this. Tina was kind of a tomboy and I'd never seen her get upset and cry. Her voice was low and her face serious but as she spoke about her brother, she was matter of fact.

"My mom's gonna put all his stuff in boxes, to keep," she said. She looked at the black wreath. "I guess she'll probably keep this too."

And then she had to go. When her door shut it felt like the three of us were no longer the same age. Tina was somehow older now.

It was the next day that the police came to talk to her. Maybe it was a relief to them that the boy's sister didn't cry. They asked if she'd ever seen Brandon with the Grandpa's gun and her answer changed everything.

Yes, she told them, Brandon thought the gun was cool. He'd go to school and brag about it and then he'd bring his friends over and they'd play that dumb game. She never played it, but the boys always did.

"How many boys came over and played that game?" they asked her.

"A lot," she told them.

They asked if she'd be able to write down a list of their names and she said sure. When she finished there were over two dozen. The officers recognized most of the names because they were the same boys they'd already interviewed. The ones who swore they'd never play with a gun.

They were going to have to talk to them again.

The parents of the boys on the list had felt tremendous sympathy for the Jacobsen's, and had also felt a breeze of fear that such a thing had happened so close to home. 

But they felt something else too; some felt it more than others, and none of them would have admitted it in a million years: they felt their sons were in a sort of protected zone, created by a combination of their good parenting and their child's obedience.

That's why when they first learned of the shooting, the flash of fear was brief. They didn't need to wonder "What if that had been my son?" because it just wouldn't have been.

But the police carried Tina's list and went from one house to the next, at each one watching the parents of the boys having the same reaction: shock at learning their son had played the gun game (some of them to the point of arguing with their sons that it couldn't be true) and then a second wave of horror, as they realized the gun had been loaded the whole time, including when their son had held it and pointed it at another boy; including when another boy had aimed the gun at him.

The boys cried, the parents cried, and the police went to the next name on the list. 

None of the boys denied playing the game, even the ones who had lied the first time around. They all described the game exactly as Jared had, and that was all the police needed to hear.

And so what had looked like a tricky case became a simple one: it had been an accident, and no one was charged with anything.

That didn't seem like enough, though, so a police officer visited each class at the local junior high and elementary schools, to remind the kids about gun safety.

The officer who came to our 5th grade class told us the gun warnings and personalized it by adding that a girl in our class had a brother who DIED playing with a gun, maybe we had heard about it. Then he switched gears and became weirdly upbeat, telling us we were going to play a game. He'd ask us some questions about gun safety and then we, as a class, would shout out the answers. 

"Should you EVER play with a gun?" he asked us.

"NO!" we shouted.

"Should you even TOUCH a gun?"


"And if you found a gun somewhere, what would you do?"


The officer smiled and told us "Great job!" like we'd really learned something, like if we'd been at risk before, now we'd be really safe.

But all of us already knew the answers to his questions because we'd heard those gun warnings so many times before.

                                                                  --The End--

STICK 'EM UP is a true story, although the names have been changed. To learn more about my books please visit

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