Monday, April 20, 2009

Bouquet of Columbines - Remembering the 10th Anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre

Today is an ominous day. We generally think of anniversaries as joyous events to celebrate life. This is not one of those anniversaries. This is an anniversary of destruction, dismemberment, and death. Today is the unfortunate 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre. The following is my personal memoir written on the eighth anniversary of Columbine.

A Bouquet of Columbines

deceiving delicate appearance,
yet strong and hardy
it more than survives,
it thrives,
in extreme alpine regions ...
bell-shaped petals
match the mountain sky
trailing sweet nectar-filled crescent spurs,
and shoulder a mantel of snow white inner petals
crowned with gold stamens
a Colorado Columbine ...

Earlier that afternoon I had hobbled across Speer Blvd to LoDo, the historic lower downtown area where Denver bumps up against its rail yards. Conveniently located across Cherry Creek from the three colleges that share the downtown Denver Auraria campus, LoDo is now filled with curious shops, cafes, brew pubs, and extending up to the Coor’s Field ballpark. LoDo’s quirky coffeehouses were my Tuesday and Thursday afternoon refuge and study hall. They were where I recharged from my slate of morning classes and hid out until the start of night classes. In my early thirties, I was the odd daytime student, but during night classes was surrounded by peers, returning students we were called. Rehabbing a knee crushed on the job, I was looking for a new direction and seeking another degree to point the way.

It was an accidental meeting.
He was a big kid.
He was a clumsy kid.
No, actually, he was a typical teenage boy.
You have met them, you may have been one. A kid who was still adapting to the size 13, or maybe they were 14 , sized shoes ... I don’t know, they looked a lot bigger than my size 12’s. They were huge feet that had sprouted at the bottom of long lanky legs that were also not quite yet under his full control. He was looking up at me. Sprawled on the floor, laying next to the soup bowl sized coffee cup, the horrified look in his wide open eyes said it all. They had to. Splashing one hand in spilt coffee, he clutched my fallen cane in the other, he tried to get up off the floor of the coffeehouse while attempting a stuttering apology.

It was an accident. In the tight and cluttered confines of the coffeehouse, those huge new feet of his had caught the funky, twisted, metal rod leg of the shaky deuce table. A flailing hand had found my coffee cup instead of composure steadying support. He went down hard, knocking my cane off the back of the vacant chair in the process. I wasn’t mad. I was startled! Buried in the pages of a textbook, I was snapped out of my study stupor and back to the here and now. It was an accident. I was trying not to laugh too much, but this was real-time slapstick.

He stood there, holding out my cane, still stuttering apologies. In between smirks and snorts of laughter, I unsuccessfully tried to stifle, I took back my cane saying, "No Worries." A waitress appeared with bar mops for the spill, and scowls for the perpetrator. The big clumsy kid disappeared. He returned a few minutes later with a fresh cup of coffee for me that was sloshing over the brim as he shakily placed it on my table, making a now calmer apology to me. A typical teenage oaf, but he had manners even if they too, were clumsy and awkward.

He asked about my books piled on the table. At first he was concerned if they had been victims of the spilled coffee. Assuring him that the books had escaped drowning, he then took interest in their subject matter. I was studying system design and network architecture, and he was curious. I moved my cane and knapsack from the other chair and motioned for him to sit down. We chatted about computers and networks.

Through the semester he would occasionally bump into me in the coffeehouse. Since he was curious, and always approached me with the offer of another coffee, I kept welcoming him to my table. We talked mostly about tech stuff, a little mentoring on web design, but also about life, travel, the world. A couple of times he had a friend in tow. His friend irked me. He had heard I "knew" things, things about computers and more specifically about networks ... this other kid pestered me for code, about system backdoors, how to get into networks ... "get lost kid! I’m not helping you hack someone’s system!" The big awkward kid still came around once in awhile, but after the semester ended I didn’t see him again.

I forgot all about the kid. I finished school, and in the fall of 1998 I moved to Littleton, a suburban area just to the south of Denver. An area of middle class and upwards neighborhoods, filled with many newer homes, new malls, new schools. Suburban sprawl at its finest. The area is a prosperous and attractive community, a delicious slice of modern American Apple Pie. Soccer fields, SUVs, and along with it, that strangely suburban sense of safety and security.

I was working from home the morning of April 20th 1999. The TV was absent-mindedly playing in the background while I was logged into the servers at work to run diagnostics and a couple reports. It was an odd compromise of a day, sort of like a consolation prize from my supervisor for previously working some extra hours. It was a half-hearted attempt to imitate work while also being a half-hearted attempt to escape the daily grind. The TV was just loud enough to dim the silence, not loud enough to be a distraction, and from my desk I couldn’t actually watch the screen.

... huh? It was a subconscious response. The network talking head squawked again. My ears perked up. Huh!? It’s not time for the noon news, its only like 11:00 ... "shots are being fired at Columbine High School!" Now standing and staring at the TV, "We are getting reports that a gang of gunmen have attacked the school!!!" Shaking my head I continued to stare at the TV trying to figure out where this is happening. "The gunmen are heavily armed and possibly have grenades! We are hearing explosions coming from inside the school!!!" Some images on the screen look vaguely familiar. "There are multiple gunmen having a shootout at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado!"

Stepping out on the patio I could hear the sirens of the police and ambulances responding. This is happening in my backyard! That school is just ... a few blocks away! Back inside the reporter is now saying there are reports that some of the shooters have fled on foot towards neighboring houses, and police and sheriff’s officers will be searching the area house to house. Scenes of groups of kids running from the school buildings play across the screen as the reporter says that the gunmen have been identified, but to me the names mentioned are just names.

A short time later the broadcast reconfirms the names of the gunmen and then displays a school photo of one of them. Well, it’s a high school kid. Looks like any of a couple dozen or more that I have tripped over at the mall, trying to get into the movie theatre, or that have asked me if I wanted fries with my burger. It was just a name, now with a face, both anonymous and ubiquitous at this moment. After some bureaucratese non-information from the sheriff department’s PR person, the reporter announces the name of the second gunman as his picture flashes on the TV ...

... I’m not sure if I was even breathing. The reporter repeated the name. I was dumbstruck. The reporter was still jawing away. I just stood there and stared at the face on the TV ...

I know that face!
It looked a little different.
The baby-face had matured some.
It had been, what? a couple years ...
The features were more defined now.
Yes, this face I knew.

With the pictures displayed side-by-side on the screen the reporter again repeated their names, and then the reporter continued, "...they are seniors at Columbine High School and they are shooting their classmates ..."

. . .

I still wonder what happened.
Today, it is eight years that have past since the shootings at Columbine. I know the face. The face that two years earlier had looked up plaintively, eyes filled with the horror and embarrassment of being a clumsy teenager. A face I saw several other times. An inquisitive face whose eyes widen when I told him tales of far away places or when he grasped a new concept when we discussed computer programming. That was the face and the person I knew.

. . .

The photos on the TV were of strangers, and the accounts of what was happening at Columbine were beyond surreal, they seemed like a B grade movie at the time. When it is being told on the TV it is just not real, not real at first.

The confusion fads as you quit fighting it.
You begin to comprehend that it is real.
It is very real,
and very terrible!
It was similar this past Monday watching the tragedy unfold at Virginia Tech. I didn’t know anyone in Virginia, there were no conflicting personal images to reconcile this time, it became real much quicker.

There are reports that Cho Seung-hui cited the Columbine killers or possibly claimed an allegiance to them in the notes or video he left behind. In journals, videos, and webpages Harris and Klebold partly attributed Columbine to McVey and Nichols and their bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City four years earlier on the 19th of April 1995. The Oklahoma City bombers claimed their act was in remembrance of and to avenge the ATF and FBI raids of the Branch Davidian ranch near Waco,Texas, which after a 53 day siege culminated in the fiery destruction of the compound on April 19, 1993.

... the bouquet has been tossed again ...

A Terrible Roll Call:
2007 Virginia Tech - 32 killed, 29 wounded
1999 Columbine high School - 12 students and 1 teacher killed, 24 wounded
1995 Murrah Building Oklahoma City - 168 killed, more than 800 wounded
1993 Waco - 79 died inside the Branch Davidian compound
1966 University of Texas - Charles Whitman shooting from the campus clock tower killed 15, wounded 31
1927 The worse massacre carried out on a U.S. educational campus was the Bath Michigan School Bombing - Andrew Kehoe, a farmer and local school board member facing tax foreclosure on his property, bombed the school with dynamite and other explosives he had hidden in the school’s basement and inside his car that he drove up to the school during the emergency response. Additionally, 500 pounds of undetonated explosives were found in another section of the school. The blasts killed 44 and wounded 58.

Unfortunately, and disturbingly, there have been far too many school, religious, and political massacres, both here in the U.S. and around the world, to mention all of them in this space. Each one, a horrible event.

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