Have you ever been to Newtown? Gilda and I have, she more than I. As pained as everyone is about the unspeakable tragedy that overwhelmed the nation there Friday, a deeper anguish, I believe, may be felt by those who can personally relate to that beautiful, picturesque Connecticut community.
We lived in Connecticut from 1973 through mid-1977. While Gilda was earning her nursing degree from the University of Bridgeport from 1973 to 1975, she spent a five-month semester in a training rotation at Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown. It was a psychiatric center with some 4,000 patients at its peak use. The state closed the hospital in 1995. The 100-acre site was turned over to the Town of Newtown in 2004.
From our apartment in Seymour, Gilda would drive up to Fairfield Hills on Route 34 alongside the Housatonic River, past the village of Sandy Hook which is part of the Town of Newtown. Weekends, we would sometimes retrace that route as we explored western Connecticut around Danbury and further north, up to Litchfield. Western Connecticut back then was dreamy in its small town, Americana appearance. White colonial homes surrounded well-groomed village greens, at the side of which usually stood a stately Congregational Church, its spire reaching majestically to a blue sky. Rarely did you pass a traffic light. Of course, Newtown and the whole region have changed in the near 40 years since we traveled those bucolic roadways. The last time we visited Newtown was in 1993. Dan’s traveling all-star soccer team participated in the one-day Memorial Day Kickoff Tournament. Among the trophies still housed in his room, I found the jersey patch he received that day.
Like most parents I wanted to reach out and hug my children when they came home Friday. Alas, they are grown and have homes of their own. I talked with them, but it was not the same.
Swept into the sadness of the tragedy was the feeling of futility experienced by many first responders, including nurses and doctors on the scene and in area hospitals who eagerly waited to tend to the wounded. But only two frail, soon to be lifeless, bodies emerged from the killing field. The medical professionals were told to go home. Eleven years ago on September 11, Gilda waited with other nurses and doctors for the injured to arrive at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center. They waited the whole day in vain.
This country is in denial. Margaret Brennan of CBS News, who grew up in nearby Danbury, said on CBS-2 Saturday, “There isn’t a gun culture here. It’s one of those small, New England towns you go to to avoid the city, and things like this don’t happen.” But how do you explain that Nancy Lanza had five guns at home, including two high-powered revolvers and an assault rifle her son used to kill 26 innocents in cold blood at short range?
Guns permeate our society. They are so readily accessible. Remember, the Columbine shooters used guns from one of the parents. We are a culture that denigrates teachers but upholds and lauds the right to carry arms, openly in public and increasingly on school grounds.
Why do so many begrudge teachers better pay? Why don’t we realize teachers are professionals we entrust to mold the future of America? Why don't we realize that when unimaginable horror confronts our children, it is a teacher who protects them, sometimes with his or her life?
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching visual of the entire massacre was not the line of children running to safety, or individual pictures of the deceased, but rather the wooden sign hanging in front of the Sandy Hook Elementary School that simply and invitingly stated, “Visitors Welcome.” No more can such an earnest sentiment be expressed, not in Newtown or anywhere else in America.