The world I thought I lived in forever changed in the few years of my pre-teens, just as it did for every kid I knew or went to school with, and I suspect, many in my generation.
We all have an affinity for our favorite grocery chains — for me, growing up, my sense of nostalgia is rapidly invoked at the sight of a Shoppers. They sell “colossal donuts,” the best of which is the apple fritter. As a boy, my father would take my sister and I to Shoppers on weekend mornings, get us a donut (politely ignoring the fact that every single week I’d eat entirely around the apple filling in the center of the fritter — the only blemish of an otherwise top-notch creation), and take us to play tennis in the neighborhood courts (he had grown up playing tennis as a boy in southern California).
I lived in northern Virginia my entire childhood, just outside of Washington D.C. At 16, I was bemused by the foreign tourists’ gasps on my flight back from visiting family in Hong Kong as they pressed on my side of the plane to see the monuments for the first time as we landed in DC (my fear of the aircraft tilting by its suddenly off-balance load was drowned out by the loud shutters of the many cameras going off). The very thought of the endless monuments and museums forced upon us in every childhood field trip bored me to tears by the time I was in middle school. I dreaded field trips. After September 11th though, all the field trips stopped.
To this day, I still get a tinge of childhood excitement when I drive past a Shoppers, asking my wife if she thinks they still sell the “colossal” apple fritter that I had so often as a kid (one of these days I’m going in and checking… for science).
A few years after my parent’s divorce, both remarried. My father lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, and I lived with my mother in Prince William County, Virginia.
When I was 12, it was at a Shoppers in Montgomery County — near where my father lived — that we, as a region, first became aware of what would explode into the most horrifying few weeks I have ever personally witnessed an entire metropolitan area experience all together.
James Martin, a program analyst for the NOAA, was shot and killed in the Shoppers parking lot just hours after a near miss at a Michaels craft store left Ann Chapman a rare survivor of these attacks.
Over the next few weeks, the attacks continued. The snipers attacked at random, and escaped from every scene entirely unseen.
The attacks started with a half dozen shootings in my father’s county over the course of the first two days. On the third day, they began to spread to where where I was: first a little north, near Manassas — where I had acted in a few plays after school, then as the days dragged on, in my own county at a gas station, and then a little south, in Fredericksburg — where I had my 9th birthday party. The dots began to land all around my childhood mental map of where we lived and where all our favorite spots were as the weeks droned on.
Life for those few weeks changed for everyone in the region. My school, down the same drive as military housing, gained a guard building. As most of the victims were shot while pumping gas into their cars, some gas stations put tarps up to shield the pumps, and people would avoid standing still while waiting for their tank to fill. I overheard a family friend upstairs telling my mother that she was pumping the cars with gas before her husband could, because she believed his survival was much more important than her own (he was high ranking in the military). We joked, maybe to make the reality of everything a little lighter, about “bobbing and weaving” whenever moving from a vehicle to a building (school, home, grocery store), as we had been instructed to avoid being shot.
This last reaction came largely after the attackers had crossed an imaginary line which no one thought would be crossed: 13 year-old Iran Brown was shot in the chest as he was being dropped off at his middle school. We got used to the front page of the newspaper showing police tape around the latest crime scene, but the image of that tape around the entrance of a nearby middle school is still seared in my mind. (Iran Brown miraculously survived thanks to fast action by his aunt, a nurse, who had just dropped him off. She rushed him to the hospital. He later testified at one of the gunmen’s trials).
A year prior, when I was 11, I had confronted a world in which “evil for the sake of evil” existed for the first time. Of course I had seen children’s movies where evil exists — many classic kids movies tell a story of triumph over evil. But you don’t watch those cartoon movies as a kid and then fear the actual wicked witch of the west existing in the real world. You feared the supernatural, maybe, but not… terrorism. Not hatred.
I had just left elementary school and begun middle school. I had so many questions on and following September 11th: why would someone do this? “Because some people hate America,” my mother told me. “Who? And why?” I didn’t get it at all. “Do you think N’Sync is okay?!” my sister asked my mom (I didn’t let her live that one down, but her newfound concern appeared in her mind when the channel we were watching had just reported that a set carpenter for the Backstreet Boys had died on one of the planes).
A week later, the anthrax attacks began in D.C., and I learned in school and on the news how to identify an envelope that might have anthrax in it, and what to do if I was suspicious.
In the following weeks, I would spend hours searching online to try to learn more about these things, for which my caring mother plopped me back into therapy to ensure I was okay (I hadn’t yet discovered the very incriminating “history” feature of the web browser).
Quickly my world view had shattered, and I had to reconcile with the thought that people wanted to kill people. So when the sniper attacks began a year later, I didn’t have to figure out what evil was. Instead, with that knowledge gained and that particular curiosity bored, all of my mind was freed up to dedicate my reaction to fear and concern.
These incidents shaped my understanding of the world before I was a teen. Some people have to grapple with evil far, far sooner in life (I remember finding out via a stunning and beautiful read-aloud poem in an otherwise terrible high school creative writing class that a classmate of mine lost her little sister when they were both children to a drive-by shooting while the girls were on the porch of their childhood Chicago home).
A generation or two before went through cold war drills in their schools, hiding under desks, seemingly a form of individual security theater in the face of potential nuclear destruction. Today’s kids are learning how to create a tourniquet out of nearby materials to save their classmates from dying of blood loss after becoming the next victim of a school shooting.
For my generation, where I grew up, it happened all at once. We had the rose-tinted glass through which our mind’s childhood eye saw the world collectively shattered all at once. And once that glass is shattered, nothing can bring it back. Keeping your inner child alive is critical, I believe, to enjoying life and appreciating the world, but it isn’t an effort of forced naivety to keep one’s own childhood alive; it’s a much more delicate effort of building enough positivity in one’s mind to combat the barrage of evil and negativity being streamed in every day.
I don’t remember the last time I went into a Shopper’s; they aren’t around where I have lived as an adult (I was ecstatic to move out of the DC area as a young adult). A few years back, my wife and I took a cross-country road trip from our first home in Virginia to the coast in California, up the stunning Pacific Coast Highway, and back. We spent three weeks on the trip — two on the road, and one at our annual family reunion with my father. It was during this time more so than any other that I believe my inner child gained a resilience he has not had, fueled by a starving curiosity to meet and get to know the many good people in this very diverse country; people with many cultures and accents, ideas and hopes, routines and vices, fears and mantras.
In a self-deprecating need to ruin the end of this essay, I admit that I remain convicted that the world is a terrible place; it’s a conviction I believe I share with many in my generation. I fear bringing my own kids into it and subjecting them to the existential hell depicted by Jean-Paul Sartre (“other people”). And yet, I remain curious about the human proclivity for positivity, for service to others, for friendship, and for constant self-improvement and the betterment of all things. By the very nature of evolution and natural selection, we are bred to be improvers, always seeking to leave behind us a better world than the one we found. This resilience is so spirited that our human race has made it past many choke-points during which our species was a few failed hunts or slipped rocks away from ceasing to exist entirely, to then go on and invent the many technologies that make the internet work.
I hope to explore this curiosity with our human race’s resilient and innovative nature as I brush with the looming dread of my 30s by spending my 29th year documenting and sharing the many notable stories around the country of people making the world a better place for others in their own way.
Life is nuts. As you live yours, don’t forget to keep your inner child alive.