Tragedy: A Look Back By A Grown Seven-Year Old
We watched, stunned at the images on the TV, as the rest of America did. People were sobbing, on cell phones and holding each other. The images were captured in Newtown, Connecticut after the elementary school massacre.
Newtown, population 27,000, where everyone knew everyone, sprinkled with historic buildings, and a family-friendly blue-collar area had just been flipped upside down.
Newtown is small, but much larger than the town that I was raised in Ohio. Our population pushed over the 500 mark when twins arrived to a resident. Seven Mile was plopped down in the middle of corn fields, lacked a stoplight, and the only business was a pizza place. Kids had no fear of riding bikes in the street. Little League dominated the summer. Sledding took over during winter.
I grew up in Mayberry, raised by the Cleavers.
It was a time of Fonzie on lunch boxes, Slime, big collared shirts with floral patterns and learning the Hustle. It was 1977. And, my family had recently moved to Seven Mile during my second grade year.
That weekend, we had visited my Dad’s family in northern Indiana and returned home on a Sunday. The usual post-trip activities occurred. Dad brought in the luggage while Mom started laundry. My older brother emptied the cooler of snacks. I – the runt of the litter in every sense of the word – was given the task of taking our dog out to the bathroom.
The loudmouth brat from next door tore across our lawn, panting, “Your teacher’s dead.”
Mrs. Duncil, my teacher who tried to help me fit in after the move? I called her a liar and ran into our house. My Mom caught me at the door and pulled me to her. Her arm was already around my brother and she hushed us both. Dad was on the phone. A neighbor, seeing our car pull into the driveway, had called to alert us to the tragedy.
On May 28th a group of teachers and school staff gathered for a retirement party. They chose the Beverly Hills Supper Club across the river in Kentucky. The supper club was a large venue, offering several weddings reception rooms along with entertainment and dining. It was hugely popular, could hold up to 3,000 people, and had been rebuilt after it first burnt down.
That night John Davidson (actor/singer) was to appear as the headliner, along with magicians, comedians and other performers. When a wedding reception ended in the Zebra Room around 8:30 p.m. they had complained the room was getting hot. The room was closed, and it was another 25 minutes before two waitresses cleaning up noticed the smoke. At 9:01 p.m., the fire department was called.
Chaos unfolded. The room capacities had been exceeded, there were not enough exits, and the wiring was “an electrician’s nightmare”. 165 people lost their lives, including one-third of the staff of our elementary school.
This past Friday we watched parents on television, holding their elementary school-aged children. They are given the task of explaining what my parents had to over 35 years ago. My parents were forced into a spontaneous explanation, adding “Gone to Heaven”, spoken softly and slowly so that my seven year-old mind could understand. They were walking a tightrope between honesty and reality, softening some of the sharp edges. They wanted to preserve my innocence, as “grown up” things would come soon enough. They asked me if I understood.
“Yes,” I nodded, “When do I get to see Mrs. Duncil again?”
The town changed. In the early days, parents and volunteers had us read to them to keep our education going while the school district scrambled on a hiring spree. The funeral parlors worked around-the-clock and every day there was at least two memorials. At the grocery store parents whispered updates on those who were injured, out of the hearing of their children – or so they thought.
The lawsuits, one of which was the first class-action of its type, worked its way through the court system, finally settling as I was nearing high school. John Davidson came back to host an event to raise money for the victims, survivors and their families. Most importantly, lessons were learned and fire codes and construction practices changed. Our teachers didn’t die in vain.
- Mabel Barker
- Carol Ann Cottongim
- Grace Fall
- “Billie” Ittel (principal’s wife)
- Lucy Mae King
- Dorothy Koontz
- Herman Mayfield
- Russell Gray
- Ann Louise Beer
- Gloria Duncil
I hope that the community of Newtown unites, comforts each other and continues. They will never forget, just as we never forgot, and the town may never be the same. And, I hope that America recognizes that we have a serious problem. We shouldn’t force another parent to address their seven year-olds question, “Who is teaching me English now?”
photo credit: 1
[UPDATE: I’ve had comments and emails regarding this post. 1) There were spouses and other members of our community who perished in the fire. I listed the teachers and staff only. 2) The supper club has never been rebuilt. A vacant lot is all that remains. 3) The elementary school was abandoned in the 1980s. A plaque commemorating those lost remains on the school grounds.]
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.