The first mass shooting I remember happened in 1984, at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. It was far from the first mass shooting in America, it is simply the first one that I remember clearly. I remember being so distressed by the news coverage that I felt nauseated and near tears. The shooter, 41-year-old James Huberty, killed 21 people and wounded 19. I recall trying, in vain, to relate to my mother how deeply it distressed me. Years later, in 1995, when I was attending the U.S. Army Airborne School, at Fort Benning, Georgia, we would sing a cadence about that particular massacre that made light of the dead children. I always felt grubby and ashamed, chanting along to those verses that turned a heartbreaking and distinctly American tragedy into a joke that its troops used as a marching song.
The second mass shooting I remember happened in Stockton, California, in 1989, just before my 16th birthday. I’m sure that, America being what it is, there was at least one more mass shooting in between the two, but Stockton is simply the next one that I recall vividly. Patrick Purdy shot and killed 5 children and wounded 32 others at Cleveland Elementary School. For years, I couldn’t hear “Stockton” without thinking of the tragedy.
Somewhere in between the two, I began to have a recurring nightmare that plagued me for years. In the dream, I was standing on the cement pad that had passed as a playground behind the Christian school I attended. Somewhere beyond the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot, a gunman would open fire, and I would watch in horror as kids and teachers were mowed down around me. In some versions of the dream, I was able to make it to a dumpster in the corner of the lot, behind which I would cower. In other versions, I could only stand, leaden-footed, on the spot as people were cut down around me. The dream became so pervasive that I would often daydream about it while I sat on the playground where I dreamed about it happening.
Even after I left school, I would have the dream at least a few times a month, startling myself awake when it became too intense and terrifying for my sleeping brain to handle. I might have been able to leave the dream behind, but America kept providing fuel for the nighttime fire: Luby’s Restaurant in Killeen, Texas in 1991; The Long Island Railroad shooting in 1993; the Fairchild Air Force Base shootings in Spokane, Washington, in 1994 –to name but a very few that I remember well.
I suppose I might have continued having the dream had I not been assigned to the 4th Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment after I left Airborne school. I arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in August of 1995, not long after the unit had returned from a deployment to the Sinai. My platoon leader was still telling stories about a paratrooper he’d had in his platoon that he called “Crazy Kreutzer”. I’d never met him, but I remember my PL finishing a story one day with the words “If I had to vote for the most likely guy to shoot up a McDonald’s, it would be Kreutzer.”
He was far from the only person with this opinion.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a McDonald’s, it was a football field, and it was scarily similar to my dream.
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