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Marjorie Austin Crockett is having to force herself to get into the spirit of Christmas, one year after a Tennessee man armed with a fake bomb and four handguns disrupted her workplace during the holidays in 2009.
Crockett and two others were held for nine hours by the man during an armed standoff with police.
Today, Crockett — recently married, living in Max Meadows and still working as a letter carrier in Galax — says she has a new outlook on life, even as she copes with the trauma of what she went through last year.
By an unhappy coincidence, the Galax Post Office employee had been detailed to the Wytheville facility as an acting supervisor the day William A. "Gator" Taylor of Bristol decided to make a statement about the federal government.
Last month, Crockett was honored by the U.S. Postal Service for her “remarkable courage” during the ordeal. At a special ceremony, postal officials commended her for handling herself — and her captor — “with calm and grace.”
On Dec. 23, 2009, Taylor— a man federal prosecutors would later characterize as a “domestic terrorist” — set out towards Roanoke on Interstate 81 to drive home his displeasure, but only made it as far as Wytheville.
Taylor "had long thought about attacking a post office as a 'symbol of federal inefficiency,'" as The Roanoke Times reported after his arrest and subsequent trial that resulted in a 40-year prison sentence. "Two days before Christmas, propelled by fury at Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, the war in Afghanistan, illegal immigration and a general sense that the country was falling apart, he drove up Interstate 81 in a bid to attack a post office in Roanoke."
The diabetic man ate at a restaurant in Wytheville and then asked directions to the post office there, the newspaper reported.
There, he found Crockett, standing at the service window, waiting on a dispatch truck and chatting with the clerk on duty about the two deliveries of Christmas boxes she had just made to two residents in the neighborhood.
A nine-hour ordeal then unfolded for Crockett and two post office customers held hostage, as police, FBI and postal inspectors gathered outside the post office.
After firing a shot at the postmaster and more shots at the police, Taylor's only demand to authorities involved sending in a pizza.
He used Crockett as a shield that evening, having her sit on his artificial limb in his wheelchair.
The bomb that Taylor claimed to have was bogus, but the danger was real enough, Crockett recalled in talking to The Gazette as the anniversary of the standoff approached.
"As the night dragged on we kinda of wondered… how did he want to come out of it?” she said. "He still could have shot us.”
Crockett testified during Taylor’s trial in October how he put an ammunition box topped with blinking LED lights and wires on the counter and announced it held pounds of C-4 plastic explosive, enough to obliterate the building.
"I didn't really believe there was a bomb in the box, but he still had the weapons and he still had five clips of ammo, so he could have still hurt a lot of people,” she said.
Things Taylor said that night made it clear to Crockett that she should stay calm in the face of the ordeal.
"I just kept thinking, I had to get out of there in one piece," she recalled.
After Taylor shot out the front windows of the post office, he made a comment about women crying and making a scene.
"When he said that, I tried not to show any more emotion to him because I didn't want him to get any more upset than he already was."
Eventually, Taylor let his hostages go and rolled out in the wheelchair to surrender. As dozens of police watched from a safe distance, a bomb-defusing robot approached Taylor.
His bomb was fake.
"Till the minute I walked behind the state police armored vehicle, I was scared. After that I was okay."
Defense attorneys at the trial tried to humanize Taylor by talking about his problems.
"Well, they tried to make it like he had a really hard life, but basically his wasn't no worse that some others you hear of," Crockett said.
Seeing him again at the trial, Crockett said Taylor hadn't changed since the day of the standoff — he still seemed moody and his emotions would go from smiling to crying to angry in minutes.
Crockett would have liked to gotten a real apology from Taylor for the trouble he caused. He did apologize to the police, FBI and postal inspectors for interrupting their Christmas.
"I guess in his eyes he didn't do anything wrong — I mean wrong in a really bad way," she said. "He kept saying at the sentencing that nobody got physically hurt, so I don't know whether in his mind he didn't comprehend, you know, that he still screwed up everybody's lives. Whether he shot us or not, he still messed us up…"
Crockett expressed satisfaction with Taylor's 40-year prison sentence.
"I just got notified the other day, they sent him to Terre Haute Indiana… to serve it," she said. "He doesn't get out till 2044, so he'd be about 90 years old, if he lives that long."
Her outlook on life has changed that day. There was the initial shock to deal with, and now she's in therapy to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She's noticed changes in herself — crying more, getting angry over little things, forgetting and having weird dreams.
Crockett said she lives more for today. "I try not to put off too much stuff until tomorrow. If there's something I want to do, I just do it. That's why I got married, first of all — I just went and done it, much to everybody's shock."
Crockett has two children, a 28-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter. Her new husband has been a big help in her being able to cope.
Crockett had known him for a while — he's a contract driver who trucks mail from Roanoke to post offices in Marion, Wytheville and Pulaski.
"We hadn't really got serious or nothing, you know. We were just goofing off and dating, so I popped the question and he said 'yes,'" she said, laughing.
She doesn't wait for things to happen anymore. "Life's just too short. Enjoy the time you got now instead of waiting until tomorrow.”
Crockett says she appreciates the positive change in her life, but there is a downside to the trauma.
She's also noticed that she's more suspicious of strangers now.
"I watch… anybody that kind of acts a little off. I kind of give them a wide berth, you know, or try to go out the other door,” she explained. “I don't know, I've always been a people watcher, but now it's like they make me more nervous."
The holidays don't feel very festive to her this year. It's hard not to connect the season to the standoff.
"Sometimes I catch myself trying to avoid Christmas, but you can't really avoid it," Crockett said. "Sometimes I have to kinda force myself to get into it, but I'm looking forward to a good Christmas — if it doesn't snow 25 inches."
Crockett plans to stay at the Galax Post Office, where she's worked since 2002, though she does want to get back into management.
"I like carrying the mail," she said. "I like the people in Galax, I always have."