Saturday, November 9, 2019

Shelter in Place!

     This happened just the other day. It was late afternoon, starting to get dark. I was home alone. My wife was out running errands. I noticed a cop car parked across the street, lights flashing. At first I didn't think anything of it. We occasionally have cop cars parked at our corner because it's a school crossing and the cops like to keep an eye on things.

     Then I thought, uh oh, maybe it's the woman across the street. She's elderly, pushing 90, and maybe something happened to her. But the next time I looked out the window I saw her walk onto her front porch, look around for a few seconds, then go back inside.

     A few minutes later the phone rang. I looked at caller ID (because I don't answer the phone if I don't recognize the number), and it was B. "I can't get home," she said. "The street is blocked off."

     There was a cop blocking the street, she reported. And the other entrance into our neighborhood was closed down as well.

     As we spoke on the phone I got up from my desk and peered out the window, then went around to the guest bedroom and spied out the other way. I saw cop cars, lights flashing, lined all the way down the street, starting at my house and going out toward the main road.

     "Oh, boy, something's going on," I said to her. "Maybe it's an accident? Or a medical emergency?"

     It was obvious this would take a while. We decided B would turn around and go over to Panera's and have a cup of tea.

     I hung up the phone, and about five minutes later it rang again. Caller ID said it was from the township. So I picked up the phone. And that's when I heard the recorded announcement: Due to police activity in my area, I was warned to shelter in place.

     So I called B back. She was in Panera's, and she'd had an opportunity to check in with the neighborhood women's group. The texts were flying. There was a shooter. A number of people had reported shots fired in the neighborhood. No one knew anymore than that, except my next-door neighbor was panicking because she had six neighborhood kids in her basement. They could see the lights of the cop cars out the basement windows, and knew there was a shooter on the loose.

      I checked our local news website. There were reports of gunfire coming from a house -- a house just around the corner from us. No injuries were reported. There was a young man involved. The news story claimed the incident was confined to one house.

     Next I surveyed the street as best I could, peering out from window to window. I saw a man in what looked like full combat gear sneaking around the house across the street in back of us. Down the street I saw a van with three -- no, four -- people crouched behind it for protection.

     A few minutes later an armored truck slowly rumbled down the street. It stopped. Then it started up again and moved down to the corner. The back of the truck opened and four or five fully armed men hurried out the back. They gathered on the corner, conversed with one another, checked on their radios.

     After a few minutes the men climbed back into the truck, and the truck turned the corner and continued down the street.

     I saw several other cops walking up ad down the street. A few were in combat gear, others wore blue uniforms with bullet-proof vests. The van stayed where it was, with the cops huddled behind it, surveying the area, keeping watch.

     I called B again. She'd been busy texting with her neighborhood friends. There was a young man, hyped up on drugs, who'd been shooting out the window of his house. Apparently the situation was now under control. She'd call me back as soon as she heard more.

     Sure enough, a few minutes later I saw a few of the cop cars turn and head out. B called me back. She was coming home. More cop cars left, until the street was dark. That's when I noticed that none of the houses along the street had turned on their lights. Everybody, it seems, was lying low.

     A little later a line of headlights appeared on the street. People coming home from work. They were now allowed in.

     B showed up and settled in. We had dinner. Her church activity scheduled for that evening had been canceled, due to the police activity. The school on the next block also canceled its evening program, a concert by the kids. We later read that while school had been let out before the incident occurred, there was a group of kids in an after-school program that were subject to the shelter-in-place order. The school went on lock-down.

     The news the next day summarized:  "No injuries were reported in conjunction with the incident, which unfolded just after 3:45 p.m. The police responded after reports of continuous gunfire in the area. When officers arrived a standoff situation ensued and 'numerous' shots were fired from inside the house, police said. The standoff ended just after 5:30 p.m. A 21-year-old man who lives at the home surrendered and was taken into custody."

     We don't know the young man, or the family that lives in the house. I guess we'll never know the details of the situation. But the basic problem is obvious. There was some mixture of drugs, mental illness and ready access to a gun that precipitated the crisis.

     We're always surprised when something like this happens. But we shouldn't be. We have more drugs, more mental illness and more guns than we've ever had. Shouldn't we do something about it?

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Night to Remember

     This happened to me a couple of years ago. It was sometime in November, which maybe explains why it haunts me to this day.

     It was a cloudy, overcast morning before Thanksgiving. I was still groggy from sleep, and as I drank my coffee I recalled how I had just seen my old friend Phil.

     I'd been sitting in my office at work, behind my desk, looking out through the glass wall. Someone had pasted a notice on the outside of the glass, so I stood up to see what it was. As I circled around my desk, Phil appeared at my doorway -- tall and thin with bushy black hair and a big smile. He came in as though nothing had happened. He was walking a little funny, but gave me his usual throaty laugh.

     "Phil!" I said in astonishment. "You're here!"

     "Yeah, I was just down the hall," he said, pointing outside my door. "Thought I'd come by and say hello."

     He had some papers tucked under one arm, and set them down on the corner of my desk. And that's when I noticed he was using crutches. They were metal, the kind that go halfway up your forearms.

     He caught me looking at the crutches. Then he looked me straight on, with a sly grin on his face. "Yeah, I recovered," he said, acknowledging what I knew. "I'm okay, all except my legs. They don't work too well so I have to use these crutches."

     "Wow," was all I managed to say.

     "It's not too bad," he said reassuringly.

     I still couldn't believe he was here. But his laugh was real, for sure. I looked down at the papers he had dropped on my desk. They were written in some kind of Chinese characters. "That's great, Phil," I said, trying to regain my composure, trying to be cool about it . "So what are these papers?"

     "Oh, yeah, I've got to hand these out to some people," he said. Then, seeing I was puzzled by the strange lettering, he explained, "I've been doing a lot of traveling."

     "That's good," I replied. "Where to?"

     "Well, I've got to get going," Phil said, ignoring my question. Then as he turned to leave, he dropped one of his crutches, but he kept right on going, walking out the door leaning on one crutch and turning the corner. I bent over and picked up the crutch. It was cold in my hand. Then Phil peeked back around the corner. "Oops, forgot my crutch," he chuckled.

     I took a step over toward the door and handed him the crutch. He reached out and took it, then slipped it onto his arm. He turned and hobbled out. "Good to see you," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hallway.

     So what really happened? It took place about ten years ago. Phil came over to the office. He was going to treat me to lunch. He was a few years older than I was and had taken an early retirement package from the company. But he lived nearby and often came by to see old colleagues. He'd told me he'd pick me up; he'd be happy to drive. My office was right by the front door, so that day he pulled up in his Corvette and honked. I saw him out my window, and he waved to me.

     I threw on my jacket, rushed out the door and jumped into the passenger seat. It was an old Corvette. He'd bought it for his wife on her 40th birthday. But by this time she'd gotten a new car, and he was driving the Corvette . . . for sentimental reasons, I think.

     As we headed over to the restaurant we talked about our friends and joked around about various things going on at the office. But I noticed, as he drove, that he handled the steering wheel kind of funny. Was something wrong? I wondered. I didn't say anything. He was talking like the same old Phil. How could anything be wrong?

     Again at lunch, it seemed as though he was awkward -- was there something the matter with his hands? I wasn't sure, and decided he should be the one to bring it up if he wanted to, so I kept my mouth shut. Still, I searched his eyes for some kind of recognition, trying to offer a non-verbal signal that it was okay to tell me if something was wrong. But he didn't pick up on it. His conversation, his attitude, his demeanor all said that everything was fine.

     We finished lunch and Phil dropped me back off at work, laughing and joking and promising to meet up again soon. "So long," I called to him as I closed the car door.

     "Bye bye," he waved.

     It was the next day when I heard the news. Phil was dead. He had committed suicide. He had written a note to his wife and daughter, gulped down a bottle of pills, lay down in bed and died.

     Why? What happened? Everyone wanted to know.

     Phil had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Nobody knew about it except his family. He'd been hiding it. It's a progressive, fatal disease. No cure. No way out. We could only guess what went through his mind -- that he didn't want to be the object of sympathy from his friends, that he didn't want to become a burden to his family, didn't want to subject himself to the indignities of the inevitable heartbreaking decline.

     So he'd ended it on his own terms.

     Phil, I don't know if you did the right thing. Who am I to judge? But, damn, you had a lot of courage. It's been over ten years and I still miss you. But thanks . . . thanks for coming to visit me in the night in my dreams.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ghosts Along the Delaware

     We drove over to Lambertville, NJ, across the Delaware river, because we heard that one of the neighborhoods puts on a pretty spectacular Halloween display. And since we, personally, invest more time, money and interest in the candy side of Halloween than we do in the decorations, we thought we should go see how the other half does it.

     First we took a drive up to Goat Hill and walked up to the lookout over the Delaware. We didn't see any goats, but we got a nice view looking north, and back west across the river to New Hope, PA. We felt the presence of a few ghosts from the distant past -- during the Revolutionary War both the British and the Americans used this vantage point to scout out enemy positions along the river.

     Then we headed into town and did some scouting of our own. One house featured a panoply of ghosts and goblins and witches in the front yard.

    A witch beckoned us down an alley to find more scary creatures.

     Yikes, two of them!

     One household was getting a little help with the yard work.

     Another offered a bit of glamour.

     Don't ask me what this is, but it's spooky enough, don't you think?.

     However, I do know a ghost when I see one. Anyway, may you be happy and safe for Halloween ... and get lots of candy.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

May We Never Go There Again

     When people say to me, "America is more polarized and divided than it has ever been," I say to them, remember the 1960s and Vietnam, or the 1950s and McCarthyism and desegregation. Think about the 1930s and the Depression and the police shooting union strikers in the street. And think about the Civil War.

     We've been divided before. And sometimes we need reminding: We don't want to become that divided again.

     B and I made a trip to Gettysburg last weekend. B told me she'd been there as a child, but didn't remember anything about it except a pleasant memory of her father leading her around by the hand. I had never been there before at all. But now I can tell you: It's a sobering experience.

A painting of the battle

     We went on an overcast day in October, so it wasn't too crowded. It was hot and humid for those three days in July 1863, when the battle took place, but somehow when we were there it seemed appropriate that the skies were cloudy and the air hung heavy with mist.

     We were told by friends to take the personalized tour. A guide gets in your car and drives you around the battlefield. You will learn a lot more than you will going on the bus tour, they said, and it will be a lot less confusing than the self-guided tour.

     The guide took us around the battlefield, which surrounds the town of Gettysburg, roughly following the chronology of the battle.

Looking down on the town of Gettysburg from the west

     On July 1, 1963, the Confederate army, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrived from the west. They had advanced up the Shenandoah Valley, essentially hiding from the Feds behind the mountains, and then cut northeast into Pennsylvania. Some units made it as far as the Susquehannah River. The Southerners hoped that an invasion of the North would demoralize the already war-weary Union, and perhaps persuade President Lincoln to come to the negotiating table and agree to a peace treaty that would leave the Confederacy intact.

     The North's Army of the Potomac, under General George Meade, rushed up from Washington, DC, to meet the challenge. The Confederates had numerical advantage that first day and pushed the Federal troops back, chasing them through the streets of town.

     By July 2, more Federal troops had arrived, and they formed a line along the high ground that ran east and south of town, called Cemetery Ridge. The ridge was anchored on the south by a small hill called Round Top, and an even smaller hill called Little Round Top.

Round Top on the right, Little Round Top on the left

     General Lee attacked, using a flanking maneuver. One group hit the Union right side. Another moved on the Union left, trying to take Little Round Top. During intense fighting, with both sides suffering terrible losses, a contingent of Confederates got caught in Devil's Den, below Little Round Top. Hundreds were mowed down by the Union forces above them.

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top

     Confederates took refuge on Seminary Hill, opposite the Union forces on Cemetery Hill. On July 3, Lee tried a flanking attack once again. When that was beaten back, he decided to risk everything on a frontal attack, right into the middle of Union lines. The Confederates spent several hours bombarding Union forces with canons, Then some 12,000 rebels advanced across the mile-wide open fields. At the center was a division led by Maj. Gen. George Picket. In an attack later known as Pickett's charge, one brigade breached Union lines. Soldiers fought with rifles and bayonets. For some it came down to hand-to-hand combat. But finally the rebels were beaten back. The Union had won.

First the Confederates used the canons, then they attacked across this field

     The next morning, July 4, Lee retreated south. General Meade followed, but failed to press the advantage, and so the Confederates were able to cross the Potomac River and head back to Virginia. The South was finished, but they didn't know it, as they still held out hopes for a peace treaty. The Civil War lasted almost two more years before General Ulysses S. Grant, who'd replaced Meade, took Richmond and forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865.

A few of the graves in the nearby National Cemetery

     Of course, we know Lincoln was assassinated just a few days later, arguably the last victim of a war that killed more than 600,000 American volunteer soldiers -- including as many as 30,000 men who died from those three days at Gettysburg.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Guns Don't Kill People . . .

 . . . people kill people.

     But you can't shoot someone without a gun. And it's a lot harder to kill someone if you don't have a gun.

     I don't know how gun control is an issue that's of interest particularly to people in their 60s and 70s -- any more than it is for any other age group -- except, maybe, possibly, because of our experience and wisdom we can take a more mature and considered look at the issue.

     Occasionally a politician or conservative think tank will cite studies showing that in places where more people have guns, there are actually fewer murders. The idea, I suppose, is that if a criminal fears that a store owner is hiding a pistol behind the counter, the criminal is less likely to rob the store. This may actually be true; the issue has been argued both ways.

     A friend of mine, who's a typical moderate liberal suburbanite, carries a handgun in his car. Why? Because he once was held up at gunpoint by the side of the road. He was in fear for his life and felt completely helpless, and he vowed never to be put into that position again.

     He feels safer with a gun in the car. Is he actually any safer? That's debatable.

     But the point is, it doesn't matter. It has no bearing on the issue of gun control. No one is arguing that Americans should be stripped of their guns (are they?). Even Beto O'Rourke who said, "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15s," doesn't say he wants to take away all guns. Kamela Harris owns a gun; Elizabeth Warren says her brother owns a gun; both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have explicitly defended the right of citizens to bear arms.

     Some say gun control should be left up to state or local authorities. New York has a gun control law. Plenty of other places do too. But, for one thing, it's too easy to purchase a gun in one location and carry it to another location where it might be illegal -- but where there's no way the local law can possibly be enforced. Also, when people start shooting federally elected officials, like U. S. Representatives Gabrielle Giffords and Steve Scalise, it only seems logical that federal laws should apply in the matter.

     So what could possibly be wrong with treating guns like another dangerous but useful tool -- the automobile. No one complains that people are denied the right to own an automobile. Almost every American has one, or uses one. Lots of people have two or three.

     But there are laws regulating the use and ownership of an automobile. You have to get a minimal amount of training, then pass a test and get a license, before you can drive. You register your car, so authorities can keep track of all these automobiles, in case a crime is committed or someone is hurt. And you're also required to have auto insurance, so if someone does get hurt by this dangerous machine, they can get reimbursed for their medical bills and maybe receive some sort of payment as recompense for their pain and suffering.

     And nobody pickets Congress saying, If cars are outlawed, only outlaws will have cars!

     So what's wrong with the federal government requiring people to get some training, pass a test, and then get a license before they're allowed to shoot a gun? (Or the states could set these requirements under federal guidelines.) A gun is just as dangerous as a car, perhaps more so. And so it only seems logical that shooters, just like drivers, should be able to demonstrate that they're competent to use one. (Kids in some areas could take Shooter's Ed in school -- why not?) Since it's a dangerous as well as a useful tool -- again, just like a car -- people should have to prove that they're responsible enough to own one. And for that the gun would have to be registered, and insured, just like a car, to ensure a level of sanity to the situation.

     Sure, it would cost gun owners a bit of money -- but a lot less than it costs to keep a car. Hunters could still hunt. Store owners could still keep a gun to defend themselves from violent criminals. Hobbyists could still collect their rifles and guns. And my friend can keep his gun in his glove compartment.

     I just don't see why this wouldn't work. A lot of people like their guns. They find them useful. That's fine. Nobody's trying to take away the guns. But guns are dangerous. They are scary. At least as scary as a car.