Ed Grisamore

His pen was mightier than the bullet

Rob Jones and the pen that saved his life.
Rob Jones and the pen that saved his life.

It is said the pen is mightier than the sword. But Rob Jones has a different twist, spin and ricochet on the time-tested adage.

His pen was mightier than a bullet.

He is living proof of a bullet-proof miracle. He owes his life to a ballpoint pen he purchased at a drug store in Milan a half-century ago.

It’s somehow appropriate the official emblem on a Paper Mate pen is a pair of hearts between the “Paper” and “Mate.’’

That’s because 50 years ago this week, Jones, a former Georgia state trooper, was shot in downtown Eastman by a man he had pulled over for speeding.

Long before law enforcement officers wore bullet-proof vests, Jones was saved by the same pen he would have used to write the traffic ticket and arrest report.

A man had stolen a Dodge Charger from a car lot in Perry. He went racing through a speed check on Highway 341, south of Eastman. After firing three times at Jones with a .38-caliber pistol, hitting him twice, the man sped away. The car was later found abandoned. The suspect was never apprehended.

The first bullet hit Jones in the chest and was partially deflected from piercing his heart by the metal casing of the pen he carried in his shirt pocket.

Most pens today are a composite of plastic and rubber. Had it been a modern-day gel ink, Sharpie, rollerball or No. 2 pencil, there would be no story to tell.

Jones might never have grown old with Nancy, his wife of 56 years. He might not have been around to raise his two daughters and become a grandfather and great-grandfather.

Jones began his career as a driver’s license examiner and was promoted to trooper a year and a half later. He was assigned to the Georgia State Patrol post in Helena, about 12 miles from his home in Milan.

Jones remembers Friday, Dec. 8, 1967, as an unseasonably warm afternoon. He and two other troopers were running speed checks without radar guns. They used electronic wires about 160 feet apart, anchored along the shoulder, that would clock vehicles and calibrate the speed.

About 4 p.m., a yellow Dodge Charger went barreling through the 60-mph zone doing 80 mph. Jones alerted the officers ahead on his radio, but the driver gave them the slip down a dirt road, doubled back across the railroad tracks and headed toward town.

Jones rushed to his car and began pursuit. He would have turned on his blue lights, only they were red in those days. He had to maneuver through heavy traffic during the shift change at the Stuckey’s plant, then moved into position to block the stolen car with his vehicle on East Main Street.

“I got out of my car and circled around,’’ Jones said. “You’re trained to approach from the rear. I asked him to step out of the vehicle, but he wouldn’t move. He had the windows down. When I reached for the door handle, he popped that .38 over the window and … bang, bang, bang.’’

The first bullet struck the ballpoint pen, bounced under the skin across his chest, arm pit and lodged in his right arm. The impact of the bullet and his own reflexes caused him to pivot his body. The second bullet entered his back on the left side and exited on the right, narrowly missing his spinal column. The third bullet missed.

Wounded and bleeding, Jones flagged down a man driving a Chrysler Simca, a small, French import. Although the Eastman Police Department was less than a block away, he asked the man to drive him to the Dodge County Hospital, a mile away.

“I told him not to leave me,’’ he said. “I was losing blood and seeing little black spots. I opened the back door and fell in. We almost had a wreck on the way. He was driving so slow I counted every rock on Griffin Street.’’

Nancy worked as a technician at the hospital, but she had already left for the day. She drove home to Milan, where she had an appointment at the beauty parlor. A sitter was watching her daughters, ages 5 and 2. When she returned home, a neighbor came over and wanted to know if she was OK. About that time, her sister drove up and asked if she had “heard anything about Robbie.’’

“No,” Nancy said. “Why do you ask?’’

“We heard on the radio he had been shot,’’ her sister said.

A trooper arrived at the house to drive her back to Eastman.

“I got in the car and asked him if Robbie was dead,’’ Nancy said. “He said he didn’t know.’’

Although Jones lost a significant amount of blood, he did not suffer any injuries to internal organs. He was hospitalized for a week and did not return to active duty for two months.

Nancy has lost count of the number of “God winks” along the way.

“We didn’t have the Red Cross, so we had to have donors,’’ she said. “Robbie has B-positive blood, and a man he had donated blood to a few years earlier heard about the shooting and came in and gave blood. God just looked after us.’’

Dr. Channing S. Jun was the physician who performed the surgery. Jun, who died last year, spent 43 of his 60 years practicing medicine in Eastman and was the first surgeon at Dodge County Hospital. In 1973, he became the first doctor in Georgia to be granted a medical license to perform acupuncture.

He was a field surgeon in the Army of the Republic of Korea for seven years before being sent to the U.S. to become board certified. He arrived in America on Christmas Day 1956.

Ten years later, while traveling through south Georgia, he stopped for gas at a service station in Eastman and struck up a conversation with the attendant. He was told the new Dodge County Hospital was searching for a full-time surgeon.

In his autobiography, "A Tiger's Tale,'' Jun prefaced a section about Jones and the miracle of the ballpoint pen with these words: "As important as surgical skill is, I'll still take a good dose of luck (or providence) whenever I can get it. Some of my more interesting cases apparently involved a guardian angel!"

Jun recounted the events of that day. (He was having dinner in Macon when the hospital contacted him.) “The bullet would have surely pierced his heart had it not been for a simple Paper Mate ballpoint pen (Jones) had in his pocket,’’ he wrote. “Incredibly, the slug had ricocheted off the slender metal body of the pen. The bullet had deflected, traveling sideways through his chest. …’’

Jones retired in 1996 after 34 years with the State Patrol. It was the only time he was shot, although he had to dodge bullets at other times during his career. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, state troopers were dispatched to Atlanta and other cities during violent race riots.

He often would assist the Secret Service with security when President Jimmy Carter returned home to Georgia. He also was assigned to “guard’’ the famed billboard that former Gov. Lester Maddox used to warn motorists about the speed-trap town of Ludowici. (Imagine that. A bodyguard for a billboard.)

Every year in early December, before they put up the Christmas decorations, the Joneses pull out the battered ball point pen they keep in a plastic bag.

This week marks the golden anniversary of the silver pen.

It never wrote another word.

But, oh, the story it can tell.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.