When Joel was asked to pick the most interesting thing that happened to him on December 28th, 2013, he felt the answer was obvious.
“I got shot. By a bullet.” He paused, grinned, and added, “From a gun.”
That marked the first and only time he has been shot by a bullet from a gun, but compared to what transpired next, that part of the story is pretty mundane. Ultimately, Joel got shot by a bullet from a gun, sure, but the impact was minimal. It just made a bruise. Joel was saved. By a Pabst Blue Ribbon belt buckle…from his wardrobe.
When I call Joel from the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly, I know his place is nearby, but I’m lost and frustrated by the task of finding a farmhouse in the darkness. He says not to worry and gives me directions, even rides on his four-wheeler a good distance to the highway to ensure that I won’t drive past Gudex Lane a second time.
We chat before the interview. His Miniature Pinscher Alice Malice trots beside him as we feed sticks to a bonfire that illuminates a fraction of the surrounding countryside. We go inside the garage when it starts to drizzle. Plus that’s where he keeps the mini-fridge.
Joel is known for his love of punk rock, but I’ve also seen him croon along with Dean Martin at parties. On this occasion, however, he’s got satellite radio tuned into a classic rock station. I leaf through my notebook and crack open a Pabst. As he loads charcoal into a grill, I overhear Joel parroting a Billy Joel lyric: “I never said I was a victim of circumstance.”
We were going to see about that as soon as I pressed the record button.
“My mind reels thinking about what percentage of your body was shielded by the belt buckle,” I say. “It’s got to be less than one percent, right?”
“I’d say less than one tenth of one percent,” Joel estimates. “And you’ve got to keep in mind, the bullet didn’t come in and hit the belt buckle like it was a shield. It came in from the side. What stopped it was that little metal loop, that ring that holds the buckle to the belt. Which is even crazier. That’s two millimeters of metal instead of the whole credit card-sized thing.”
This revelation did nothing to steady anybody’s reeling mind. Joel explained: On his walk home from the Main Pub in Fond du Lac, he was headed north when he “heard a bunch of shouting coming up from the intersection” of Main and Second. Moments later, he saw two combative groups, one comprised of three African-Americans and the other of two Caucasians. (Joel later learned that the dispute centered on a young woman. Figures.)
Somebody had brandished a firearm, which was really stupid. Sensing trouble, his two friends pulled him away from the fray, pleading, “Come on, let’s go!” The two Caucasians who stood outside of a bar on Second Street took exception to the display of a deadly weapon. “I can’t believe you just did that!” one shouted. And so they actually pursued an angry, gun-wielding drunk. It cannot be overstated that this too was a really stupid thing to do.
Stuck unwittingly in the cross hairs of bar-time idiocy, Joel proceeded on his way. He spotted a flickering red dot aimed from one faction to the next. The two white guys crossed the street to confront the three black guys. Then Joel heard a POP.
“I knew right away it was a gun,” he says. “‘Cause I shoot guns for a hobby.”
It’s worth relaying that the incident had no discernible impact on Joel’s feelings about guns. He’s still quite fond of them, as evidenced by his recent assassination of a can of shaving cream.
“So, I’m like, ‘Holy s—, that was a f—— gunshot,’” he goes on. “As I’m processing that, I heard the second shot. And I immediately felt it.”
The man with the .380 had lousy aim. The bullet pierced the cold night air at a speed of about a thousand feet per second with Joel in its way.
“I just stood there, putting pressure against that area, ‘cause I wasn’t sure if I was bleeding or not. And I got furious. ‘Seriously?! That’s how this is going down?’ Finally, I was scared to look, but I pulled up my jacket… and the belt buckle fell down. The bullet fell out behind it.”
This inanimate hunk of metal that might have saved his life fascinates me.
“Do you have the belt buckle now?” I inquire.
“Nope, it’s still sitting in the evidence locker at the police station. Mr. Wilcox has exercised his right to appeal.”
“Just to keep the belt buckle away from you?”
“Absolutely,” he deadpans. “I have little doubt he’s being paid by Blatz.”
“How did you obtain the belt buckle?”
“I forget if it was a birthday present or a just-because present, but it was from an ex-girlfriend.”
A “just-because present”? She must be somebody else’s keeper. Here we have proof of the adage: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” I forget who said that, but I do know that Joel is a Trekkie, so let’s just say it was Mr. Spock.
“Let me lay this on you,” I say. “Would it be practical of them to make body armor out of Pabst belt buckles?”
“Well, I think it’s clear that it worked once,” he allows.
It’s not practical. We discuss other matters. Like beer.
“After that crazy night, how did that ensuing Pabst taste?”
“That happened at about 6:30 in the morning when the detective dropped me off from the cop shop after they questioned me,” he recalls. “Cracked open a beer and stayed up until noon, ‘cause I wasn’t tired anymore. Walking through that door… I can FEEL it, right now. The joy. I was OK, and I was getting dropped off at my house, not the hospital.”
(Mere hours after his moment of joyous relief, he was ambitiously hunted down by a crew from Fox 11 News, causing Joel to quip, “We should have sent you guys after bin Laden!”)
“Did you get any free Pabst?” I ask.
“I was hoping for at least a year’s supply. Or just give me a PBR credit card that’s only good for Pabst,” he chuckles. “But I got a box with a sweatshirt and a Frisbee and stuff like that. Some socks…”
“You got a Frisbee out of the deal?!”
“Yeah, it was the kind of trivial crap that they give to everybody. I’m not sour about it… But my buddy sent in his artwork to Pabst, and he got the same box. And it was just Clip Art! I mean, he arranged it quite nicely and there’s definitely some skill involved, but dammit, I got SHOT.”
To get back to that unbelievable gunshot, consider this: Joel’s chasm between good luck and bad was a matter of two inches. But the bullet narrowly missed his manhood and so the tone of our talk was a helluva lot more cheerful.
“I’d like to thank gravity for holding that thing out of the way,” he declares.
If it were me, I’d also thank that winter’s bitter cold. Smaller target!
Onto more mature matters.
“Do you know anyone with a story similar to yours?” I ask. “Is there a support group?”
“I did read about one because I’m only human. I Googled. There was only one other guy. Some gas station clerk in Pennsylvania, maybe six months before my shooting. Except it was a regular belt.”
Someone else comes to my mind. A cartoon character. In the “Homie the Clown” episode of ‘The Simpsons,’ Ned Flanders is shot twice by sniper fire meant for Homer. Flanders is saved twice. First by a Bible he keeps over his heart and then by a piece of the true cross…
“I was waiting for you to bring up ‘The Simpsons,” he snickers.
I have a reputation.
“You’re saying the belt buckle was like my Bible / cross?” he asks me. That is what I’m saying. “Well, I do love Pabst, but Ned Flanders was the last thing on my mind. I know with you, it’d be the first thing.”
Gracefully or not, we were on the topic of faith, which led to the question I most wanted to ask him.
“Did you think what happened was a case of divine intervention or extraordinary luck?”
“Personally, I chalk it up to luck,” he says unsentimentally. “Had I been a step behind or a step ahead, it wouldn’t have hit me. I almost find it to be bad luck. But a lot of people chalk it up to divine intervention. You remember Eric Dietrich?”
“Eric was the tie that bound his friends together. His smile and unique sense of humor touched the lives of everyone he met. He is greatly missed.”
That’s an excerpt from his obituary. He passed away on November 15th, 2008. Eric and Joel were kindred souls.
“Everybody says, ‘Eric was looking out for you.’ But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in the afterlife. With Eric, though… maybe I’d make an exception for him. I like to believe that if anyone is out there, it’s him. It’s a struggle, because he was my best friend, so I’d like to think he was there. But at the core, I don’t believe in that stuff—and scientific, tangible evidence tells me that I’m right.”
“Yeah, but not everything is tangible,” I point out.
“Absolutely,” he says. “And that’s why there’s so much…gray area.”
He lets out an exhausted laugh as he says these last two words. He smears his palm against his face, troubled by the mystery more so than most of us. It’s a lot easier to ask questions about the unknowable than to answer them, and so I change the subject.
“Are you a big hero?” I ask. “Or the BIGGEST hero?”
“Pffft! I wouldn’t call myself a hero because I didn’t protect anybody. But if I was forced to call myself a hero, what the hell, I’d call myself the biggest hero.”
Well played! Who could argue with that?
On the drive home I dwell on Joel’s rejection of the miracle more so than anything else. He’s right about science and luck, but I feel empty wishing there was more. I want to believe in miracles like kids and saints do. Whether it’s salvation by a beer belt buckle or God, sometimes it pays to have faith in the unlikely.
When I listen to the playback of our interview, I notice Tom Petty in the background commanding, “Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me” at about the same time I ask my first question. “Big Shot” cues while Joel describes what it’s like to be shot. Choir boys begin singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in angelic falsettos as he discusses his departed friend.
My bright, gruff, tough, hilarious, Pabst-swigging pal would probably chalk that up to coincidence. Whereas a daydreaming dope like me craves a deeper meaning. I can’t fall asleep that night until I replay the part of his take on faith.
“If there’s a God and you believe in God, then ‘slag’ off and let Him take care of it.”
The Gospel according to Joel. Pabst be with you.
(An extended version with more swearing can be found on my blog. http://www.fistpumpsandbeyond.blogspot.com)