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In face of adversity, remember fruit cocktail can of hope

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Sometimes I am so darned proud to be an American that I have to lean over and hold my stomach.

This is such a time. I have just read an amazing story about a group of Americans — regular people, just like you and me, except they live in Wisconsin — who on May 31 found themselves staring straight into the eyeballs of Danger. I am proud to say that, when the chips were down, these Americans did not turn tail and knuckle under. Instead, when the fat was in the fire, they stepped up to the plate and cut the mustard.

Why do I say this? For one thing, I've been mixing my medications. But also I am deeply moved by the heroic actions of the citizens of a Wisconsin town called Rib Mountain, as reported in the Wausau (Wis.) Daily Herald, which bills itself as "A Gannett Newspaper Serving North Central Wisconsin." According to two detailed front-page Daily Herald stories, written by Peter J. Wasson and sent in by alert reader Kay Meyer, here is what happened (I am not making any of this up):

It was an ordinary evening at the Aldi grocery store on Rib Mountain Drive. People were shopping for groceries, probably not expecting a man to come bursting in wearing a hood and brandishing a samurai sword.

But that is exactly what happened. In the vivid words of shopper Coreen Poeske: "He came right through the Keebler chocolate chip cookies display, just plowed through, and there were Keebler cookies spread all over."

"Give me your money!" the hooded man shouted at the cashier. He banged his sword on the checkout counter, causing the tip to bend.

All of us, at one time or another, have tried to imagine how we would react to this type of situation, although we may not have specifically imagined the part about the cookies. I just hope that I have the courage to react the way shopper Paul Josiger did.

"I just said to myself, 'What can I do to help?' " said Josiger. "So I threatened him with fruit cocktail."

Yes. Without regard to his own safety, Josiger — described by the Daily Herald as "a former pitcher on his company softball team at Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co." — picked up a can of fruit cocktail (the brand is not specified in the Daily Herald story) and, in his own words, "yelled at him to put the knife down and get the hell out of the store or I would throw the can at him. Well, then he got the money and ran, so I threw that can of fruit cocktail at him but missed."

Here Coreen Poeske picks up the story: "As soon as he was gone, one woman said, 'Don't anybody touch anything because he didn't have gloves on and there will be fingerprints all over the place.' Another woman told us all to take our shopping lists and write down everything we saw for police. There were a lot of quick thinkers in there."

While the shoppers were collecting clues, the drama shifted outside to the suddenly dangerous streets of Rib Mountain, where Robert "B.J." Coe was leaving his job at Wausau Motorsports.

"He came running toward me with this sword asking for my keys," Coe told the Daily Herald. "It was like one of them three-quarter length samurai swords, and the odd thing was, the end was bent."

Again, it was a situation that called for quick thinking; again, the citizen made a lightning mental calculation.

"I said to myself, 'It's insured,' " Coe said.

So he dropped his keys, ran inside and called 911. Within minutes, the police apprehended the suspect, identified as Edward Pollard II, age 21. According to the police report: "Pollard said he had watched several movies where armed robberies were committed, looking for techniques on how to do the robbery. Pollard decided to use the scary, threatening approach but to not use obscenities."

But even this masterful, obscenity-free criminal plan, based on actual movies, was no match for the brave and quick-thinking citizens of the Rib Mountain area. As Marathon County Sheriff Gary Marten told the Daily Herald: "Without all those people helping us, it wouldn't have been so quickly successful."

Speaking of movies: If Hollywood doesn't take this drama and turn it into a major motion picture starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, with Britney Spears as the cashier, then Hollywood is even stupider than I thought. Because this is a story to inspire all of us — to make us realize that, when the armed robber of unhappiness knocks over the Keebler cookie display of our complacency and bangs the samurai sword of negativity on the checkout counter of our dreams, we must not be afraid to hurl the fruit cocktail can of hope. At least that's how I see it. I have GOT to adjust these dosages.

Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him c/o The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132.