Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where I Live: Rockville, MD

One night a long time ago, I was up ridiculously late and I absolutely had to stop and fill my tank on the way home. I had been putting it off for longer than I should. The reading on the meter was pegged on empty as I drifted into the gas station.

Stepping out of my car, my senses sharpened as my mind raced. I took a quick inventory of all the things about gas stations that I noticed before that were increasing my chances of being murdered that night.

Every inch of pavement was brilliantly lit.

I was exposed, between the pumps and columns, in pretty much every direction.

I was alone.

I fumbled over the nozzle as I tried to get the gas flowing as quickly as possible. I was slowing myself down by going too fast. As soon as I got the pump going, I started pacing back and forth. I couldn't help it, my legs simply took over. I was terrified, and my body was in survival mode.

Between the evening of October 2nd and the morning of October 3rd, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo violently killed 5 people in Montgomery County, Maryland, with gunfire triggered from long distances. The worst 24 hour murder streak in County history started off what was to be most commonly known as the D.C. Sniper attacks.

The situation was chaotic. For weeks people in the greater Washington D.C. area were terrorized by a seemingly endless line of random killings. There was no connection between the victims, other than the fact that they were killed while performing everyday task, like getting groceries, mowing a lawn, or pumping gas.

The case had few clues at the very beginning. There were no significant witnesses or leads as the investigation started. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose famously claimed that there was no threat to children from the shooter. Muhammad and Malvo responded by shooting a 13 year old. Public schools instituted a lock down, with all outside activities suspended indefinitely. Moose and the sniper team were sending cryptic messages to one another on TV.

For me, the scariest part of the situation was that the adults were scared. I was a 17 year old high school senior, watching the police fumbling over the case, and watching grown men and women ducking for cover and zig-zagging while out in open public places. I saw clips of people crouched in their cars while pumping gasoline.

So I was pacing. I didn't know if there was a shooter coming down route 28 in a car, or if he had set up his shot in a nearby wooded area. It wasn't irrational. I was pumping gas, just like other victims. I was in close proximity to other shootings that occurred.

But above all else, the worst thing I had going for me was the fact that I was at the closest gas station to the very police station that Charles Moose was holding his press conferences. In a case where messages were going back and forth, I was a bullet away from becoming one.

The loud click of the nozzle startled me. I put it back in the pump and got in my car, snapping my head back and fourth as I turned the key. I thought it would be a good idea to avoid a head shot. I was shaking as I drove home. I didn't feel safe until I walked inside. I sat down with my back to the door. I didn't stop shaking, even as I went to bed.

Eventually the shootings ended. Muhammad and Malvo were caught. The rest of my senior year was much more normal. I graduated high school in the spring of 2003, and helped my family move to nearby Bethesda in the summer.

After spending 15 years in one city, in one house, the most vivid memory I have of Rockville is of that gas station. I will never forget that night. The otherwise tame decade and a half I spent in Rockville left me with a bitter aftertaste, caused by chaos, and by the shedding of the blood of the innocent, and by fear.

The Hindenburg burned. The Titanic sank. People fall victim to the inevitability of, well, an outcome. But despite the fact that the cross-hairs are always on us, we all continue to live our lives. I am reminded of this whenever I see, hear, or think about Rockville.


B.Graham said...

I still panic at gas stations, sometimes in the middle of the day. I remember very clearly that between 9/11 and the sniper I thought for a while that the world, or at least the East Coast, was ending.

Alex said...

I was still in Ohio during the DC Sniper attacks, and we had 'copycat' attacks happening near Columbus. I remember going to Columbus for a show choir competition, and we took back roads because shootings had happened on the highway we would normally have taken to get there. That was scary enough- I can't imagine how terrible the atmosphere in Rockville must have been at the time.