Columbine

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the Columbine shooting. I was not living in Colorado in 1999, but everyone heard about Columbine. National news. Shocking. Unprecedented. Unthinkable. A month ago, another Colorado mass shooting. It was in Boulder, a King Soopers market. Do you even remember it?

A Colorado litany: Columbine. Denver. Bailey. Arvada. Colorado Springs. Littleton. Aurora. Centennial. Colorado Springs again, and then again. Thornton. STEM School in Highlands Ranch. Aurora again. Boulder.

Columbine was not the first in our state, but it raised a terrible bar. My neighbor Ken Fischer was dog-tired that day 22 years ago, as was his whole Lakewood Police Department team. They’d had an extra-tough shift the night before, but that’s another story. He was doing some hard work on an off-duty day, wrestling and sweating with pulling stumps for a friend, when he heard the call. 

Ken writes for my neighborhood blog, as do I on occasion. In this story, he tells of – what was it, a kind of compensation? A miracle? – seemingly built out of inspiration and willpower. Or maybe it was something dealt out by “a just and brooding God.”

Republished with permission.


By Ken Fischer

1999. The following fall, after that terrible day in April, the Columbine football team took the field. They were not great, but won enough to get to the playoffs.

My sector of Lakewood had the Jeffco Stadium in just about its geographic center. I would often tactically position myself at or near the stadium on Thursday and Friday nights for the rowdy high school events. My dispatcher was aware of crowd noise so she often called me on cell phone with anything critical in nature. Pretty routine, usually just being watchful, but there was one game that I will always remember as something special, almost transcendent.

Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado

Now there was something eerie about the Columbine team. These were the lads that carried one of their own to his final rest several months earlier. Their school was still undergoing repair so they worked through the hurt and anger to do something constructively normal: play football.

Columbine had never been any great shakes on the gridiron. Finishing near .500 was pretty good for the program. This year the team had no real stars and no standouts, and seemed to be a very quiet bunch. They took on a county rival in the quarterfinals and came from behind to squeak out a victory. A surprise. They were forecast to break even that year and winning a playoff game was a big notch on the doorframe.

Per custom, each team passed at midfield, shook hands then boarded the buses back to their school. Except Columbine. They had no school and would not until the following year. They shared time at Chatfield High, their sister school further south in the county.

Just after this victory and handshake, Columbine players and coaches assembled under the south goal posts. Very quiet, no hoorah, no cheers, no one but the team. I was standing on the perimeter with the Columbine principal, Frank DeAngelis. I began to say something to him in passing. He gave me a sign to be silent. I would.

They spoke in brief statements. No game analysis. An air of commitment. No one interrupted anyone else.

Photo from Columbine Football on Twitter, @CHSRebelball, 2018 Text: "Game Day. Tomorrow is promised to no one..."

Photo from Columbine Football on Twitter, @CHSRebelball, 2018

When all who wanted to speak spoke, they calmly walked to their bus. I had never seen anything like this in athletics. This was a team with a purpose.

The following week would be tougher. They were predicted to lose by at least two touchdowns to a far superior Boulder Fairview team that had experienced a fantastic season losing only one possibly two games. Fairview had a quarterback passer who had all the tools. He was a “young Elway.”

The game progressed as expected. Columbine held strong through three quarters but could not manage much scoring. Fairview was about eighteen points up starting the fourth quarter.

I was prowling the Fairview sidelines as Columbine pushed down the field and scored. No big deal. Two scores up, just run the clock.

Fairview turned it over in uncharacteristic fashion and here came Columbine, silent and deep.

Again, the ground game. Columbine scored in about six plays and were one score down with about four minutes left.

Fairview attempted a run, lost ground. Columbine timeouts employed. Fairview punts. Good runback by Columbine who scored two plays later. Still silent, confident, committed. No mistakes.

With a blue chip passer and two minutes to score from mid field, it would be highly possible to get to the end zone. The kid who was setting passing records all year threw two terrible incomplete passes. During a timeout, with just seconds left, I turned to hear a brief conversation between coach and quarterback. The strategy was set. Just do it. Run it in if you have to.

The all-state quarterback had a look that betrayed a feeling of something else at work here.

Fairview ran once and threw a pass into the dirt to lose to a “nothingburger” team in blue that could not be stopped by any dynamic in any playbook.

Columbine Memorial. Photo by Denverjeffrey, CC BY 3.0, Link

A stunned crowd silently departed for the Boulder Flatirons, not quite believing what they had just seen.

A calm, deliberate, committed bunch of young men in Columbine blue gathered under the goal post. They recommitted the season to their friend and fallen athlete, Matt Kechter, as they had done for every game throughout the season.

Columbine went on to beat Cherry Creek the next week for the state championship. Not easily but convincingly, and well enough. Enough to become state football champions for that year.

That team still frequently revisits the Columbine teams of ensuing years. They stand with the quiet authority of dedication and unity, to offer inspiration and support to those playing a great game with great comrades.


Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Colorado Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of the Southern Gables neighborhood, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business. 

2020

What a year, right? I hear friends wishing for it to end, as if the New Year will flip a magic switch and 2021 will bring an end to “this terrible year.” We might not want to admit it in the days before that “Happy New Year,” but getting over 2020 will be gradual and forever incomplete. Those who have died will long be mourned. Many businesses won’t come back and many jobs are lost forever. We will never return to many of our old easy habits. Coping mechanisms have emerged that will cast long shadows, some dark. There will be post-traumatic stress effects. Office space, work hours, transportation patterns, conferences and conventions, birthday parties: all will return in distorted form. 2020 gets the blame.

But who knows, if not for 2020…

What Good Might Not Have Started

Who knows what good might not have started
If we had all stayed the same way,
Enmeshed in routines done dull-hearted
Just trudging half blind through each day.

This year that has seemed so accursed
Has brought us a new point of view
Would we never or ever have noticed
The people we praise now anew?

The nurses, the doctors and teachers,
The drivers, and grocers and clerks,
The helpers and healers who stepped up
To make sure that everything works.

And food banks that came into being
Where never before angels went
With generous souls freely serving
To people who stretched to make rent.

Admiringly we call them “the front line”
The people that we never knew
But angels appear when you need them
And COVID has brought them in view.

I wonder if we would have squandered
Our hours and minutes away
Unfeeling and mute as we wandered
Complacent in each passing day.

The crisis has made us refocus
On things that are precious and dear
Like casual hugs and cheek-kisses
And missing them made some things clear,

Like valuing love and each other,
Giving service to others in need,
And loving the ones we hold closely,
Being thankful in thought, word, and deed.

Now Is Better

I don’t recall exactly how I learned that a school friend from years ago had written a novel, but I was immediately intrigued enough to look into it. A novel! That’s real writing, integrating creative imagination with the real world. I admire that ability.

The book had a title that gave me pause — The First Year It Sleeps — what in the world could that be about? My interest was piqued even more when I saw that the setting was a place very familiar to me, in the real world, and the time period was — Hey! Omigosh that’s when I was a kid. I had to read this book.

Click the pic, preview the book online.

Well, I read it, and I was enticed page after page to keep going for one familiar clue after another as to exactly where this or that happened, and was this or that piece of the puzzle real or was it part of the fictional story. That kept my nose in the book. I remember how our parents worried about polio in the 1950s, and maybe we even knew a kid with it. I remember the freedom of speeding recklessly on a bike, of conspiring with friends to go sneak into some forbidden place or get lost in the woods, to get creepy-scared in an eerie cemetery, to have secrets, to have a friend move away, forever! To learn about  bullying one way or another, or to be put in fear of your life by a grownup. There was the teacher with the odd mannerisms, the nuns with their stern ways. To take a dare to go up to some old spooky place — say, an abandoned manor house — where a mysterious old recluse lives, and, what now, ring the bell and run? Sneak inside? Hide there overnight knowing there must be ghosts? Boo! Dare ya! Turns out it wasn’t just my neighborhood and my time; it was the story of everybody whose childhood included being able to play, run, laugh, and cry.

I wrote a review about the book on Amazon.

The First Year It Sleeps by Brenda Gibrall

I was drawn into the story initially because it was about the time and place where I grew up. So many of the place descriptions took on special meaning because I had lived in them. I marveled, despite that would-be advantage, at the detail and vividness that came through. If I had been a stranger to the place I would have seen it just as fully through the author’s skillful descriptions.

The story brought me back in time as well, not just place, seeing the world through the eyes of a group of play-friends as they learn about life. The differences between the several families, the sometimes-furtive outings and dares, the secrets, the kid stuff. Learning grownup stuff too, overcoming segregation and revealing insights on Southern race relations of the time, in touching perspective. A mysterious death, some classic kid detective work, what more could a story need?

There’s more to the story.

Not long after reading the book, I had occasion to visit my old home town. Before leaving Colorado for Richmond, I contacted the author to check out some of the clues I had found, to see if my guesses were correct on the places and some of the characters in the story. I asked if the spooky old manor house was real, or if she had built it from research and imagination. It was real. Not really abandoned and spooky — that was literary license — but it was a real house. Not only that, but it was built around 1780. 1780! And it’s still there! And it’s a ten-minute walk from the house where I lived as a child! Lots of things in Virginia are old, but I had no idea of anything like that.

My curiosity was engaged to the extent that on that visit to Richmond I went to see the place. Mr. Vernon Creekmore owns it now. He lives there and runs a high-end, by-appointment antique business from the house. He is not a descendant of earlier owners, but he is a fine historian of the place. He was at home when I stopped by, and he graciously invited me in to learn about the history of the house and its former very large estate. It had been a horse farm, and had a racetrack located where the McGuire VA Hospital is now. That hospital was across an open field from my old home.

The first of my McDonald forebears to settle in Virginia were my great grandparents Archibald MacDonald and his bride-to-be Margaret McDonnell, arriving well after the Civil War. Archer and Margaret were married in Richmond in 1881. He was a farmer, raising strawberries and asparagus. Archer’s land was divided among his children when he died, and then some of those divided to theirs. As I learned from what Mr. Creekmore described, my great-grandpa’s farm was within the area formerly included in this estate. The farm and its racetrack were called Broad Rock.

The land was adjacent to the land of Col. Robert Byrd II (big name in Virginia). The house was built by Col. Archibald Cary though he had an estate in Buckingham County and may not have lived at Broad Rock, or not for long. It was built around 1780-1790 as shown by the kind of nails used, according to Creekmore. Maj. Ball, a supplier for the Revolutionary War, bought it and it was during his tenure that the horse racing was at its apex in the late 1700s.

Broad Rock Racetrack was one of three racetracks in the Richmond area. Virginia was big in early horse racing, and Ball was big in horse racing. Around 1780-99 a famous race horse was brought over from England, Diomed. He sired Ball’s Florizel, famous for his bad temper; William Ball owned the horse and he was so fast and so mean that no one wanted to race him. He went to stud at an early age. Also famous in the line: Turpin’s Florizel, Sir Archy. Horse-racing fortunes were made and lost, and this line went on from Virginia, leading into the world-class Kentucky racing culture.

Now, I don’t know anything about race horses or horse racing, except I bet $2 on a horse once and decided it’s not my path to riches. Nor do I know about those Revolutionary War era Colonels and Majors, but still, it was fascinating to connect with that history of the place where I played tag with cousins and learned to ride a bike. Colonel Cary, the one who had the house built, was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for Goochland, 1748; Justice for Chesterfield, 1750; Burgess 1758-74; of Committee of Safety, 1774-76; of Colonial Committee of Correspondence of all the Revolutionary Conventions & Speaker of the State Senate from 1776 until his death.1 He married Mary Randolph, daughter of Col. Richard & Jane (Bolling) Randolph, of “Curles.” She is an ancestor cousin of mine, daughter of Jane Bolling whose sister was my 6th great-grandmother Martha Bolling. Then later, among the owners of that house, Ball married Bettsy Cheatham. She was another distant cousin, and the Cheatham family was the family that owned the land when part of it was taken by the Government after WWII for that VA hospital.

I am reminded of a moment I wrote about in A Breeze in Bulgaria.

     I passed by a monument in the center of town, “The Column.” I stopped for a moment to try to read it. It was written in an archaic version of the alphabet…. It was something about the Turks…. Seeing me peering at it, an older man stopped alongside me and looked at it too, probably for the first time as it often happens with things we take for granted.
     I was surprised when he turned to me and said, “Istoria.”
     History.
     I said, “Da, istoria, interesno.”
     He replied, “Sega e po-dobre.”
     Now is better. 2

Now is better.

Think about it. The Good Old Days, our glorious history. Do we long for a return to those old times? We have it tough now? Life was better, simpler, easier? The American presence on this continent started with freezing and starvation. The Revolutionary War, with Patriot and Loyalist neighbors attacking and killing each other even before it turned into a war between armies. Slavery. The Trail of Tears. The Civil War. Reconstruction. Starvation. Trench warfare in The War to End All Wars. Prohibition. Gangster murders. The Dust Bowl. World War II. OK, how about the 50s, all OK, right? Sure, if you were white and middle class or a factory owner. Civil Rights violence in the 60s. I’ll let it go at that; work your own way through the 70s and up to now.

Now is better.