Not in Kansas Anymore

I am among the scores descending on Coe Lake to watch the 4th of July fireworks. We squish our blanket in with the sea of others and became part of the throng; the green is absolutely choked with people. The sticky smell of funnel cakes settles like dew upon us. From the pavilion, middle-aged men with day jobs belt out classic rock tunes, and behind us hastily cobbled rides tick and thunk and joyous screams punctuate the balmy night.  The perfect summer night.

Then I see him.

Look, if you’re going to wear all black and a quilted coat in 80 degree heat, carry a large old-style bag (the kind once used to hold portable video cameras) and stand in the middle of the walkway looking uncomfortable and talking on your phone, plotting with another terrorist like yourself working out the timing on your detonations…

Yes. I have an overactive imagination, but we were ground zero in a target rich environment, celebrating America.

Think I’m overreacting? I tell you this guy was one of three things:

  1. A terrorist.
  2. An idiot.
  3. A grad student writing his thesis.

He was standing in the middle of the walkway. Standing. While the rest of us were sitting. And wearing all black. And messing with himself under his coat like he was pawing an AK-47 under there.

I turn to Gabe and “joke,” Darn. Forgot my gun. Gabe wonders what on earth he could have in that fat bag of his. Gabe says, Dad’s cell number is X, right?

Yes, I say. And I know why he asked me that. In case we get separated. Gabe and I are smiling, but we’re not taking our eyes from him.

Bob arrives and I tell him there’s a weirdo, and Bob thinks I’m talking about the one dressed up as Mario from the video game. I drop it because I’m a writer and I see threats everywhere. I make them up.

A young woman comes over to me and says, You’re looking at that guy too, aren’t you?

I am, I say.

This is incredibly affirming and frightening at the same time. I can be counted upon to finish any scenario in a tragedy, so the fact that another human being sees the threat makes it credible. I’m going to get the police, she says.

And I’m glad.

Everyone wants to bash the police, but when an intruder breaks into your house, when you’re held at gunpoint or stuck in a bathroom while a non-police shoots his way into your personal space, you’ll be loving them. Loving.

I digress.

We don’t live in a world where you can waltz into the family fireworks display wearing a trench coat and carrying a duffel. The 2013 Boston Marathon and other similar events have set that ship to sail.

At length, a normalish-looking guy meets the terrorist-looking guy. Terrorist Guy hands over the duffel, and they walk toward the back of the crowd. Bob follows. He’d realized it wasn’t Mario I was talking about and came to the same conclusion: the guy was textbook suspicious.

The police show up, but Terrorist Guy is gone. People stare at us. The man behind us asks what’s up.

Because I teach I’ve had active threat training. As part of the training, we’re asked to “go there” in our minds, to lay down mental ruts that promote a knee-jerk response in the case of an actual situation. Did you know the correct response to an active shooter is to scream at them and throw things? It’s the exact opposite of what usually happens (people duck and go quiet, which allows the shooter optimal aim and focus). Those who wish to save their charge (teachers) and have not a bat’s chance in hell of coming through unscathed are directed to do exactly the opposite of what the perp expects: charge him. This is the counter phase in ALICE training and is, of course, a last resort.

So it was that I found myself “going there” on the lawn as we waited for darkness to fall. I felt myself “going there” when the first booms went off, and still “there” as they hammered away.

I wondered if he’d come around from the back and start shooting. Not the worst way to die, I told myself. Do you think I’m silly for thinking these things?

All that to say, a young man with no fashion sense and/or a thesis to write* put a damper on my 4th of July. I thought to myself: We’re not in Kansas anymore. This Oz forming at our feet, continually shifting, it sometimes feels like a dream.

*Students are sometimes directed to display odd behaviors and note the reactions of bystanders. I was an unwilling participant once at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The docent and the student were in cahoots with one another (or she just put up with it). A man in our room began scratching himself, harder and more vigorously, until he built himself into such a frenzy it was absurd. The docent went on droning about art as if nothing was amiss while everyone else in the room got uber-uncomfortable at this man’s lice or whatever ailment caused such dreadful itching. Then I noticed another student behind us holding a clipboard and scribbling away (thank you, Captain Obvious).

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