The bullets ripped through the leaves on the trees above my head. Loud bangs and successive ripping sounds. I was pressed down onto the grass, someone else on top, pressing me almost as flat into the earth as a human physique could go without digging underneath it. There was heavy cursing, swearing, yelling as the shots fired. It was a Saturday night in August 1972. I had been sitting at a park in the town outside Boston, where I lived then, with some friends. We were listening to music, jamming on guitars, congo drums, talking. I had been on the “harp,” the harmonica. I was 17 years old.
A car pulled over toward the park from out of the night. Among us that night were some Vietnam veterans, returned from the jungles of Southeast Asia. This was fortunate. I might not be here now without them. One saw the rifle barrel protruding from the back window of the unfamiliar car. He yelled “incoming” (or something to similar effect. I cannot remember his exact words), and by instinct the veterans flung us down on the ground behind a low wall bordering the road as the shots tore apart the maple and oak leaves over our heads. Then the staccato stopped; tires screeched on the pavement as the car vanished into the blackness. It was never seen again.
The shots lasted a few seconds. Maybe 10, 20. We got lucky. No one was hit. Those few seconds have never left my consciousness. They never will. Forty years later I can still hear those shots poking holes through the leaves as vividly as if they happened 40 minutes ago.
Certain sounds can fire the memories. Who were they? Why did they target us? Were they trying to kill us? Or just have some fun? We never learned the answers. We never did learn what kind of weapon was pointing out the window or its caliber. I still dread places where I might feel trapped and cannot duck, hide, or run if I have to.
The survivors of our latest massacre in Newtown, Conn., will also have to live with the memories. Counselors to help them cope (I had none) no doubt, but that day will never fade away no matter what the counselors do. The shooters, of course, do not care about the grief, the nightmares, and torments the survivors will have to endure for the rest of their lives. Who cares about them?
Those who made it through Newtown, who emerged from the shopping mall in Portland, the theater in Aurora, or who the bullets missed in Tucson, the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, or Columbine will be forever marred. A singular question will always haunt them as it still does me. Why?
After every mass shooting our eternal debate revs up yet again about Second Amendment rights versus gun control, responsible gun owners versus non-responsible ones. The questions always remain. Nothing will get done. As Charles M. Blow wrote in a New York Times editorial, “A Tragedy of Silence” (Dec. 14), “Another day, another mass shooting in America. When, and how, will this end? In fact, will it ever end?”
What does it say about us when Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said, “This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones”? Who are we if our school zones need to be armed so that staff and students can survive “another day?” Should I have to be packing heat just to walk down the street without fear of possibly dying in my second drive-by? From a survivor’s viewpoint, I want to ask: What kind of society are we if we have to fear dying when going to school or out for a cup of coffee? Why?
Walter Carpenter lives in Montpelier.
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