It was the fall of 2002, and the devastation and fear wrought by 9/11 were still bubbling. Columbine was just three years in the past.
I was sitting in a newspaper office in Standish, Michigan, trying to force our balky printer to spit out my sports pages so I could run them to our press room for reproduction. The beast would not be tamed, I was late for our print deadline, and I stomped to my editor, Berta’s, office to whine.
She wasn’t in there, but my world suddenly shrunk to a pinpoint: Berta’s police scanner was on, and it was squawking.
” … gunman in building at AuGres-Sims Elementary … at least two adults down … children …”
AuGres-Sims Elementary, where my wife taught kindergarten, where my son was in sixth grade.
The world, my job, nothing else existed. Only the school and my family.
I yelled something incoherent to one of my coworkers and ran out the door, jumped in the car, ran a stop sign and headed to the highway.
It was Tuesday, October 22.
It was crisp and sunny, but the pavement was wet.
I hit 55 before I got out of Standish, and 80 as I flew up US-23 toward the school, 15 miles away.
Autumn leaves clung, dying, to trees along both sides of the road. The rest blew along the roadside.
The birches were bare.
I saw the road, but I didn’t. I saw my wife and my son. Alive and cowering, terrified.
Or dead, shot.
My wife, shielding her kids from a madman.
For what? That the victims weren’t my family, but someone else’s? How could I hope for that? To beg that a pain I couldn’t bear would be bestowed on someone else?
That if one were dead … which one?
That our town of 1,000 would be ripped asunder by … who?
There had been a murder a few years earlier of a well-loved couple in the community by a local teenager that people were only beginning to wrap their minds around.
Cold blooded. In their beds as they slept.
We already knew it could happen here.
The school? Was it a kid who did this? An adult? A local, or an outsider?
Terrorism? How big was it?
My wife. My son. In the school.
Someone with a gun. Also in the school. Using it.
The car wouldn’t go faster. I couldn’t panic, not now. I forced the bile down. Tried to see the road and not my worst nightmare.
But what if the nightmare were true? What would I find when I got there?
My hands shook, and the rest of me soon followed suit. I slowed down.
My cell phone rang.
I ignored it.
It rang again.
“Brent, what are you doing?” she was upset. “It’s a drill, didn’t you know that?”
I pulled off the road.
“It’s a frickin’ drill. Didn’t you know that?”
I’d missed the first part of the police communication, the part where they had announced the drill was in progress.
Berta told me to go home.
I got out of the car, fell to my knees and vomited in the crunchy brown leaves by the side of the road, sobbed with relief.
My sports section was ruined. And I didn’t care.
There are few days that those 15 minutes of abject, mind-numbing, body-quaking terror don’t come to mind, in vivid, wrenching detail. And yet for me, it was simply a misunderstanding. It was over. School, teachers, wife, son, all the other kids were fine.
For the families and friends of 26 people in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012, that 15 minutes of hell won’t come to a sudden and happy end with the sounds of a concerned co-worker’s voice reassuring that it was just a mistake.
Neither will it for the families of the survivors who lived through horrors that no one, but especially not young children, should ever have to experience.
My prayer is that God will grant them peace, and strength to carry an impossible burden of grief and heartache that no one ever asks for. But a burden none of them will never be able to leave behind.