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The Blitz

The Blitz

by Liz Gilmore Williams

 

As a . . . Pearl Harbor survivor, I am often asked what ship I was on. When I reply that I wasn’t on a ship
but was stationed at Hickam Field, I am usually asked, “Where is Hickam Field?” The Japanese certainly knew!
―Master Sgt. Thomas J. Pillion

 

On December 7, 1941, Ernest Galeassi, a private in the Army Air Corps’ 324th Signal Company based at Oahu’s Hickam Field, got up, shaved, dressed, and went to mass, then to the chow hall for breakfast. He walked back to the barracks and sat down on its front steps, looking across the airfield. He soon spied planes almost grazing the barracks’ roof, planes marked with the red rising sun of Japan, dubbed the “meatball,” by the GIs. As the planes zoomed overhead, Galeassi yelled inside to those in the barracks, “We’re being attacked!” He ran two blocks to the motor pool as an ear-splitting boom sounded from Pearl Harbor, the first target. Black smoke billowed over the naval base. Hickam’s air raid siren blared.

While Galeassi sprinted to the motor pool to move the company’s trucks under some palm trees, my dad, Herb Gilmore, worked teletype in Hickam’s Bomber Command Signal Office in the Base Operations building―the centrally located nerve center of the base. He relayed new developments from one headquarters to another and sent and took orders for the Commanding Generals. Only his helmet and the building protected him. Outside, dive bombers whined, machine-gun fire chattered, and bombs thundered.

A lineman truck driver in Herb’s company, Private Thomas J. Pillion, and another signalman drove a truck full of field wire, telephones, and other equipment to Base Ops. Japanese bombs hit the hangar line and hangars, whistling past Pillion and his colleague, Bill Kokosko, as they arrived at Base Ops and huddled under a palm tree. The smell of gunpowder filled their nostrils.

Lt. Col. Guy N. Church, the ranking Signal Officer, drove up in his staff car and got out with his arms full of sporting guns. He handed Pillion and Kokosko each a shotgun but no ammunition. They left the guns at the message center. As they exited Base Ops, Japanese planes splintered the Hawaiian Air Depot, hangars, and hangar line. Pillion and Kokosko ducked under the building where a grating had been removed. Minutes later, they headed to their company’s supply building. Meanwhile, Air Corps gunners manned the parade ground―without cover―and got mowed down like blades of grass, to be replaced by more gunners.

The bombing stopped for about 30 minutes. Ambulances began picking up the wounded. Then the bombers returned, blasting Hickam for another 15 minutes. This time, some Japanese planes exploded from anti-aircraft fire. Every time an enemy plane blew up, everyone stood up and cheered as if at a baseball game. The enemy hammered supply buildings, the base chapel, Snake Ranch, and guard house.* The sparkling, new consolidated barracks shook repeatedly with the force of the explosions, which splattered food, trays, and the bodies of men in the chow hall. Almost all of the 100 Japanese bombs dropped on Hickam hit a target. Reportedly the most heavily bombed building on Oahu, the consolidated barracks burned for four hours. Bodies lay everywhere.

Though at first some men at Hickam wandered about, panic stricken, most took heart and fought back, firing .50-caliber machine guns, Thompson submachine guns, Colt .45s automatic pistols, and even World War I-era bolt-action Springfield rifles. They may as well have thrown their guns at the bombers. Thirty-five AAF planes took flight, some engaging the enemy and others in pursuit, unaware the Japanese had already left the area. Hawaiian Air Force fighter pilot and heir to the grape juice fortune, George S. Welch, shot down 4 of the 29 enemy planes destroyed that day, the first American to down a Japanese plane.

 

This iconic photo shows Hickam's brand-new barracks in flames after the Japanese attack. The truck at the base of the flag pole belongs to Herb’s company, members of which were fixing a damaged cable. The tattered flag in the photo later flew above the United Nations charter meeting in San Francisco, over the Big Three conference at Potsdam, and above the White House on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. (Signal Corps photo from Herb’s collection)

This iconic photo shows Hickam’s brand-new barracks in flames after the Japanese attack. The truck at the base of the flag pole belongs to Herb’s company, members of which were fixing a damaged cable. The tattered flag in the photo later flew above the United Nations charter meeting in San Francisco, over the Big Three conference at Potsdam, and above the White House on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. (Signal Corps photo from Herb’s collection)

 

Pillion and his buddies spent most of the day running field wire and supplying field telephones to bomb squads and headquarters groups. At night, the cratered parade ground and burning vehicles made passage almost impossible when Pillion and another signalman, Jim Bagot, drove back to Base Ops. At midnight, the air raid siren wailed. Spotlights beamed on more planes overhead, U.S. Navy planes. Everyone with a weapon shot at them. The sky lit with red hot tracers, Pillion and Bagot dove for shelter under Base Ops. Feeling secure, they laughed, probably from nerves, and lit cigarettes. “Sgt. Herbert Gilmore” told them to put out the smokes. “Go to hell,” they replied.

Like Herb, men from all signal companies at Hickam stayed at their posts to radio, teletype, or phone messages at a moment’s notice during the attack. The switchboard operators handled thousands of calls every hour. Linemen repaired severed or damaged lines. Those who stayed on duty in the Base Ops building, like Herb, should have received medals of recognition but did not, according to Pillion’s oral history of the attack: “Everyone in the company performed the duties for which they were trained without question. I was proud to have served in the 324th Signal Company.”

Oahu suffered horrifying carnage and wreckage: more than 2,300 men died and 1,100 were wounded. AAF posts on Oahu lost more than 200 men, with 700 wounded. Though Hickam lost 121 men, with 274 wounded and 37 missing, the attack claimed no lives in Herb’s company. Of the Hawaiian Air Force’s 146 planes, 76 were lost; an additional 128 army planes were damaged island-wide. Forty explosions had rocked Honolulu, all but one the result of U.S. anti-aircraft fire. Honolulu lost 48 civilians, 3 fire fighters, and 4 government employees.

During the attack, known in Hawaii as the “Blitz,” untried troops responded as veterans. Silver stars and purple hearts decorated the chests of 233 men at Hickam afterwards.

I looked through one of my father’s scrapbooks to see if any of his buddies had been cited. There, among their poems, messages, and names and home addresses, I found two signatures of awardees in Daddy’s company: Joseph P. Miszczuk, of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, and John S. Lopinsky, of Summerlee, West Virginia. Lopinsky, an outstanding baseball player for the Hawaiian Air Force, played on a volleyball team with my father.

The night of the Blitz, critical units headed for wooded areas beyond the base, on 24-hour alert. The bomber command moved to its forward post, which it used until the next day. Herb’s company sent enough signalmen along with the command to maintain 24-hour communications.

Like disaster evacuees, Hickam’s men found shelter under trees or blankets that night or in pup tents, unlocked family quarters, or wherever they could sleep. Under a moonlit sky, a blackout cloaked all light on the ground to help thwart an invasion. Neighborhood wardens patrolled to see that residents shut off lights and covered windows with black cloth; those who failed to do so could be arrested.

Frenetic activity took place immediately after the Blitz. All important buildings in Hawaii received a coat of camouflage paint, including Hickam’s beautiful water tower, and Honolulu’s Aloha Tower, then the tallest structure in Hawaii. The military convinced 200 or so “lei women” to weave camouflage nets instead of leis. To prevent Japanese landings, the military strung barbed wire along the beaches. All paper money in the Territory was recalled and burned to prevent the misuse of U.S. currency if Hawaii was captured. As in World War I, people began planting vegetable gardens of eggplants, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, and onions. Children started toting gas masks everywhere they went.

The military convinced the governor of Hawaii to declare martial law. The authorities arrested civilians, including 370 Japanese, 98 Germans, and 14 Italians, to prevent them from aiding the enemy. Martial law remained in effect for three years. Like grounded teenagers, the once light-hearted islands succumbed to curfews, rationing, and endless regulations.

Herb, like many Americans, viewed Japan’s unannounced attack as sneaky. As the United States declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, Americans rallied―none more than the airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines on Oahu. They wanted revenge.

 

*The Snake Ranch, so named because “You walked in but crawled out” was the enlisted men’s beer hall.

 

 

BIO

Liz WilliamsLiz Gilmore Williams worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., for two agencies of the U.S. Congress, a trade association, and a few consulting firms. Her essay, “April Love,” won an Honorable Mention award for creative nonfiction in the Virginia Writers Club’s “Summer Shorts” Contest for 2014 and was published by the Indiana Voice Journal in February 2015. Her essay, “The Last Time,” published by the Wilderness Literary Review in January 2015, was the most read piece in that online issue. Both essays and her story “The Blitz” derive from her book, No Ordinary Soldier: Discovering Daddy in My Parents’ Letters from World War II, for which she is seeking representation. She received an MA in American studies from the University of Maryland and belongs to the South Carolina Writers Workshop and the Charlotte Writers Club.

Twitter: @warletterlover
Website: www.warlettersfromwwii.com/

 

 

 

Sarah Parris

NaNoWriMo – What Is It and Will It Eat Me?

by Sarah Parris

 

To most people November is a simple month, a lull between Halloween and Christmas where you get a week to eat turkey and be merry. To elementary students it’s the time of year to learn about the pilgrims and the Indians, and Christopher Columbus. To me it’s time to write a novel. National Novel Writing Month is a yearly event that thousands of people across the world participate in annually. The rules are simple. You have the thirty days of November to write 50,000 words, and all 50K must be written within the month.

To many this sounds crazy. I agree. To write over 10,000 words each week? Near impossible! Except that I have done it twice now, and look forward to it again next year. Why, you may ask. Why would I put myself through this? The answer is more complicated than you might think. That I love to write should be a given, but it’s not just about that. There’s something exhilarating about the mad dash, the craziness to get it done, the desperation to reach the goal, the endless nights of typing away when the rest of the world has long fallen asleep. I imagine it’s like running a marathon. You go and go and go, and when you finish it’s like you’re standing on top of the world. Plus, there’s the undeniable satisfaction of having a fat stack of paper by the end that you can mold into a story.

There are two types of writers when it comes to NaNo – the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters, like myself, spend the weeks leading up to November plotting out our stories, planning the characters and their backgrounds, charting maps of their worlds and figuring out how characters will get from Point A to Point B. This is well within the rules, as long as none of the story is actually written until November begins.

Pantsers, on the other hand, go into their stories blind and figure it out on the way, writing by the seats of their pants – hence the name. They trust their characters to lead them into the unknown and to find their way out again. They come up with the map and the history as they need it. This type of writing offers its own kind of excitement for the writer, and is well-suited to those who appreciate the flavor of spontaneity in their writing.

But no matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser, your goal is the same – write, and write quickly. NaNoWriMo is designed such that the writer is forced to slam out a story before she has time to think about it too hard. Creativity’s worst enemy is the writer’s inner-editor – that voice in the back of the mind that questions and criticizes everything, analyzes a story to death even before it’s born. The constant demand of NaNo to keep an eye on the outrageous word count goal presents writers with an opportunity to not only find out what they’re made of, but to hash out their raw ideas before they have time to quash them. Only after the month is over is the inner-editor released from whatever cell it was thrust into on November first, and once again allowed to clean up the typos, order chapters chronologically, and run continuity checks on characters and plot holes.

In fact, so much is done during NaNo to try and get that little editor out of the writer’s head that there are mini games and challenges that force the writer to expel it from thought. The NaNo community all but depends on these when the going gets tough, and writers in need can always find each other on the NaNoWriMo site when they need motivation or a writing buddy.

Word wars are mini-challenges that a writer takes against herself or others that encourage her to write as fast as possible without stopping to question her thoughts. In a word war the writer sets a timer for however long she likes (my favorite is ten minutes), and within that time writes as many words as she can possibly slam onto paper. If two or more are playing, the person with the most words wins. This almost guarantees that there will be typos, so much so that the five-minute word war has been universally dubbed the “Fifty-Headed Hydra” among the NaNo community. The nick-name was born when one writer’s five-minute word war yielded only three correctly spelled words; fifty, headed, and hydra.

Sprints are a variation on this theme wherein the writer is challenged to sprint to the nearest thousand words of their document in as short a time as possible. For example, if my document were sitting at 32,500 words, I would have to write 500 more words to make it to 33,000. Obviously, these can be more or less difficult depending on the last three digits of a manuscript’s word count. Blessed be the writers sitting at 32,997 at the beginning of a sprint.

Another strategy for those who fall behind in their writing is the dreaded 10K Day, a tactic I have had to employ a couple of times. The name is self-explanatory. The writer undergoing this challenge must write 10,000 words by the end of the day. I have only completed it once, the first time drawing close with about 9,000 words. I have heard tell of writers who have topped 15K in a single day. I salute them, and also wonder what kind of bionic fingers they have traded for their human ones.

Often when I talk about NaNo to others I’m met with awe and incredulousness. Several people have told me they simply wouldn’t be able to think of something to write 50,000 words about. To them I say I used to think the same thing. When my friend asked me to do it with her the first time I truly wondered if I would be able to make it to the end. What kind of story could I produce that deserved that many words? What could be worth that much of my time, that much devotion? But as I wrote, I discovered that my story came alive under my fingertips.

I had started the month with a rough idea of my story and the world it was set in. I had written other stories in this fantasy world for years and had a good idea of how the world worked. My characters were more of a mystery. I had my protagonist, a young girl of twelve years, a man, aged twenty-seven, both born with magic in a world where it does not come often to humans, and general of the goblin army. How were they connected? How would they meet? How would this story affect the overarching story of my world? I didn’t know, and I couldn’t know until I plunged in blindly. I only allowed myself one question – ‘what if?’ What if the goblin general were holding the girl’s mother as a prisoner of war? What if the girl set out on a mission to find her? What if the young man joined her along the way?

As I continued to write, thoughts came flying into my head that I couldn’t explain. I suddenly knew why my young protagonist thought her mother was in the goblin country, why the pixies in the southern forest were so angry all the time, why the goblin wars had gone on for so long, and exactly how evil my evil queen was. The longer the month stretched on the more frantic I was to finish. So much so that I holed myself up in my bedroom for the entirety of Thanksgiving break, only emerging to eat. Meal times were the only moments my family saw me, so engaged was I in my characters and the world I had created. I believe that can happen to anyone who finds a story they truly want to tell. It doesn’t take someone special to complete NaNo. It takes passion and dedication.

There are other challenges similar to NaNo. One of them, Camp NaNo, is associated with NaNoWriMo. It is held every April and July. Unlike in the November NaNo, Camp NaNo participants set their own word count goals, as small or as large as they like. The only rule to winning is that you hit your mark.

For script-writers, there is a challenge called Script Frenzy. This used to be hosted by NaNoWriMo, but due to decline in interest they were forced to let it go. The challenge stands, however, for anyone who wishes to write 100 pages of script in a month.

National Poetry Month is in April, and so is National Poetry Writing Month for those who want to test their hand at writing a poem a day in April.

Short storyists have claimed May as National Short Story Month and for those who wish to try it there is a Story A Day challenge where participants write 31 stories within the month.

There are also monthly writing challenges available through many social media sites, such as the #500words page on Twitter where participants are encouraged to write 500 words a day and post their progress for their followers to see. This is meant to get writers in the habit of writing every day.

I think one of the appeals of these challenges is that they’re not limited only to writers. Everyone is welcome as long they have stories they want to write, or even if they want to challenge themselves to do something new. So whether you’re a new writer or an expert, keep the tradition going! Set those pens to paper and show the world what you’ve got!

 

 

BIO

Sarah ParrisSarah Parris lives in Missouri with her family. She is a recent graduate from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri where she earned a BFA in Creative Writing in 2015. Her stories are typically set in fantasy realms and center around young female protagonists. She presented a short story at the national Sigma Tau Delta convention in Albuquerque in the spring of 2015.

 

 

 

Susan Avitzour author

Phil Ochs’ Guitar

by Susan Petersen Avitzour

 

For years, I was convinced I was responsible for Phil Ochs’ death.

I conceived this belief six years before he died.

 

Friday, March 27, 1970

            Oh, I marched to the battle of New Orleans at the end of the early British war

Carnegie Hall erupted into shouts of joy and wild applause. Phil was singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and we were eating it up. We could almost forget the gold costume, the weird guitar, the Fifties-style numbers he’d opened with. “We came for Phil, not Elvis,” someone behind me had grumbled. But now the hall roiled with long-haired, tie-dyed children of the Sixties singing along, clapping, dancing in place. My sister Ruth and I rocked in our seats. What could be better?

I was fifteen, too young to truly belong to the decade that was now drawing to a close, but I fervently identified with its ideals. Peace, Love, Freedom for All Peoples. Look out, world, our songs said, we’re a-coming and you’re a-changing. This concert was meant to be our time, our place, our message. Though I hadn’t absorbed this from the Sixties generation; Ruth and I had inherited it from our father.

Daddy had died two months before the concert; it was he who’d introduced us to Phil Ochs. Our parents had separated when I was eleven and Ruth was nine, and a couple of years later we found pages of Phil’s lyrics and some poems on the coffee table in our father’s living room. “This young man is talking about the real issues,” he said. “Not like these other songwriters nowadays, who can think only about themselves and their own feelings.” The next day, Ruth and I went out and bought our first album.

 

The audience forgave Phil, but not for long. He transitioned into a set of country-rock-n-roll songs, some he’d written and some by Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Merle Haggard. None, not even his own, had a thing to do with change, any connection with repairing the world.

“What happened to Phil Ochs?” one man shouted.

“This is as much Phil Ochs as anything else,” Phil retorted, and launched into one of his new songs.

Fill ‘er up with love please won’t you, mister
Just the hi-test is what I used to say
But that was before I lost my baby
I’ll have a dollar’s worth of regular today.

Restless bodies shifted in their seats. Country music belonged to the enemy, they were saying, to those flag-waving, war-loving rednecks.

But I sat quietly, trying to piece together what Phil was trying to do. Not all his songs were political, I knew. Some were lyrical. Some were autobiographical. At that thought – just as the booing started – I leaned forward in my seat and listened closely to the lyrics.

I never should have left my home, never left the farm
But the city was exciting, it couldn’t do me any harm…

I held my breath. Phil was channeling my father.

Walter Martin Petersen always felt it was up to him to right the world’s wrongs. Born on a farm just before the Great Depression, he grew up watching his mother serve plates of beans to the starving hoboes who’d come knocking at their back door. In high school he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, eventually becoming National Secretary. He enlisted right after graduating, hoping to fight the Nazis, though his flat feet landed him in the Merchant Marine. After the war and three years of college, he worked for a time as a machinist in a rather romantic bid to join the working class. A few years later, he lost another job – with the Liberal Party, of all employers – for spending most of his time preaching Socialism and trying to organize the personnel. When Ruth and I were small he’d sing us to sleep with songs like “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?” (“This side!” “No, this side!” we’d pipe up from our beds.)

One time, about two years after he moved out, he picked us up for our regular Tuesday visit and told us he’d be taking us someplace special. “It’s a surprise.”

We were certainly surprised when we got there. A supermarket?

“You’ll see,” he said, winking.

As it turned out, he’d collected contributions from his friends and co-workers to buy food for Biafra, a famine-stricken province trying to secede from Nigeria. The three of us rolled up and down the aisles as if it were a skating rink, piling can upon can until the cart threatened to tip over. I’ll never forget his pride – and ours – when we drove out to the harbor and delivered those cans to the Africa-bound aid ship.

But it was the war in Vietnam that truly galvanized him. As it did the troubadour of the antiwar movement, Phil Ochs.

 

The audience was beginning to heckle in earnest, but I barely registered the commotion.

I cannot face another girl, I believe I’ll turn to drink
So I won’t remember, so I won’t have to think
Tomorrow will bring happiness or, at least, another day
So I will bid farewell and I’ll be on my way.

Was Phil drinking? Was that why his voice was beginning to hoarsen, to crack? Maybe he was just having an off day.

(A year or so after the separation, our father had told Ruth and me that he’d “stopped drinking.” That was how we found out he was an alcoholic. “But I’ve been dry ever since I moved out,” he proudly proclaimed.)

As the audience jeered, I suddenly felt protective. Can’t they see he isn’t feeling well?

Then Phil started “My Life,” the song I’d always felt my father could have written. This one was a “real” Phil Ochs number, and the crowd quieted and listened.

My life was once a joy to me
Ever knowing I was growing every day,
My life was once a toy to me
And I wound it and I found it ran away…

I knew just what he meant by “toy.” During the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Phil had not only sung to the protestors, but had also inspired his admirers and enraged his detractors with antics like buying a pig for Abbie Hoffman to nominate for President. He seemed to be having so much fun that I was a little envious of him and his friends.

My father also always loved the comic, the unexpected, the outrageous. In high school he’d been entitled, as student council president, to use the public address system. One morning he went into the school office and asked for the mike. “My dear friends,” he said, “I have a very sad announcement to make.” The secretaries in the office stopped what they were doing and looked at him, eyes wide. Had someone died?

At the time, a joke was being whispered around the school. A mortician is preparing a man’s body for the funeral. He’s so impressed by the body’s huge member that he cuts it off and brings it home to show his wife. She takes one look, gasps, and exclaims – and my father announced, without any lead-in, over the intercom – “Schultz is dead!”

One of his favorite shticks was to throw a blanket over our heads when he was driving us somewhere in his old black Morris Minor. “Charlie,” he’d say in a hoarse gangster’s voice, “where d’ya think we should dump dese goils?” He’d then speak in a high, cracked whine. “In da river, where d’ya think, Pete?” “I dunno, I’m gettin tired a dat place,” he’d have “Charlie” say. He’d keep this up until Ruth and I were helpless with laughter.

But his sense of humor began to wither as anger and despair over Vietnam slowly engulfed him. Antiwar activity began to push all else out of his life; he talked about practically nothing else.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of his obsession. It was certainly in full bloom by the time he sat Ruth and me down – how old were we? eleven and thirteen? – and explained to us about napalm. Words couldn’t describe it, he said, so he opened the folder he kept on his coffee table. Ruth cried, I think, but I just stared at the photos of blackened skin, of shriveled limbs, of half-melted faces. They are with me to this day.

About a year before he died, he founded a committee to raise funds for North Vietnamese victims of American bombing. After that, movies, miniature golf, and walks in the park were gradually replaced with afternoons stuffing envelopes in his apartment or handing out leaflets in midtown Manhattan.

Once, toward evening on a hot June day, he opened a folding table on the corner of 59th and Lexington. Passing sedans gunned their motors, taxis honked their impatience, and buses spewed their exhaust as we stacked our flyers. The sidewalk boiled with men and women rushing to the nearest bus or subway stop without more than a glance in our direction.

Finally, a young woman took a page and stopped for a moment to read it. “Yeah, this friggin’ war is the pits,” she said, opening her purse, “and it’s just going on and on.”

A group of curious teenagers drifted over. “Hey, what’s happening?” one said.

“Collecting for victims of American bombing in Vietnam,” my father said. “Can you help?”

“No, man, I can relate,” said another of the kids, “but I’m broke.” They milled around for another couple of minutes before ambling off.

Ruth and I went back to work. I’d just gotten into the swing of things – step up to a likely-looking woman or man, smile, offer a leaflet, get rebuffed, say “Thanks anyway,” then step up to the next person – when a rough voice coming from behind startled me out of my rhythm.

“What are you, some kind of Commies?”

We’d attracted the attention of two brawny men in sweaty T-shirts and hard hats. Their fists were clenched at their sides.

“No, no,” my father said, “just against the war.”

“Against America, you mean.” One took a step toward the table.

My father held up his hands, palms out. “Now, let’s not start anything. No one’s looking for trouble here.”

The hard hats exchanged glances and sniggered. One hawked and spat. The other grinned, walked up to my father, and upended the table. “Fucking Commies,” he said, before strutting off with his friend.

My father stood still for a moment, then bent down and pulled the table upright. Ruth and I collected the leaflets from the sidewalk and re-stacked them neatly. Then we went back to trying our best to interest the uninterested.

But it was only when Charlotte moved in with him that his obsession with the war morphed into full-blown monomania. Ruth and I had liked Rita, his first post-separation girlfriend. She was like Mom, feisty and funny, and Ruth and I were sorry when they broke up. Still, we were prepared to accept a new woman in his life, and curious to meet this one.

It was a shock when he finally brought us to his apartment and introduced us to her. My mother and Rita were hardly model material, but both were trim, well-dressed, and well-groomed. Charlotte was short and dumpy, with uneven features and long, curly black hair streaked with grey. Flaky face powder did a very bad job of concealing her very bad skin; bright red lipstick strayed here and there from the outlines of her mouth. She was dressed in an oversized T-shirt and shiny black pants.

I really didn’t care about Charlotte’s looks, though; it was her behavior that got to me. I can’t remember her saying a single positive word. Ever. The country was run by reactionaries; the hypocritical liberals were no better; the media was in cahoots with the forces of evil.

Ruth and I didn’t escape her scorn. Once we walked into our father’s living room wearing buttons saying “End the War in Vietnam Now” and “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Charlotte looked at us and snorted. “These liberals,” she said through clenched teeth, “they think all they need to do is wear a button and they’ve done their part.” She stormed out of the room.

Another time, our father asked Ruth and me if we had any advice that might help Charlotte lose weight. We told him that when our mother was on a diet she’d sometimes dine on half a cantaloupe filled with low-fat cottage cheese. A couple of weeks later, Charlotte, flushed with anger, proclaimed that our “diet” was making her sick. It turned out she’d eaten nothing but melon and cottage cheese ever since he’d passed on our suggestion.

Part of what attracted my father to Charlotte was that she’d lived for some time in North Vietnam. He told us how she’d found Hanoi not to be the drab, grim caricature the American media painted of Communist countries. (At the time, I imagined life behind the Iron Curtain as lived literally in black and white.) Not at all; it was an Eden of beautiful public gardens and happy people who only wanted to be left alone to spread their bounty to their countrymen in the South. The summer after we met her, she told us to call her Lan, the Vietnamese name she’d taken when she lived there. Ruth and I learned this right after we returned from camp, where Ruth had woven her a beautiful lanyard bracelet spelling out C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E. She took one look and flung it back, saying only, “I don’t want it. That’s not my name.”

Charlotte/Lan also gave my father the chance to care for someone worse off than himself. She never leafleted with us, as she usually felt unwell. She was high-strung and sickly, he told us, because she’d been raised by a mother with a four-way split personality.

We were sitting in Prospect Park that particular spring day, eating sandwiches he’d quickly slapped together (she was resting; lunch in the apartment would make too much noise). Hoping to attract a squirrel, Ruth and I were throwing small pieces of bread to the sparrows and pigeons pecking around our feet.

“One of Lan’s mothers was almost normal,” he told us, “but she was almost never ‘out.’ The second was a nervous wreck who wouldn’t let her do anything, even go out to play. Number three was furious all the time, and used to beat her.”

I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. Was that a bushy tail flashing around that tree? Maybe if I threw a big chunk in that direction….

“The fourth personality,” my father said, “was so passive that she didn’t do a thing to take care of her own daughter.” He pressed his fingers against his eyes.

“So you see –” His voice broke. “So you see, she never really had anyone until she met me.” Tears glistened on his cheek. “I know you understand.”

I stole a glance at Ruth, who was busy shredding her bread. Then I nodded, turned quickly to the squirrel, and tossed it the crust I’d been clenching in my fist.

Toward the end of 1969, the sun seemed to come out again for my father. His face seemed lighter, and he smiled more often. He even took us one evening to Greenwich Village to hand out flowers. Holding armfuls of multicolored daisies and carnations, we waited for hippies to come and accept our offerings. When none turned up, we set out in active pursuit, wandering up and down the maze of streets until we finally got to Washington Square Park. Still no luck. So we gave the flowers to anyone who’d take them, mostly New Yorkers but also many tourists like the wide-eyed lady who came up to us and said, “Wow, are you real hippies?”

And he got funny again. True, some of this was “funny strange” – for one thing, he took to wearing an ascot and a beret, and using the word “groovy.” But, Ruth and I agreed, even the embarrassment of “groovy” was better than the bleak talk of the war that had been our fare for so long. And it was so good to laugh with him!

He didn’t give up his activism, of course; in October he took Ruth and me on our first and only road trip together, to the big antiwar march on Washington. He couldn’t stop marveling at how many people had turned out – at least a million, and from all over the country! It had been forever since I’d seen him so optimistic.

Until his toy ran away too.

 

Phil got to the last verse.

My life is now a myth to me
Like the drifter, with his laughter in the dawn.
My life is now a death to me
So I’ll hold it and I’ll mold it till I’m born…

Suddenly a thought set my stomach prickling. If his life is now a death, then being born can only mean….

And the next line:

So I turn from the land where I’m so out of place…

A picture popped into my head: the cover of Rehearsals for Retirement, the album that included “My Life,” showed a tombstone:

Phil Ochs
(American)
Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968

I’d thought this inscription was funny when the album first came out, but it no longer felt like just another of Phil’s outrageous jokes. And I knew, I just knew that I was the one person in the audience who understood exactly what he was saying.

What to do? And how?

Phil returned to his new program, and his fans to their complaints. Suddenly, in the middle of a Buddy Holly song, he stopped and walked quickly off the stage. The audience sat stunned. After a couple of minutes a man came on stage, announced that the show was over, and requested that we please leave the auditorium.

Inching with the crowd down the curved, carved grand staircase, Ruth and I speculated. Was Phil insulted? Couldn’t take the jeering anymore? Was he sick, his voice completely gone?

People around me began to mutter. What was this? The gold suit and the country-rock songs were bad enough, but cutting the concert short like that? The murmurs turned to open anger. “We paid good money for this show,” one fan said.

We found the marble and gold entrance hall packed, mostly with young men. Some were milling around. Others were sitting-in on the floor, demanding free entrance to the second show. Under one of the soaring arches that make Carnegie’s lobby look more like a cathedral than a theater, a group of scraggy bearded types had mounted a low side staircase and were exhorting the crowd: If the capitalists who own this place think they can cheat us, they’ve got something else coming. Power To The People!

Bored with their rhetoric, I looked around me – and there he was, just like that. Phil Ochs, out of his gold suit now, wearing ordinary jeans and a leather jacket, walking in from the back door. All eyes were on the orators on the staircase landing; no else one had noticed Phil. My heart picking up, I hurried over.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said. He glanced at me with agitated eyes. “Mr. Ochs, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for the way the audience acted during your performance. If you don’t feel well I underst–”

“Can you hold this for me?”

“Excuse me?” I could barely hear him over the shouting.

“Can you hold my guitar for me?”

My pulse throbbed in my neck. “Of course.”

I gathered the guitar into my arms and cradled it so its neck rested against my right shoulder, its body pressed into my middle.

Phil Ochs’ guitar. I imagined it as it must have looked nestled inside its black leather case, as I’d seen it onstage just a short time before. Dark, rich wood, its contours edged in a shiny white. Shaped like an electric, though he’d played it unplugged – a jazz guitar, I learned many years later. Its weight and bulk made it awkward to hold; still, I hugged it close, wondering for a second if I was dreaming.

But I didn’t have time to truly savor the moment, because here was my chance.

“You know,” I said, my voice shaking, “my father was just like you. He also –”

But Phil didn’t hear me. He turned away and began wading through the crowd toward the side staircase. Taking care not to damage my precious burden, I followed, catching up to him just as he mounted the self-styled revolutionaries’ podium. After speaking with them for a minute or two, he turned to me. “Can you say something to everyone for me, real loud?”

I nodded and climbed up beside him.

“Tell them,” he said, his breath ragged. “Tell them there’s been a bomb threat.”

I shouted out his words, to a chorus of boos.

“Tell them the threat turned out to be nothing. And I’ll let the management know that anyone who wants can come to the second show.”

Triumphant cheers.

“Listen,” he said to me quietly, taking back his guitar, “I’ll be around the corner at the –” He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a slip of paper. “This restaurant.” I read an Italian name. “If there’s any problem, you come tell me.”

I nodded and opened my mouth, but before I could say a word he was out the door.

Fifteen minutes later, I made my way to the restaurant. The theater’s manager had insisted it was up to him, not to Phil Ochs, not to any performer, to decide who gets into a show, and for how much, and certainly whether or not to let anyone in for free. And no way was he letting this mob in for free. The crowd had reacted predictably, and I’d left the lobby ringing with chants of Powerrrrrrrr to the People!”

Another opening. I figured Phil and I would walk back to the theater together.

In the restaurant’s muted light it took me some time to find him at a back table, where he sat with some other adults and a little girl. His daughter? “Rehearsals for Retirement” popped into my head.

Had I known the end would end in laughter
I tell my daughter it doesn’t matter.

I noticed absently that his daughter’s hair was dark blond and straight, like mine.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said, moving over to where he could see me, “you wanted –”

“Who are you?” Startled, I looked around the table. The voice belonged to an older woman. She looked about sixty. His mother…?

I looked at Phil. “I – I came because he wanted –”

“Can’t you leave him alone?”

“I’m sorry –”

“They don’t leave him alone for a minute,” she said to the table in general, then turned back to me. “Can’t you at least let him eat?”

“But he asked me to let him know –”

“Let him eat!” She glared at me.

“They won’t let people into the second show,” I said quickly.

Phil looked exhausted. He was pale, and his voice shook. “Tell them I’ll come in a little bit and talk with the management.”

OK, I was about to say, Enjoy your dinner, when a strident voice drowned out the soft background music.

“Hey, man, this really sucks.” I looked over my shoulder; a group of young men had apparently followed me from the theater.

I would speak with Phil once more. He’d return to the theater later that evening to keep his promise, only to find the box office closed. He’d smash a furious fist through its window, badly hurting his hand. So he’d borrow mine, and I’d take down the names of those who wanted to attend the second show.

But there would be no more moments when I might say what I wanted so much to say to him.

I’d missed my chance. Just as I had with Daddy.

 

Friday, January 30, 1970

I was hoping for snow, but it was an exceptionally clear night. My father had taken my sister and me to dinner, without Lan. He drove us home without saying a word, and I realized suddenly that he hadn’t cracked a joke all evening. It felt strange; I’d gotten used to laughing through meals with him again.

We arrived at Four Stuyvesant Oval at about nine-thirty. Our red-brown brick building stood waiting for us, dusky and impassive in the crescent moon’s light. Ruth and I got out of the car for the transition back to Mom territory. Usually we’d give him a quick kiss through his rolled-down window before he drove off, but this time he killed the engine and got out with us. I shivered a little in the frozen air as he looked at us intently, then bent down and clasped Ruth to him. Eyes closed, face unreadable, he held her a very long time.

I flashed on a photograph he’d recently given each of us. Daddy, receding hair freshly cut, tie carefully adjusted, glasses angled to minimize glare. Daddy, without the slightest trace of a smile. “So you’ll have a picture of your old man,” he’d said.

Now, watching him holding Ruth, something strange was going on in the pit of my stomach. Strange, but somehow familiar. What was it?

It came to me. The only other time I’d felt like this was that Saturday four years before.

We were sitting on the bare floor of our small bedroom, absorbed in a game of Monopoly. Sleet crackled against the steamy windowpane; the radiator hissed; the colorful bills rustled as we counted them out. Suddenly we heard our father clearing his throat. He stood in the doorway; his face sadder than I’d ever seen it. “Come to the living room,” he said. “Your mother and I want to talk with you.”

I thought, They’re going to tell us they’re getting a divorce.

I’d been almost right. Our parents weren’t divorcing, but they were separating. He was leaving the next day.

Now, as he held Ruth in that long embrace, my inner telegraph was signaling again. Daddy Is Going Away. He and Lan are surely moving to North Vietnam. We’ll never see him again.

As he put his arms around me and hugged tighter than I could remember him ever holding me, I cried out, Daddy, don’t go! Don’t leave us!

Except that the words stayed in my head.

He took me by the shoulders. There was pain in his eyes, as if he could see the scream in mine, as if he knew I knew. But he gave us each one last silent kiss, and drove away.

The next afternoon, Ruth and I came home from a day of volunteering at the Student Coordination Committee to End the War in Vietnam to find our living room overflowing with relatives and family friends. Our mother took us into our bedroom and sat us down.

I’d been almost right, again.

This horrible country killed me – as it killed Lan – by betraying and befouling every possible decent aspect of life here through the crucifixion of an innocent, harmless people, he’d written in his note to Ruth and me. The note to our mother explained that he and Lan had been planning to leave the United States for North Vietnam, where they’d hoped to make their home. Hanoi had rejected their application, crushing the only reason they had left to stay in this world.

And I’d done nothing to stop him from leaving.

 

Don’t kill yourself, I’d wanted to say to Phil Ochs. You have a daughter.

During the six years from that ill-starred concert until the day Phil was found hanging from a short rope, I thought many times – often at first, then gradually less so – of writing him a letter saying just that. But where would I send it? I had no address for him. I knew of no more concerts. There were no more albums, either, after Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, a collection of the Ochs songs the audience had booed that night. (Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a live recording from that same concert, would be released in the United States only many years later.)

Time passed. Phil faded out of my life as I grew into it. I fell in love with my first boy, then the next, then the next. I finished high school, went off to college. I spoke about my father with one therapist, then another, then another.

It happened once or twice that a stranger approached me on a New York street and said shyly, almost reverentially, “Aren’t you the girl who held Phil Ochs’ guitar?” Uncomfortable with this derivative celebrity, such as it was, I simply nodded.

Pete Seeger came to Wesleyan toward the end of my senior year, a very short time after Phil’s death. When a friend had called me with the news about Phil, my heart had contracted. He did it. Just as I was afraid he would. He really did it. I’d been right once more. But I was busy with my senior thesis, and had few thoughts to spare for anything else. The raw fact – suicide – truly hit me only when the grandfather of folk and protest music sang one of Phil’s songs in his memory. “Changes,” I believe it was, one of my favorites. Thinking of words unspoken, I cried.

It was then that the vague and fleeting guilt I’d felt each time I contemplated that unwritten and unsent letter to Phil revived, took shape, and crystallized into the thought – irrational and illogical, I knew, but insistent nonetheless – that what I’d held in my hands all those years ago was not only Phil Ochs’ guitar, but his life.

 

Friday, June 24, 2011

It’s not often that Wikipedia changes one’s world. But that’s just what happens today, when I open the article on Phil Ochs. It describes his career, of course, and lists his albums. There’s even a separate sub-heading for 1970, which describes his gold-suited concert tour – Carnegie hadn’t been the only concert at which “his fans didn’t know how to respond,” as Wiki put it delicately – and the beginning of his sharp emotional and professional decline.

But I know most of that even before I open the page. And it’s hardly surprising to learn that Phil suffered from alcoholism, that he sometimes needed drugs to help him get through performances. The discovery that blows me away is that he was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And other severe psychiatric problems. Wiki, again:

In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Ochs, and that he, John Butler Train, had replaced him. Train was convinced that someone was trying to kill him, so he carried a weapon at all times: a hammer, a knife, or a lead pipe.

Ochs’ drinking became more and more of a problem, and his behavior became increasingly erratic…. [His] friends tried to help him. His brother Michael attempted to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Friends pleaded with him to get help voluntarily. They feared for his safety, because he was getting into fights with bar patrons. Unable to pay his rent, he began living on the streets.

After several months, the Train persona faded and Ochs returned, but his talk of suicide disturbed his friends and family. They hoped it was a passing phase, but Ochs was determined.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I see a girl standing in a crowded, chaotic theater lobby, clutching a guitar to her chest and brimming with a mission to save this man. I see this man, whose biology has already begun to betray him, whose brain will convince him in only a few short years that he’s been murdered, that his murderer has stolen his self.

Could any of his selves have heard her, then or ever?

Could my father?

 

 

 

BIO

Susan AvitzourSusan (Sara) Avitzour has published stories online and in the print anthology Israel Short Stories. Her full-length memoir, And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, chronicles her daughter Timora’s struggle to lead a normal life as she battled leukemia, and her own journey first with, then without her daughter after Timora died at the age of eighteen.

This year she will receive a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University, and is currently working on her first novel.

Born in Brooklyn, Susan moved to Israel in 1980 and settled in Jerusalem, where she and her husband raised seven children. Over the course of her adult life she worked as a lawyer, mediator, grant-writer, and translator. At the age of fifty, she returned to school to become a clinical social worker, and now practices as a psychotherapist.

 

 

Kyle Mustain

The Opposite of Suicide

By Kyle Mustain

 

DropCapMrockSmally first day as a substitute was six weeks after the second worst mass shooting by a single person in US history. This one took place in a school building, as many of them do anymore. There was a point during my second block, just after I had sent the students to work on their news-gathering quizzes in the computer lab—a secluded room off a small hidden hallway on the second floor of the building—when I asked myself, What would I do if there was a shooter?

I looked around the room, which had not changed much at all since I had gone to school here fifteen years ago. There was still a tube television hanging in the corner, a relic from when Channel One donated TVs to all of our public schools in the early 90s. The computers are all connected to the Internet, something perhaps less than a dozen computers in the school could do when I went here.

In this computer lab and the traditional classroom adjoining it, there seemed no obvious way to protect ourselves. We’d have to come up with something clever, like barricading the desks against the door, which swung out, not in, but the desks could block the shooter or shooters from entering the room, I guess. We’d have to hide along the walls, out of visibility from the door. But if the shooter came in from the door on the computer lab side, we’d be sitting ducks.

Maybe we could devise a way to climb down to the courtyard. The cord from the air conditioner—would it hold? It doesn’t seem too far a drop. We would have to risk broken legs just to get down to the courtyard, where the doors are locked, but made of glass. We’d have to break through them, then run out the front entrance to safety.

But how would I know it was safe on the first floor? There could be several intruders in the building, some of whom could be stationed at the front door to prevent us from escaping. Or the front entrance could be booby trapped. I wouldn’t know anything in that situation. I wouldn’t know what to do besides wait and hope the shooters don’t come into our room.

What if they did? I ask myself if I would stand in front of a gun for these young people.

 * * *

The problem was the scenario I was running through in my head was the one I’ve played out hundreds of times: two shooters, running through the hallways, tossing homemade bombs, firing sawed-off shotguns. I was eighteen when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to their high school one Tuesday morning and proceeded to kill twelve of their classmates, one teacher, and injured twenty-four others.

The Columbine massacre was the first mass shooting of its kind. Not the first school shooting, by any means. Those happened quite frequently in the late nineties. But Harris and Klebold’s massacre was the first to play out over live TV. In real time. It happened on April 20th, which just so happens to be a pot-smoking holiday. Eric and Dylan’s attack on their high school and 4/20 was purely coincidental. So is the fact that Hitler’s birthday is April 20th. None of these things had anything to do with the other.

Harris was the brains behind the operation. He had been planning the massacre for eighteen months. It was supposed to happen on April 19th, the Monday after Prom. Eric and Dylan had to wait one extra day, though, for their friend to come through with one more box of bullets, and perhaps they also, understandably, had a case of cold feet. If the massacre had occurred on April 19th instead of April 20th, there would be no inclination of the media to speculate it had some cryptic link to Nazism or Weed.

Eric picked the date of April 19th, 1999 because it was the fourth anniversary of the largest domestic terrorist bombing in US history at the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The Columbine massacre was never meant to be a school shooting. Eric and Dylan were equipped with guns just in case they had to shoot people, but their intention had always been to blow up the building. They wanted to outdo the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. They hoped the bombs inside Columbine would kill hundreds more.

  * * *

After my first day as a sub I learned to relax. My teaching style, or “subbing” style, more accurately, is laid back. I moved back to my hometown during my last semester of grad school, and started doing this because the school district was hurting for subs. I never thought I would go into teaching, in fact I had terrible anxiety about it, but not seeing how else I was going to make a living, I registered. All that registering requires is a college degree, a $149 fee, and a background check. Criminal background check. They did not check my school records.

Just after that first day, I somehow came to be known as the “cool sub.” Probably because I’m young. Although I don’t consider 32 that young. It’s probably more because I act young. But I wonder if maybe it has something to do with my experience in high school.

I was outed when I was seventeen. I had only told a handful of friends and my immediate family about my sexuality, but after a few months, that little bubble of people could no longer contain such a large secret. My best friend told his other best friend, and then he told a group of guys who decided to use it to hurt me. They showed up to school early one day, approached several gossipy girls, and enlisted them to spread the word around school that my friend Chadand I were gay for each other. I knew about this ahead of time because they phoned me the night before to inform me “the whole school” was about to find out about me.

I don’t remember that day very clearly, as I’m sure no one under such duress would choose to hold on to such an experience. The only details I can recall are that by second period I started noticing people looking at me differently. By third period people who I usually said “Hey” to every day looked away from me. That much was to be expected, I guess. But what really took me by surprise was how the faculty reacted, which was exactly the same as the students—whispers and funny looks. From that day forward I was not taken seriously as a student anymore. That was how the remainder of my high school experience played out. This whole school turned its back on me.

I started skipping school. I got high all the time. I got in fights. I got suspended. I called a teacher a bitch to her face. I quit all my extracurricular activities.My grades didn’t just slump, they plummeted. After the first time I was arrested, the rest of my teachers were pretty much done with me. I became a pariah. My friends’ parents didn’t want them hanging out with me. I graduated early my senior year.

The thing is, I wasn’t alone. My class held the record for the most studentsto graduate at midterm from my high school. The school district responded the next year by changing the requirements for graduation, rendering it harder for students to graduate early, because it looked bad that so many of us wanted out of school. They did this instead of asking themselves why we fled.

My teenage years were a lot of seriously undue stress and bullshit. They really didn’t have to be. I was so disaffected by mine, I was on antidepressants from the age of 16 to 25. The other day I had to yell at a class to be quiet after the bell rang, and it dawned on me that ten years ago I would have been so numb from meds, raising my voice like that would have been a herculean effort for me. What I’m getting at is it took me years to become an adult. I spent the first half of my twenties getting over shit that happened to me in high school. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  * * *

The next time I subbed at the high school was two days after one of the senior class members got in his car under the influence of drugs and alcohol at eight-thirty in the morning on a Sunday and drove his car kamikaze-style down one of the busiest streets in town. Witnesses said he had to have been going over a hundred miles per hour by the point he lost control, ran off the road into a vacant parking lot, hit an embankment, went airborne, rolled and was ejected from the vehicle. He was declared dead four hours later at a nearby hospital.

Everyone was calling it a suicide. It had to have been. But why so close to graduation?

That was only my second time subbing at the high school, and it was for the same teacher. The first thing I did when I got in that morning was check to see if the young man who died had been in any of the classes I had subbed for. He hadn’t been, but the teacher had circled the photos of the students on the class roster who had been friends with him and left instructions that they had each taken the past couple days off school, that they were to be excused if they asked to go to the nurse, no questions asked. I noted to myself how they all kind of looked like him. Long hair, jaded. I mean jaded to the point it is humorous how unmistakable it is.

Who’s taking care of these kids?

  * * *

Eric and Dylan went into the building with their guns only after the large bombs they’d planted in the cafeteria didn’t detonate. Ideally the explosions would have caused the commons area over the cafeteria to collapse, burying the inhabitants inside. The bombs were supposed to cause structural damage and start fires throughout the building, killing hundreds within minutes. Eric and Dylan were going to perch themselves outside with their guns, and pick people off one by one as they tried to reach safety outside of the burning building.

Reading about Eric and Dylan, I see a lot of similarities between them and some guys I grew up with, who beginning in middle school started becoming outcasts. By the time we were in high school these guys and other guys and girls like them came together and they all gradually got into punk rock, thrash metal, death metal, hardcore hip-hop, hardcore techno, industrial, etc. Although these sub-genres of rock have their rivalries, they share the core emotion, which is anger; deep-seated anger that seeks to expose the injustices and hypocrisies of the system within which we live. That kind of cynicism is something that comes about once a person has been thrust outside the status quo.

This group of guys I knew started wearing black leather jackets. They decided since they were social outcasts, then their clothes had to be in open defiance of what our classmates wore.

In retrospect I realize they were part of the popular clique in the beginning of middle school, but as time progressed and cliques began to solidify, these guys were phased out of the clique. They used to get invited to all the popular parties, sit with us at sporting events, but then something just happened. A turn came about in middle school when these guys were no longer invited to things, and it totally wasn’t by their own volition. It was the popular kids deciding to not ask them around anymore. I think it was because they were considered not as good-looking, and a little too awkward around members of the opposite sex. Their tastes in movies, music, and popular culture were not as “advanced.” They were still into comic books and toys when other guys were making the shift to popular music, gold necklaces, and cologne. These guys got left behind. That scorn manifested into rage.

They acted out violently, but it was subdued. They started drinking at a younger age than everybody else, and drank more often. They mostly hung around each other, didn’t have much interest in traditional courtship rituals such as “going steady,” “Homecoming,” and “date rape.” They were just punks. A typical Friday night for them would have been a shared bottle of cheap vodka and some petty vandalism. Telling the world to go fuck itself.

That’s how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their group of friends were. That’s how they were treated by their peers, and that’s how they came to be that way. I see that all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. People who go through that kind of ostracism from their peers, while they do suffer severe angst, it builds them into the people they will become. Many of these outsiders will use that pain to branch out from their peers. We need the radicals. We just need a better way of showing them they have a function in society. By we, I mean teachers. We must not make enemies of our outsider students.

  * * *

At the beginning of the new school year, a teacher requested for me to be his substitute for a week while he went out of state for his daughter to have a lifesaving surgery. I had by this point gained a glowing reputation with both students and teachers alike. It meant a lot to me that he thought to ask me to take over for him during such a sensitive time for his family. It was a weeklong subbing job, and I decided I was going to really devote myself to being an almost-full-time teacher.

Before the morning bell on the second day of the job, a student came into my classroom and asked me if I found his shirt offensive. It was brown-orange—the color of a basketball—and said in black letters: BALL EVERY DAY. A Nike Swoosh hung at the end of the sentence like a punctuation mark.

I thought it over. Testicle every day? I asked him in a protective way, “Are people calling you gay?”

He answered, “No.” He clearly didn’t see how the shirt was offensive, either.

“Then I don’t see anything wrong with it,” I told him.

Then he told me it was a teacher, not a student who was offended by the shirt. She told him to turn it inside-out. He asked me if he had to. I told him as long as he was in my class he didn’t have to. Then I rolled up my sleeves and told him an anecdote about the same thing happening to me when I was his age. I had worn a shirt that said WHAT THE HELL YOU LOOKING AT? to school several times, without bothering anyone. Most teachers didn’t even notice it. Some even thought it was funny. But all it took was one teacher who disagreed with the word “hell” and I wasn’t allowed to wear it to school anymore.

“So just lay low for the rest of the day,” I told him, “Make sure that specific teacher doesn’t see you again.” We had a laugh about it. I felt like we had established a bond.

As the first warning bell was sounding, the door at the back of the classroom swung open. The teacher from the next room was standing in the storage area that connected our classrooms. She’s a middle-aged woman I had found very accommodating over the past two days of the job. We’d even palled around a little between classes. She waved me over.

When I got to the back of the room, she leaned over and whispered, “Your student Diego is wearing a shirt that has a double entendre on it.” She sounded like she felt smart for using the term double entendre, like we were using some kind of secret adult code.

“Yeah, I saw, it,” I answered, “BALL EVERY DAY?”

“Yes!” she inflected outrage through her whisper-voice, and looked at me like I was supposed to feel outraged too.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see it,” I told her.

She assured me, “It’s a double entendre. You’ve got to make him turn it inside-out.”

I couldn’t help making an annoyed face, because this was truly annoying. I knew she was wrong. But I nodded and said, “Okay.” I sent the poor guy to his counselor because it’s my job. I don’t have the authority to go up against an actual teacher.

A minute later I was suffering through the “Moment of Silence” and “Pledge of Allegiance.” Anyone with eyes and ears can scan a classroom and tell who is into it and who is not. The girl with the blond ponytail and the shirt with 1 JOHN 4:14 looks severely into “The Moment of Silence,” belts out “The Pledge.” The boy with the dark circles under his eyes and the CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS hoodie puts his head down reluctantly during “The Moment,” yawns through “The Pledge.”

Sometimes I look down during “The Moment,” out of respect for whatever it is I’m supposed to be paying respect to. Other times I walk silently about the room, handing out papers. I’m not in any violation. “The Moment of Silence” is not mandatory. I usually do “The Pledge,” although I don’t know why. Partly to check if I still have it memorized after all these years, but also because I like to analyze how aesthetically unappealing of poem it is—Is it even a poem? “The Pledge,” in its staccato cadence has a braiwashy vibe to it I didn’t catch onto when I was younger. Forcing people to say it every day sounds like something out of a Hitler Youth manual. Even if we don’t have to say it, the words get into our brains like a bad pop song.

I don’t remember having to say “The Pledge” after the fourth or fifth grade. There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in it after the turn of the century. There was no such thing as a daily “Moment of Silence” when I was student, either. These poor young people. I had it so much better than them.

All these two rituals do is create two minutes of awkwardness for the two thousand people standing in the school, parsing us into our ideological groups before we even have a chance to begin what should be the impartial process of education. They only take about two minutes, but these are the two minutes that start off our day.

I scanned the shirts people were wearing: Duck Dynasty, Sons of Anarchy, Monster Energy Drink, DRIVEN TO WIN, AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT, SWAG OVER EVERYTHING. One girl was wearing a memorial t-shirt for the student who committed suicide the previous spring. The shirt of the boy next to her said NO TURNING BACK. Another had a drawing of a dog with a musical note coming out of its behind. The musical note was upside-down.

I located The School District’s Dress Code hangingon the wall behind me. It is posted in every classroom. And it’s vague. I’m guessing intentionally so. What constitutes pajamas? There was a girl right in front of me wearing a teal hoodie and gray sweatpants, which are essentially what I wear to bed in the winter. Should I bust her for looking like a slob? Why would someone do such a thing to someone else? To exert my power over her? Be an asshole just because I can?

The boy who had the BALL EVERY DAY shirt came back in with a shirt that had the high school mascot on it. It was creased like it just came out of a package. I gave him a sympathetic look. Oddly enough, just fifteen minutes before the incident, Diego and I had bumped into each other on the way to school. He had yelled out to me, “Hey, Mr. Mustain!” as he was crossing the street adjacent to me. We biked together for half a block. He asked what we were doing in class that day. “Just watching a movie,” I said, then apologized that I had to speed ahead because I was running late.

He seemed like a cool enough kid. I’m guessing his shirt meant he likes to play basketball every day because he enjoys it, even though he isn’t good enough to play on the school team. Plus he bikes to school. Hardly anyone does anymore. I’ve never seen more than ten bikes on the rack in front of the school. Ten people out of two thousand bike to school. Diego isn’t lazy.

I was pulling the TV cart away from the wall and putting the MythBusters DVD into the player when the vice principal showed up outside my door. I feigned a smile at her, and gave a, “What can I do for you, Ms. Fra—,” then corrected myself, “Mrs. Bennedetti.” I almost always call her by her maiden name, the name she went by when I was in school here.

She waved me over without making a sound. That’s a surefire way to clue everyone in on the fact that she has something to say to me that the students aren’t allowed to hear.

“I just received an e-mail from Mrs. Frega telling me that one of your students was wearing a T-shirt that has a double entendre on it.”

FUCK MY LIFE

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you make him turn it inside-out?”

“He asked to go to his guidance counselor. When he came back he was wearing a different t-shirt.”

“Okay, great! Thanks for helping out!” She always tells me, “Thanks for helping out!” whenever she sees me. It makes me feel like I don’t actually work here.

She came from the office, in the front of the school, to the science hall, which is in the back of the building, just to make sure I, the substitute, was following orders.

After Vice Principal Bennedetti left, I turned on the Mythbusters DVD, and headed to the back of the room with my coffee thermos and notebook. I started recording everything that had just transpired because I was fuming pissed. I put two things together from Mrs. Bennedetti’s visit to my classroom. Number one, Mrs. Frega must have e-mailed her with concern that I was not being compliant. Number two was that Mrs. Bennedetti might have come to dig up old grudges with me.

I sat in the back of the room so the students couldn’t see how tense I was. I was holding myself back from overturning the table, screaming, maybe even bursting into tears. Instead I sat and stewed and couldn’t help but stare at the back of a young girl’s bright orange t-shirt saying to me: WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

  * * *

Eric Harris was a psychopathic murderer with a god-complex. Dylan Klebold was a depressive who sometimes lashed out violently. Eric was a charismatic manipulator who told people exactly what they wanted to hear. Dylan wanted to be noticed. He wanted to fall in love, got his heart broken over and over again. Eric wanted to fuck girls. Eric hated everyone, probably even Dylan. Dylan planned to commit suicide. Eric wanted to annihilate mankind. Dylan had brown hair. Eric was blond. Dylan was good at a lot of things, among them writing stories. Eric was a genius.

I was a depressive. I laid in bed for hours at a time listening to sad songs on repeat. I was addicted to sadness. All I wanted was for someone to understand me. Every time I reached out to someone I thought maybe did, it ended in more disappointment. I realized I was gay by the age of twelve, but I tried to push it out of my thoughts. I felt guilty about it. Thought I could overcome it. I thought I was going to go to hell. Getting over that self-hatred is a process that takes several years. There is no doubt in my mind that has a long-term effect on a person’s psyche.

The night after the whole world found out I was gay I went up to my room, turned off the lights, unplugged my alarm clock and VCR to make the room the darkest it could get. I laid under the covers, crying in cold sweat. I wanted to kill myself. But that wasn’t really anything new. I had been having that fight with myself off and on since the age of twelve, and I’d gotten quite good at talking myself out of it. Although this time the pressure was more extreme, more public. I guess it would have made a statement if I killed myself, but that felt too much like what people would have expected from me. Like, oh god, the guys who outed me would have to live the rest of their lives with that terrible thing hanging over their heads. But who would be the real loser in that situation? Me! I still wanted to fucking live, damn it! That would have sucked for my family too, but really at that moment I was probably thinking my family could go fuck themselves, too. All that mattered was what was going on in my life, at that very moment, and how I was going to get out of it alive.

I probably spent at least an hour fantasizing about taking guns to school. My dad has several. I knew where he hid them and where he kept the bullets. That would have been really fucking easy. In fact, it would be so fucking easy to shoot up a school it’s a fucking joke. I laid there going over the fantasy in my head, playing it over and over in different scenarios. Which door should I go in? Which hallway would I see the most people I hated? Was I going to kill just Nate and Scott, or should I go all-out and try to take out as many people as I could? I would have to—just have to—take out the administrators. Otherwise what would be the point?

Every time I went over it, it got more and more complicated. There was no way it would have transpired as good as the way it worked in my dark little day dreams. I knew how that all worked out, the fantasizing of things. The two times I’d had sex were revolting, awkward affairs, nowhere near as good as the hundreds of suave, silky scenarios I’d been masturbating to for the better part of a decade. The two times I’d had sex were so bad I never thought back to them, pushed them far into the deep catacombs of my mind. I understood that fantasies are idealized realities. Perfection is a fantasy. That’s what makes fantasies so special over reality: we can perfect them, easily. Reality takes hard work if you want to realize your fantasies, or at least come close.

In bed that night I understood shooting up the school was going to take a lot of hard work and planning. I’d have to learn to use a gun, build bombs, rehearse, and get my body in shape and shit. I’d have to enlist some friends to help out, and all that seduction over to the dark side shit would have taken a lot of mental preparation. It was a long term solution for a short term problem.

As I was still lying in the pitch dark of my room, I forced myself to start thinking more positively. There had to be a better way out of this; a way to knock those bastards on their asses and dispel the rumor about me. It’s hard to explain sparks of inspiration, where they come from. I think lying there in bed and going through all the bloody scenarios, the really dark shit, was necessary for me to gradually climb up out of and find the positive solution.

As the plan started to come together in my mind, I sat up in bed, after what was probably two hours of sulking. I switched on the lights, plugged my appliances back in, and got to work.

  * * *

Nearing the end of the first block it dawned on me what the boldest, most fitting course of action should be: I should ask Diego if I can buy the BALL EVERY DAY shirt from him.

Do I put it on right then? No, I better take it home and wash it. Wear it tomorrow? No, I have two more days on this subbing job. I need this whole paycheck. Friday. I’ll put it on just before first block begins. The students will love it. By second block they’ll spread it around. “Mr. Mustain is wearing a t-shirt that a teacher told a student he couldn’t wear!” How fast will the teachers start reporting me? Will the principal come during second or third block, or will I make it all the way to fourth? Will he pull me out of class and replace me with a faculty member or an administrator? Will they bring the police? Will I be led out of school in handcuffs?

I don’t put anything past them.

There will be an article in the newspaper. Reporters will call me for a statement. Will it go beyond the town? National news? Bill O’Reilly? Rachel Maddow?

Before anything like that happens, I’ll have to deal with the town. Immediate firing. That I can count on. But then there would be the public shunning. I’ll probably have to cancel my membership to the YMCA after all the scornful looks and fathomable vandalism to the things in my locker. I know those gestures won’t hurt me or bother me as much as the looks of sympathy I’d get from other people; people who agree with me, but don’t want to stand by me; not what I did.

I can’t do it. I need this job too badly.

I resign to push it down. Think of the money. Pick your battles. Forget about it and think about the lesson plans for the next two days. I’ll look for another job. Maybe this frustration is a sign it’s time to move on. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.

The back of that girl’s fucking shirt keeps asking me:

WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

            * * *

All three of us were journal writers. Eric called his “The Book of God.” Dylan titled each of his entries individually, and were structured like mine: name, date and title in the righthand margin, then title again, centered above the text. I titled mine, “Final Thoughts,” a morbid joke that they all would add up to one epic suicide note.

I want to say we just wrote about the same themes, that I didn’t go to the extreme Eric did, but the thing is I explored my dark side thoroughly. So did a lot of my friends. In fact I’m willing to bet most adolescent boys have secret projects. One student showed me YouTube videos of some BMX ramps he and his friends built. That reminded me of when my younger brother and his friends made improvised horror films and one summer even built a wrestling ring complete with ropes in our parents’ backyard. Some of my friends in high school found a bunch of dead squirrels and made a funny video of a hand puppet beating them up. They would show it at parties. Those are all ways we burned off some innate hunger for violence. Sure some of them were unsettling, but they were within the bounds of reason.

Eric was really into the German hardcore techno band KMFDM[1]. Eric and Dylan may have listened to Marilyn Manson, but his music had nowhere near the influence over them that the media made it out to be. That gives Marilyn Manson way too much credit. Come on. Eric and Dylan were too smart to buy into that.

I’ve been listening to the early KMFDM albums Eric and Dylan would have listened to. The lyrics seem very pointed. If I had to hazard a guess, the lyrics of their first album must be directed at a handful of specific individuals. The same as Eric or Dylan’s journals would have been. The same as most people’s journals are at that age. When a person writes a love poem, it is generally towards one person, right? We’ve all had unrequited love, right? So when one writes rage poems, they must be no different. They are probably very often towards a specific target. Can we call it unrequited rage? How about unfulfillable rage? Somebody you never got to kill or do some kind of terrible harm to, whether physical or psychological. I don’t see this as being indicative of psychopathic behavior. I think it’s venting. It’s channeling rage into creative energy. It’s sublimation. Isn’t this is why we create art;to feel like we have obtained things which are unobtainable?

Because I am a writer, I wrote. Because I am a depressive, I didn’t share my stories. But I wanted the world to end, thought everyone needed to die so I could start humanity over again, my way. I just never took it to the next level. I wanted to kill people, but I have never killed anyone. I never even got as far as plotting a murder. I grew out of it. It wore off. Somehow. But what I can’t help wondering about, sifting through all the information I can gather about Dylan and Eric, is what series of events could have possibly led to me deciding to make my fantasy a reality? What would have pushed me over to fully functioning homicidal artist?

  * * *

In the hall the other day a young man walked by me, mimed like he was holding a shotgun, took aim at me through his sites, then threw his shoulders back from the imaginary gun’s blowback. His lips puckered, let out a “poof.” This is not even a student who I’ve had to discipline. This is one of the ones I get along with.

Some students joked about finding their Math teacher’s house and toilet papering it. He joked back, “If you do find my house, let me warn you, I do support the Second Amendment.” He more or less told a group of 14 year-olds that he would shoot them if they came on his property and threatened to ruin his Saturday.

The school secretary and Bennedetti were excited, describing the reconstruction of the high school in the next town over. These two were gawking out, jaws agape, eyes wide. I asked what the big deal was. The secretary answered, “All of the hallways are going to be curved.”

“Well that sounds pretty fancy,” I said, expecting this to be a discussion of the artistry of interior design.

The secretary added, “It’s so the shooters won’t have a straight shot at anyone.”

I looked puzzled.

“So when people are running from them, they will be going along the curve instead of straight. They’ll keep turning and it will be harder for the shooters to aim.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day wasted 5-10 minutes of every class in the entire school district. It came off as a shameless PR ploy by the School Board in the weeks following the George Zimmerman verdict to proclaim: “We’re not racists.” The school board is composed of middle-aged, upper middle-class white people.

We spend more time telling kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking than we do teaching them how to identify the lower half of the periodic table of elements.

When teaching a shop class a student asked me in front of the entire class what kind of cigarettes I smoke. I made a snap judgement, decided that I admired his boldness, and gave him an answer. Then I asked him which brand he smoked, and everyone in the class announced which brands they liked. We discussed the qualities of all the different brands. I urged them if they had the extra money, to get American Spirits because they lacked the harmful additives other tobacco companies put into their cigarettes, but I understand how expensive they are. The rest of that block went smoothly. I won them over by not pretending to be something I’m not, something above them. They respected me for my candor.

I noticed a boy texting one day. He asked what my cellphone policy was. The school’s cellphone policy is gestapo-esque. Something like I’m supposed to seize it from him. Second offense is automatic suspension. Each teacher has her own policy, though. We had just taken a test and had literally nothing to do to fill up the rest of class time, so I really didn’t care. Why not let them play around? Why jump to the assumption they’re doing something sinister with them? I’ve seen just as many students reading the news on their phones or exploring Reddit as I have playing video games. I have never caught a student watching porn.

Then he said to me, “I’m actually texting my mom.” That seemed unexpected, but it was better than his buddy waiting outside with the artillery.

What was he texting his mom about? That morning on his drive to school he thought he saw his friend out of the corner of his eye, sitting in the shotgun seat next to him. He had been friends with the boy who killed himself last spring.

He had hesitated telling me, but for some reason decided I was someone he could tell this to. He had hair down to his neck, black baggy jeans with a chain wallet, and the emblem of some alien-themed band on his charcoal shirt. He told me he sees his friend all the time and it freaks him out. “What does it mean?” he asked me.

I told him, “Just the other day, I thought of something really funny that my good friend and I used to say. An inside joke we had, right? Well, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, and I was just about to text him when I realized I don’t even have him in my contacts. He committed suicide twelve years ago. He died before there even was such a thing as text messaging, and yet the other day I tried to send him a text. I guess what I’m saying, man, is it never really goes away.” I gave him the best possible answer I could give him, which was the one that was not fully thought out.

I haven’t talked to him since that day, but I see him in the halls every now and then. He usually looks pretty happy. A young person’s mood can switch on and off like a light bulb, though. I remember that. I have no way of knowing if what I said that day helped him. I just wait for moments like that to happen.

            * * *

Brooks Brown was Dylan Klebold’s best friend until Eric Harris moved to Columbine in middle school. For a while they were a threesome, but Eric didn’t like Brooks, and a tug-of-war was waged over Dylan. Brooks remained on-again, off-again friends with the pair in the intervening years, but it was clear Eric had won Dylan.

After the massacre, Brooks was contacted by a young journalist named Rob Merritt, who felt empathetic to Brooks’ plight to get his story out about Eric and Dylan. Three years after the attack they published a book about Columbine from his point of view. It’s a fascinating dynamic these two have. Merritt is four or five years older than Brooks, Eric and Dylan, so he was not far removed from the experience of high school when the attack occurred. And he seems to have the same taste in popular culture and worldview as them (Insane Clown Posse is mentioned a lot).

Merritt’s teaming up with Brown doesn’t feel exploitive. Instead the book reads like a better-educated, better-connected older brother, just a few years more mature than the younger brother, coming in to lend a hand and help him tell his story in a structured, presentable manner. It’s biased as hell, but how could it not be? Brooks was indirectly involved in the massacre just from being good friends with Eric and Dylan. He was notoriously the only person Eric told to leave before they planted the bombs in the cafeteria. Eric spared him because he was a kindred soul.

If you want a clearer picture of what was going on with Eric and Dylan, then you cannot ignore what Brooks has to say:

 

“The problem was that the bullies were popular with the administration. Meanwhile, we were the ‘trouble kids’ because we didn’t seem to fit in with the grand order of things. Kids who played football were doing what you’re supposed to do in high school. Kids like us, who dressed a little differently and were into different things, made teachers nervous. They weren’t interested in reaching out to us. They wanted to keep us at arm’s length, and if they had the chance to take us down, they would.”

  * * *

He describes a school where teachers got swept up in the jock-nerd-normal-freak-popular-unpopular-cool-uncool paradigm, and argues that while Eric and Dylan were responsible for their own atrocious actions, “Columbine [was] responsible for creating Eric and Dylan.”

Brown and Merritt spend a lot of time speculating about “The Basement Tapes.” The police confiscated videotapes with approximately three hours of footage of Eric and Dylan outfitting themselves, testing out their weapons, and leaving behind testimonials explaining why they were going to attack the school. The Basement Tapes—named because most of the footage was shot in their basements—have never been released to the public. Only select members of the press have seen them, and Brooks Brown’s mother and father, who were not invited to the screening, but barged their way in, threatening court action if they were not allowed to watch.

The Jefferson County sheriff’s department’s transcripts of The Basement Tapes can now be found online, but the entire footage still remains locked away. This is a description of part of the second Basement Tape from the Rocky Mountain News “War Is War,” December 13, 1999:

They explain over and over why they want to kill as many people as they can. Kids taunted them in elementary school, in middle school, in high school. Adults wouldn’t let them strike back, to fight their tormentors, the way such disputes once were settled in schoolyards. So they gritted their teeth. And their rage grew. “It’s humanity,” Klebold says, flipping an obscene gesture toward the camera. “Look at what you made,” he tells the world. “You’re fucking shit, you humans, and you deserve to die.” … They speak at length about all the people who wronged them. “You’ve given us shit for years,” Klebold says. “You’re fucking going to pay for all the shit. We don’t give a shit because we’re going to die doing it.”

  * * *

Eric and Dylan planned to die in the attack.

This is Brooks’ description of the video, secondhand from his mother’s account of it:

Dylan asks Eric if he thinks the cops will listen to the entire video. Eric replies that he believes the cops will chop the video up into little pieces, “and the police will just show the public what they want it to look like.” They suggest delivering the videos to TV stations right before the attack. After all, they want people to know that they feel they have reasons.

“We are but aren’t psycho,” they say.

Dylan promises his parents that there was nothing they could have done to stop him. According to the Rocky Mountain News article “War Is War,” “You can’t understand what we feel,” he says. “You can’t understand, no matter how much you think you can.”

The Rocky Mountain News quoted Eric as offering praise for his parents. “My parents are the best fucking parents I have ever known,” he says. “My dad is great. I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I don’t have any remorse, but I do. This is going to tear them apart.They will never forget it.”

According to police reports, Eric expresses regret on another tape as well. He recorded one segment while driving alone in his car. “It’s a weird feeling, knowing you’re going to be dead in two and a half weeks,” he says to the camera. He talks about the co-workers he will miss, and says he wishes he could have revisited Michigan and “old friends.” The officer who viewed this tape wrote that, “at this point he becomes silent and appears to start crying, wiping a tear from the side of his face…[H]e reaches toward the camera and shuts it off.”

Their final tape is less than two minutes long. Eric, behind the camera, tells Dylan, “Say it now.”

“Hey, Mom. Gotta go,” Dylan says to the camera. “It’s about half an hour before our little judgment day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate as far as [inaudible] or something. Just know that I’m going to a better place than here. I didn’t like life too much and I know I’ll be happier wherever the fuck I go. So I’m gone.”

  * * *

They sound as if they had reached enlightenment. They believed they were dying for a just cause. I believe the reason the Basement Tapes have never been shown to the public is because Eric and Dylan show remorse for what they are about to do.

  * * *

Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want a boyfriend?

That’s the string of questions I get, an algorithm they’ve designed to figure out what kind of a person I am. I know it isn’t designed specifically to discover if I’m gay, but that is one of the possible outcomes. I like to think Brad, a student teacher who is 10 years younger than me, has it easy because he’s engaged to a female. But then I realize their algorithm would just lead to dozens of annoying questions about his fiancé. So maybe I am better off.

Note to self: Come up with clever, condescending answer to the question, “Do you want a boyfriend?” I get extra points if the answer is condescending because if my answer makes the question seem silly, it will cause everyone to laugh, thus putting an end to the line of questioning. I get asked about my tattoo and earrings on a daily basis. It took me six months to come up with this: “Is that a tattoo?” “No, it’s an ink bracelet.”

It’s only a matter of time before someone wises up and asks, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I don’t know what I would answer if a student asked me that. Do I wait to cross that bridge when I come to it, or do I prepare an answer? Why am I putting off coming up with an answer? WHAT KIND OF A PERSON AM I?

A student asked me straight-up if the teacher I was subbing for smokes pot. I told him I didn’t know her that well. When I recounted this story to my mother, she said what she would have said was, “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” I don’t like that answer—even though it did pop into my head—because it implies that I do know. I think if Ms. X does smoke pot, then there are very few colleagues who know about it, if any. A teacher busted with marijuana would be an automatic firing, likely a career-ender. Whereas in my case, being gay is no longer a crime, but the ice on the slope upon which I tread is both thin and slippery.

I read a recent story about a cross country coach in Colorado who came out of the closet to his school board. They told him he could keep his coaching job, on the condition he no longer go into the men’s locker room while the male team members were dressing. This coach was forced to change in a men’s room separate from the locker room until the assistant coach, who identified as straight, came to tell him all the male team members were fully clothed.

I don’t understand things like that. If I go to the YMCA they don’t have a separate locker room for gay men and women. I have had to teach gym classes, and it has been expected of me to watch over the men’s locker room. Every time I think to myself, If the people in charge knew about me, they wouldn’t want me doing this. At the same time I’m also thinking, I’m not a pervert.

Young people have changed, I suppose. Highlights, earrings, hipster attire. All of the things that elicited catcalls of faggot in my day, that only the brave dared adorn in the name of fashion and individuality, are now commonplace and perhaps even worse, crafted by moms. Sure the adolescents now have been brought up in the “information age” and therefore “interface” with the world more than they experience it. They’re exposed to more sexually graphic and violent media than any generation before them. If you just talk to them, though, you’ll find out they’re not that different than we were. I don’t think anyone looked at my class in the 90s and said, “Yep, they’re exactly like the students in the 80s, 70s, 60s. Not a single thing has changed.”

The generation I am teaching have been watching Glee for the past four years, were brought up on reruns of Will & Grace. It’s not uncommon for students to come out as early as middle school. Teachers have told me to “keep an eye out” for same-sex couples holding hands, that if I catch them kissing I’m supposed to enforce the same rules we have for everybody. These teachers roll their eyes about it, say these students are simply going through “phases;” trying to get attention and piss off their parents. It’s the equivalent of what was said about interracial couples when I was in high school, which is now much more common.

I just don’t know where my place is, as a substitute. I’m not going to run into classes and announce I’m gay. But what if something gay comes up, topically, during class? Can I talk to them about my experiences as a gay man? Can I point out gay subtext in books? Or when I know an author is gay? Or historical figures? No one has ever had this conversation with me.

Let me explain how my job works. If a teacher has called in sick during the evening or early morning, the school district’s personnel coordinator will call me between six and seven-AM and ask if I am available to sub that day. We also schedule ahead of time, if a teacher has requested time off. The more I answer my phone in the morning and show that I am reliable, the more the personnel director will continue calling me. The more I teach and have favorable comments made about me from students, teachers, teaching aides, and front office workers, whomever it is I work with, the more I get called for work. My job is dependent upon my performance.

I feel good about giving back to the community. I find it immensely rewarding to help educate young people. What frightens me is ever losing my job for censorship reasons. For misspeaking. For my sociopolitical and religious beliefs, and having those misconstrued as trying to spread “perversion.”

I have a gay friend who was a teaching aide in this district just ten years ago. Some students found his online dating profile. He had listed himself as “Interested In Men.” This profile did not say anything about looking for sexual encounters. There were no photos of him naked or even shirtless. Simply listing himself as looking for a relationship with another man was enough for the school to ask him for his resignation. I just don’t know if I could handle that. Or maybe coming to that is the inevitable conclusion for this job.

I’ve heard of two high school teachers telling their classes extremely homophobic things. One told her class that homosexuality is a perversion equal to bestiality. Another told her students that homosexuals go to hell. Teachers who know well enough that many of their past and present students are gay. Some of them screaming-gay.

To the best of my knowledge, I only had one gay teacher. This individual stayed in the closet for his/her entire career. It wasn’t until the last two or three years before retirement that he/she finally opened up his/her private life to some of the faculty. Up until that point, I had always been led to believe it was an open secret. We all knew it, both students and faculty. It was just never directly addressed, unless we were making fun of him for being a fudge-packer who liked getting his fudge packed by other fudge-packers.

I get standoffish with my male students. Let’s say one takes a liking to me, wants to get to know more about me, during periods of downtime in class will stand next to my desk and want to chitchat with me. I become evasive. I’ll suddenly have other things which require my attention. I’ll act like I’m not interested in talking to him. This is because I don’t want anything to be misconstrued, even retroactively. Say like two weeks or two months or two years from now, the student finds out that I am gay and he could start to reform his memories of our chats and hear words that were not said, inflections that were not inflected.

I guess I’m afraid of the rumors starting again. How good are people’s memories, anyway? Not many of the teachers here were teaching when I was in school. Nobody has said anything to me about it. What happened to me fifteen years ago.

  * * *

The rumor Nate and Scott spread around the school was that my friend Chad and I were gay for each other. If I was going to retaliate, I had to include Chad in my plan because they slurred his name, too. Thing was, while I was actually gay, Chad wasn’t. We had been seen flirting, sure, so that was a reasonable conclusion for Nate and Scott to jump to, but Chad and I both knew it just wasn’t his thing. But, still, the rumor included him, and therefore any retaliation had to include him.

The easy way to go about fighting back would have been to spread an equally nasty rumor about Nate and Scott. Not only did I not have any dirt on them, I felt spreading more rumors would only exacerbate their animosity toward me.

What I really needed was a way to dispel the rumors about Chad and me that would also call Nate and Scott out on their shady tactic of attacking us with gossip. I wanted to call bullshit not just on the rumor, but on gossip in the grander sense. They could say anything they wanted to about me. People talk, but it’s everyone’s choice of whether to listen to gossip. The only way to know a person is to talk and interact with him.

I called Chad and pitched him my idea. We had to throw this back in their faces. Yeah, it would blow over in time, but if we were going to do something about it, now was the time. We had to strike. I wanted to do something that would get the whole school to pay attention. I wanted to make a statement.

I went out and bought two white T-shirts, and a big black marker.

The thing that surprised me was, everybody got it. People were running up to me in the hallways, asking to see the shirt, telling me to turn around and show the back. High fives, hugs. If we’d had digital cameras back then, people would have been taking photos with me. I was the most talked-about person in school for two consecutive days: one that branded me a pariah; the next I was a brave, clever, funny kid with a positive message to give the world. I walked the halls with my head held high. I smiled so much that day I could have died.

A few teachers stopped and asked to see my shirt. Most shook their heads and rolled their eyes at me. Some said they thought it was great, high-fived me. A couple of them stood together, deliberating what they should do about it, but I kept winning. The only teacher I thought I had to worry about was Mrs. Loomis, my Trigonometry teacher. We had been butting heads all year. She called me to the front of her class and asked to see the shirt. Of course I took the opportunity to show it off to the room, and gave my little speech. In large letters, covering the entire front it said: I’M STRAIGHT . . . and on the back it said . . .  CHAD ISN’T.

Mrs. Loomis asked, “Does this ‘Chad’ person know about this?” I assured her he did, and in fact he was wearing a shirt that said: I’M STRAIGHT. . . . . . KYLE ISN’T. I told her we were demonstrating against rumors. She looked annoyed, but couldn’t find anything offensive about the shirt, so she left me alone.

If I had written on the shirt, “I’m not gay…Chad is,” the word “gay” might have been too shocking. I had learned from my experience sophomore year with the teacher telling me to turn my shirt inside-out because it had the word “hell” on it. There would likely be a faculty member who found the word “gay” to be dirty, so I flipped the phrase. Also, Chad and I wearing shirts that said the same thing about each other had a canceling effect. We were both in on the joke, not attacking each other.

  * * *

Author Dave Cullen spent ten years writing Columbine, the most comprehensive account of the before, during, and after of the massacre. The book follows the stories of Dr. Fuselier, an FBI investigator whose son attended Columbine High School, and went on to put together a massive report on Harris and Klebold; Dave Sanders, the one teacher killed in the attack, who saved countless people that day; the brave principal Frank DeAngelis, who has remained at the school and retired in the spring of 2014; some of the injured students; and of course the killers themselves. But there is a conspicuous lack of teacher’s impressions of Eric and Dylan. Many moved after the massacre and understandably wanted to put it behind them.

Brooks Brown’s role in the story is underplayed by Cullen. This may be because he didn’t want to cover too much of what was already in Brown’s memoir, but there is unmistakable tension between Cullen and Brown underlying the text. He makes Brooks out to be a tattletale. When Dylan was unsure whether he wanted to go through with the bombing, he leaked information to Brooks because he knew he and his interfering mother would go to the police. Nothing ever came of their many attempts to get the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate Eric. After the massacre a search warrant for Eric Harris’s house was discovered, made out in full, but was never taken to a judge to be signed. Cullen mentions this, but doesn’t pay much respect to the Browns as the only people in the community who identified Eric as an unstable person, ready to blow any moment. Instead Cullen makes Brooks Brown out to be a media whore, overplaying the “bullying” factor in the killers’ motives.

Fuselier was fascinated with Eric’s journals. They were used as the primary documents to diagnose Eric as a psychopath. Cullen doesn’t question this diagnosis in his book. It is the popular conclusion the psychological community has signed off on. This is preposterous to begin with because how can you diagnose a person with such an extreme personality disorder without having met him? I have not been able to find anything suggesting Dr. Fuselier did any outside research. Did it ever occur to him to listen to KMFDM, and to analyze their song lyrics?

To get you to the point I’m trying to make, let me illuminate for you one more similarity between Dylan and myself: We were both big fans of the industrial band Nine Inch Nails. Dylan especially liked The Downward Spiral, which is bandleader Trent Reznor’s concept album about a protagonist contemplating, then ultimately committing suicide.

If you read my private writings from when I was a teen through my early twenties, I seemed to have adapted the style of Reznor: bleak, melodramatic, self-obsessed, yearning to find a connection to the outside world, while keeping it at arm’s length. That’s how Dylan felt. Of course the music did not cause us to feel that way. He and I were drawn to Nine Inch Nails because we already felt that way. Music helps us explore emotions that we are already experiencing.

If you were to read Eric’s journals and KMFDM’s lyrics side by side, you would find a lot of similarities. Yes, these were Eric’s original thoughts, but he was copying the aesthetic of KMFDM. His journals take on similar structure and themes, the same as Dylan and I were copying Trent Reznor’s.

A person of average intelligence will memorize a song, may write out the lyrics verbatim, the way they were given to him. A person of above average intelligence will emulate the style of song lyrics and structures to write their own.

I am in no way endorsing the theory that violent music is responsible for Eric and Dylan’s actions. If it hadn’t been KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails, they could have just as easily been reading Dante’s Inferno, Faust, or could have found violence within the music of Beethoven or Wagner. To attack art would be to attack a mirror. What I’m trying to say is Dr. Fuselier came up short for not having caught onto the fact that Eric’s rantings were invoking a style of lyricism. Eric was writing poetry. He was creating art.

Was Eric truly a psychopath? Why do I have such a hard time labeling him that? It’s because the more I look into it, the less I believe there even is such a thing as psychopathy. A recent article in Scientific American caught my attention. It’s about a new school of thought about the Belief in Pure Evil (BPE), and how it affects a person’s ethics:

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

  * * *

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

  * * *

Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder which includes antisocial behavior, diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, little control over behavior, and superiority complex. They say psychopaths (which is interchangeable with “sociopath”), while lacking the human emotions of sorrow, sadness, empathy, learn at an early age how to imitate these in order to live alongside fellow human beings. Doesn’t that describe everyone?

Eric was not a psychopath until after he had already killed thirteen people and himself. Before that he was just a boy. With a strict father he loathed but respected. A mother he loved tenderly, but also found annoying. He hated the world. Hated everyone except for people who agreed with his worldview. There weren’t any, really. He probably didn’t even like Dylan that much, but knew from the start he could manipulate him. In a way Dylan was his first pipe bomb. Did Eric believe in God? I know he did. He thought he was godlike and that only he and God truly understood the world.

Eric wanted anarchy. He wanted us all to start killing each other, to arm ourselves to the teeth, to suspect our neighbors of trespasses against us, to prepare for war within our own borders, against each other. That message was received, loud and clear. Well done, Eric.

Empathy is a learned behavior. Some people may be harder to teach than others, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say it’s pointless to try. That’s the current philosophy of our education system. We target those who are good at subjects and those who are bad, and set our focus on them, leaving the ones in the middle alone. We don’t put forth the intensity or the manpower it would require to teach everyone equally. A system that should be a stronghold of egalitarianism has been rendered a socially Darwinistic and paranoid-survivalistic state.

We need to quit being afraid of each other, to show our children how to be fearless. Instead of fortifying our schools to keep people out, we need to start letting more people in.

  * * *

After that day Nate and Scott buried their grudge against me. I heard through the grapevine that Nate decided if I was willing to go that far, then it wasn’t worth his time to mess with me anymore. Things settled down after that. People sifted through the rumors, though, and eventually came around to the truth. Nate, Scott, and the friends I’d come out to assured people I really was gay, but they had been mistaken about Chad. The rumors about Chad going away were also aided by the fact he was going around telling people I was the gay one and he didn’t know how he got roped into the rumor. He even got some of the girls he had slept with to “vouch” for him.

Eventually I realized that on the day of the t-shirts, I hadn’t seen Chad at all since I gave him a ride to school and we put the shirts on in my van. He had taken different routes to his classes to avoid me. Later I got it out of him that, “It was too cold to wear just a t-shirt that day.” He had covered it up with a sweatshirt. He still “technically” wore it. Like that meant anything.

Things did not get better. People quit inviting me to parties. The mutual friends I had with Nate and Scott had to decide who they were going to hang out with. It wasn’t so much a question of loyalty as it was whether they wanted to hang out with the cool guys, or the gay guy who took things a little too far.

The rumor happened about three weeks after I had come out to my family. When Scott called me to warn me “the whole school” was about to find out I was gay, I told my parents about it. We discussed possibly dropping out and getting a GED, maybe going to live with my uncle and enrolling in school there. I decided I would brave it out. I didn’t want to “run away from my problems.” But now when I think back, returning to that school day after day did something to me.

The next fall I went back to school a broken person. I quit all of my activities. Classes were a joke to me. In November I was arrested for possession of alcohol and five counts of drug paraphernalia.

The next morning I went to swimming class early and told my teacher, Mr. Tobias about my arrest. I wanted him to hear it from me before he read about it in the paper. He was the only teacher I had left whom I felt like I got any respect from. He gave me a short, impromptu speech about how this was going to be a “dark mark” on my life and I would have to work hard to restore people’s faith in me.

The next day, after it was in the paper, I saw my sophomore year biology teacher, Mr. Levin in the library. He yelled, “Get over here!,” put me in a headlock, said, “You’re going to shut up and you’re going to listen to me. You fucked up. You know that, don’t you? Nod your head if you understand. Now you’re going to quit fucking up, right?”

Those two were the only teachers who said anything to me about it at all. It was hard to live up to either of their advice in the short term. I made a swift decision to graduate early.

My swan song to high school was my final report card. It read: ABCDF. I orchestrated that. I knew exactly how much effort to put into each class to get the grade that I wanted. It was a joke I’m sure at the time only I found funny. A joke on how arbitrary grades are. A joke on my younger self for my goal to get straight-A’s all through high school. My goal to be valedictorian, to earn a National Honors Scholarship. Goals that had at one point all been well within my reach.

It got worse. After I graduated I got arrested again. Alcohol again, but this time I also had marijuana in my possession, not just paraphernalia. I lost my job as a lifeguard. My employers had overlooked the first arrest because I went to Teen Court, did community service, and proved I was clean by passing a drug test.

At the end of my first semester of college I flunked all of my classes, dropped down to two classes my second semester, and just barely passed those. I was so jaded by my high school experience that I lost all work ethic and still held onto hostility toward educational institutions, even while I was attending a completely different, much more accepting one. This behavior continued well into my twenties, as I slowly built myself back into a semblance of the student I used to be, albeit a deeply scarred one.

I know I’m being maudlin about my experience, but keep in mind I’m telling it to you the way I have told it to myself over and over again. I want to take full responsibility for my fucking everything up, but I know it wasn’t completely my fault. The school failed me. My parents noticed all of this as I was quite oblivious to where the school was not doing its job. The year after I graduated my father even wrote a letter to the school board, urging them to scrap their oppressive Secondary Code of Conduct:

[Kyle] went from being tied for first in his class at the end of his freshman year to 94th ….the administrative support for students at the front office does not exist except for scheduling and discipline. What appears to be so obvious a need and so simple to implement keeps on going unattended year after year! All that happens is progress in making new rules to discourage kids or get them to drop out or graduate early.

My daughter has recently started working for teen court. In the short time she has been there she has noticed a pattern of kids in trouble with the law. A frequent beginning is a kid getting into trouble at school. An example is too many tardies resulting in ISSP[2] and sometimes the punishment has been 3 ISSPs. During ISSP many teachers do not cooperate in giving homework or make-up work. The result has been in many cases the student going from B – A student to D – F. Once that happens, the student is discouraged and the risk of dropping out increases. After Kyle was arrested, my review of the facts of the arrest led me to the conclusion that he could have easily prevailed in criminal court because of many factors based upon his constitutional rights and the statutes. Basically, the arrest should not have occurred. We chose not to fight the charges. Nonetheless, Kyle, a kid who needs help and encouragement, was suspended for 30 days from all activities. When receiving his sentence from the school district, I asked what suggestions the district representative had for helping Kyle get back on track. The school representative’s response was “Kyle is trying to find himself.” No suggestions were offered i.e. that is your problem not ours.

  * * *

I’m not trying to say school officials had to cater to my every need. But what my dad and I are trying to understand is what good is coming from what they are doing?

I didn’t need to be medicated. I know that much. I needed someone to take an interest in me. I needed a support system to check up on me, to let me express what I was going through.

A couple years ago I got together with my freshman year English teacher. We spent three hours one afternoon, talking over coffee. I told her early in the conversation that I was gay, and that I am very concerned about the nation’s recent spike in teenage suicide. Then I brought up the weekly journals she assigned, that were an open source for all of her students to write about things that were on their minds. My parents saved all of their children’s important schoolwork, and I had recently gone through all of mine. I read through all the journals I had written for Miss Schneider, even transcribed them to my computer.

Reading them as an adult, it was clear to me that what I was looking at were the guarded confessions of a gay teen. Although I did not come out directly to Miss Schneider in them, I was trying to clear a path to that process. You can see me working through these questions on the page. My intense feelings for one boy in particular were the subject of many of these journals. There were entire entries about my frustration with friends who made gay jokes about me at overnights, more so than the any of the other guys in our group. They caught onto it very early. Earlier than I did.

I told all of this to Miss Schneider, in a long, multipart question I had forming for her, because I was sure she must have had some dilemma of her own, about where her place was in this matter, knowing she could lose her job if she suggested to a fifteen year old that he might be gay. Did she think about trying to simply foster me in some way, to guide me so I would figure it out for myself, all the while suggesting her classroom was a safe place for me?

Her answer disquieted me. She never had a clue. She said she doesn’t look at people “that way.” I didn’t have the spirit left to ask her what she meant by “that way.”

  * * *

I look at what Eric and Dylan did and what I did on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the very worst possible thing a person can do: mass homicide; killing innocent people. Next to that would be suicide. I’m somewhere over on the other side of the spectrum. Coming out probably would have been then best possible thing I could have done, but I didn’t quite do that. I made a statement, but it was the wrong statement. I addressed it. Kept going to school. Survived. Didn’t kill anybody. Although I wanted to.

I did the thing that was right for me in that moment. I don’t know if at the age of 17 I was capable of coming totally out. I did go to high school with people who were out. Some of them had been out since grade school. They told their families. They all had time to prepare for the stormy future. Those early ones, the proud ones, they were the ones whose property got vandalized. Who got the harassing phone calls. Who went out to the parking lot every day hoping their cars weren’t vandalized again. Who couldn’t go up to the front of the classroom without hearing someone pretend to cough and say the word “dyke” or “faggot.” Who people quit making eye contact with in middle school. Who felt unsafe every day of their lives.

I also have friends who came out later than I did, who waited until college like my parents would have liked for me to have done. I also have friends my age—early thirties—who are still not out. And yes, I have known people who were out to only a few people, and decided to kill themselves instead of trying to live their lives out in the open.

The morning of Columbine was the day after my grandmother’s funeral. My family had buried both of my father’s parents in less than one week from each other. They died one after the other, within days. Bang Bang. My grandfather was my best friend. We became close over the past seven or eight years since his wife started losing her mind and was in and out of nursing homes. He died without knowing I was gay.

I had come out to my parents and older siblings a little over a year before his death, just weeks before I was outed at school. My parents instructed me to not tell my grandfather and to wait for my younger siblings to get a little bit older before I told them. In fact, my parents asked exactly how many people I had told, suggested maybe that was enough, and to refrain from telling anybody else. They were pissed this embarrassing secret had gone outside the family. To them, my belief that I was gay was something that should go through a test phase with the family first, because what if I didn’t feel the same way in five, ten years? Because then I would wish I could go back and unsay the things I had said.

How little straight people understand about what the closet is like and why we feel the need to come out. For years I debated whether my grandfather died without “knowing the real me.” I hear so many gay men say being gay is “the least interesting thing about them.” I cringe at the cliche of it, even though I agree. There are days I don’t even want it brought up in conversation, but we all know those people who always have to make it part of every conversation they have with us. No, it is not the most interesting thing about me, but I will say this: It is essential information about me. Anyone in my life who does not know it, up until the moment I tell them, our relationship has been predicated on a lie.

I feel like I am lying to my students every day. They could learn from knowing the true me. I feel like I am hiding myself from my colleagues, who could also learn from knowing the true me. Perhaps they won’t even mind that much. I haven’t given them the chance to have that discourse with me.

  * * *

My mother looked at me like she didn’t know who I was anymore. My words exactly to her were: “Don’t be surprised if this happens more often.” I said that the morning she told me there were kids shooting people at their high school. The day we now refer to as “Columbine.”

She and my father were mortified. “What do you mean?” she asked, like I knew something she didn’t. Like us teenagers were using the Internet to organize this sort of thing.

“I just mean kids are really pissed off nowadays, Mom. There’s a lot of hatred in the air at high schools. You can sense it. It doesn’t surprise me that a teenager would take a gun into his high school and shoot up the place. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.”

I followed that up with, “I’m going to TJ’s.” The Columbine massacre happened on April 20th—the holiday of pot smokers. Graduated early from high school, I was living in my parents’ attic, a sexless gay eighteen year-old who had just broken up with the girl I had been dating to try to assimilate to hetero-normativity, and I had just put two of my grandparents in the ground. I was going to get high as fuck that day.

My friends and I bought a lot of weed and had a longterm plan in place for that day, but it got interrupted for the first few hours because we were watching live footage on CNN of this atrocity. We were back-and-forth watching it, trying to pull ourselves up out of it and have a good time, but at the same time acknowledging how terrifying it was and how we hoped people would survive, although we were mature enough to realize there were going to be casualties. I remember the whiteboard up against the window: 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH.

We also understood that it could have been happening to us, that one of our fellow students, somebody maybe we never even would have suspected, some kid who you never even knew his first name, could pull something like this. And that’s who we suspected these kids were.

As we watched the footage I said something even more macabre to my best friend, Mark. In complete confidence I solemnly said to him how I really felt about the massacre taking place before us on live television.

The more I sat there watching it unfold on TV, I thought back to that night, lying in my bed in my pitch dark room. How badly I wanted to do what those kids were now doing at their school. And the more I thought about it that day in 1999, I had to let it out to somebody. I leaned over to Mark, told him in total confidence, and just out of a place that I needed to let this thing out, I said, “You know those two kids in there, shooting up their school? They’ve got to be having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.”

  * * *

The first attack on a school in the US was in 1927. There were none between then and 1966. Between 1966 and 1999 there were 46. That is 1.39 a year.

Since April 20th, 1999 there have been 75 attacks on schools. 5.35 a year. Meaning one every 68 days. That’s one every two months since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. That’s 3.85 times the frequency they occurred before April 20th, 1999. Attacks on schools have quadrupled in frequency since Eric and Dylan.

Overheard during the Columbine massacre: “This is what we always wanted to do. This is awesome!” “Who wants to be killed next?” “Peekaboo!”

They were laughing a lot, joking back and forth to each other from across the halls as they tossed bombs and blasted their firearms. They questioned victims, laughed sadistically at whatever they answered—everything was a joke to them by that point. There were no correct answers to save your life. Some they shot, some they left alone. Everything was random—because they still wanted to blow up the school. They picked people off for fun as they made their way to the cafeteria, where they tried to detonate the bombs manually. This failed, so they retreated to the library, where each shot himself in the head. On the count of three.

Dylan’s shirt said WRATH. Eric’s said NATURAL SELECTION.

They split a pair of black gloves. Klebold wore one on his left hand. Harris wore one on his right. No one can explain why they did this.

  * * *

Will and some of his friends and I are standing at that strange nexus between the doorway and the hall, that little space of freedom students are always inching towards at the end of a period, and it’s up to me to draw my own version of the arbitrary line they are not supposed to cross. I’ve subbed for Will four times by my count. He’s the kind of student who tries to push the boundaries in the student-teacher relationship—he was the one who asked me if the teacher I was subbing for smoked pot. Will is tall, blond, cute in an Anthony Michael Hall way, and I think he knows it. He’s smart, but hip, and his shirts are always conspicuously slogan-free.

Will asks me what my tattoo represents. I give him an honest answer: it’s an infinity symbol wrapped around my wrist. He presses, “But what does it mean to you?”

I launch into how it represents my belief in an infinite number of parallel universes. I explain: “It used to be science fiction, but now it’s a widely-accepted theory. And they even say that when parallel universes come into contact with each other, a new Big Bang occurs and a new universe is created. So Big Bangs are happening all the time all around us, but we just haven’t figured out how to detect them yet.”

“You don’t believe in God, do you?”

That clever little shit stopped me in my tracks.

I hadn’t prepared an answer to that one yet. I was immediately uncomfortable and answered, “I don’t think I should be discussing that with you.”

“Come on,” Will said, “We’ve grown past that.”

“Okay  . . .  I’m an atheist,” I said it like it was a bad thing. I almost sounded ashamed of myself. I thought about “The Moment of Silence.” I thought about the stupid fucking “Pledge of Allegiance.” I decided to clarify for Will: “Actually, I’m a hardcore atheist and I think the world would be a much better place without religion. That’s how I really feel, William.”

His little friend asked, “What’s an atheist?”

Will answered, “Atheists are people who don’t believe in anything.”

“No, no, no, no,” I stopped him emphatically, “That’s totally not what an atheist is. I just don’t believe there is such a thing as a god. I do believe in lots of things. I just told you I believe in parallel universes. I believe in quantum mechanics. I believe in science and I believe in people.”

  * * *

These are places where we spend a lot of our lives. Although these institutions tell us they are “Helping Students Achieve Their Dreams,” they tend to garner hostile, cold associations. People dread being in these places, either from the terrible things they have heard of taking place within the walls, or from the terrible things that have happened to us while we were there. Facing our horrors every day and learning to coexist with people we hate and fear is part of growing up. But it does take its toll. While they may form some of us to be strong, they render many of us weak. These environments unwittingly cultivate anomalies like Eric and Dylan.

People who lack empathy. People who spend their days telling other people what they cannot do. Don’t wear that shirt. Don’t wear so much makeup. Don’t say those words. Don’t think those things. Don’t be that way. People who live their lives upon a foundation of doublespeak. People who say they have “A Commitment to Excellence,” while they perform the exact opposite every day, as if it’s their job.

I am qualified to teach college, because I hold a master’s degree, but I am not qualified to teach K-12 because I lack the all-important degree in Education. To become a qualified teacher I would have to go back to school for two or three more years. At thirty-three I am not in a rush to do that.

At times in a classroom when I have gotten students to cooperate with me and each other, in moments of triumph, I ask myself, can I do this? Get up early every day? Make compelling lesson plans? Lead discussions and be engaged with every student? Live off a small salary? I am capable of all of it.

Will I give my life over to it?

 

 

[1]    KMFDM is an initialism for Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, loosely translated as “No pity for the majority.” False interpretations of the band’s name have been “Kidnap Madonna for Drug Money,” “Kylie Minogue Fans Don’t Masturbate,” and the one I was led to believe by my friends, “Kill Mother-Fucking Depeche Mode.”

[2]    In-School Suspension

 

BIO:

Kyle MustainKyle Mustain is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s MFA program for Creative Writing, where he specialized in nonfiction.

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Larena Nawrocki writer

Stomping on Spiders:

The Fall of Saddam Hussein

by Larena Nawrocki

 

They were resting in their tent, sleeping or lying on their cots when the big sirens went off. Then the announcement came: “Get to the end of your tents.” Amber, a promotable, a specialist, and team leader in the army, gathered with her fellow soldiers at the open tent flap wondering what’s going on? Her black hair was slicked back against her head into a ponytail. Then the news reached them. “They’re taking down the statue.” As she told me this story, her hands came up to her shoulders as if she were riding a roller coaster. Her Polynesian-shaped eyes in cat-eye makeup widened. “We were all like ‘Oh my gosh!’” They were in BIAP or Camp Striker near the BIA, aka Bush International Airport to Americans and Baghdad International Airport to the locals. It surrounded Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds where they could see the large man-made lake in the midst of the dusty rock strewn terrain. They were only a half mile away.

In the spring of 2003, April 9th, the American troops took control of Baghdad. The US overthrew the government and the people were relieved and excited. BBC news claimed that a few Iraqi men tried to pull down the statue. They removed the metal plaque at its base. They weren’t able to so the US soldiers helped them by attaching a chain to an armored vehicle around its neck. The Marines were fired upon once while removing the statue, yet they quickly resumed the task.

Amber didn’t get to witness this event, though she told me some of the details from the actual fall. The soldiers there tried to get the citizens to bring down his statue, the statue of a man who terrorized his people. His sons and himself pillaged, raped, and murdered thousands of their people. Amber saw some of the graves grouped by the thousands, some by the palace. It’s estimated that 300,000 to one million were killed. She explained that the soldiers first tried to get the people to bring down the statue, yet they wouldn’t touch it. I asked her why they wouldn’t do anything and she replied that “they were too scared.” Some of the soldiers tied ropes and a chain around the statue and started to pull it down by themselves. Soon after that the people joined in. Soon the soldiers backed off and only the Iraqi people were left. Once it came down, they decapitated his head and beat on it. They tied ropes to it and dragged it through the city.

As I interviewed my co-worker, I wondered how she knew this if she was not there. I assumed it was from the soldier there at the time. After all, the whole camp was in Blackout. “I wanted to call my mom and say what happened.” Yet she couldn’t do so. They weren’t allowed to text, email, call, or leave the camp except when on duty. As she answered, her feet were bouncing up and down and she reached for her cherry slushy to take a sip.

I have only worked with Amber for only two months, but I already know her ambitions. She served in the army for six years and was deployed four times. She, like me, attends school and works as a hairstylist when not in class. Her goal is to become a nurse; a goal that helps others. After her first couple of weeks there, I learned about her military past.

I was talking about things that make me shudder. I hate spiders. They creep me out to no end. I once had a late night because random thoughts tortured my mind. While I was sitting at my computer watching TV, I saw a shadow in the corner of my eye. I looked at the door frame where it met the wall and there were two spiders; one the size of a quarter and the other the size of a half dollar. In my mind, they were as big as my fist. So I did the most logical thing I could think of. I stared, cried, and screamed in hushed tones until my angel mom came with a thick sole shoe.

Amber likewise had an encounter with a spider while in Iraq. I learned this story while interviewing her at the Southglenn Colorado Dairy Queen. Her patrol group had just finished and returned early in the morning. She decided to take a shower while it was still cool. The water was kept in giant plastic containers that heated up during the scorching day. The only time to wash was in the morning or at night when the water wasn’t boiling. The showers were about one DQ wall to the other DQ wall wide. She showed this by gesturing with her arms. Roughly, it was about the length of the common car. Well, the sun was beginning to come up and cast her shadow on the wall. When she looked, there was a Camel Spider, in her shadow. Camel Spiders are enormous goliath spiders that reach 8 inches in length. They can run about 10 miles per hour and they follow your shadow. When she saw that spider, “Let me tell you, I freaked out. I was screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t move.” Amber’s body shivered as she told me this. She simply had to wait, naked, and wet, until some soldiers came to help. They cornered it, trapped it, and released it far away from base camp.

I was intrigued by how a strong female army veteran could fear bugs when she experienced the harsh reality of the war in Iraq. There was a bond through our fear of bugs, yet when I talked about her military career, her face tensed and she spoke in monotone. Her words were slow and fierce. “We knew what we signed up for.” Wanting to understand, I reached out to my sister’s half-sister Jennifer Gustin and her husband Cody. Both served in OIF (operation Iraqi Freedom); Jennifer served in the 86th CSH, or combat support hospital and Cody is currently and was in the 160th SOAR unit, or special operations aviation regiment. Part of Cody’s job was to fly Chinook Helicopters in Mosul, Iraq and escort prisoners, or insurgents. He also had an experience with a slimy creepy crawly.

In Kuwait, February 2003, they were prepping for the invasion of Iraq by building up Camp Udari, or now called Camp Buehring. They were digging Z trenches in the vast dirt chalkboard desert when someone saw a lizard. It was about four feet long with a prickly tail, much like a Spiney Tailed lizard. He had the bright idea to pick the lizard up and put his “finga in its cloaca” and talked to it “like Steve Irwin.” His friend videotaped him taking the lizard away from the safety of their tents. As he set the lizard down, it slapped his foot with unthinkable power and almost knocked him down. “Some days, that’s all I had to cheer me up.” Jennifer had a much different experience working in the hospital. She “had to piece together body parts of soldiers and bag them in mass casualties.” One of which was from a decision to pull a lever.

One picture that Amber showed me was of a vehicle’s skeleton, blackened and twisted with parts broken off. It was hardly recognizable as the car’s guts. I could imagine this picture as I read about Jennifer’s experience. There was an explosion from an IED, or a road side bomb. A US soldier whose senses were flooded by fear rammed into their barricade with his “hum’v.” Jennifer needed to either shoot or to pull up the road spikes. It could possibly be an insurgent bent on mass murder of all the wounded soldiers in the hospital. She chose to pull the lever. Later, she found out, one of the soldiers died. Though that soldier might have lived if she didn’t chose the lever, she “made the correct decision.” She protected the other soldiers. This experience added to emotional residue. “I was pretty shell shocked when I got back to the States.” It seems she would succumb to her fear, but her training kicked in. This may have been what happened with the citizens of Iraq, only with their vengeance. The videos of the statue’s fall are only two minutes long.

Three men tied a noose around the statue, but it was too tall to completely wrap it around his neck. The people are throwing shoes at him. A tank the color of their dirt and shrub landscape pulled up to the statue. A six story building vomits out smoke nearby. The crowd parted as it drove up. A marine balanced on the crane of the tank an tries to place an American flag on Saddam’s head. The wind makes it difficult. The next shot is of an Iraqi holding the flag, allowing it to flow free in the wind. The crowd takes up a chant as the marine tightens the noose around his neck and adds on a chain noose. A comrade behind him eyes his work and now holds the flag. The Iraq flag from before Hussein’s reign of terror flies in the hands of an Iraqi citizen. The crowd claps and whistles. The statue looks as if it is waving first. The birds fly frantically away. Then his legs break apart at the knees and he teeters slowly forward. Suddenly, the statue falls down into a horizontal position. It bounces up and down as they try to get it off its pedestal. The crowd rushes right below it in anticipation. It suddenly drops to the ground and the crowd swarms over it dancing and waving their arms. They are stomping on it.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for them, but I have a small glimpse. I felt fear, much like how Amber felt when confronted with the nightmarish spider. I felt the fear and I didn’t do anything. Luckily I had help. If my mom had given me the shoe, would I have stomped on the spiders? Would I have been happy if someone helped me by enforcing their methods upon me? Would I have been myself still? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I am still afraid of spiders. Though the problem for that night was removed, I still have the implications because I didn’t overcome it myself.

 

 

 

BIO

Larena NawrockiLarena Nawrocki lives in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. She is currently a senior at Metropolitan State University. She is working on obtaining a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis on education. She hopes to teach elementary level children to improve their writing through exploration of the world and current events. Until then, she is a cosmetologist who enjoys hearing the stories people tell every day. This is her first published non-fiction essay.

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jj anselmi

Entering the Moment

by J.J. Anselmi

 

I heard the rumble of Steve’s Bronco when he pulled up to my parents’ house. Two months earlier, I’d started my junior year of high school.

“Ok mom, I’m going out to Jared and Bryan’s to ride.”

“Alright baby,” she said, looking up from her Anne Rice novel. Mom didn’t care if I came home super late from Jared and Bryan’s house or, oftentimes, not until the next day. When I was with my friends, she knew I’d be Ok. Our obsessive focus on BMX kept Jared, Bryan, Steve and me from fucking around with drugs or booze.

“I’ll call if I stay.”

Jared and Bryan lived seven miles outside Rock Springs, in a small community called Arrowhead Springs. Kenny and Tammy, Jared and Bryan’s parents, let my friends and me build ramps in their large garage. Within two years, we’d turned it into our own skate park. They also let Steve and me stay at their house too many times to count, basically adopting us into their family.

The fact that Dad had worked for Pacific Power for over twenty years seemed like a feat of manliness to me. In high school, my male classmates constantly talked about customizing their trucks and working tough jobs. I tried to follow their conversations, pretending that I knew what it was like to endure long shifts of backbreaking labor involving machinery that could eat you alive. But I felt like the world these boys inhabited would always be foreign to me. Building ramps with Jared, Bryan, and Steve helped me feel like a man in a town where I often didn’t.

Over the years, my friends taught me some basics of construction. Although he’d worked in a power plant, Dad was a mountain man, and he’d never been mechanically savvy. I hated the only woodshop class I’d ever taken because I constantly worried that the teacher and other boys thought I was a pansy. But, in Jared and Bryan’s garage, I loved to cut plywood and two-by-fours with an electric saw while listening to old school metal. My friends were patient when they taught me about ramp building, and their jabs about my lack of mechanical sense were mostly playful.

A gust of wind blew hair into my mouth when I walked outside. The October nights had become frigid, and the first snow of the year coated the sidewalks. Seven months of harsh Wyoming winter loomed. My breath snaked into the air, getting sucked from my throat by the wind. I looked at the plywood quarter pipe on the edge of my parents’ driveway, its bottom corners curling up from being left outside.

During the previous summer, I’d bought the ramp from a rollerblader. My friends and I hauled it to my parents’ house in my truck and set it up on the left side of the driveway. A few days later, I spray-painted ‘Six Six Six,’ ‘Destroy,’ and ‘Hate’ on the ramp. I didn’t believe in god or the devil, I was just an asshole metal head, and I loved to piss people off. Dad had spray-painted black boxes over my tags, but I could still see my words beneath thin coats of paint. He hated the tags for the same reason I thought they were badass: anyone who drove by our house could see them.

Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill pulsated my eardrums when I opened the back door of Steve’s Bronco. I lifted my bike in, careful not to scratch my Metal Bikes frame. We drove uphill, passing Uncle Mark and Keith Hay’s large houses.

On Highway 430, wind pushed against Steve’s Bronco, making it more difficult to pick up speed. Icy snow danced across the cracked asphalt. Steve and I didn’t try to talk over the music. “Suicide Note Pt. 1”—an acoustic ballad on an album that mostly consists of southern rock-infused thrash—drifted from Steve’s speakers. Phil Anselmo crooned, Would you look at me now?/ Can you tell I’m a man?

We passed SF Phosphates, a chemical plant that marked the turnoff to Arrowhead Springs. Large concrete and metal cylinders emitted sickly white smoke into the air. The chemical plant, with its flickering green and red lights, looked like a tiny, diseased city.

A cottontail suddenly darted across the road. The rabbit sounded like a plywood plank slapping against the Bronco’s wheel well when Steve hit it. “Those little fuckers,” he said. “It’s like they’re on a death mission.” We usually ran over at least one rabbit during the nights we drove to Jared and Bryan’s house.

After we parked in the driveway and got out of the Bronco, I heard plywood and two-by-fours slap against concrete, punctuated by a tink of coping. Light seeped under the tall garage door, which Steve lifted up for us to walk under. Metallica’s Kill ‘em All echoed off the insulated walls in the garage.

“Get the fuck out of here you fucking peter-eaters!” Bryan yelled. We’d started calling each other ‘peter-eater’ after Jared and Bryan’s dad drunkenly mumbled it at Jared one night.

Bryan pedaled at a quarter pipe on the far end of the garage. A three-foot wooden ledge sat on the deck of the ramp. Bryan jumped from the quarter pipe and stuffed his shoe between his fork and front tire, stalling on his front wheel on top of the ledge. With seeming effortlessness, he jumped back into the quarter pipe, landing an inch or two below the coping. Above the next ramp, Bryan planted his left foot on the wall while holding his bike above him. His back wheel spun, freewheel ticking like a manic clock, before he dove back into the transition. Throughout the rest of his run, Bryan performed similarly difficult tricks with the precision of a mathematician.

When Bryan finished his run, Steve shot out from his spot next to me. After airing a quarter pipe, he made a sharp turn and rode up the adjacent vert wall—a super steep ramp we’d pushed against Kenny’s tool room. Coming down, Steve pushed his tires into the transition to gain speed. He launched over the nearby hip and tilted his bike past ninety degrees, executing a perfect tabletop. Steve zipped around the garage, turning and spinning his opposite direction without a hint of awkwardness.

Steve’s smooth riding contrasted with his chaotic home life. His parents were divorced, and he switched between staying at their houses. Once, during a fight, Steve hit his step-dad in the kneecap with a hammer. Scared of getting his ass kicked, he rode to his dad’s trailer across town. Watching their big-screen, chain smoking, and blasting Motley Crue, Steve’s dad and step-mom got drunk every night. A pack of children with popsicle-smudged faces always seemed to be running around the trailer.

Like my dad, Steve’s dad—who Jared, Bryan, and I called Old Steve—was super supportive. He used to ride BMX himself, and, every once in a while, he’d hop on his old school Haro and ride with us. He’d also tell us stories about riding with his friends back in the day. They’d sharpen their pegs and do kick-outs into the doors of cop cars, which I thought was rad.

I can’t count how many times Old Steve fixed my car or truck. He was an amazing mechanic, and he knew most of the auto shops in town would rip me off. He never called me a pansy or dumbass because I didn’t know how to work on cars. Even though he spent forty-plus-hours-a-week working in an auto shop, he never seemed to mind helping me out.

But, like all of us, Old Steve definitely had his shortcomings. He and Steve’s mom hadn’t planned on having Steve. They were only kids themselves—both around seventeen or eighteen—and Old Steve didn’t want to force himself into a monotonous adult life. Although he loved his son intensely, I think he wanted to be Steve’s buddy instead of his parent. Steve only mentioned it to me a few times, but he and his dad had also gotten into a few fist fights, and I think this violence loomed over their relationship. When Old Steve teased his son as if he was his drinking buddy, Steve usually looked like he was trying too hard to smile. Riding fast and pumping each transition for momentum in the garage, Steve’s mind entered a place where only the present moment existed.

Starting my run, I ice-picked the ledge above the quarter pipe. Unlike Bryan, Steve, and Jared, I didn’t rotate my opposite direction during my runs. It felt awkward, and I didn’t have enough patience with myself to learn. At this point, I felt too embarrassed to go back and learn the foundational tricks my friends had all picked up in junior high.

I rode straight up a different quarter pipe, slamming my back wheel into the adjacent wall while squeezing my brake lever. I stalled in an over-vertical position for a fraction of a second, my front wheel hanging over my head. I hopped into the transition backwards, back-pedaling and then quickly flipping around. I loved the sensation of going down a ramp the wrong way. Most of my tricks consisted of variations on these two maneuvers—a fakie wall ride and an ice-pick stall—whereas my friends’ riding was much more varied.

“Yeah, J.J.,” Jared said. He, Steve, and Bryan clapped, although they’d all seen me land this trick several times before.

Jared pedaled toward the quarter pipe furthest from where we sat. Launching off the ramp, he spun a 180 and landed on the three-foot ledge. His sprocket dug into the wooden edge, and his front wheel hovered just above the quarter pipe’s coping. Jared used to tell me that this trick, called a disaster, is about overcoming the mental picture of flipping over your bars on the way back in and smashing your face on the ground. He hopped back into the ramp, tires adhering to the transition as if magnetized.

Riding, each of us pushed beyond fear. Momentarily floating in this space, we disconnected from thoughts about our fathers’ flaws and how much we hated Rock Springs. Even though I mostly did variations on the same tricks, overcoming fear was always part of the equation. You can’t ride without getting injured, and riders often get hurt doing routine tricks.

BMX constantly fucked all of us up. My injury list: separated shoulder; two broken feet; broken leg; countless gashes—one on top of my head that had to be closed with staples—scrapes, and bruises; fluid build-up behind both kneecaps—my right knee used to swell to twice its normal size after bumping it, even lightly; and one concussion. And my BMX injuries were minor compared to a lot of other riders’. I remember getting around school on crutches after I broke my foot or leg. Most kids and teachers knew how I’d hurt myself, and I felt like a badass as I crutched through the halls.

We rode for about an hour and a half before going upstairs. Jared and Bryan’s mom had bought KFC for us and set it out on the counter.

“Hi guys,” Tammy said. “J.J. and Steve, have some dinner.” Steve and I’d long gotten past the point of politely refusing food from Tammy, knowing she’d just tell us to eat anyway. On her way upstairs, she exhaled and stopped. To Jared and Bryan, she said, “Your dad won’t be home until late.” We all knew what this meant: Kenny was going to get shit-faced and drive home.

Bryan had recently ordered a new BMX video, Manmade Chapter 2. He put it in the DVD player while Jared, Steve, and I piled greasy chicken onto our plates and sat down in the living room. Filthy, tar-soaked riffs of Floor’s “Assassin” play during Dave King’s section, both of which made me feel giddy. Dave flies over huge dirt jumps, doing picture-perfect tabletops and turndowns—classic, style-oriented tricks. There’s a tough, manly beauty in his riding. He and his bike become one entity, and I wished that I could ride like him. A rider usually needs a background in racing to attain this level of smoothness, and I’d never raced. As Dave rides, Floor’s Steve Brooks, one of the few openly gay metal musicians I know of, sings Crazy for the boy in a weirdly soothing, off-kilter melody. This song perfectly fits Dave King’s stripped-down riding.

An energetic From Autumn to Ashes song plays during Chase Hawk’s section in Chapter 2, which follows Dave King’s. Chase floats in the air, whipping his back end to the side over steep dirt jumps as if his bike is an extension of his body. He doesn’t do circus tricks like double back flips, but, to me, his effortless flow was much more beautiful than the riding you’d see in contests like the X Games. You can hear the zip of his tires as he flies off the lip of a dirt jump, the whoosh of wind as he zooms past the camera. Over each jump, he performs an acrobatic dance that exists somewhere beyond human emotion. As I did with Dave King, I wished I could ride like Chase. About two years after this night, I’d hang out with Chase and Dave in Austin, discovering their bisexuality, which seemed terrifying at the time but now makes perfect sense.

We heard Kenny pull into the upper garage in his vintage Jaguar, a car he’d rebuilt himself. Like most nights, he’d driven home after getting hammered at a bar in downtown Rock Springs. During his early 20s, Kenny, driving drunk with two female passengers, had gotten into a gnarly accident. One woman died and the other would never walk again. About fifteen years later, Kenny flipped a four-wheeler onto himself, breaking his neck and back. Now, to turn his head, he had to turn his entire body, and he usually wore a neck brace.

Kenny shuffled in from the garage. He grabbed a plastic bowl of salad from the fridge, eating lettuce and vegetables with his bare hands. My friends and I laughed hysterically. I waited for Jared or Bryan to fuck with him.

“Dad,” Jared said. “You’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.” This phrase sent all of us into hysterics.

Kenny chewed a piece of lettuce, smacking his lips. Between incoherent mumbling, he said, “No, you’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.”

Laughing at Kenny, we told ourselves that we would never be like our fathers, even though we’d all inherited our penchant for recklessness from our dads. Although I laughed, I also knew that Kenny’s drinking was a yawning pain for Jared, Bryan, their older brother Jesse, and Tammy. We never said this, but my friends and I all wished Kenny wouldn’t drink anymore.

He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. With short brown hair and a trimmed beard, he was perpetually hunched over from his back injuries, and his lips always curled up in a smartass grin. Like a stereotypical Irishman, his cheeks were deeply ruddy. I still can’t believe that he let us fill his work space with ramps.

Instead of telling us to be careful when he watched us ride, Kenny would try to get us to do crazier shit, often yelling, “Do a 360!” When Steve and I came over, he never made us feel like mooches, even though we routinely raided his fridge and slept on his couches. He always told us to think of his expensive tools as our own, and his tool room became the go-to place when we needed to fix our bikes. Almost every time I saw Kenny, he asked me how my parents were doing. He and my dad had known each other for a long time, having a mutual friend in Joey Hay.

It was this mix of deep-hearted kindness and selfishness that made our dads so perplexing. Beneath our anger and sometimes-sarcastic view of our dads, I think we worried that they were constantly on the verge of killing themselves.

 * * *

During high school, Steve, Jared, Bryan and I became friends with Josh, a Rock Springs BMX hero who was seven years older than us. When Josh moved to Salt Lake, he offered us an open invitation to sleep on his floor. He lived with Mike Aitken, a legendary BMX pro. Like us, Josh was straight edge.

When he visited Rock Springs, he usually rode our garage ramps. One weekend, we were listening to the Ramones’ self-titled album as Josh walked his bike into the garage.

“Fuck this pussy shit,” he said. He grabbed a Pantera CD from his truck and put it in the garage stereo. Phil Anselmo’s anger on Vulgar Display of Power sent ecstatic pulses through my veins. I’d listened to Pantera a few times, but this was the moment when I fell in love with the band’s dirty southern thrash.

Josh’s lips curled into a tight frown while he rode. He went faster than any of us, and I always thought of the term ‘balls out’ when I watched him ride. He launched at a wall above a quarter pipe, planting his rear tire at least three feet above the highest point any of us had reached. He glided back into the transition, his freewheel roaring like a table saw.

Between Josh’s runs, I stared at his tattoos—tire-treads on his right bicep, and a bike company logo on his left wrist, both in black ink. Sweat glistened on his closely-shaven head.

Around Josh, I often felt embarrassed and frustrated by my riding. Still, after I landed a trick, he usually said, “Yeah,” or whistled.

  * * *

During the summer before senior year, my friends and I finished our BMX video, which we’d been working on for the past two and a half years. Bryan and I edited the video on my parents’ computer, teaching ourselves about editing as we went along. I loved feeling like I could control tiny snippets of reality.

Just a few weeks away from starting school, we watched our video at my parents’ house one afternoon. I wished my section had more trick variety, but I also felt like it captured my personality. Megadeth plays while I ride full pipes, street spots, and skate parks in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho, and Oregon. I was proud of my editing in the video, especially in this section. During the intro to my part, snippets of me riding, wrecking, and the tags on my quarter pipe flash, on beat with Megadeth’s high-energy death rock in “Skin O’ My Teeth.”

One of my favorite clips was of me riding a metal cylinder that Steve and I’d found earlier in the summer. Driving along a highway just outside Rock Springs, one of us noticed rows of huge metal pipes, all lying on their sides in an industrial yard. The gate was open, so I just drove in, passing three or four ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Barbed-wire-topped fencing lined the perimeter of the yard, and massive equipment that I didn’t even remotely understand surrounded us. I stared at metal teeth, intricate piping, and humongous tires, knowing that each machine in the yard could’ve swallowed me.

With some maneuvering, we were able to get our bikes through a small opening in one of the cylinders. Rust coated the inside of the pipe, and it took a minute or so for our eyes to adjust. The cylinder was hard to ride. Unlike a half-pipe built for riding and skateboarding, there was no flat-bottom, which would’ve made it a lot easier to accumulate speed.

I positioned myself at the bottom of one transition, then, pushing off, quickly rotated a bit less than 180 degrees on the other side. I spun on each side, then put pressure on my handlebars, pressing my front wheel into the transition’s curve to gain speed.

The pipe amplified sound. A metallic roar replaced the usual zip of my tires.

Steve and I filmed some clips of each other. In the clip of me riding the cylinder in our video, rust rises from the pipe’s surface, swirling around me as my tires touch the point where the transition curls over itself. Watching this clip now, I remember how rust particles floated into my nose and mouth, sticking to my teeth. I also remember how powerful I felt during these moments. The pipe weighed thousands of pounds, but it shifted, slightly, against my weight and momentum.

Breathing in rust became too much to handle after twenty or thirty minutes. The cylinder also magnified the dry Wyoming heat. A large work truck pulled up right after we got our bikes out. The driver, a middle-aged woman with short hair, said, “You guys should get out of here. I just called the sheriff’s department.”

Whenever I’d drive past the yard after riding the cylinder, I remembered the weightless feeling I experienced as I carved the pipe. I never found out why these cylinders had originally been built, and I didn’t care. In Rock Springs, I usually felt alienated by the industrial machinery surrounding me. But repurposing industrial objects gave me a sense of control. After I rode one of them, the cylinders seemed like they were made of something softer and more malleable than industrial-strength steel.

My friends and I finished watching the video and then decided to ride the ramps in front of my house. We’d put our bikes in the garage, where the rancid air made us all gag. Fishing poles, reels, nets, coolers, boat oars, spare tires, rope, disorganized tools and other random shit cluttered the garage floor. Bryan, Steve, and Jared covered their noses with their shirt collars as we picked up our bikes and went outside.

“Jesus Christ,” Bryan said as we sat on our bikes on the walkway that cut through the front yard. “What’s that smell again?”

“I think it’s those hides on the rafters. I don’t know why the fuck my dad still keeps them.”

We rode the quarter pipe for fifteen or twenty minutes, mostly just fucking around. Although we often rode seriously, we also spent a lot of time doing joke tricks that were either out of style or just plain ridiculous.

Dad pulled up in his truck, parking on the sloped curb next to our house. He grabbed a fishing rod and cooler from his flatbed. “Honest question,” he said, walking toward us. “Which one of you guys can do the baddest trick?” He set down his cooler and took off his one-piece sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot slits. In his deep monotone, Dad said, “Let’s see a mobius flip,” referring to an old-school skiing trick. During the 70s and early 80s, Dad used to ski off twenty-foot boulders, extending his legs into huge spread-eagles, of which I’ve seen a few pictures.

After each of our tricks, Dad said, “Hell yeah,” or “Right on.” He watched us for a few minutes, cracking us up with filthy jokes. Suddenly, he said, “Seriously though, you guys don’t ride this thing much, do you?” His tone became gravelly. “You know you’re going to have to get rid of it soon. I don’t want this bullshit in my driveway anymore.”

An awkward silence momentarily hung between my friends and me after Dad went inside. Jared pedaled across the walkway, toward the ramp. As he rode up the quarter pipe, I yelled, “Do a mobius flip you fucking peter-eater!” Laughing, he steered off the side of the ramp so he wouldn’t eat shit. Steve and Bryan’s high-pitched laughter echoed off the retaining wall behind the quarter pipe.

  * * *

A month or so later, Steve and I drove to Denver to see a Metallica concert, which I’d constantly been thinking about since buying my ticket. Black Sabbath, Slayer, Pantera, and Metallica—I felt like I could depend on these bands in the same way as each of my friends.

Driving through Wyoming in my Tacoma, we passed towns that seemed like smaller and larger versions of Rock Springs—middle-class neighborhoods, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and motels, all divided by large, empty lots and surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills. We listened to Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, Ride the Lightning, and Kill ‘em All.

To me, everything Metallica recorded after The Black Album was bullshit. I liked The Black Album itself—the album with “Enter Sandman” that sent the band into super-stardom—but it didn’t come close to capturing the same energy in the first four albums. Together, Lars’s crazy double-bass drumming and James’ and Kirk’s gnarly guitar riffs form an aural assault.

I also loved the songs that move from delicate acoustic sections into crushing walls of heaviness—songs like “Fade to Black,” “Battery,” and “One.” The movements in these songs reminded me of classical music, sans pretension. Listening to early Metallica, I felt deeply connected with the young, death-obsessed and socially alienated brains of Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Cliff Burton, and Kirk Hammet. James, who, like me, had gnarly acne during his adolescence, sung lyrics about death as the only true escape from hopelessness.

Steve and I left a day before the concert to ride skate parks and street spots in and near Denver. On Sunday evening, we drove to a southern suburb, Aurora, trying to find a cement spillway called the hook that some local riders had told us about. As we drove on I-225, Steve spotted the structure, which sat on the edge of a golf course.

I parked at a nearby apartment complex. An empty drive led into the golf course. Steve and I walked our bikes under a chain with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign attached to it. We looked around the chain-link fence-enclosed golf course to make sure no one saw us. After Steve climbed the fence, I lifted each of our bikes over the top and into his reaching hands. When I jumped off the top of the fence, my shoes sunk into marshy ground beneath waist-high reeds and grass.

Painted dark green, the hook looked intimidating—fifteen feet tall and about one-hundred feet wide. Imagine a full pipe cut lengthwise, down the middle. The concrete monolith loomed above the grass of the golf course.

A dust-and-gravel-covered runway led to the massive transition. Before I even thought about mustering the balls to ride this thing, Steve pedaled at the hook. His tires crunched on gravel, then zipped when they hit the smooth cement of the transition. He reached the point where the transition curled, becoming over-vertical.

A pool of black muck sat about twenty feet away from the hook. Horseflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, and gnats buzzed above plastic bags, beer cans, and other trash in the sewage. Immediately after gliding down the transition, Steve skidded to avoid this sludgy mess. The drone of nearby traffic echoed off the concrete wave.

I thought about Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” to get myself psyched. Steve, Jared, Bryan, and I, like other BMX riders, often referred to riding as destroying. To me, destruction was an act of creating beauty.

“Seek and Destroy” features raw, punk-infused guitar riffs, pushed by Lars’s drumming and Cliff Burton’s manic bass playing. During the middle of the song, the band pushes boundaries of control with tempo. These sounds echoed in my brain as I pedaled toward the hook.

Climbing the transition, my tires zipped. At the height of my ascent, my right arm grazed cement that curved beyond ninety degrees.

After I carved it, the hook didn’t scare me as much. It was a humongous, unmoving cement structure, but I’d found my own way to use it.

BIO

jj anselmi 2J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His work is upcoming in Weber: The Contemporary West, and has appeared in Word Riot, The Writing Disorder, Obsolete!, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. Along with “Living Through Pantera” (published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Writing Disorder), this piece is part of J.J.’s book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music. A regular contributor to Splicetoday, J.J. loves beating the shit out of the drums for his doom band, Hymns to the Stone. He also just bought a new BMX bike.

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