Plainclothes Angels (a One-Shot Story)

By Dave Powell

In my personal urban dictionary, a “plainclothes angel” is someone whose life crosses yours usually once, and for a brief time. But they still have an out-sized impact on your future. One may encounter many such people in life, and some probably go unrecognized. Others might even seem the most unlikely of “angels”– whose impacts are important, though not at first overly angelic.

Such was the case with one guy in this 1967 photo of the American Commons Club fraternity. It was ACC’s 50th anniversary at Denison University, and I’m second from left in the back row. At the time, I had no idea that John Griffin– the laughing fellow to my lower-left in the image (who also seems to be picking the pocket of the poor sod in front of him)– would soon become one of my plainclothes angels.

I was ACC’s newest member, and John was an upper-classman. He hoped to join the U.S. Foreign Service, belonged to the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and had a black belt in karate. I’d soon learn the hard way just how good he was at the latter.

One Heck of a Chop

As described in this 35mmc article, I joined ACC in my second semester. Being a one-man pledge class was a unique experience. Even the first-semester pledges lorded it over me. New pledges did a lot of assigned work around the house, but their most important job was waking people in the morning… as requested on a sign-up sheet.

We slept in a communal bunk room that stretched across the back of the building, and John had a bottom bunk against an end wall. The first time I tried to wake him, a karate chop flew out from under his sheets and into my stomach. It hurt. A lot.

I brilliantly deduced that he knew karate. And on future wake-up calls, I crawled up to his bed, snaked my hand up over the mattress to shake him, and made sure my head was down when his hand slashed out.

All was fine after that first chop.

“A Charmed Life”

Probably as in all fraternities, lower- and upper-classmen mostly kept to their own peer groups. John and I never interacted much socially. So it came as a complete surprise when… during a party and for no apparent reason… he walked straight up to me and said:

“Dave, you’ve lived a charmed life.
But it won’t last forever.
Learn karate.”

As described in the above linked article, my life before Dension was anything but “charmed.” Maybe he meant “sheltered.” But I did as he recommended and signed up for karate. I was amazed when (if one is attacked) our sensei advised:

“If you can… run.
If you can’t run, and don’t see a gun…
use anything in your hands as a weapon.
And if you can’t do that (and you don’t feel a weapon
in your back)… try to neutralize the threat
with what you’ll learn here.
But do that only as a last resort…
and in a measured way.”

It proved to be sage advice. But my karate classes soon ended. While I was talking with a frat brother and leaning in his doorway, someone walked up quietly behind me and smashed his knee into my tailbone. With it fractured in pieces, I could barely walk for weeks. No more karate. But what I’d already learned may have later saved my life at least twice.

Dangerous Business

Journalism can be dangerous! After Denison and a short career in actuarial mathematics, I obtained a Masters Degree in Science Journalism from Boston University. I also:

  • Changed careers from mathematics to writing/editing computer and data-networking magazines,
  • Traveled a lot to conferences and trade shows,
  • And was mugged three times in the process.

One incident was relatively inconsequential. But the other two proved the value of John’s earlier advice:

  • In Houston, dressed in a suit, I had to walk from a not-too-great hotel to a nearby press-conference/dinner. A group of drunk young men materialized out of nowhere. One of them sneaked up behind me, wrapped his forearm in a choke hold around my throat, and demanded my wallet. I didn’t feel a weapon pressing into me anywhere, so I used a judo trick we had practiced in class: I clasped my hand tightly around the back of his neck (to hold his head firmly against me) and dropped like a rock to my knees. This pulled him down, forward and off-balance. And to use his momentum against him, when my knees hit the ground, I rocked forward… and easily threw him over my shoulder to the pavement. Then I expertly applied the sensei’s “run-if-you-can” defense all the way back to my hotel. The evening’s dinner conference was off-menu, and a tall stiff drink was on.
  • But the second incident occurred back home in Boston, and could have ended very badly. I was invited to show the head of the Science Museum’s planetarium a film I’d done about black holes. (He was interested in using it, but since it was “only Super-8,” I was out of luck.) I left, and walked along an elevated pedestrian bridge toward the Science Museum subway stop. Four young drunks ran up behind me, lifted me (with their hands under my knees and armpits), and carried me toward the bridge’s handrail. They joked about throwing me over… into the traffic below… and I didn’t believe they would. But when they really did start to lift me over the rail, I remembered the sensei’s “weapon-in-hand” advice. I had an umbrella, and smashed its handle into the faces of the guys holding my knees. Regaining my foothold when they went down, I threw “Hurricane Punches” backward over my shoulders into the noses of the fellows at my armpits. They too let go, helped their buddies to their feet, and scrammed.

One wonders: If I hadn’t followed John’s advice, would those events have still occurred? I can’t say.

But What About Me?

I’ve also wondered: For how many people have I been a plainclothes angel– perhaps without even knowing it? I may well have been for the girl in my “Money from Mars” story. And I can think of one other possibility (though I still scratch my head over it):

Late one Friday night, returning home from college for the weekend, I was the only passenger on one of Columbus’s North High Street buses. It picked up another young man in a bad neighborhood south of The Ohio State University. Hiding one of his hands inside his leather jacket, he staggered up the aisle, spun around, and fell hard into the seat beside me.

“Buddy, can you help?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I replied, “What’s wrong?”

He pulled out his hidden hand. It was slick with blood. He’d been knifed in the belly.

“That’s a dangerous wound” I said. “You could die if it’s not treated now. There’s a hospital two stops up. I can help you to the ER.”

“No,” he replied. “Doctors… hospitals… too many questions. There’s a girlfriend four stops up. I’ll go there.”

As the bus slowed for his stop, he stood, moved to leave, briefly turned back toward me, and said “But thanks anyway.”

I’ve often wondered what he wanted me to do? Could my concern and offer of help have been what he needed? Did I help in other ways I’ll never know? Or neither?

A New “Golden Rule”?

I understand that John Griffin is no longer with us. But the minuscule amount of oxygen he used to convey his warning– and my willingness to heed it– may be why I can tell this story today.

Each of us has numerous brief interactions with seeming strangers. Few may be accidental. Many, predestined. And though we do have free will, I’ve also come to believe that our general life paths are pre-planned in such incredible detail that we can work toward our own souls’ missions and (when the universe calls) briefly cross paths with others to help them achieve theirs.

Maybe the familiar Golden Rule– the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”– needs a rewrite. Maybe it never meant to just “Be nice and do good.” Maybe it always meant– more broadly– to “Help others achieve their missions on Earth… As you would want them to help you achieve yours.”

And the next time a stranger– or indeed anyone— seems to need help, it could be an opportunity to don the wingless powersuit of their plainclothes angel!


Though not part of this story, I had a second memorable experience in the same dangerous neighborhood on Columbus’s North High Street bus route. But this time, it was only 4:45 in the evening, and I was running early for my pick-up at the end of the line. So I got off at an antiques shop I’d seen before. When I entered, a burly man in a black vested suit stood behind the counter.

“We’re closing soon,” he said.
“OK… just let me know,” I replied, peering into his display cases.

Fifteen minutes later– at exactly 5 o’clock– a similarly dressed “Blues Brother” emerged from the back room with two sawed-off shotguns. He handed one to the first man… who looked into my eyes, pumped a shell into his gun’s chamber, and growled “We’re Closed.”

Then and there, I made it a life rule to never again patronize any antiques shop named “Grandma’s Attic.”

–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.

A little note from Hamish: If any other current contributors to the 35mmc would like to submit a post like this, then feel free. I will share these on Wednesday afternoons to begin with, more if they get popular.

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About The Author

By Dave Powell
Trained in mathematics, physics, cosmology, computer programming and science journalism. Retired mathematician, award-winning technical and journalistic writer. 1989 winner of the Bruce B. Howat Award-- an international business-journalism equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. (Only one Howat was awarded each year, IF the committee in Geneva found an article they really liked. But I don't think the prize is granted anymore.) Also a past author and editorial advisor for Sesame Street... where I regularly worked with Jim Henson and Kermit!
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David Tarditi on Plainclothes Angels (a One-Shot Story)

Comment posted: 07/06/2023

Angels are important.
I survived a crash while on the back seat of a “Harley Hog” when a car in the lane to the right of us slowed down quickly and turned left to enter an A&W drive-in (root beer/ burgers eatery) without looking at our lane. We were going about 45 MPH and the only thing I remember from the accident was seeing a red tail-light. I woke up 6 days later in a hospital about 50 miles from the accident scene. They had administered Last Rites for me at the scene. I was told that I had flown off the back seat of the cycle which hit the car at its left front wheel. The cycle driver held onto the handlebars and the bike came down on him- with him getting a few bruises and a broken arm. My not seeing the car before we hit it resulted in me, in a relaxed state, was like a potato sack weighing about 150 pounds being thrown by a catapult( the guess was that I flew about 70 feet in the air over/across two traffic lanes) which landed where the macadam and gravel met.
The Angel? A class mate who was always busting my stones as he was about 4 1/2 feet tall, and I was about 6’ 3” and he was always trying to trip me up or a quick punch in the gut- he was quick on the fists and was always my nemesis.
He was with a few of our high school classmates having a root beer float, and they quickly got out of their parked car, to see what had happened. He immediately recognized me and He immediately put a few fingers into my mouth and caused my tongue to clear my throat(I had a two inch cut from my lower right side of my mouth, a tooth was knocked out and the cut was like scissor cutting though my face clean though from the inside mouth skin and my face.
The doctor told my parents that what Henry, my former classmate did truly saved my life, because I would have choked to death from the profusion of the blood from the gaping tear not being able to bleed out of my mouth because my tongue had been pushed to the back of my mouth. That happened 61 years ago and I still have a 5-tooth permanent bridge as 2 of the neighboring teeth adjacent to the one lost at the impact eventually died within a year of the accident.
Do You believe in ANGELS?
I sure do!!

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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 07/06/2023

OMG David... Thanks for sharing your extreme, and amazing, experience. AND your plainclothes angel! As an answer to your closing question, someone once told me that she saw a guardian angel walking beside me who "looked like Yul Brenner." It seemed a truly positive ID since one of my deceased relatives actually DID! Though I can't describe them all here, I've been protected during two serious auto accidents, a house fire, and three near plane crashes that would have been fatal to everyone onboard if they'd reached their conclusion. But your mention of being in a relaxed potato-sack state during your horrible motorcycle crash really resonated! In my most serious auto accident, I was stopped in a line of traffic waiting for a car to turn left ahead of us. It was on a 30-mph two-lane road, and I noticed a set of high, bright head lights barreling toward the back of my Subaru Outback at well over the speed limit. The girl behind the wheel of the Honda Odyssey was on her cell, and didn't notice that traffic had stopped ahead of her. The very instant that she rear-ended me, I suddenly found my "awareness" standing out in the street, looking back through the driver-side window at myself! I saw my seat detach from its track in the car floor, and fly back through the vehicle as my head whip-lashed a full 90 degrees backward. And in the very next instant,"I" was back in my body. The Honda's entire engine compartment scattered across the road, and the frame of my Outback accordion-ed. But I believe that my spirit was temporarily "moved away" so that I too would be as relaxed as a sack of potatoes! And as a result, I wasn't even bruised. And in the case of the house fire, the 13-year-old me crawled under the smoke right up to the flames and put them out with a garden hose. Though fire was right in front of my face, I felt no heat. Perhaps because I felt no fear. After the fire chief and his team arrived and made sure everything was OK, he took mom and me back out to the porch where it occurred, pointed down at the wood floor, and said he'd "never seen anything like it." For the entire floor had been turned to charcoal except where I had lain... there, one could see an unburned, white silhouette of me. But I hadn't even been singed, and as the firemen left, the chief said "Son, someone up there's watching over you!" So yes... I definitely believe in angels of both plainclothes and winged varieties!


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MICHAEL on Plainclothes Angels (a One-Shot Story)

Comment posted: 07/06/2023

One late night on leaving a house on the Berkeley-Oakland border in 1983 I was confronted by a teenage and a pistol. There was another behind me with a sawed off shotgun. The one in front, whose face I studied instead of being focused on his old revolver, I asked what do you want? Yeah, my wallet. Fine, here it is all $5 of it as he took it and ran away. The fellow behind decided to hit me over the head with the butt of the shotgun. Pretty hard, but I have a hard head so not enough to knock me down, although I did think it was best I faint it. While on the ground he removed my watch while the eye close to the ground was watching and then he left. Bleeding like crazy I drove home probably could have used a stitch or two as there is a bit of a bald spot back there today.

My younger brother, in his wisdom, said he would have grabbed the pistol from the teenager. I guess, a big hole in his back, was not a worry.

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Dave Powell on Plainclothes Angels (a One-Shot Story)

Comment posted: 08/06/2023

You definitely did the right thing Michael! And I can say from experience that the bald spot on your head may grow back... though it might take a while. I know because in a fit of rage, my dad once batted me down a staircase with a board, and on the way down, my head hit the side wall and a chip of paint embedded in the scalp. An infected bump soon grew, which our doctor cut off. He said the resulting bald patch would never fill in. But though it took nearly 50 years, it did. By then, though, most of the rest of my hair had fled! Still, there may be hope for your spot as well!

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