Watching videos of police officers shooting teenagers is so gut-wrenching, and each one brings back an unpleasant memory. The circumstances weren’t exactly the same, but I found myself, 32 years ago, looking into a Denver police officer’s service pistol. I was holding a toy gun I had just purchased from an antique shop. And I was waving it around like a child.
A lot has happened since then. I certainly didn’t think of it at that moment, but I know now that, were I not white, there’s a good chance I might have perished right then and there.
As it turned out, I dropped the Mattel Fanner 50, and the situation ended peacefully. Both the officer and I were embarrassed, me for acting like an idiot and him for being a quick squeeze on the trigger away from taking my life. Here’s the original column, published in the Colorado Daily Aug. 29, 1989. How much different it might have gone if it had happened last week.
It was all so innocent.
Saturday afternoon I was in Denver working with my partner Gil Asakawa on the introduction to a book we’re writing about toys of the fifties and sixties. After a couple hours, we decided to take a break and go out to a local antique store to look for the real thing — research purposes, you know.
I came away with a treasure from my childhood: a Fanner 50 pistol. Mattel’s signature gun from my adolescence and the inspiration for my part of the Western gun-and-holster section of the book. The Fanner 50 trademark was an elongated hammer that allowed you to “fan” off a series of caps with a staccato motion of your other hand.
I seem to remember about half my childhood spent in the crouch you had to take to fire off the Fanner. Besides being a fine specimen of toy workmanship, it had a special place in my heart (and often, under my pillow, next to my head at night).
So Saturday we were in front of Gil’s apartment, he was carrying the other games we had bought, and I walked behind him with the Fanner, aiming out ahead at the wall of the building and pouring off imaginary rounds against the same Black Bart I battled in my imagination as a kid.
At the same time, a Denver police officer was passing by in a cruiser. When I turned around after seeing him out of the corner of my eye, the Fanner in my hand, I found myself face-to-face with a police car as it slipped over the curb and came right at me.
The officer came out of the car with his gun drawn, now aimed directly at me. “Drop the weapon.” Both of us were wearing sunglasses; neither could see the other’s eyes.
“It’s a toy, it’s a toy,” I yelled, kind of laughing and playfully holding the gun up for the officer to see.
“Throw the gun down and raise your hands,” he ordered.
I threw the gun down and raised my hands heavenward. He told me to turn around. I did, kind of grinning incredulously at Gil, who looked as amazed as I at the sudden turn of events.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. Thoughts leapt crazily around in my head — but the main one that took over was that I had just thrown down one of my favorite childhood memories into the grass, and in exchange a real pistol was aimed directly at my heart.
I’d never had a gun drawn on me before. My obsession with guns ended with my Fanner. I’ve only handled a real gun once or twice and never shot off a round of real ammunition in my life. I never even had a BB gun. I have no problem with the constitutional right to own a gun, but I am disturbed at how easy it is to purchase a deadly weapon in the United States.
And I’ve read all those stories in the papers about a police officer accidentally shooting some idiot brandishing his little brother’s toy assault rifle. But I never thought of it as being anything that would ever be of concern in my life.
That changed forever in an instant. As the officer realized the situation and lowered the gun, my first reaction was of anger at being singled out for such a minor thing. After all, goddam it, it was a toy. What flashed through my mind was that I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
It was his first reaction, too.
“It’s shit like this that can get people killed,” he said, in a flush of anger.
For all he knew, it could have been a hostage situation, the way I was playing with the gun behind Gil’s back.
I couldn’t argue with that. The Fanner looks authentic enough, especially from a distance, and we were in an area where there is a lot of police traffic.
And my anger turned to complete embarrassment as the overwhelming reality of the situation crept up on me. What was I doing waving this gun around like a fool? How could I be so stupid?
I think the officer felt the same way. He asked for our IDs and called in on his radio. He seemed relieved, and in what seemed like less than a minute, several other cruisers arrived at the intersection.
“We’re writing a book about toys,” I said in as deliberate a voice as I could muster.
He laughed, and the other officers engaged in some good-natured police banter at his expense about the incident.
We promised him a copy of the book, and he replied that he hoped he didn’t ruin our day and added that he was really thankful we didn’t ruin his.
Gil and I went upstairs to his apartment, and for a while we were kind of hysterical. It was funny, we kept telling ourselves. What a great story, we thought. It was, to use our own journalistic catch-phrase, good copy.
But then reality crept in, this time the fearful, fitful kind that takes awhile to settle in your brain. It almost wasn’t a good story, I keep reminding myself each time I think of what might have happened if I had innocently pointed my cap pistol at the officer while telling him it was only a toy. Or if he hadn’t kept his cool with the finger on the trigger.
I’m thankful he maintained his composure. The entire situation wound up being nothing more than an embarrassing mistake. So why was I still uneasy? The line between fantasy and reality, which had always been clear in my mind, grew fuzzier in those seconds.
I’m sure the officer has thought about that more than once since then, too. We were bonded together irrevocably in those moments when I was in his sights, my future in the twitch of his fingers.
I drove back to Boulder with the Fanner in a paper bag. I’m going to keep it down here in the office in the basement with my other toys from now on.