Author’s note: This entire story is 100-percent true and actually happened to me, and I’m pretty traumatized from it, even if I don’t usually show it.
In the forest along the Potomac River, a few miles from my house, there is a large tree that hangs over deep water. It has been altered by many people; they have etched their names into the bark, nailed boards to climb up the trunk, added a small platform to jump down and tied a rope to swing into the water. Beer cans and other garbage litter the small makeshift beachfront. I have been to that tree once, and I will never go back.
It was the summer after senior year of high school, and I was high off of graduation and my recent trip to India and Vietnam. After hearing about many friends’ fun expeditions to the swimming hole, I finally decided to tag along. My mom later joked, rather morbidly, that I had been completely fine traveling through Vietnam with only my sister, but nearly died upon returning to the United States.
On a standard D.C. August afternoon with blistering temperatures and humidity, Sam, Fox, Fox’s girlfriend Pauline and I piled into Sam’s 20-year-old Toyota. We drove along the George Washington Memorial Parkway until we reached the scenic overlook where we parked and headed down the improvised trail to the swimming hole. The spot is very isolated; you have to climb down nearly 100 feet on a steep cliff face, where someone tied a rope to some roots to help you rappel your way down, and then once you reach the river, you walk another few hundred feet alongside the river to reach the tree.
Once we reached the swimming hole, we set up our little camp with a couple towels and the snacks and drinks we brought with us. Several other groups of people were already there, sharing the communal space (and our chips). Being more adventurous than me, Fox and Sam both immediately scampered up the tree, grabbed onto the rope and Tarzan-swung into the water. I, being much more nervous and cautious, slowly climbed up the tree, gripping each plank as I went. I stood at the top, staring at the water twenty feet below. I wasn’t confident enough to swing on the rope; if I lost my grip or held on too long, I could fall into shallow water. Eventually, enough people heckled me that I plugged my nose, closed my eyes and stepped off the platform, not really jumping off, more so ungracefully falling off into the river. Somewhere in the 20 feet of airtime between the tree and the water, my feet ended up above my butt, so I landed square on my ass — it proceeded to hurt for the next hour. I had my fill of adventure for the day and decided not to try it again.
We spent the next several hours like this, chatting among ourselves and with the other groups there, interspersed with the occasional swim when the heat became unbearable. Someone I didn’t know gave me a beer, and we shared the tortilla chips and salsa we brought with everyone else. By the time evening came (though there were still at least two hours until sunset), almost all of the other groups had left, except for us and one other group of five guys. They were still mostly friendly, but only spoke Spanish, so Pauline and I could speak with them, but not Sam or Fox. Pauline and I continued chatting with the five of them intermittently, with Fox and Sam awkwardly left out, but after a few minutes the five of them turned inward and spoke only among themselves with the occasional glance in our direction.
We thought about leaving, feeling a little threatened, but convinced ourselves that this was nonsense. After all, over several hours, we shared our food with them, conversed with them, participated together in a classic summer activity and coexisted in a communal place. If something was going to happen, we surmised, it would’ve happened already. If you can’t trust people in a space like that, where can you trust someone? Who could be the kind of monster who would do all of those things with a group of people and still wrong them in the end?
Our judgement got in the way. Things got worse. They started harassing Pauline, talking about how Fox “wasn’t man enough” and that she should date one of them instead. They were obviously a little drunk and started talking shit about us. The about-face was very sudden. We had been having a good time up until then, but now knew something was very, very wrong. Escape seemed impossible, as they were standing above us on the “beach” and blocking the only way out; even if we made it past them, it was another 100 feet climbing straight up to reach the cars. After a few minutes of this taunting, however, they simply got up and left and walked away. It seemed that we were in the clear. Relieved, we started to pack up our things and prepared to head out.
At that moment, two of the five came back wearing bandanas over their faces. This almost made me laugh — as if a bandana was going to stop us from recognizing someone we had shared an entire day with, or from identifying them in a police line-up. It wasn’t funny when I saw a flash of silver, and I realized that one of them was carrying a handgun. They started yelling at us in Spanish as they waved the gun in our faces, telling us to give them everything. Of course, we obliged, tossing over all of our bags, begging them hysterically not to kill us. They told us to get in the tree and the four of us ran toward the tree and started to climb up. Changing their minds, they instead yelled at us to get in the water. We instead started frantically toward the water, Pauline and I still pleading for our lives in Spanish as Fox and Sam just tried to figure out what they wanted. If they wanted to kill us there, they could have gotten away with it. And they almost did.
In a single-file line, we trudged down the bank as quickly as we could toward the water. I was last. I turned around to see him holding the gun with his arm extended, heard the quiet but powerful *click* as he cocked the hammer, the barrel a foot from my face, aimed directly at my head. That sound will stick with me forever. I thought I was going to die, but fortunately instinct kicked in. Before they had a chance to shoot us, we had all jumped into the water and swam away from the shore and were swept downstream by the swift current in the middle of the river.
Pauline immediately began having a panic attack — she still had her shoes on and was being weighed down, struggling to keep her head above the water. The three of us circled her, trying to make sure she didn’t fucking drown. Fortunately, we spotted a paddle boarder and Fox swam away to wave him down; he quickly paddled toward us and threw Pauline his life jacket. He helped escort us across the water as there was nowhere convenient to get out on the other side of the river. It was a slow process, taking many breaks to rest on my back or hold onto the paddle board. The current in the Potomac in August is dangerous from all the rain D.C. gets in the summer (a detective told us he was surprised we survived, as most people who try to swim across the river at this time of year drown).
After at least 15 minutes of swimming, our feet touched the mud on the other side of the river, a few hundred feet downstream from a boathouse called Fletcher’s Cove. We used the paddle boarder’s phone to call the police and told them to meet us at the Cove. The police arrived right as we walked up from the river bank, bedraggled, covered in mud, only in our swim trunks without shoes or any other possessions. We described to them what happened, and they called in a goddamn helicopter and a police boat to look for them — which seemed a little extra. They found a couple of people who matched the description, but it wasn’t them. Whoever it was is still out there.
I called my mom from a cop’s phone and very nonchalantly told her what had happened — that we had been robbed, but we were ok and could she please pick me up. I think my tone threw her off — she just replied “ok, sure” before a pause and then the inevitable, “Wait, WHAT?!” But physically, I was fine. All of our parents came to get us and bring us clean clothes, shoes, towels and maybe a sense of security. I tracked my phone from the cop’s phone, and that must have scared the robbers when they realized it was being tracked, as the cops found my bag on the other side of the river with almost everything in it and returned it to me within an hour. My total financial loss from this? Ten dollars cash that was in my wallet. I went home and slept for 12 hours.
When you see the statistics for all-too-frequent mass shootings on the news, they recount the number of dead and wounded. The survivors are called “lucky” because they happened to be in a better place at a better time when the shooting occurred. Media outlets rarely report on their psychological damage, or the damage caused from all of the less “sensational” gun violence that occurs in this country every day. The body count for my incident? Zero dead, zero wounded. Probably less than $100 value stolen from the four of us collectively.
A success story.
There are no statistics about the fact that I no longer feel safe in any communal space, that, at any moment, I have an exit strategy, preparing for anything to walk through the door. Because in this country, that’s likely.
I had been robbed once before — when I was 12, but that was by some random guy in an alley, without a gun. An alley is somewhere you might expect to get robbed, and without the gun, my life was never in danger. I was just a dumb kid who looked like an easy target, and he took advantage. I was a little shaken up after that, but nowhere near the magnitude I felt after being robbed at gunpoint. This time, I was at a swimming hole in the summer, somewhere you might expect safety, somewhere to escape to — not from. That sense of safety and community is all but shattered. Beyond the countless lives lost, this is what we give up — as a community, as a country — for guns. Never being safe, always looking over our shoulders, at the movies, at school, at church, at a bar, in your own home. Is it worth it?