Friday, July 5, 2019

My Encounter With An Active Shooter

I don't really enjoy fireworks that much. Yes, they can be spectacular, but they're loud; they dominate the sky; and they frighten pets, wildlife, and anyone sensitive to loud noises.

For the whole week of the Fourth of July, as night closes in, we have  to accept the random intrusions upon our peace and quiet in the form of sudden blasts of explosives shot over our bow from a neighbor's backyard.

And that is why I forgot to organize a trip with my son to see fireworks.

Last year, he noted with some resentment that we had missed seeing fireworks altogether.

I felt badly for spoiling his July 4 last year, and solemnly promised to make it up to him.

Which is why, when I saw "Shake the Lake" on the FB events calendar, an evening of fireworks over lake Monona, I resigned myself to going.

I don't get out much.

In fact, I get out so infrequently that in between public appearances, I age.

I now have 35-50% white hair mixed in with red.

My skin pigment is now like paint that hasn't been adequately stirred, responding to the sun in glops and smears. Freckles merge, a spotty tan. Lilypad beauty marks bloom on my face.  (Some people call these "liver spots," but those people are ageist and mean.)

But going out is an occasion when all the work I do on the farm pays off.  I am fit, for my age.  My arms, in particular, I may have mentioned, are ripped.  And, if you ask me why, I'll tell you: Many buckets of manure, every day.  That's my secret!

So, here I was, older, sylvan, splotchy, and well turned out in a floral flounce over cropped black yoga pants, big concentric-hoop beaded earrings...Very Boho.

We parked in a garage on Francis Street in Madison and set out toward University and State, where we turned right and walked, in the soft light of a sultry summer evening, toward the Capitol and, beyond that, Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Convention Center on Lake Monona.

We were in good spirits.

I look at that floral flounce now, clean and laundered, and I wonder, Will I ever want to wear it again?

If I had been shot in that top, in those cropped yoga pants, wearing big hippy earrings...That's the outfit I would have died in.  That's what I would have been wearing when they found me.

And that is not what I would have chosen to wear for that occasion. I would have worn something serious, simple, and tailored.  Something that said: I am an intelligent, autonomous person, even if I have been destroyed by a stranger--randomly killed by someone who didn't want to kill me, per se, but only wanted the excitement of committing an act of violence, to experience the power of destruction.

As the object of that violence, my sole purpose was to be destroyed, being in all other ways of no interest or relevance to the killer.

To be that object, I would not have chosen to wear a loose floral flock and yoga pants. Would you?

On State Street, we stopped for ice cream.

The young man behind the counter was tall and excessively handsome, like a graduate student in philosophy.

I wanted a turtle sundae.

I looked up at the menu.

I said to the excessively handsome man behind the counter, "I would like a turtle sundae, but I see that it's not on your menu.  Do you know how to make a turtle sundae?"

He nodded, with just a hint of exasperation, and I realized how condescending that question sounded and I was sorry.  But why would a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy know how to make a turtle sundae?

He spent quite a long time making it.  So much time, in fact, that someone else, a young woman, stepped up to serve my son; and I had paid and my son had turned and walked off by the time Handsome returned with my sundae.

The maraschino cherry quivered on the whipped cream.  As I pivoted, it lurched and seemed about to topple.  I heard the voice of Handsome behind me.

 "Your cherry is falling! Let me get you another!"

I caught the cherry as it fell.  I turned to Handsome and said, "It's okay.  I got it. Thanks!"

I thought it was nice--oddly nice--that note of concern in his voice, like panic, that made me want to assure him that it was okay with the cherry.

We are psychic, aren't we.  I mean, we are.  This guy didn't know me, of course, but maybe he sensed something teetering about me that he saw in that cherry, which alarmed him.

Among throngs of people, we poured through the convention center like honey through a funnel.

Someone from security asked to peek inside my purse. Keys, phone, wallet.

Later, it would occur to me that they weren't asking any men to lift up their shirts.  Men conceal weapons in their waistband.  Most shooters are men.  Peeking into women's purses is pretty pointless.  A hollow gesture, at best, beyond which, to quote a news source, they didn't wish to be invasive.

We spiraled down several flights of stairs to Nolan Avenue by the lake--the lake which (I had not been here since winter) now smelled surprisingly rank with algae, floating, scum-like, on the surface of the water.

Thousands of people milled up and down the John Nolan Ave., (closed to cars) assessing the offerings of food trucks and vendors.

People-watching is something of a trick.  Everyone does it, but I kept finding myself looking at people who were looking directly back at me, as though I had been staring.

We met up with my friend Charlotte and her little boy.  Charlotte's husband soon joined us, and we sat around the small blanket that Charlotte had had the foresight to bring, along with a gallon of water.

My son and I walked off to survey the food trucks.  He and I haggled over the inflated prices, long lines, the heat--with each other. In the end, I bought him an overpriced brisket with baked beans, and hoped that would make him truly happy.

I bought two Small bags of kettle corn; they were enormous.

I was thirsty; the beer lines were too long.

We sat and talked and waited until ten p.m.

I'm told they started exactly on time, but it seemed like they started late.

The sweat poured down my front and back, even though it was night time and I was only sitting and eating kettle-corn.

They haven't dredged the lake yet this year.  I've also been told they never do.  It smells appallingly bad.

The fireworks appeared behind a tree blocking our view, so we got up and walked toward the convention center, where a concert stage had been set up on the left of the overpass.

The fireworks were spectacular; they satisfied. Watching them, I thought about, but tried not to think about, how the noise, the suddenness, the explosiveness, how it took over the whole sky, irrespective of wildlife, without a thought to habitat.

I can be a hateful drag.

When it ended, as soon as it ended, we said good-bye to our friends, who turned back toward Willy Street toward home.

We three walked toward the Convention Center.

I overheard a man say to his son, "I think those were the best fireworks I've ever seen in my life."  And then I saw that he was looking at me.  He was looking straight at me, expecting me to chime in and agree, so  I nodded and smiled: Yes, lovely, the greatest.  And he smiled warmly back at me.

Was this how strangers respond to women my age?  Have I been rendered universal by the silvering hair?  The silvering hair interspersed with red, the strong arms, the soft frock, and the comfortable shoes?

And then Josh said, "Those might have been the best fireworks I've ever seen. I dunno'.  Maybe not. They were pretty damn good, though."

"Will they hold you over for another twelve months?" I asked, hopefully.

Josh thought about it.  "Maybe eight."

And that is when, at that precise moment--we had entered the overpass on our way back to the stairwell to proceed like honey through a funnel backwards up through Frank Lloyd Wright's convention center to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard--when we heard multiple gunshots.

pow-pow pow-pow-pow

It was like that.  Was it three or five?  It was like pow-pow, pow-pow-pow.  But all at once, from the direction of the overpass, where it was completely dark.

Beyond the overpass, on the other side where there was light, we saw people hurl themselves over the cement barricade.  Cement barricades waist high.

There were a couple of guys near Josh and me.  Phil, my husband, further ahead, was still slowly walking, weirdly unfazed.

This is not the sort of thing that fazes my husband--shots ringing out from the dark.

The shooter ran past Phil and threw down his gun.

Only Phil of the many thousands of people there knew that the shooter had thrown down his gun.

Later, Phil showed the police officer where the gun was.

Later that night, he called the police and told him what he was able to describe.

Two days later, Phil would scold me for leaving a pasture gate open.

"What if the horses got loose while you were away and I was the only one there to deal with them?  Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

(Point of fact: The horses have gotten loose many times. They mosey over to eat the grass on the other side of the fence, safe and sound--for hours.  Eventually, they would wander back into the pasture.)

There were a couple of young guys near Josh and me who moved away swiftly as if to run, but changed their minds and jumped over the barricade and lay down like the other people had done.

The thought passed through my mind that, demographically speaking, these guys were doubtless gamers, accustomed to playing first-person shooter games.  They would certainly know what to do.

This thought comforted me.

I watched as Josh got over the barrier and lay down.

"Mom, c'mon."

I got over the barrier without difficulty (quite fit!) and lay down beside Josh.

It was nice that we were next to each other.

I looked and saw someone--the shooter--run out of the overpass at a sprint.

"Stay down," someone told me.

Everyone believed there was more than one shooter.

By everyone, I mean us.

We waited.

And I thought, if these shooters are out to kill people, they must know that we are here, lying face down on the ground, and they will come shoot us.

I will be lying next to Josh when the shoot him. He will be lying next to me when they shoot me.

Like this, we waited, for maybe a minute.

A police officer arrived on foot.

"Are you okay?  Are you hurt?"

We were all okay.

He told us where the exit was, back in the direction from which we'd walked.

The shooter had disappeared into the crowd.

We walked among a crowd of people for a mile.

At one intersection, a stop light, a guy in a muscle car revved his engine loudly for no reason.  It frightened me.  I thought they could be shooters.  Maybe they would run us down.  He revved the engine over and over.  The light turned green, and he drove away, to my great relief.

The crowd thinned, and we still had a mile to walk.

"Well," said my 15-year-old.  "I guess I can cross that off my bucket list."

Some people get cross when I tell them about that, as if being in an active shooter situation had actually been on my son's bucket list.

Being in an active shooter situation had not been on Josh's bucket list.  This was just something he had said to make his mother laugh--which I thought was fucking heroic.

Back on John Nolan, a terrified crowd heard what happened and ran for the exits.

Whether it was more frightening to be closest to the shooter or furthest, I cannot say.  Like those who ran in terror, I assumed this would be a well-planned mass shooting.

My husband, on the other hand, who saw the gun being fired and flung from the shooter's hand, would have rather been present there than at home with loose horses.  To each his own.

I followed the news, but the news kept changing, like a weird rabbit hole out of Alice Through the Looking Glass.

First, it was one woman down, and one wounded officer.

For 36 hours, one woman down.

On the second day, she became a man.  Man shot at Shake the Lake released from hospital.

I went back to review the links I posted to FB.  They redacted the part about the woman.  They added a quote from the mayor.  They cut out the article boasting about drones.  They shifted the tone of the police chief's response.  They updated, redacted, and rewrote--leaving no record or evidence of errors or mistakes, misquotes, misstatements.

I felt like I was still back on the crime scene, behind yellow tape.

Maybe if they found the shooter and I knew the whole story, I could leave.

The weird news coverage fueled my anger and confusion.

Like any other phone app, Channel 3000 didn't have what I needed, and in fact, only made me feel worse.

I don't have the answers.  I only have this story: Nice white lady encounters real-time shooter.

It's not more special than anyone else's story.

It's not more special than a black kid's story.

It's not more special than an immigrant child's story.

It's just one story.

Maybe, when everyone knows someone who has encountered an active shooter--the way everyone knows someone who has been robbed blind by medical bills--it will finally become a common cause.

Meanwhile, I am so done with fireworks.