The other night, I stopped by my favorite Convoy Street Japanese joint for a gobo salad, but instead of driving straight home afterward, I swung by Mesa College Drive and pulled over on the street and sat there for a moment, staring into the past.
Seventeen years ago, I left the Learning Center at San Diego Mesa College—where I’d been teaching verb tenses to Laila, an Afghani who’d been injured as a young girl in a bomb explosion near her school—got in my car and rounded the corner to this very spot and right into the middle of a war zone.
It was as if Laila’s presence in the lab had superimposed her reality over mine. The fence surrounding the National Guard Armory across from the college entrance was down, and all along the street, cars and telephone poles were smashed to oblivion, alarms shrieked across the mesa and people ran down the block, either toward or away from some mysterious force.
I half-expected to see bomb payloads raining down on the mundane suburban street. But it wasn’t a large-scale war that had come to Clairemont that afternoon; it was one unemployed tweaker’s war against his own nightmarish web of powerlessness, and I’d just missed him.
Shawn Nelson’s life was unraveling right around the corner from where mine had been finally coming together. A California native, he’d served in the U.S. Army, was stationed in Germany and lived in Clairemont, the suburb of San Diego that had its heyday as a World War II military industrial boomtown.
His story is well-told and related to the decline of San Diego as a military industrial town in the 2002 documentary Cul De Sac: a Suburban War Story by the late filmmaker Garrett Scott, which was released as an Icarus DVD last year. Between 1990 and 1995, Nelson’s life spiraled out of control. First, a motorcycle accident left him with serious back and neck injuries. As a self-employed plumber, he’d had trouble working and self-medicated with crystal meth. He sued the hospital for allegedly forcing him to receive treatment against his will, but the case was thrown out of court. The following year, his wife of six years divorced him. A year after that, both of his parents died of cancer. By 1995, he was addicted to meth and had begun digging for gold in his backyard. He dug a hole 15feet deep.
His neighbors filed noise complaints with the police, and Nelson filed complaints against the police for harassment. To compound the difficulty of working injured, Nelson’s plumbing equipment was stolen from his truck. His utilities were shut off, his house went into foreclosure and his live-in girlfriend died of a drug overdose. Nelson told his brother he was considering suicide.During those same years, I’d been doing nothing: drinking too much cheap wine, avoiding school, playing in rock ’n’ roll bands for no money and waiting tables to pay for my cheap rent in a Downtown, crumbling, illegal live / work space full of crazy artists, with rats in the basement. The early ’90s for me was nothing but failed relationships, half-completed writing projects and no real goals. A musician friend of mine whom I’d thrown out of my place for drunkenly pissing all over my books was found dead in Balboa Park. But I found salvation and direction in City and Mesa community colleges. I decided to parlay my love of reading and writing into a career as an English teacher and started down the path. That’s how I ended up working in the learning Center.
Behind the National Guard Armory across from Mesa is a parking lot full of military vehicles, including tanks and transport trucks, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, but back in 1995, the fence was damaged and unwired in portions. Security seemed negligent to nonexistent.
That year, Nelson could dig no further. Where his hole of mud—not gold— was a self-made symbol of his failure, the tanks in the yard must’ve stood as symbols of his former glory.
On May 18, 1995, he took advantage of the armory’s lax security, drove right through the open gate into the back lot and went from tank to tank, looking for one that would start. He found a 57ton M60 Patton, which he piloted out of the lot and into one of the world’s most famous joyrides, through the neighborhood, crushing anything in his path, and onto State Route 163, where he’d make his way south toward the San Diego County Administration Building to state his case against the establishment.
He never made it. For 23 minutes, police chased him at about 20 miles per hour. When he finally crashed into the freeway median after unsuccessfully trying to destroy an overpass bridge, police jumped onto the tank, managed to pry open the hatch and shot Shawn Nelson dead.
So many near misses in life. Somehow, Nelson didn’t hurt a single person, even as he rolled up the street flattening cars and knocking over stoplight poles. I missed the tank by a minute—mine could’ve been one of the flattened cars. And he could’ve skipped the armory by a few hundred yards and gone to Mesa College and to a counselor, the nurses department or even the learning Center, where he might’ve found a sympathetic soul to talk him out of the hole he’d dug for himself and the tank ride that made him famous.