tagged trauma

For each of the essays in Tender Tales of Tremendous Catastrophe, I think it's important to give the first-person backstory that each is based upon. I wrote this after hearing it almost 20 years ago, while I was a temporary secretary. It was told to me by a main character that appears in this novelized version of a real event from 1966. I never expected an employer would initiate such an intimate conversation and I was grateful to be invited in. She was obviously haunted and that sensation permeated my mind: my heart went out to each individual affected.

On Being Human - Part 2 of 2

When Donald maneuvered to duck down behind a cabinet, Detective Charles stepped forward to see a clear shot to Donald’s head. Five handgun shots rang out. The secretary in Donald’s arms shot forward to remove herself from harm, flying down onto the floor, screaming every inch of the way at the top of her lungs. Donald convulsed to the floor, still alive. Every shot had pierced his body. After a moment, his body lay motionless on the showroom floor. Detective Charles watched Donald’s life pass from him, his gun still trained nervously downward at Donald’s head.

1:09PM.

The din of cries and screams picked up in a cacophony of primal emotion. Time stood still as shock set in to safely release the living from their shaken states.

Frank Klein pulled up in the Coupe Deville with a stunned expression on his face. He flew out the door and into the showroom, where he stopped stiff as a board. Looking at the carnage, his heart felt like it was on fire. He had just left ten minutes ago and the scene in front of him was beyond comprehension. Coming to his senses, he ran into the bookkeeping office and found secretaries emerging from underneath their desks. He put his arms around a petite blonde and held her, trying to steady both of them in their confusion and pain.

As more police cars pulled around what had become a crime scene, a mysterious presence walked through the door, head bowed. Everyone turned in his direction as he calmly approached Detective Charles, who nodded his head as the two talked. In black cassock and collar, the priest walked towards the living and gently asked if they would like him to administer last rites to the men who lay dead on the floor. His presence was like a beacon of calm. Three dead were Jewish. One Missionary Baptist. Through tears, everyone strained to hear Reverend McCarville’s Latin words, deftly spoken in an even voice that hummed like a bellwether.

The wall-mounted phone in Sally’s apartment rang in the kitchen. She and Elizabeth had been coloring in the living room. Sally’s face tensed up as she looked toward Elizabeth. She kept saying “uh-huh” in a monotonal voice as tears welled up in her eyes. She put the phone down and bit on her lower lip, as if still trying to process what was said to her.

She picked up the receiver and began rotary dialing Elizabeth’s babysitter. The conversation was brief and to the point.

Sally walked over to Elizabeth and sat down next to her gently. Elizabeth looked up from her coloring book to notice Sally had gone sheet white.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“I have to go to Daddy’s office. There’s been a terrible accident there.”

Sally knew Elizabeth was too smart to make up some implausible response. It was never, ever going to be easy to tell Elizabeth her father was dead.

“Your father died today. And so did Uncle Sidney.” Sally began to cry looking into Elizabeth’s eyes. “It’s terrible. Just terrible. Elizabeth, our whole lives are about to change.”

Elizabeth’s tiny frame went taut, trying to take in what Sally said. “No!” Elizabeth scanned Sally’s face.

“Where’s Daddy?!”
“Daddy’s in heaven, Baby…”

Tears trickled down both their faces. Elizabeth struggled to understand what was going on, other than it was very bad. She didn’t know what to say. She kept looking around the room to steady herself and the only word she could emit was, “Mommy?!”. Sally grabbed Elizabeth and held her as she cried.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Sally carried Elizabeth in her arms to answer. Elizabeth’s babysitter stood there in shock, looking blankly at the two. Sally leaned forward to place Elizabeth in the babysitter’s arms. Elizabeth folded and began crying hysterically. Sally kept biting her lip as she walked towards the closet and grabbed her coat from inside. She kept walking straight through the door as her daughter screamed for her. She pulled the door closed behind her and walked with the weight of the world on her shoulders as her daughter’s muffled cries moved farther and farther away.

La Jolyn Kelly was sitting in the Chicago Police Headquarters cafeteria when a supervisor came down to speak with her. She couldn’t imagine, as he approached, what he wanted. She was on top of her work and knew what she needed to do after lunch.

“Jolyn. I don’t even know how to say this. Your brother is Donald Jackson, right?”

La Jolyn looked confused. Why would her supervisor know who her oldest brother was? And why did he look so uncomfortable, when he always smiled and seemed easy-going?

“What’s going on?”, La Jolyn said dryly.

“Donald was just shot and killed by one of our detectives on the West Side.”

La Jolyn put her hands up to her face to cover her wide-open mouth. A million thoughts were filling her head: she knew this day would come, she dreaded the day this would come, she prayed the news would be Donald had changed his ways, she knew her mother would be devastated. Her eyes filled with tears as she struggled to respond to her supervisor. He stood up, walked over and put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her.

“What happened?”. La Jolyn’s mouth seemed almost too dry to talk.

“He was at a used car showroom when he opened fire with a shotgun.”

“Did he hurt anyone?”

“He killed three men.”

La Jolyn almost involuntarily fell with her head onto her arms over the cafeteria table. She did not want to exist at that moment. There was no processing the amount of confusion, pain and helplessness she felt inside.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”, La Jolyn’s supervisor said softly. La Jolyn simply shifted her head back and forth. He replied, “I’ll let you be. Feel free to go home whenever you’re ready.”

La Jolyn lay there, limp, unable to mobilize. She knew she had to overcome her own darkness to be with her mother when word reached home.

She summoned the will to stand up, tears dripping from her face. No one else was in the cafeteria. Everything around her seemed to be spinning and otherworldly.

Sally Fohrman arrived at Fohrman Motors in the midst of endless chaos. Ambulances, police detectives, family members and the press formed a collage of endless activity. She walked over to Detective Charles and introduced herself. As he was expressing his condolences, a reporter rushed over and stood too close to her face.

“Mrs. Fohrman?! Is it true that Fohrman Motors charged the gunman in this crime extortionate interest for his used car? There’s been a lot of talk about Jews and predatory economic behavior in the black community. Do you have a comment?”

Surveying the scene, eyes darting towards each corner of a place that used to be familiar - now irreparably changed - Sally turned her mind inward, a voice inside repeating, “Please, hold me…” as her mouth remained locked shut.

With the downtime we all now have, I've set about writing a non-fiction book about a life spent interviewing and talking intimately to people about traumatic events - either as a medical/forensic photographer, a temporary secretary or a television producer. I'm working on the book with poet/editor Lisa Andrews (https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Room-Lisa-Andrews/dp/1945023155) and artist/illustrator, Tony Geiger (tonygeiger.com). Here is one of the essays. I'd love to hear any feedback you have since this is something of an experiment. All stories are based on real events that I have experienced myself or heard direct from source and then supplemented with historical research.

On Being Human - Part 1 of 2

Thirty-seven year old Frank Klein knocked on the door of the bathroom at the used auto dealership where he’d worked for a decade. Who was making such a racket inside and why were they taking so long? Jesus H. Christ, Frank had to pee and it was freezing outside. If he didn’t make a move, he was going to wet his pants. That’s the last thing he needed to do to impress, he joked to himself. Turning away from the bathroom door, Frank’s anxiety about his bladder sent his head first looking to the sky for guidance. He snapped his fingers as the answer to the problem came to him and he walked over to his bosses’ desk, where there lay a set of car keys. Cadillacs were their specialty, and Frank decided he would drive a finely polished ’62 Coupe de Ville up the street four blocks to the grocery store, where he knew he’d find a men’s room. He felt embarrassed as he ran across the lot, but his mind was focused. He forgot his hat. Should he run back? No time.

Starting up the car, he gave it a little gas. The weather was only in the teens on January 7, 1966 and the engine needed a moment to heat up. “Dear Lord, please don’t let it take long”, Frank thought. He laughed at himself as he imagined urine tears floating down his cheeks and freezing. When he pulled the gear shift into drive, the car leapt forward just a little, eager to go. Frank was on his way up Madison Street heading west on Chicago’s west side. He could spot the orange and white “Jewel” grocery sign up ahead. He was going to make it.


Sally Fohrman was at home at her apartment, inside a steely high-rise, putting together salami and mustard sandwiches for her and her 4-year old daughter, Elizabeth. She looked out the window onto Lake Michigan as snow flurries were blowing in. The wind brought a cold chill through the minuscule crevices in the molding and she paused for a moment to shiver with her arms crossed in front of her. Even a warm cup of tea beside Sally could only eek out small wisps of steam as it became more tepid.

Little Elizabeth smiled adorably, with one of her front teeth missing. Sally smiled back as she put the sandwich and a glass of milk in front of Elizabeth at the round kitchen table. “I made it with the soft rye bread so you can chew easier.” Sally sat at the chair closest to the window, a small gesture of protection from the cold for her little girl.

They both looked off into the distance, eating silently. On the table sat the newspaper and Elizabeth asked, “What does the word “disgust” mean?” Sally smiled again and thought about it a moment. What would be the best way to let Elizabeth know the definition of “disgust”?

“Where did you see that, Honey?”
“It’s right here.”

Sally looked at an announcement about the Chicago campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King, which was starting that day. As she scanned the article, her face dropped into concern. The thrust of it was about the conundrum of Jewish landlords who exploited black tenants in previously Jewish neighborhoods and anti-Semitism growing in the black community as a result. Dr. King was quoted as saying anti-Semitism should be looked at with “disgust and disdain” and he went on to describe the special relationship blacks and Jews had in the fight for civil rights.

Sally thought about the Jewishness of her family, about their emigration to the United States from Germany at the turn-of-the-century. She was from a family who were hard-working and liberal-minded. She had disgust for Jewish landlords who behaved in such an ungodly way, knowing they gave devout Jews a bad name.

“Disgust means you really don’t like something. Dr. Martin Luther King really doesn’t like it when people don’t play fair. Does that make sense?”

Elizabeth seemed satisfied by Sally’s reply. The two went back to finishing their sandwiches, with Elizabeth scanning the remainder of the newspaper page that lay open before her. Sally was glad to be raising such a curious and intelligent girl. Elizabeth was the apple of her eye, along with Sally’s husband, Edward.


Twenty-four year old Donald Dean Jackson was not having a good day at all. He had only been out of jail just over a year after serving a 4-year term for armed robbery. He had been diagnosed with leukemia earlier in the week. The oldest son of a single mother with 6 children, he was expected to do right by his family but always seemed to be doing the wrong thing.

He choked back tears of anger as he began loading his sawed off shotgun in a men’s bathroom stall. He had a .22 caliber Luger in his pocket that was loaded, too, with a plastic bag of extra shotgun shells and a cartridge belt with 25 bullets for the Luger. As he took a deep breath, halfway praying to God and halfway psyching himself out, he put his sawed off shotgun under his coat.

Just for a moment, his mind’s eye took him back to church, singing hymns alongside his large, extended family. He was a handsome boy with an adorable smile, watching his mother clutch a handkerchief towards her breast, eyes tightly closed, praying. As Donald regained his focus, he opened the bathroom stall door and wiped the remaining tear lines from his face. Unexpectedly, he said aloud, “I love you, Mama. I love you.”

Donald cocked the shotgun and pulled open the bathroom door. He walked straight over to the desk of Albert Sizer, who had been trying to get an estimate for Donald to fix the car he’d bought just months before: Donald had been in three crashes since and finally disabled it. Donald moved quickly upon Albert who did not know what was suddenly at the side of his head. Still looking downward at his paperwork, Albert unconsciously pushed the barrel away gently with his two fingers. A loud clap emitted from the gun as a shell emerged and entered into the side of Albert’s head, blowing his ear clear off and upward. Albert slumped down in his chair and down to the ground. It was 1:05pm.


La Jolyn Kelly smiled as she walked up the hallway towards the records department. She had never been prouder of herself, going to work for the Chicago Police Department. Here she was at their headquarters, filing and making coffee. One of her friends passed her and asked her what she was smiling about.

“It’s gonna be a good day. I’m ready for that.”

They both giggled like the 18-year old girls they were, both from Princeton Park on Chicago’s south side. La Jolyn looked down at the wedding ring on her finger. Her job had helped her and her husband buy a brick bungalow at Forest and 99th. They were talking about starting a family.

La Jolyn hadn’t had it easy in life up until now. Her oldest brother had always been a challenge for their mother. It didn’t set a great precedent for her other two brothers, who were often in and out of jail for theft or disorderly conduct. The city of Chicago was divided in two: black and white, with black always getting the short end of the stick. La Jolyn wanted to be one who could move in both circles and moved upward. Like her two sisters, she did well in school, went to church and lived the word of the Lord. She had even seen Dr. King in person at a church service and believed he could heal the wounds so many around La Jolyn felt from systemic racism. La Jolyn believed the promised land of equal rights was possible.

As she flipped through the file folders in the top drawer of a cabinet in a long succession of them, she kept her focus on putting the new folders in alphabetically correct. Her determined accuracy was discipline for the goals she wanted to accomplish in life itself.


1:06PM.

The shot that rang out at Fohrman Motors at 2700 West Madison Street sent customers who had previously been ogling the showroom’s Cadillacs screaming towards the exit doors and running into the parking lot en masse. Chicago Police Detective Roland Charles was in a squad car with his partner, York Anderson, when they saw the chaos. Their first impression was a robbery might be in progress. They pulled up alongside the lot as the next gunshot rang out.

Edward Fohrman had just been leaving his desk to talk with Albert Sizer when he heard a gunshot. As he rushed from his office, Donald Jackson came up on him and fired his shotgun into Edward’s head unhesitatingly. “I’m going to kill all bosses!”, Donald screamed as Edward’s blood spatter stained Donald’s face.

Donald moved fiercely into Sidney Fohrman’s office. Before Sidney could rise, Donald reloaded his shotgun and fired it into Sidney’s face as he sat at his desk chair. A man outside the office tried to throw a soda bottle at Donald to divert his attention and more shots rang out, with huge picture pane windows exploding with each boom!

Detective Charles came in through the front door with his handgun drawn. Officer Anderson simultaneously came in from the side, his gun trained on Donald. Donald evaluated what was in front of him and grabbed a young secretary to use as a shield. That sent the rest of the secretaries who weren’t already underneath their desks scurrying for cover. Weeping could be heard but not seen from every corner of the showroom. (PART 2 WILL BE IN MY NEXT POST)