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Second Thoughts on an Intruder in the Night

I awoke to my wife's screams at 2:30 in the morning, stirred from a deep sleep induced by the balmy breeze wafting through our open windows and screened terrace door, 14 stories above an avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. My wife was standing three feet away, silhouetted against the bathroom light, screaming "Who are you! Get out of here you bastard!" She was shouting at a bare-chested, well built dark- skinned male, about 160 pounds, about 5’9”, with dark wavy hair and a pencil mustache. Even half-asleep, I saw him clearly in the light. He was young, 18 to 24, staring at me with a look of detached indifference and the hint of a smile. My wife screamed louder.

I snapped awake screaming, riding a wave of adrenalized fear, a middle-aged Rambo in shorty paiamas, bouncing into a combat stance on a queen-sized bed. A reporter’s instincts assured me that what I saw was real, immediate and life-threatening. My scream was blood-curdling, a scream of outrage and fright from deep inside me, part Marine Corps combat training, part recognition that urban nightmares are never wholly unexpected.

The intruder held my gaze, then turned his back on me – disdainfully, I thought. He flicked off the bathroom light, plunging the room into darkness.

My greatest fear was that he would stab my wife. I hadn't seen a weapon but I realized the darkness provided opportunity. I leaped from bed to where my wife had been standing and threw her aside. As I did so. the intruder rushed past me down the ball in the direction of our five-year-old son's room. Had the intruder harmed him? I went into frenzied pursuit. My wife was dialing 911, yelling "Intruder! Intruder!" and repeating our address. She is spunky and brave.

I flicked on more lights as the intruder ran past my son’s room. My son was sitting up in bed, sleepily asking what was wrong. He was alive! "Don't move,” I shouted. “Stay there!”

I followed the intruder through the living room and on to the moon-lit terrace, where he’d apparently dropped the few bills and loose change he’d found earlier. He sprinted down to the end of the terrace, where I had built what I thought was a formidable, trellised rose arbor. It was to deter burglars after an uncompleted, uninhabited high-rise next door provided access to our building’s upper floors. The perp was trapped, or so I thought.

This bastard had violated the sanctity of my home. I wanted him gone -- gone for good. I picked up a garden chair and held it chest high. The only way to get from our terrace to the next building was to swing around the corner of the trellis, tip-toe along a narrow railing 14 floors above the street, and, if he was lucky, jump 12 feet down to the terrace below. I planned to rush him as he swung up to the railing, using the chair as a weapon. I hadn't counted on his desperation or nerve, nor on my own conscience.

The perp grabbed the side of the arbor to vault up to the railing and slipped. He lunged up again, got his feet on the railing, a hand on the trellis, and began tip-toeing toward the edge. The night was the only thing between him and the sidewalk, 14 floors below.

I started forward slowly. Our eyes met in mutual desperation. I had him. He frowned and shook his head slowly. Was it a plea? Time stopped.

He hadn't actually harmed us. He invaded my home, yes; to steal from us, yes; he frightened us, yes. But we were alive. What good would come from killing him?

My hesitation gave him time to navigate the railing, jump 12 feet down to another terrace, scramble over a wall to the adjoining building and escape. I hurled the chair into the dark void where he’d been. It bounced harmlessly off the wall of the new building.

I cursed my good nature. I cursed the intruder. Would he have done the same for me? I doubt it. We live in different worlds. The perpetrator got away, but he cast a long shadow over our lives.

Mv son began asking hard questions about life. He scrutinized the faces of criminals in the police mug files, an exercise that left him with a racially biased view of the criminal class. We're white. I explained there are white burglars, too, but he wasn't convinced.

He’s not convinced the man won't be back. He takes the whole thing personally. So do I.

His questions prompted a dialogue on issues from race relations to how sons see their fathers, to what makes a man turn to crime, to the immigration policies of our country, and to the daunting notion that no one, no matter how high up they live, is ever safe from harm. A bigger barricade at the end of the terrace hasn’t dispelled a fear that men with suction cups will climb up from the street, or swing down from the roof on a rope. He wakes in the middle of the night, calling out frantically to see if his parents are safe. He won't enter a room alone, particularly at night. He's a bright and curious child, fall of serious questions that belie his age,

Why, Daddy, he asks, would someone, at the risk of his life, break into another man's home? Do robbers have children? Does the robber have a regular job? Where do robbers live? Where do they come from? Why do people steal? The world is full of danger, but you can't tell that to a five-year-old.

In a strange way, the intruder brought us closer together as a family. The intruder helped forge a stronger bond between me and my son, a bond perhaps strengthened by the fact that my son sees me as a hero. I don't deserve the praise but I smile as he tells, and retells, the story of our intruder.

"My dad chased him right off the terrace," he says. "My dad was a Marine; he knew just what to do. Lucky my dad was there. If it wasn't for my dad. I don't know what would have happened."

I can't deny it makes me feel good, but it's also made me think about how I’m going to live up to his expectations. I’m more aware of the special role fathers play in a child's development.

After another discussion about what might drive someone into crime, our son told his mother: "Dads really know about that kind of stuff." Let's hope so.

It made me wonder where the intruder's father was when his son was a frightened five-year-old. It made me wonder how we might instill a sense of common humanity in the minds of children conceived not in love, but in a hunger of loneliness and misconstrued notions of manhood.

The anatomy of a crime tells many stories.

(This article was adapted from an earlier version first published in New York Newsday and reprinted in Reader’s Digest editions here and abroad.)