My unwitting, self-inflicted near brush with death

I had planned for this column to be about an entirely different subject, but Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser convinced me otherwise.

This past Monday, I had the privilege of accompanying Judge Sasser and his gracious, lovely wife, Vickie, to the North Carolina State Capitol, where Gov. Roy Cooper presented Judge Sasser a well-deserved Governor’s Medallion Award for Volunteer Service that recognized Judge Sasser’s yeoman’s work in Columbus County in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. As we exited the building after the ceremony, I told Judge and Mrs. Sasser a story about how, standing in that very spot nearly 34 years ago, I did something very foolish that could have easily resulted, not only in my death, but also in national headlines.

After hearing the story, Judge Sasser laughed and said, “You write about everybody else in your column. You ought to tell people that story on yourself!” So, out of respect for and in deference to His Honor, here goes…

To put this tale into in its proper context, you’ll need to think way back to the early days of the administration of President Ronald Reagan and remember a couple of things that happened during his first term. In March 1981, President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, who in his lovesick and disturbed state of mind thought that shooting the president would win him the affections of actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed.

Then, a couple of years later, after the president had recovered from his gunshot wounds, an out-of-work job seeker crashed a news conference that was being conducted by President Reagan and interrupted the session to hand the president a resume. His action got national news coverage and resulted in his getting scores of job offers.

Not long after the job-seeker presented the president with his resume, I too was seeking work. I had just graduated from college and had been unsuccessful in getting a state job, about the only kind of job that my psychology degree qualified me for. I remembered the job-seeker and the president and came up with the not-so-bright idea of crashing a news conference held by then-Gov. Jim Hunt and presenting him with my resume.

Jim Hunt knew me, but only in passing. I was working part-time in a news job and the governor and I had crossed paths several times, enough for him to be vaguely familiar with me. I think the only reason he even remembered me was that we’d talked once about the fact that he and one of my cousins who later died from combat injuries in Vietnam were very good friends during their college days. So, even though the governor didn’t really know me (I doubt he even knew my name), he remembered whenever he saw me that I was Mark Turner’s cousin.

Oh, yes, one more thing before I get into the meat of my story: The governor always traveled with the same bodyguard, a gentleman who I presumed to be a plainclothes SBI agent, and that bodyguard always recognized me as being someone with whom the governor would chat whenever we crossed paths.

I developed my plan and prepared to hatch it. Because of my part-time news job, every week I received in the mail a copy of the governor’s public schedule and I knew that, on the day in question, he would be conducting a press conference

For those of you familiar with downtown Raleigh and the state government complex, the governor’s office was in the State Capitol, but his press conferences were held in the Administration Building a couple of blocks away on Jones Street.

Armed with my resume in my righthand coat pocket, I went to the press conference fully intending to give the governor my resume, but – try as I did – I just couldn’t work up the nerve to interrupt the proceedings to do that in front of the television cameras, the newspaper reporters and photographers. Trembling, I came close several times, but I flat couldn’t work up enough nerve.

The press conference ended without my having done what I went there to do, so I hoofed it on foot from the Administration Building to the Capitol, where I knew the governor soon would be arriving at the north entrance.

I was waiting there when he arrived, accompanied by his bodyguard. The governor nodded and acknowledged me but, just as the governor got out of his car, Secretary of State Thad Eure emerged from the building with his wife, Minta. The Eures were on their way to lunch and the governor told me, “Just a minute. I have to talk to Miss Minta first.”

Secretary of State Eure was universally described as the “oldest rat in the Democratic barn” in North Carolina, and Gov. Hunt didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to give Mrs. Eure a hug and exchange pleasantries as she and Mr. Eure left for lunch. The Eures, God bless them and their memories, also made it a point to speak to me.

Gov. Hunt finished hobnobbing with the Eures and the two of us watched as they got into their car and headed off for lunch.

Then the governor turned to me. “It’s good to see, you, Governor,” I said. “I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to have to do you like the man did Ronald Reagan,” as my left hand reached into my right coat pocket.

Jim Hunt’s eyes got what looked to be the size of saucers at about the same time as mental images of John Hinckley and Ronald Reagan flashed through my head. His bodyguard blanched.

I quickly pulled the resume out of my jacket instead of the handgun that he and his bodyguard were by then expecting and all three of us visibly relaxed when everybody realized that I wasn’t there to assassinate the governor.

I believe I owe my life to the fact that the bodyguard had seen me interact with the governor before, but I’m also convinced that if I had been a nanosecond slower in pulling out that resume than I actually was, the bodyguard would have shot and killed me right there on the spot and, if that had happened, I’m also sure that the authorities would have “found” a handgun on my body, even though I wasn’t armed.

“I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to have to do you like the man did Ronald Reagan” had to be the poorest choice of words ever to come out of my mouth, before or since. I’ve very lucky to be alive after that little mental lapse.

The story had a happy ending, though. The governor accepted my resume and, just a few days later, I started getting telephone calls from the State Personnel Commission. They wanted to know what they could do for me that would get the Governor’s Office off their backs. “Please just get me scheduled for testing,” I replied.

The jobs I was seeking required taking a state-administered exam before I could even interview, and I had been having trouble getting scheduled to take the test. They scheduled me for the exam the following week. I passed it with flying colors and was working the next month.

But I’ll never forget the day that my poor choice of words made Jim Hunt’s eyes grow to the size of saucers and almost caused his bodyguard to shoot me. And now, thanks to Judge Douglas Sasser, you also know the story!