We dropped you off at camp yesterday. We watched you sit on your bunk in a cabin you’d never seen before. We met your counselor. You mimicked his Australian accent and called him, “Mate.” You promised me you would come home safe, and it’s here that I’m waiting for you to make good on that promise.
You probably didn’t know until today, but your camp lets us send emails to you every day to update you on what’s happening here at home. You should have gotten the first one when you woke up today. It let you know that the house is too quiet without you here, to listen more than you talk, to respect the people who are trying to teach you.
Mom and I will be sending more emails this week. We want to make sure you know what’s happening here while you’re gone. This email, though, won’t end up in your inbox. The news, as you know, isn’t all good.
When we dropped you off yesterday, I watched the bars on my phone creep from five to four to the tell-tale NO SERVICE. Your cabin has no TV. It has no radios or iPods. You have crickets, streams, rain, and your snoring bunkmates to keep you entertained. You don’t have to walk in on what you saw me watching this week.
“A missile shot down a plane?” you said.
I asked you to go upstairs and put on your shoes.
“A missile. Shot down a plane full of people. Why would somebody do that?”
“Shoes,” I said.
“That’s terrible,” you said. And then you went up to find your shoes.
We’ve talked about a lot of terrible things, more, in fact, that I ever thought I’d discuss with a child who hasn’t yet turned ten. You’ve always been emotionally mature enough to talk about things a lot of kids couldn’t understand. We’ve talked about racism, assassinations, war, sex, hate, love, fate, crime, and all of their terrible intersections. Along the way, some of those things have bothered you. Sometimes you asked, “What if that happened to us?”
“What if an elephant sat down at the dinner table?” I’d ask in return.
I always meant for my question to mean, “Those terrible things are pretty unlikely to happen to us, and I’m always doing my best to keep you safe.”
But more than anything, I just wanted you to picture an elephant eating your spaghetti. I wanted you to laugh in the face of horror. I wanted you to understand that I don’t have an answer for a lot of the bigger questions.
I don’t know why there are train cars full of bodies that rotted in a field for two days. I don’t know why a reporter picked through a dead person’s luggage to find a story. I don’t know why planes full of vacationers get shot out of the air by war machines. I don’t know why missiles made of sewer pipes are falling in the streets. I don’t know why there are dead kids on the beach. I don’t know why parents leave their kids in four-wheeled ovens. I don’t know why kids like you are pawns in every political fight.
Or maybe I’m wrong. I know why.
I know hate. I know greed. I know lust. I know misplaced pride. I know selfishness. I know all of those things. I know the why.
I just don’t know how.
I don’t know how anything is so important that it’s worth killing someone like you. I can’t think of a single thing so necessary as to leave you alone, without a place to go, without anyone to protect you. I don’t know how people can bring themselves to look past your innocence and see you only as potential collateral damage in a fight no one will ever win.
I pride myself on being honest with you. I’ve told you things in recent months that I didn’t learn until much later in my life. I told you to protect from bad things and bad people when I’m not around. I trusted you to be mature enough to handle what I told you, and you’ve not disappointed me.
But for every dead kid that shows up on TV, I find it harder and harder to talk to you about it. Not because I don’t think you’re mature enough to handle it, but because I can’t think of one rational thing to say for how it could ever happen.
Yesterday, when we dropped you off, your little brother—without any prompting or need for attention—wrapped you in a hug and wouldn’t let go. The same kid who will argue endlessly with you about anything didn’t want to leave you behind. Even though it meant he would get all the attention at home for a week, he couldn’t imagine you not being here with us. It was pure love.
I know you have to learn about the real world, and I’ll help you deal with it as well as I can. Someday we can talk about the dark elephants in the room just as easily as I talked about the elephant at the dinner table.
So, you won’t get this email about the news from home. I hope you don’t blame me for shielding you from the worst of it for a while. I want to linger on these years where the love is easy to see no matter how dark it gets outside.
Come home safe, buddy.
When I was young, I had a recurring dream that the man who lived down the street planned to kill me. In reality, the guy worked for City Utilities and drove a green work truck. In my dreams, he crept in my window every night. He had a green, blank face. I didn’t know his name then, and I still don’t. He was my bogeyman.
I don’t know what frightens you more—the devil you know, or the devil you don’t. From my spot under the covers, I shudder more at the killers I don’t see coming, and it makes me uncomfortable that there are people who want to blind me even more to the killer next door.
There have been more than a dozen* since the Newtown, CT murders. That doesn’t account for the family murders, cop-killings, and other boy-next-door-turned-killer events that happen away from the classroom. Each time it happens, the cable news stations blow up, we fight about gun control, and we talk about how crazy the killers must be. It’s part of the culture now, a recurring dream where we always wake up before coming to some sort of resolution.
Now, there are people calling for change. As we mop up the blood again, we’d all love something—anything!—to change, right?
So, what is this grand plan? Blinders. We’re going to put on blinders.
This idea comes from people who advocate for not reporting the names and photos of the people who kill our children, our police officers, and our neighbors. It denies maniacs the fame we believe they seek. Sun News in Canada is actually employing the idea while it reports on a spree-killing tragedy of its own.
Sounds great, right? We don’t want to give these maniacs their blaze of glory. We don’t want to encourage copycat killings.
On its face, it’s a noble pursuit. It makes us feel good, because it makes us feel like we’re doing something. Perhaps the idea is that we have so little power over acts of lunacy that we can take back some measure of control by not saying their name. We can turn them into faceless bogeymen who will rot in prison or hell without the satisfaction of Anderson Cooper saying their names.
If that could stop the killing—or even reduce it in any significant way—you could sign me up for turning our lunatics into nobodies. They would be like tornados, ranked F0-F5, maniacal twisters controlled by the hands of some anonymous and angry god. The news would read, “An F5 Nobody swept through Clark Middle School today killing seven children and injuring 22 more. Now, here’s Gina with your wake-up weather for tomorrow’s school day. Should we bring a vest tomorrow, Gina?”
Yes, I’d write the damned stories myself if it would work, but it won’t. In fact, it’s one of the worst ideas I’ve heard.
If you know me at all, you know I spent the first half of my adult life reporting on some of the worst people and crimes I could imagine—men who raped women, bludgeoned the elderly, killed their entire families. There were horrors stacked atop horrors, and I remember all their names. John Wood, Michael Hilderbrand, Brad Sigmon. I can still see their faces. I know their stories. I know—at least, in part—how they became who they were. That doesn’t change what they did, but it educated me. I know more about what to watch out for because I know who these men were.
Instead, the proponents of the nameless killers want us to know less than we could, to deny the killers the fame we think they are seeking.
Consider this: terrorists have invented a new kind of bomb that’s capable of blowing up your child’s school.
But…we don’t want to give the terrorists credit for building such an ingenious device. We don’t want them to have the fame. So, instead, the news will report this: there could be a bomb in your child’s school. It might look like a binder. It might look like the lunch lady. Good luck and godspeed.
Sounds ridiculous, I know. But, to me, so does the idea of not letting us see the neighbors who are killing our neighbors. The more we know about these people, the easier it may become to spot them in the future. No, not by their faces, but by what they say on Facebook. By what they say on Twitter. By what they say to you after they’ve had six beers at Applebee’s.
There is the argument we could deny the killers their so-called fame while still educating the public. We could pixelate their face and call them Killer Doe #87 while still revealing their writings and motivations. That idea ignores the idea that many of these spree killers are just as or more concerned about being heard as they are being seen. What’s more, if we turn our killers into shadows, it obscures something far more important. As soon as we start to view killers as nameless shadows, we ignore the fact that these maniacs are actually the people we see in the grocery store. They are the kids playing outfield in little league. They are the guy who doesn’t mow his lawn. As soon as we start seeing our killers as “things that just happen,” we have given up.
Put another way: Bogeymen are not killing us. People are.
As we struggle to figure out what could stem the spree killings, it’s not only in our best interest but also our duty to educate ourselves about every possible element of what causes it. It’s not just guns. It’s not just mental illness. It’s not just caustic rhetoric. It’s all of it, and it’s more. It’s people, not a weather system.
Could the media be more responsible in reporting? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean they should just stop reporting. We can’t be myopic. I’ve never heard of anyone solving a problem because they know less about it.
With that in mind, this is Jerad Miller. He was an anti-government wanna-be anarchist with a chip on his shoulder. He spouted his vitriol on Facebook and YouTube. He looked for weapons via social media because he had a record and couldn’t buy them legally. He and his wife killed two police officers while the officers were having pizza for lunch.
Just thought you’d want to know.
*This post has been updated to reflect more accurate statistics as identified in this report.
One of my earliest memories—one’s that just gauzy enough to prove its age, but just clear enough to be truer than most—is a pencil in my mom’s hand. It’s jitting and jotting across a piece of white paper in her lap. She works with efficiency, mindful of the list of things she has to get done before the day’s end. But she also works precisely, because there is a way the resulting sketch must look.
I’m watching from the spot beside her, amazed that the same hand that washes my hair, makes my food, and guides me across the road is the hand that’s deftly sketching out a picture of Santa Claus. It’s perfect, and my mom made it.
My mom has been many things. When I think of her, I think of her starting out as a teenager working in a diner. I think of her as a mother to two demanding boys. I think of her many, many years helping people she loved at the end of their lives. For most people who know her, Mom’s legacy will be one of service, of caretaking, of unrecognized sainthood. The lives she has touched with her selflessness and grace are without number. It’s a fine legacy to be sure.
But, even if you know my mom well, you may not know what I know. You may not know what I learned sitting at her hip that day in Springfield, Missouri.
See, Mom didn’t just sketch out pictures of Santa Claus because her kid wanted her to. She did it because it was who she was. A need hid in a place in her brain she didn’t let many people see. Over the years, that need manifested itself in many ways.
In our galley kitchen, one not big enough for three people, Mom made wedding cakes—beautiful, sought-after wedding cakes—for countless people. On other days, all the men of the family came to her to cut their hair. She did it better than anybody they could find, and she did it for free. Mom would stage elaborate meals and cook the kind of food she knew people loved. And when she finally took a rare moment to relax, she could spin a yarn like nobody you know. Where most people would just tell you what happened, Mom would tell it with style, with a punch line, with a kicker at the end that made you happy you listened for another couple of minutes.
See, being a parent is about sacrifice. When you dedicate yourself to two children as Mom did my brother and me, it’s possible to lose sight of important parts of yourself—the parts that satisfy needs than no one else even knows about. Mom would never admit she gave up anything. It’s not her style. But I know.
My mom is an artist. You won’t find her work in a gallery, on a bookstore shelf, or on a village green. She won’t be doing readings or showing at the next festival. She still has responsibilities, and I suspect those responsibilities will keep finding her for the rest of her life.
While you may never see Mom’s work, I see it every day. I see it now as these words fly across my computer screen. I see it, because my mom, the artist who didn’t know she was an artist, made me into who I am. When she took a few minutes of her day to draw for me, when she showed me how to stir a pot just-so, when she told me stories at the dinner table, mom turned me into a reluctant artist, too.
That’s all a long way of saying, if I’ve ever written anything you liked, thank my mom for it. She’ll never admit it, but I’m the writer I am today because my mom shared her soul with me, one sketch, meal, and story at a time.
Thanks, Mom. I love you.
Tonight I sit here in South Carolina and look at my wife. She’s wearing a fleece with a tiger on the back. Today, I drove my car to the gym. It has a tiger on the front license plate. All winter long, I wore a Mizzou pullover. I have a cap I wear everywhere with a tiger above the bill. There aren’t a lot of Mizzou fans here in the Palmetto State, but those of us who are here fly the colors with pride.
I graduated from Mizzou in 1997. In my time there, I don’t think I missed a football game. I was an Antler. I sat front row on the 50-yard line for season after season. I did push-ups with Truman on the grass around Faurot Field. I love Mizzou. I’m proud to have gone there.
A few days ago, my son asked for a new Mizzou jersey. He’s outgrown his Chase Daniel #10, and he needs some new black and gold to flash around down here in Gamecock country. When I asked him what kind of jersey he might like, he asked for #15. He wanted to wear Dorial Green-Beckham’s number.
See, back in December of 2011, my dad had just died. I had my family back in Missouri, and it was a tough time. In an effort to show my older son some sense normalcy, I took him to see my alma mater Willard High School play Hillcrest High in basketball.
“See that big guy?” I said to my son from the stands. “That’s Dorial Green-Beckham. Wouldn’t it be great to see him play football for Mizzou?”
And it was.
When the guy from my hometown came out on the Mizzou field in his #15 jersey, there wasn’t a person in my family who didn’t scream “DGB!” We wanted Green-Beckham to succeed. We wanted him to be Mizzou’s biggest star. We wanted him to be the guy from my hometown who made it to the NFL.
When Green-Beckham got busted for weed the first time, it made me uncomfortable. I don’t have a moral objection to marijuana, but Green-Beckham did show a certain lack of respect for himself. He got into a situation that could jeopardize his reputation and, by extension, the team’s reputation. It was easily forgivable though. Just as I forgave your DUI—we all make mistakes—I hoped that Green-Beckham and his family would understand that to be a role model, you have to act like one.
When he got busted again this year—again for weed—I started to worry. Once is a mistake. The second time begins a pattern. It not only showed that Green-Beckham was adrift, but it showed that people like his coaches, family, and friends weren’t paying close enough attention. Again, the weed doesn’t bother me, but disrespect for his station in life does. Still, I would’ve put a #15 jersey on my kid’s back and hoped DGB found a way to grow up and respect himself and his team.
But now I’m at a loss. The news from Columbia today indicates that the only reason my kid’s hero is not in a cell right now is because the victim of Green-Beckham’s alleged violence wouldn’t press charges. The text messages released by the police suggest that the victim made this decision after a great many conversations with Green-Beckham’s girlfriend. Those conversations indicate Green-Beckham’s girlfriend begged the victim to consider Green-Beckham’s potential NFL career. The conversations indicate Green-Beckham’s father was offering money to back down.They indicate a lot more than that, and all of it is terrible.
I don’t know what’s true, but if even part of what police released is fact, I don’t see how you could welcome Green-Beckham back to the Tiger team. Forgiving indiscretions with harmless drugs—even twice—is acceptable. But this? I don’t know how this can be forgiven.
There is part of me—the journalist trained at Mizzou—that needs to hear the other side before reaching a conclusion. That part wants to believe Green-Beckham, the kid from my hometown who could’ve been a star, is being set up, extorted, or confused with some other out-of-control kid with exceptional athletic talent. And I will wait for that. If he or you have an explanation, please offer it. Publicly. Stand before the cameras and put up the best defense you possibly can.
Because this must be explained. Weed arrests are forgivable, but violence against women in any form is not, no matter what kind of career is on the line.
Coach Pinkel, if no explanation exists, if this is a situation in which there might be a crime but there are no charges, I don’t see where you have a choice. Green-Beckham might have been a hero. He might have been the #1 pick in the nation. He might have been the biggest signing you’ve had at Mizzou. He might be the guy who could make the difference in the upcoming season. Even so, if there is no reasonable explanation for today’s news, you have to let #15 go.
Because my kid wants a #15 jersey right now. My kid wants to sit with me and watch Mizzou games and cheer for the same Tigers who made us proud last season.
When you and the rest of the team took the opportunity to “Stand With Sam,” I was the proudest Mizzou fan around. It made me sure I was rooting for the right team in college sports. If losing DGB means you have a losing season, I will still stand proud and support you. That’s what I want to believe Mizzou is all about.
Next September, you’re coming down to South Carolina, and I promised my kids I would take them to see Mizzou play the Gamecocks. I’ve got a dozen Mizzou fans ready to come down here from Missouri and cheer on the Tigers with me. Please let me do that with a clear conscience. I can explain to my kids that Green-Beckham doesn’t play for the Tigers anymore. I’m not sure I could explain to them how I’m rooting for a coach who values winning over doing what’s right.
Update: Friday afternoon, April 11, the Missouri Tiger football team dismissed Dorial Green-Beckham.
I was amazed at the feedback this little piece got, but it reaffirmed my belief that Missouri fans couldn’t abide Coach Pinkel accepting DGB back on the team. The coach is an honorable man, and he’s proven it again by making a very, very tough decision to cut one of his most important players. Pinkel deserves our respect for that.
Meanwhile, I hope Dorial Green-Beckham finds a way to become a better man and atone for whatever he has done wrong. If he does that, I hope he can find success with another team some day in the future.
Dear Senator Lindsey Graham,
I write today to applaud your courage.
Only a man like yourself–one worried that he might have to face a run-off in a primary election–would have the bravery to introduce a bill that would limit states’ rights, potentially remove billions of dollars from state coffers, and further restrict what Americans can do in the privacy of their own homes. That takes courage, Senator.
Moments ago, you introduced a bill that would slap the wrist of President Obama’s Department of Justice. When you weren’t looking, the DOJ announced that it had no interest or legal right to prosecute people under the antiquated Wire Act as it pertained to internet gaming. You saw it as a dirty, backdoor move to decriminalize the scourge of internet poker that had swept the nation since 2001, a monster that allowed people to play poker on the internet in their own homes. How dare the DOJ decide that a law written before online poker existed had no bearing online poker!
“The DOJ opened the door for massive change in policy without significant public input,” you said in your press release. I know you recognized this shady, backdoor activity. You’ve seen it before when you and your fellow Republican Senators slipped the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act into the Port Security Bill in 2006. Because you put it into a must-pass bill at the last minute of the session, it was passed without debate or consideration by Congress. It’s that kind of backroom experience that helps you recognize when the liberals want to decriminalize something as evil as a card game. It also opens your eyes to a political opportunity.
Oh, you surprised me, Senator Graham. Up to this point, you have personally shown almost no interest in the Wire Act or internet gambling. What’s more, you’ve lauded states’ rights as the backbone of our nation. I had no idea you had the moxie to take up an issue about which you simply didn’t care! But, you! You did! At first I couldn’t figure out why, but now your Washington experience is shining through.
See, I watched with trepidation as people within our own state rose up and had the audacity to think they could challenge you—our Washington lifer!—in the upcoming primary. Who could presume to unseat you? Libertarians who believe Americans don’t need the government to tell them how to live their lives? Please. Not in my state!
This part was beautiful. In your release today, you said, “In 1999, South Carolina outlawed video poker and removed over 33,000 video poker machines from within its borders. Now, because of the Obama Administration’s decision, virtually any cell phone or computer can again become a video poker machine. It’s simply not right.”
I know because you’re an educated man that you know that the video poker of 1999 and online poker of today are completely different things, but that didn’t stop you from conflating the apple and orange. No, sir! You’re counting on the people of South Carolina to not be smart enough to see through it. Your detractors may call it intellectual dishonestly, but I say it’s brilliant! How else are we going to slip this one by the electorate?
I should never have been worried, Senator. I should have known your Washington experience fitted you with the right way to approach the problem.
You know when the going gets tough in American politics, the tough find a deep well of money.
You know that when the going gets tough, the tough call casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and ask if he has a spot at his blackjack table with your name on it.
Oh, it’s a courageous move, Senator. A master stroke! The weaker-minded politician might cower, afraid that such a move might be seen as hypocrisy. Not you. No, you and your friend Sheldon—a man who has made his fortune from fleecing people at roulette wheels and baccarat tables around the globe—have a plan to get rid of the online gaming companies (including the likes of MGM, Caesars, and other well-known brands) that are currently operating legally in several states. These are companies that actively compete with Adelson’s Sands Corporation and his brick and mortar operations. As we all know, the free market loathes competition.
Finally, I appreciate how you didn’t let Adelson’s relationship with Newt Gingrich get in the way of your new partnership. After the tens of millions Adelson dropped on the Presidential hopeful, you might think the casino mogul was just looking to buy influence in Washington. I’m glad you were able to look past this to sponsor legislation about which you have never shown a lick of interest.
In all of this, though, what really took courage was your agreement to keep horseracing and online horse bets legal. I mean, I’m simply in awe. I know you understand horse racing is a grand American tradition with no history of organized crime, cheating, or costing people their fortunes, but most Americans don’t see that. They might have seen it as hypocritical for you to protect one form of gambling while fighting others. But you had the courage to stand up against those people. (And, hey, it helps that protecting horse racing means you won’t have a fight with Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, am I right?)
You were my Congressman for years, Mr. Graham. You have been my Senator for more than a decade. We’ve met. We’ve shaken hands. We’ve had long, friendly discussions about policy and what’s good for America. Even in times when we’ve disagreed, I’ve defended you as a staunch and experienced advocate for both the Palmetto State and our nation. Today, I want the world to know about your courage and brave stand on doing what’s right for America…or, failing that, what’s right for Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Adelson!
In the face of a Republican primary challenge, you have stood firm in your belief that the only way to advance our nation’s economy, protect our states’ rights, and fight the nanny state imposed by the liberal administration is to attack existing legal businesses, restrict states’ rights, and further limit Americans’ right to do as they please in their own home. Bravo, Senator. I couldn’t think of a more conservative approach to governance.
Views expressed here are solely my own as a South Carolina citizen
My younger son met Mr. Andy at our local grocery store. Mr. Andy bagged groceries for hours on every shift. Once the bags were in the cart, Mr. Andy would push them out to the shopper’s car through rain, snow, ice, or 100-degree sun. Store policy forbids gratuities, but Mr. Andy wouldn’t take a tip anyway. He seemed to get something out of his work that you wouldn’t find on his W-2.
Mr. Andy gave my son Tic-Tacs and taught him to look both ways before stepping off the sidewalk. Today, if you hold my son’s hand as you walk, he’ll let you know how to cross the street.
“Look both ways,” he’ll say. “That’s how Mr. Andy says to do it.”
I don’t know when it started, but when my boy knew he was going to the store, he drew pictures to take to Mr. Andy. They were chicken-scratch crayon art on construction paper, the kind of thing any parent of a young kid might find all over the house on any given day, the kind of thing a parent might quietly slip in the recycling bin when nobody is looking.
Mr. Andy looked at the drawings differently. He’d tell you with nothing but honesty in his eyes, “His drawings are hung up all over my office.”
Mr. Andy worked harder than anyone at that store, and in the three years we’ve been going there, I never once saw him with a sour look on his face. Not when his wife was seriously ill. Not when the weather was terrible. Not when the cashier wanted to talk more than work. Mr. Andy simply was the happiest and kindest man I’d ever met.
And then one day, he didn’t come to work.
***A parent wants to believe in his child’s preternatural abilities, and it’s possible for people like me to unintentionally inflate what we see happening with our kids. Still, as he approaches five years old, I feel like my son sees people—really sees them for good and bad—better than anybody in our house. If left to decide whether to trust a person’s heart, my boy is the one in this house to whom we should turn. My kid decided a long time ago that Mr. Andy was one of the good ones.
When Mr. Andy stopped coming to work, we feared the worst, and we were right to do so. Polite inquiries revealed that doctors believed Mr. Andy had bone cancer. For a man of his age, the diagnosis was the kind of devastating blow from which one simply doesn’t recover. Everyone at the store knew the mutual affection Mr. Andy and my kid shared, and it made everyone hurt to report that Mr. Andy was sick.
That’s the bittersweet reality of my kid’s heart. He tends to gravitate to older people who share the type of kindness only age and experience can produce. Mr. Andy is the prototype for any child’s vision of a good grandpa. My son wasn’t even three years old when my dad died, and sometimes I think there’s a spot missing in his heart where PaPa should still be. Mr. Andy filled up that space, at least on the days when we needed a gallon of milk.
I never want that part of my kid’s heart to go away, but I also know it will mean he will have to say goodbye to more than his fair share of people he loves.
The clouds moved in overnight, and rain was just a few minutes away when I made it to the store this morning. I shuffled across the asphalt alone and tried to think about what I was going to make for dinner. That’s when I spotted an older man I’d never seen start jogging for the front door of the store. His face was alight, his hand was outstretched, and he looked happier than anyone I’d seen today. When he reached the sidewalk, he nearly knocked a young woman aside.
“I’m sorry,” he said to her. He turned to the man piloting the grocery cart and embraced him “I’m so happy to see you.”
Mr. Andy nodded humbly and smiled, perhaps knowing—perhaps not—that it wasn’t just my son who loved him. Any regular at the store, any employee who has worked there, anyone with their eyes open for goodness has discovered there is at least one person in the world who knows what it means to be happy and kind.
The doctors’ suspicions hadn’t come true. Whatever it was that took Mr. Andy away from his job wasn’t cancer. He’d been granted a reprieve.
I collected what I needed and made sure to steer my cart into the aisle where Mr. Andy was working. He dutifully went to work, and while he bagged my stuff, we talked about my son. I told him my boy is a good judge of character, and we agreed the kid has a good soul.
I told Mr. Andy a lot of people were going to be happy he was back. He’d apparently been forced to work as a cashier for a bit, but now he was back on the bags, the kind of job that let him teach little kids how to cross the street.
“I’m calling it my first day out of prison,” he said. “Now I’m back where I want to be.”
There was a pause in the conversation as I swiped my debit card. Mr. Andy bowed his head for a second, ostensibly to grab the bag with the bacon in it and place it carefully in the cart. He turned back to me and told me how he still looks at my son’s drawings on his office wall every day.
“I just hope I’m around long enough to see him grow up,” he said.
I wanted to let Mr. Andy help me to my car today, but I told him to help the next person in line. I didn’t want him to ask me why I was crying.
“Alright then,” Mr. Andy said. “You have a great Sunday.”
I walked to my car in the rain promising myself I would make good on his wish. His tax returns may say he is a bagger at a grocery store, but when it comes down to it, he makes it his job to make our days better. If only we could all be like Mr. Andy, imagine the days everyone would have.
I’m guest-blogging for Wil Wheaton this week. If you’d like to check in on what I wrote, you can find the stories here:
I grew up on the west side of Springfield, Missouri. If you look on the left part of Springfield’s gridded streets you will find the map of my childhood. It’s where I rode my bike, learned to drive, and fell in love.
It’s the place where on Tuesday, according to police, a man named Craig Wood—a public school employee—kidnapped Hailey Owens. Witnesses say Wood yanked her off a neighborhood street, drove her to his house, and shot her in the base of the skull.
Hailey Owens was ten years old and she lived less than ten minutes away from my childhood home.
The crime and its impact are the kind of things we, as a society, call “unimaginable.” For parents like me, a random kidnapping and murder of a child is the one thing we cannot bare to consider. My hometown—though large and spread out across a big county—is suffering a kind of collective grief I’ve never seen. The crime has left an entire community mourning and helpless to do anything about it.
That twisted place in everyone’s stomach is the physical manifestation of the question, “What can I do?”
My late father had an answer that I learned just in time. I don’t know how he came about it, but I feel like it’s because he had seen some of the worst of the world. I don’t know, nor do I really want to.
For the past 48 hours, I’ve been thinking about my dad’s advice. I’ve been thinking about the west side of Springfield, that sweet little girl, and what happened to her.
We call it unimaginable, but that’s not quite right. People my age have been imagining it as long as we can remember.
In the summer of 1981, I was seven years old. Everybody I didn’t know was a monster who crept out of Hollywood, Florida and spread out like a virus of fear across the country. Every man with a “different” face was the creature that took six-year-old Adam Walsh and left him in a way a boy shouldn’t be left. Back then, one only needed to say the name “Adam” to make any parent’s heart stop for half a second.
That monster went everywhere. He made sure kids’ faces ended up on the sides of milk cartons. There was no forgetting he existed. What we called unimaginable was actually a part of our collective imaginations every time we rode our bike a little too far from the house. When a van parked at the end of our neighborhood road and the man inside called for my friend to come closer, the fear could’ve lit the whole neighborhood.
Everybody was supposed to be afraid when I was a kid. It was part of the culture. The President told us the Russians wanted to kill us. The First Lady told us drugs wanted to kill us. Our milk told us somebody was killing us.
And yet, we played, we ran, we stayed out until dusk, and we defied the monsters in the only way we knew how. We ran sweat lines through the dirt on our faces, and we pretended our mothers weren’t scared. Our parents pretended they weren’t afraid, and somehow we all survived. Apparently, there weren’t enough monsters to get us all.
Living through it without losing any friends to the monster was a blessing, but it also numbed the part of my brain that kept watch. Surviving the years of fear was enough for a man of my generation to forget that the monsters were still out there.
I couldn’t figure out why Janice was crying.
I barely knew her. I’d worked at the TV station for just eight days. She was one of my new bosses. Now, on a beautiful 80-degree day in April of 1999, Janice was in tears at her desk.
For the better part of the next few weeks, the story of the Columbine High School massacre would dominate our news. It would affect me as it would affect anybody, but in those days, Janice’s tears made no real sense.
Columbine was halfway across the country. It was an admittedly terrible story, but Janice was a professional who had seen and heard enough death that more tragedy shouldn’t mean breaking down in the middle of the newsroom. I would learn that it was not Janice’s failing, but her humanity, one that I lacked. I was 25 years old and unmarried. My then-fiancée and I had a couple responsibilities: the rent money and the care of a 13-pound mutt. We didn’t cry. It simply didn’t touch us.
Two years later, I stood outside on a March morning. It was 30 degrees and dark, and I shivered as I looked at a nice little suburban house where a man named Michael Hiderbrand had killed his wife and two children. It was among the worst cases I ever covered. Two people I cared for deeply were within a stiff breeze of getting blown up by Hilderbrand’s improvised building-sized bomb in downtown Greer, SC. As sad as I was during the entire story, it never occurred to me to feel anything other than base-level disgust and professional responsibility. Nothing more. No matter how much hell I saw, I felt untouchable.
As odd as it seems today, I still remember looking into Hilderbrand’s backyard and thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen to those dogs.”
So, imagine me in a diner. A clean one in a safe part of town where the pancakes are pretty much the best you’ll ever eat and the waitresses are the kind who consider it a profession.
My son is not yet in grade school, but he knows he is among men and wants to prove it. I’m with my good friend and his son, a world-wise fourth-grader. Both of the kids need to go to the bathroom. My son wants to go with his friend, and they don’t need any help from their dads.
It’s no big deal for the big kid to cross the 100 or so feet to the other side of the place. He’s done it by himself many times before. It’s no big deal. He’ll keep an eye on my boy.
But as I watch my son weave through the brunch crowd, my chest tightens up and my mouth gets dry. I lose all track of what my friend is saying, and I feel sick. My eyes are on the other side of the room. I’m not hungry anymore. It’s a foreign feeling, like becoming a father has somehow triggered some hormone that makes fear real again.
Too much time passes. I’m on my feet and making for the bathroom like it’s a house on fire. I know for a fact something is wrong. It’s a dad’s intuition.
And of course…everything is fine.
In retrospect, I probably gave my kid just enough time to find his zipper before bolting after him. It’s funny now, but funny in a way that still makes me sick to my stomach, because it was a reminder of the monster I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid. It was a monster that had been hibernating until I was old enough to understand what real fear really felt like.
DAD’S ADVICE, HAILEY’S LEGACY
This week, if police are correct, that monster took the form of Craig Wood, a mandolin player in a little bluegrass band, and the type of guy no one expected to be the kind of creature he apparently turned out to be. He’s in jail now, and there is little chance he’ll see a child again. There is precious little comfort in that.
When something terrible happens to a child, there is the gut reaction to fight. We look for someone bigger to blame, someone we can hurt worse than we can hurt the man we’ll lock in a cage. Sometimes the fight can take on real meaning, but in a case like this, we’re left only with a mugshot and the unsettling understanding that he is only today’s face of a fear we can’t control.
That’s really the point of it. Random kidnappings are exceptionally infrequent. They are lightning strikes without a god to blame for them. They are preciously-rare reminders that we have reason to be afraid.
That’s really the worst thing: despite all statistics to the contrary, we have reason to be afraid, and there is nothing we can do to change that. No amount of legislation, no focus on mental health, no Neighborhood Watch is going to change the fact that we will always have to be afraid.
And so, helpless, we ask, “What can I do?”
I look at my children—the sole reason I can live as I do—and I want to see them run. I want to see them smile because they are independent and can do things on their own. I leave them at schools. I let them run at the pool. I try to let them build their lives without building walls around them. I sit in muted terror and hope there aren’t enough monsters to get us all.
What can I do? I can heed my dad’s advice:
Make sure your children know you love them every day.
It sounds like simple advice, but in a world where we live in constant fear of what might happen, there is peace in knowing your child knows he is loved right now.
Today, I’m still thinking about Hailey and what her death will mean for her family. There is very little comfort in it, but there is this:
Thousands of children are hearing their parents say I love you a little louder and a little more often, and that’s because of a little girl named Hailey from my hometown.
There is a shiny headstone on the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri, and it’s where people who love my dad go when they want to be alone with him. I live 13 hours away. Over the river and through the woods. That’s how my old man would’ve said it. He and I had different ideas about what to do with someone after they die, and I figure that’s why he keeps showing up when I sleep.
In my dreams, Dad stands with relaxed shoulders, his spine loose and his head cocked just a few degrees to the right. His eyes watch purple charcoal clouds swirl over flat land, dangerous, angry, and anonymous. They form an unsettling wall and crawl toward us, a gray-black combine in a straw-house cornfield. Dad seems at peace. In fact, he looks almost happy at the coming chaos. Where he should be terrified—where I should be terrified—I feel as close to him as I ever have. Together we watch as the funnel drops down from the horizon line.
I try not to tell many stories about the three Ds (diets, dogs, and dreams) because they fall into the same categorical hole of interests that are only interesting to the storyteller. But this moment is not a nightmare, and it’s not even really a dream so much as it is a memory.
The soundtrack of my southwest Missouri childhood is the jangled harmony of the tornado sirens and KTTS radio’s weather warning. They are both terrible and sharp sounds, the kind of rusty metal screams that turn a hot day into cold sweats. I grew up in shadow of the Cold War’s mushroom cloud, but there was nothing scarier than the possibility of an Oklahoma storm blowing in a tornado that would kill us all. We ducked and covered for Russian nukes, but even as third-graders we knew we were more likely to die at the hands of the God we prayed to.
To watch him, Dad wasn’t afraid. He’d stand in the limestone gravel of our driveway—and then years later on the black asphalt that replaced the rocks—and watch the western sky turn orange, purple, gray, and black. He was a man who could track—with literally killer accuracy—a single niggling mole under his green lawn. He did the same with the clouds. It was a silent, patient meditation on movements beyond his control.
This is how I remember my father, a man who could sit for an hour and watch something none of us could see. It didn’t matter how much the radio screamed. Dad would stand with his head on an axis offset from our own gravity and decide whether we were in danger. Then and only then would we run for shelter. Sometimes it was to our house. Sometimes it was to a hospital parking garage. Every time, it was exhilarating and wrapped with the kind of complete trust only a child can have in a father. Several tornados hit that town in the 18 years I lived there, but I never saw one hit the ground.
It was probably no great coincidence that everyone I knew turned to my dad when the chaos became overwhelming. Even when a June thunderstorm wasn’t coming up from Miami, OK, Dad watched the world tumble and shake, and he made sure everyone was safe. Whether we stood over caskets or the wreckage of our own bad decisions, Dad found a way to put chaos in a box. I saw him cry only twice in my life, and both times it was because of things he didn’t see coming.
I think of all this now because the dreams are happening more frequently than they did right after his death. Sometimes Dad is a younger man still sweating from a game of basketball in our driveway. Sometimes he’s the white-haired grandpa he was when he died. He’s always watching the sky, sussing out the meaning behind the smallest black swirls in the clouds.
I would relegate it all—the recurring dreams, the ozone-aired memories, the slow-motion movements of my dad’s head as he watched—to no more than a byproduct of ongoing grief. That’s probably the most rational explanation. But before I can think too long on what it means for me, I think of my kids.
Someday—sooner or later—I’m going to be gone. Maybe my boys will dream as I do, and if so, I wonder what that dream will look like.
Will I be sitting on the bathroom counter playing my guitar while they take a bath? Will I be standing over a pot of gumbo on the stove? How will they see me after I’m gone? I don’t know if there is any way to predict it or plan for it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified every day that I’m messing up the dreams they’ll have when they’re 40 years old. The weight of it is sometimes so much that I’m afraid to do anything at all.
But then I think of my dad again.
A couple of summers before he died, Dad stood with me on Grayton Beach and watched this storm creep across the sky. There was wonder and joy absent of fear in his eyes. He was a man at peace in himself as the world looked like it was at its end. This wasn’t a dream, and I’m glad for that, because it’s real, and it’s not even old enough to be a memory yet.
I had the dream again last week. Dad was older this time. We were both adults watching the sky together. If I have that dream for the rest of my life, I won’t be disappointed.
When I wake up, there is always a gauzy half-second where I have to remember Dad is gone, and there is always a slow-slip into reality that makes me unbearably sad.
But even that sadness doesn’t last long, because every dream feels so real, it’s almost as if Dad is still alive. What’s left of him is what makes me dream. Of all the things he gave me, of all the things he taught me, of all the things he wanted for me, the greatest was the ability to detach myself from the daily reality and chaos. It’s during that untethered and floating time that I can be with my dad and he can continue teaching me how to stand fearless in the chaos.
Yes, there is a place on the edge of Springfield, Missouri where the people who love my dad can lay flowers on his grave and think about his legacy. Though I rarely see that place, I’m at peace knowing that if I want to visit my dad, all I have to do is go to sleep.
Jason Shelton, an American soldier, was on my plane to Greenville last night.
I hadn’t slept in two days. I’d left my hotel 22 hours before. My back and neck were knotted up. I needed a hot shower. I needed to sneak into my boys’ rooms and give them a hug. I’d been gone a week. I missed my family.
We don’t think about how long it takes America’s military personnel to fly home from the warzones in the Middle East or, in Shelton’s case, Germany where he was training. We don’t consider how uncomfortable they are during deployments that can last longer than their kids’ childhoods. I remember a decade ago when seeing our troops in the airports felt new and scary and patriotic. Now it happens so often, it’s weird not to see one of the brave souls in camouflage getting a Starbucks between flights.
The flight home from Atlanta lasts barely more than 30 minutes. I’d carried on both bags so I could make a quick escape for home once we taxied to the gate. I was on the aisle, Bose headphones on, “Astral Weeks” cutting off the sound of the engines. The landing was a little harder than normal, the kind that makes my eyes open a bit faster and my heart skip a half a beat.
We don’t think much about what the soldiers have to endure when they get back home. Their kids have gotten older. Their spouses have sometimes hardened or drifted. The things that make their eyes open and hearts skip are things we can’t see or hear.
When the seat belt bell dinged, I started to stand and grab for the overhead bin when I saw the honor guard outside the window. There were seven of them, all in dress uniforms and white gloves. Their salute wasn’t a snap to their foreheads. It was a slow, melted wax, almost robotic trip from their waist to their brow. One of them held an American flag folded into a triangle. The next thing I saw was the hearse.
The window seat in front of me emptied, and I sat down in it. Over my shoulder, I heard a man a little older than me whisper, “Kind of puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?”
In a matter of less than a minute, the people who were going to leave the plane did. The rest of us sat in silence and watched Jason Shelton’s casket come out of the cargo hold. The man behind me had his hand over his heart. I put my forehead against the window and stared at the casket. It was silver and gray, attached to a wooden pallet with black fabric loops on the side. Someone had draped a flag over it from end to end.
In the background was a banner supplied by Delta that read “All gave some. Some gave all.” I felt something like anger tighten in my chest—not that the banner was there or that Delta had chosen that way to honor Shelton, but that this wartime has lasted so long that banners like this are part of a normal corporate operation.
I didn’t know who was in the casket at the time. Until I read the news this morning, I didn’t know Shelton was inside. As I sat there with my head against the cold window, I pictured him having a mother, or a wife, or kids, and I couldn’t stop the tears. I stayed until Shelton was in the hearse. When I stood, I saw the plane was still mostly full. There were eyes full of tears from the front to the back. I’ve been on hundreds of planes, and I’ve never heard one so quiet, reverent, or sad.
Jason Shelton had a wife. Her name is Heather. He’s from Madison County, North Carolina. At 22 years old, he died in a training exercise. Veterans on flag-flying motorcycles met the hearse in the cold air outside the airport and escorted the soldier the rest of the way home. I sat in my car and watched them pass.
It’s hard not to remember the time when the government didn’t allow pictures of dead American soldiers’ caskets as they came back from war. From 1991 to 2009, there was a ban on those photos. Some people said it was to protect the soldier’s family’s privacy. Other people said it was an attempt to hide the reality of wartime’s true hell. There have been thousands of those caskets since we went back to war in 2003. I’d say we should all have to see them on the national news every night. The sad reality is, dead soldiers aren’t news anymore.
When I got on the flight last night, I was tired, sore, and thinking about only myself and what I had to do the rest of the week. This morning, my kids jumped in my bed and kissed me. They told me they missed me and thanked me for their souvenirs. I may have to leave sometimes, but it’s almost always guaranteed I’m coming home. That’s not the case for the people we task with fighting the battles we choose.
It’s a good thing we can now see the pictures of our fallen soldiers coming back to America. If we stop bearing witness to their deaths, then we forget the meaning of what they do and the reason they are there. Today I wonder, though, if looking at those pictures is enough. Today my heart is hurting for a man I never knew and the family left behind. That’s because I shared Jason Shelton’s last flight to the Carolinas.
I wonder how we all might look at things—our country, our government, our soldiers, and our lives—if we all could be touched in the same way. I wonder how our leaders might think about the choices they make and the people they choose to carry out those decisions if they, too, had to share those flights, see the honor guard, and watch the casket slip into the back of the hearse.
We should do more than mark Veterans Day. We should do more than lay flowers on a grave on Memorial Day. We should do more than wave a flag on Independence Day. We should witness. We should simply do more, feel more, and honor more than we do. Put another way, we should all have to carry them home.