Time to Remember
It was a quiet January morning when we took the Messiah Lutheran Church in Panama City. There was nothing special about it at all except for the fact that it was a good day to die. My comrade at my side was a vision in tight fitting black sweater and leggings, her faded red hair blowing in the wind, and a tan assault rifle hanging from her shoulder. She looked to me for guidance, and I nodded towards the side door of the church. It was time. Time to show America that even in an out of the way church on the gulf coast of Florida, no one is safe.
This is how it could have happened had we not been actors in a training scenario for the local Panama City Sheriff's Department., SWAT team, and bomb squad. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I got the text from a friend whose husband was in charge of the operation. Basically, she asked if I was interested in a non-paying gig with good exposure playing a terrorist for a training situation. Also, it will most likely be reported on the news. Being an agreeable attention whore willing to do anything for the experience/exposure and desperate for an "acting challenge" (Oh God ,that sounds pretentious and invariably sad) , without a second thought I said "Sure!" She attempted to lure me with the promise of being "manhandled " by a group of big muscly guys but she needn't have. She had me at TV exposure.
I have to admit I put very little thought into what this situation would entail- until the meeting two days prior to the event all I knew was that it would be an all day affair, and that they most likely cuff me a little. Oh, and my friend Kelly would be my co-terrorist. Kelly and I had done a couple plays at the Martin Theatre , so at least I would know someone there. We met at the Messiah Lutheran Church where we found out our "hostages" would be the Pastor and the ladies of the church staff. We also met the Ed, who was coordinating the scenario, and Brent and John who would be leading us step by step through the takeover.
John immediately started by calling us by our first names, telling us that he knew everything about us! He passed out copies of our "dossiers" which had our pictures, stats, and priors. Mine read: Stephen Coulibay, Caucasian, 72 inches, 202 LBS (oh so kind) NKMP, US Citizen. Member of the "Alvares" Cartel based out of Juarez Mexico, known to work as key Liaison between the cartel and AQAP (Yemen). A US citizen who rarely visits the USA due to (3) outstanding Felony warrants for his arrest. Outstanding Warrant Details 1) Three counts of lewd acts on a 14 year old girl 2)Two deadly counts of assault with a deadly weapon 3) Four counts of murder/weapons charges Mexico. Currently on US/Interpol Terrorist watch list. He then proceeded to tell us that , though unloaded and unarmed, we would indeed be using real weapons and explosives.
Ok, shit just got real.
I looked at the lovely, peaceful, smiling faces of my hostages-to-be and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable with what I was going to be doing. One of the ladies (who looked to be in her 60's) seemed uneasy at the mention of real guns . These women were someone's mother, someone's grandmother, And then there was the amiable and friendly Pastor, asking if guns would be pointed at them. I started having second thoughts about doing this.
Kelly on the other hand was already figuring out her strategy , figuring out where she could "hide " the hostages (she had a working knowledge of the church having been a member of the congregation) , pummeling John with questions about what her costume should be,and thinking out her motivations. Luckily John told us that she would be the ring leader. Her character was more a disgruntled university student involved with anti-American propaganda groups with no real warrants.
John asked me if I had any camo to wear and I had to stifle a laugh as I told him, "No. Sorry. No camo." He suggested dungarees and told me to think "militia." Okay, I see what I am going to have to Google later.
When we left the meeting, we learned very little of what exactly was going to happen (Kelly and I did receive a loose schedule/breakdown of the day, but during the actual event, there were too many variables to pinpoint.) John and Brent were very good at putting us at ease and assuring that it would be a fun experience, and I actually started to look forward to the adventure at hand.
John gave us some parameters for the exercise- a list of "triggers" that would end it ahead of schedule- things like do not say anyone has been harmed or killed, do not give a set deadline with the threat of harming or killing a hostage, don't mention or threaten fires, etc. All of these things would hasten their breaching the site and taking us down. He gave us a safe word (blueberry) to use if we they hurt us or put us in any physical discomfort. he told us they would be laying their hands on us and we would be bound, so feel free to let them know if they crossed the line.
The day of my "terror" gig, I got to the church around 7:30 a.m. We didn't have to be there for another half hour, but nerves and an obsession for not being late got me to the church way before time. Ample time to sit in my car, finish my coffee and chain smoke like a mo-fo. The day before I had started getting anxious about doing the whole thing again despite the effort I had already put into searching for a costume (no camo to be found, I bought a hunter-ish sweatshirt with leaves and trees on it at Goodwill and borrowed a green army jacket from my good friend Paul. Add a black knit stocking hat from Coach and Voila! As close to militia as I was gonna get!) and researching cartels, militia, and AQAP. (after my google searches my computer froze up, asking if I wanted to let it change my programming. Freaked out, I finally was able to turn my tablet off and re-start. Oh great, was I now going to be on some watchlist for the NSA or the CIA just because I was researching for a role?? And the fact that it froze up after the searches I am sure had nothing to do with the fact that I was then watching something that may or may not be deemed as appropriate. Right?!?!?) Anyway, I started worrying about the mental implications of such a traumatic event and the potential impact it could have on our "hostages". I pictured my character as viciously cruel and amoral, a cold-blooded killer whose only purpose that day was to blow up a church and everyone inside. Holding them at gunpoint, hiding explosive devices, etc.- all these things played on my mind and gave me pause. I am more of a musical-comedy guy!
I shouldn't have worried. Once everyone arrived at the church, the mood was very laid back and mellow. After a short debriefing by John of the planned stages of events with very little detail, we all sat in a conference room waiting for it to start. The ladies passed around pieces of the newspaper, one of them working on the crossword, and Kelly studied her lines for her latest play. I realized then that what we did inside the church was inconsequential to the exercise. Of course, there were certain things we had to enact for the SWAT team to react too, but I did not have to go full tilt psycho to achieve our goals. Yay! I really didn't have enough coffee or cigarettes beforehand to fuel that fire.
John, who would be going back and forth between the to camps, informed us that it had begun. For reasons unknown to me, Kelly and I's roles had been reversed. I would now be the one manning the phone, talking to the hostage negotiator, and Kelly would be patrolling the grounds with the hostages. Maybe he sensed my hesitancy, maybe it was because he saw in Kelly a more imposing figure with radical ideas. Maybe it was my knit hat from Coach. Who knows.
John gave me absolutely nothing to go on as far as info to feed the negotiator. He only told me that he would ask me questions about what was going on and how many hostages there were. This was my big improv moment! I tried to think of all the hostage type movies I had ever seen before and imbue my character with all of that information and malice . I pictured (for some bizarre reason) Hans Gruber from Die Hard. Not really the best choice, but I was nervous! The phone rang and John motioned for me to pick it up. The day before I had tried to work on a Spanish accent (my character IS supposed to work for the Mexican Cartel!!) but I have no idea what accent came out of my mouth. More quasi-European or slightly middle-Eastern with some French influences than Spanish, More Balki from Perfect Strangers than Antonio Banderas. I had to stifle my natural urge for proper phone etiquette by answering "Yes...." rather than, "Hello, how are you?" There had been a call earlier made by John setting up the scenario telling the sheriffs office that there was a hostage situation and there were explosives so the negotiator asked me to explain the situation. With nothing to go on but the dossiers of the hostages, I committed probably my first terrorist faux-paus. I told him everything I knew. I said Yes, we had taken over the church, we had blah blah blah hostages, their names are blah, there are two of us, we mean business, anything and everything I could divulge. Okay, so I was nervous! He asked what our demands were, and I turned to John and Kelly for input. Kelly whispered, "Tell him we want the Quaran!" I did, he asked what else I wanted, and Kelly (prompted by John) came over and grabbed the phone from me, yelling into the phone "He said too Goddamned much!" and slammed the phone down. John took Kelly into the hallway and the church ladies hovered in the coffee room that opened onto the office I was in, talking amongst themselves. I had my hand over my mouth and I confessed I wasn't sure about the whole cussing in church thing- I felt like I was going to hell. One of the ladies laughed and said she was sure she had heard worse in her life.
Okay, kid gloves officially taken off.
My next call I revealed that my father was murdered by American soldiers, my Mother was raped and killed, and my sister was...I couldn't bear to say it. John gave me a thumbs up and I hung up the phone, pleased with my backstory. My character had issues!
Kelly went on a patrol of the grounds and spied the SWAT van sitting in the parking lot, so John coached me on my next call to scream at the negotiator to "Get that fucking van out of my sight!" John looked slightly shocked and closed the office door as the only previously scheduled event at the church was ending and a ladies aerobics class was filing out the doors at that moment. Whoops! My bad.(Okay, maybe I shouldn't have screamed the F word- but hey, they said it was okay!)
My screaming evidently worked...somewhat. The Swat team moved the van to the other side of the church! Still in view, still out in the open. They were working my nerves. The next call came and I was (faux) furious!The hostage negotiator on the line tried to calm me down as I screamed at him, "Do you think I'm stupid???? You just moved it to the other side. I'm not playing games here. I do not want to see the van. I do not want to see anyone. I mean business!!!" The negotiator assured me he wasn't lying to me. He was in a room two blocks away and he only knew what he was being told. Ii yelled at him, "Move it now! Get it done!" and slammed the phone down. I have to admit it was a little hard to keep up the charade as the ladies in the break room were laughing. I don't know if it was because I was shocking in my vitriol and they were uncomfortable or if the more likely explanation was my bizarre accent was eliciting giggles. No matter, the show must go on!
John came back to tell me the van had finally been moved out of view. He had been making Kelly make several turns around the building with the hostages while I manned the phones and evidently at one point she had left herself vulnerable to possible sniper fire by letting her hostages take the lead by a few steps ahead of her. She escaped unscathed.
We were not the most savvy of terrorists.
My intermittent phone conversations continued- John coached me to play different emotions- calm and rational to angry- keeping them on their toes as to what the mood was. I still had no clear objective of what I wanted and the negotiator kept trying to get me to divulge my goals. He told me that he got me the Quran and asked if I would be willing to trade it for a hostage. being that it was Kelly's improvisational idea and not in my mission parameters, I had to keep deflecting the request. Thanks, Kelly! One good thing was that I got to slam the phone down cutting conversations short. Anytime I was at a loss for words, I would hang up on them. Sometimes I would do it because the conversation was coming to a standstill and I was fighting the urge to say , "Thanks for calling, have a nice day, talk to you later!" Damned phone ettiquitte!
John came back to inform me that there was a bomb detecting robot in plain sight behind the church so my next call should be hostile . I picked up the ringing phone and started screaming "What do you think you are doing??Yankee imperialists!(??? I am not sure were I was going with that, but it seemed like good thing to call them.) Why is there a bomb..." I scrambled for the right term, "THINGY?!?" Whoops. Probably not effective terror-speak. "Move it now!" The negotiator assured me he would and I slammed the phone down.
Brent (or Brett, not sure. My hearing impaired ears!) came in and told me to take a hostage and go into the ?work-out? room that was all glass walls and doors on either side. He told me to take her to one side , holding her closely in front of me and look out towards the west corner behind the Church for the bomb robot. Lo and behold, there it was, poking up behind some brush. Brent led me back to the phone where John coached me to threaten the lives of the hostages if they did not move it immediately. The negotiator swore that it was gone and I screamed, "I just saw it! You are lying! I am going to start killing hostages one by one until you move it!" Slam!
I guess they heeded my threat because soon after the robot was gone. My next call, I told him I was a reasonable man and that I would be releasing a hostage who was having medical issues. John told me I would lead her out and once I got a third of the way towards the parking lot I was to push her forward and head back in only to be greeted by my comrade in arms Kelly who was to argue with me and pull me back into the building. Easy-peasy.
The release goes off without a hitch and I start heading back towards the building. Kelly storms out, screaming at me and being theconsummate in-character actress that she is, proceeds to haul back and smack the shit out of me! I swear it was as if my head was inside the liberty bell- the ringing in my ears was intense and my jaw ground into itself when her hand made contact. She dragged me back into the building where she quickly said, "Brent told me to do it!"
I know I was warned that I would be "man-handled" during this event, I just never dreamed it would be by my co-conspirator!!!
She took the next call and told the negotiator that I was no longer in control, she would now be doing the talking, and after a few minutes on the line with him with her saying nothing, she hung up.
Okay, I guess that's why I am the brains and she is the brawn.John then turned the phones back over to me, still with no goals or objectives. I guess with goals the SWAT team could force a swifter resolution to the proceedings. The next call , the negotiator asked me what was going on, was there dissent among my ranks, he had seen the altercation between Kelly and I . I blathered on that everything was fine now and I was back in control. Kelly then stormed the office and snatched the phone of my hand, slapping me again!!!I screamed "Oh SHIT!!" and had to cover my mouth as I ran into the break room with the hostages, laughing hysterically. After stifling her own fit of giggles. she told him that we were starting to get hungry. Maybe we could negotiate to get lunch. After a few minutes of her listening to his demands, she hung up the phone.John took the next call (probably to show us how it is really done). I couldn't make out what he was saying, his tone was low and ominous, his delivery intense, but I was compelled to believe that he showed them we meant business! Maybe I should have watched some terrorist movies to prepare for this thing, but I really didn't cotton to the possibility of the NSA freezing up my Netflix!
John sent Kelly on another mission with the hostages huddled around her to act as a human shield. I continued taking calls, not giving the negotiator an inch while he tried to convince me to release a hostage in exchange for food and the copy of the Quaran he had procured. I told him the Quaran was for him, and he needed to read it. I regretted ever asking for it in the first place as if course I knew it would bite us in the butt later on! I reminded him that I was in control, they did not tell me what to do! Now bring us some food!
I showed him!
A little later, John returned asking where Kelly was. I replied that I thought she was patrolling the grounds agan with the hostages. He told me to call her on the walkie talkie. "Alpha Dog to...uh...Chick-girl" I flailed. We had never come up with call signs. Boy, we were poorly prepared terrorists. No matter though, John found her talkie in the conference room. She had taken it off.
We were destined for failure.
John disappeared for a while and the Pastor and I chatted about the moral implications of the situation and the incomprehensible mindset it would take to be a terrorist. When John returned, he appeared concerned. "They've got Kelly."
WWHHAATT???? That's not part of my itinerary!
He got on the phone and called the negotiator. Same low intonations beyond my realm of hearing, but it read with serious intent. When he got off, he told me that it was now the endgame. They will be coming for me shortly. I got back on the phone. "I am missing some of my people. What is going on? I can't find them anywhere!! Just know, this is on your head! You asked for this!" Slam! I felt like such a bad-ass!
John ushered the Pastor and I into the music room down the hall which had the other two hostages I had no dealings with- Kelly's son (who was supposed to be the "unknown variable" that they had no dossier on) and another gentleman from the church. He told me to place one of the two assault rifles on the couch between the Pastor and the other guy. I would be by the door, with the young boy sitting near me. When they came in, I was to immediately surrender and point the blame to the men on the couch. (really, John had told me to "pussy" out and point fingers at them. To be perfectly frank, it was not too much of a stretch for me with a SWAT team pointing guns at me.)The next few minutes seemed to be an eternity with the forewarning of my impending doom. My stomach was in knots and my muscles tensed as we waited for them to burst through the door. We laughed nervously as Pastors stomach gurgled loudly. At least I wasn't the only one on edge. I guess it could have been just hunger, though. I wondered if they would still feed us even after we were captured. I took off my knit hat thinking that my lack of hat might make me blend in better with the hostages. Basically, I am an idiot. They had my picture, they even saw me releasing a prisoner . Besides, my carefully designed militia wear made me stand out like a sore thumb Who am I kidding?
Finally, the door slowly swung open and I saw roughly six guys there, all training their guns on me. As they piled into the room, I immediately flung my arms up in the air and yelled "It's not me, it's them! Get them! I am innocent! They raced over to the men and made them get on the ground, snatching the rifle between them and zip-tying their hands behind them. My ruse worked! They turned me around and zip-tied my hands behind my back and led me outside. The officer who led me out proceeded to pat me down, asking me what had happened. I told him that I had been visiting the church earlier that morning with my wife who had been in aerobics class and then this mess had happened. I was quite pleased with my story-until he came upon the pistol clipped to my waist. Oh yeah. Forgot about that. Then he was quite pleased with himself . "And what's this?" I told him I was an American, and I had a permit for that. But of course, the jig was upMy captor radioed to his company that he had the target secured and that I was the leader. He then ushered me into the back of the SWAT van which let me tell you is no easy feat with your hands behind your back! The Pastor, the boy, and the other guy were already in there. We sat in uncomfortable silence as we were driven to another site. I tried to maintain a sullen demeanor which probably came off more as pouty. I then broke the silence, turning to my captor. "So...I guess this means lunch is a no-go?"
I thought it was a valid question.
We arrived at their base camp which was two blocks away from the church. I made the boy get out before me, and then gingerly made my way to step off, foot catching on something on the floor, and proceeded to tumble out the door. Luckily my captor grabbed me before I made it to the ground and helped me the rest of the way. See, I don't need anyone to defeat me, my clumsiness does a pretty good job on it's own! We were on a dirt road with several SWAT vans and Sheriffs vehicles. Across the road I saw my sweet lady hostages chatting away and a little further down I saw Kelly laughing it up, un-bound, talking with her brother-in-law. Had she convinced them that she was an innocent? Had she put all the blame on me? I asked my captor why she wasn't in cuffs and he replied that it wasn't my concern, and he couldn't comment on that.
Once again, proving what a miserable yellow bellied terrorist I was, upon interrogation I withheld nothing. I revealed my co-conspirators- implicating John as the third, how many explosive materials were present, how many guns, etc. When asked where the bombs were I regained some of my foothold due to my ignorance of their placement. I just sad repeatedly, "That was out of my realm of expertise. "
Ha! Terrorist 1 ....SWAT guy 20.
Once he had wrung as much information out as was humanly possible, we fell in silence. My arms were getting sore from being zip-tied and the SWAT guy asked me if I was alright. "Well, I'm not quite at "Blueberry" but I might be close." He called out to his command and relayed that vital bit of information and they agreed to free me.
The exercise was over.
That concluded my thankfully brief career as a terrorist. On my side of things, it wasn't as dramatic as I worried it would be. Previous to the event, I started panicking about what getting into the mindset of a terrorist would be like. I thought it would be too disturbing for me and it would have been if I actually had to go there. But thankfully we were led by consummate professionals who really had no intention of making us do something we were not comfortable with . We had the leeway to go dark with our characters, but the main object was the staging of events that could play out to see what the response would be. I came away with even more respect for our protections in place and the amazing men who keep us safe. They did an incredible job- not once did I see any of the snipers that were hidden close by and the negotiator did an admirable job at trying to keep everyone safe with his calm line of questioning. They handled the entire scenario quickly and efficiently while maintaining the safety for all involved. There is no question in my mind that true heroes walk amongst us
On the downside, the TV news crew came and interviewed at the main site while we were being interrogated. So no faux terrorist glory. I am okay with that. My failures as a terrorist were not the notoriety I was yearning for. Besides, it wasn't about me and my petty actor's ego, it was about the men who dedicate their lives to protect the public and make the world a better place.
On the plus side., I got this bitchen patch!
Things I learned :
1) I don't have what it takes to be a terrorist. More touchy-feely than blowy-uppy kind of guy
2) Hanging up on someone can be fun! It releases lots of pent up aggression. Definitely on my future "to-do" list.
3)My negotiating skills leave something to be desired
4)I really need to work on my Spanish accent because Kelly thought I was doing Tevye from "Fiddler"
5)Always use your safewords even with the ones you think you're safe with, cause if you don't, you might get bitch-slapped!
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