by Matthew Arnold Stern
My experience surviving an armed robbery in Carl’s Jr. is a subject I’ve wanted to speak about for a long time. I originally gave this as a manual speech at my club in 1996. I revised and gave the speech again as my entry in the Spring, 2003 International Speech contests. This speech gave me my first win at the division level.
This is an ordinary roll of duct tape. You probably have a roll like it at home. It has 1,001 uses, including protecting us from terrorists. But a roll of tape like this one figured into one of the most harrowing experiences in my life – one that taught me a valuable lesson at a time when I needed it.
It was in the summer of 1979 when I felt like I was on top of the world. I had just graduated as one of the valedictorians from Reseda High School. I had won numerous awards and a scholarship to UCLA.
I had everything that an 18-year-old could possibly want, except money and marketable job skills. So, I got a job as a fry cook at the local Carl’s Jr. Liberal arts majors who ask, “Do you want fries with that?” That was me.
On the night of August 31, 1979, I was working the closing shift with Donna, our shift supervisor, and Vince, a counter person. The evening was fairly uneventful, except that it got busy just before we closed. We were so busy, we didn’t notice the man who slipped in through the side door.
At 10:00, we closed the store. Vince cleaned up the dining room, Donna worked in the office, and I cleaned up the kitchen.
Vince found the man first. The man surprised Vince in the bathroom and bound and gagged him. Then, he accosted Donna and forced her to open the safe. He only got $90 – that was all he got away with – and then he bound and gagged her.
Then, it was my turn.
I was in the break room getting a cup for something to drink. I turned around to find a revolver pointed at my face.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back!”
I did. When someone puts a gun in your face, you’re not inclined to argue.
“Lay face down on the floor!”
Again, I complied. Then, I heard this sound. <Peeling of duct tape> He wrapped the tape around my wrists and then crossed my ankles and taped them up. He must have run out of tape because he didn’t gag me. He did warn, “If you make a sound, I’ll blow your brains out!”
Then, he left.
I lied there on the concrete break room floor, wondering if he was going to come back and pull the trigger. I then made a sound — I whispered very softly to myself, “Sh’ma Yisrael…” This is the Jewish declaration of faith and the last thing a Jew says before he dies. A feeling of peace washed over me. I knew that I could accept whatever would happen to me. I was not afraid.
I survived the ordeal, as you probably guessed. Vince and Donna freed themselves and then untied me.
I didn’t realize then how much that experience would prepare me for what was about to happen in my life. Three weeks after the robbery, my mom suffered a devastating stroke that left her paralyzed for the rest of her life. My Carl’s Jr. job became a primary source of income, and college became a struggle. There were many times when I wanted to give up. I would then reflect on what happened and realized that I could survive anything.
I did finish my university education at Cal State University Northridge. I still go to Carl’s Jr., but for lunch. But I never will forget the lessons I learned from that roll of duct tape.
I learned that we all have our winning streaks. We all have times that we feel unbeatable and bulletproof. But then something happens that humbles us, that forces us to face our vulnerabilities and realize that we’re not always in control. So, perhaps, duct tape really is the perfect symbol of post-September 11 America.
More importantly, I learned that when I feel powerless and that I could summon my faith and courage, not only to survive, but to triumph. This is what I learned from a roll of duct tape and from being bound.