By Michael Dirda
Last Thursday evening my wife and I drove to Ohio, where we both grew up. Not having been “home” for several months, we’d begun to feel the usual guilt that plagues members of a family who move “out of state.” No matter that we’d made that move more than 30 years ago.
En route, we listened to radio dramatizations of the adventures of Max Carrados, the blind detective invented by Ernest Bramah. (Bramah is almost as well known for his tall tales of Kai Lung, much prized for an artificial mock-Chinese style of the most punctilious politeness and irony.) The performances, starring Simon Callow, were excellent. At the end of each short mystery, an urbane announcer informed us that we had been enjoying “A Mr. Punch Production.” Since the only person I know with a particular fondness for the name “Mr. Punch” is my multi-talented friend Neil Gaiman, I wondered if this was one of his recent ventures. I do know Neil is a fan of Bramah’s contemporaries, Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton, so this seemed more than likely. I figured I’d drop him a line the next day and just ask.
On Friday morning I said goodbye to my wife in Youngstown, where she would be helping her sister clean their childhood home before putting it on the market, then drove to Lorain to visit my mother, who has been living in a nursing home. I listened to music on the way—Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s exhilarating performances of the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto and the Rachmaninoff No. 4 in G Minor.
Since this Ohio trip was a last-minute idea, my mother practically choked on a mouthful of chicken sandwich when I unexpectedly appeared at her door. As I sat down to talk to her, she insisted that I phone my sisters Sandra, Pamela, and Linda to tell them I was in town. Only the last answered her phone, and the first thing Linda said was something about terrible killings in Colorado and was that anywhere near where my son Chris lived.
As it happened, the Aurora movie theater is about a 15 minutes’ drive from my son’s apartment in Denver.
I called him. No answer. I left a message asking him to communicate as soon as possible. I called my wife. No answer, so I left her a message asking her to try to reach Chris. I then called Chris’s two brothers, neither of whom ever answers his phone when they see it’s only their father, and left still more messages. By this time, my mother was starting to tremble with fright and worry. She wasn’t quite keening, but she was close to it. While I tried to stay rational—he’s got summer school classes, why would he go to the movies in the middle of the week?—my fears and imagination began, inexorably, to kick in. I almost never text on my ancient cell phone but I laboriously managed to spell out “CALLASAP.” I never did figure out how to make word breaks.
An hour later Chris texted me back that he was in class and couldn’t call and that he hadn’t gone to the movies the night before. I was relieved. His mother, with her usual sang-froid, had figured he was okay all along. His grandmother, however, broke down in tears, and it took a while before she recovered her composure. I reprimanded Chris for not letting us know he was safe sooner.
But for an hour or two I experienced just a tiny fraction of the nightmare that so many families and friends went through that Friday morning, as they waited to find out about their loved ones. Throughout my own anxiety I kept saying to myself, “He’s sure to be okay,” but I kept envisioning a friend stopping Chris after class and saying, “Hey, dude, a bunch of us are going to the midnight showing of the new Batman movie. Want to come along?” On an impulse, Chris just might have gone along. As it happened, there was no invitation, and even if he had decided to catch the film he would probably have headed to a different theater. But it so easily could have been otherwise.
In that “otherwise” lies so much of the agony of the bereaved. Why? What if? Those impossible questions can never be answered, and yet they tear at our hearts. I don’t presume to comprehend the grief, the unbearable grief, of those who lost friends and children in Aurora, or those who will live with the memory and wounds, physical and emotional, of that night. My mother is 89, and she will die one of these days, and I will be heartbroken. Yet this is the natural, the expected order of things: the old die, parents die. But not the young, not one’s teenaged children, not like this.
In an editorial the other day my Washington Post colleague E. J. Dionne called wearily for reform to our gun laws. Such pleas have been going on for decades now. But somehow the National Rifle Association’s lobbyists and supporters manage to override all common sense. It’s an outrage. Semi-automatic weapons sold to 24-year-olds? Bullets bought freely over the Internet? Come on. We’re not talking single-action .22s or Red Ryder BB guns. These days almost anyone can readily acquire what are, in essence, weapons of mass destruction.
There’s an old story by the science fiction writer Fredric Brown. A stranger—possibly a visitor from the future—tries to persuade a scientist, on the brink of inventing the atom bomb or some similar doomsday weapon, to give up his research. The scientist argues that his work is pure; he is pursuing knowledge for its own ends. As it happens, this great genius has a beloved, but severely retarded child, who is playing in the next room. After the visitor leaves, unsuccessful in his mission, the father looks in on his son, who is fingering a new toy. Appalled, the scientist thinks: “Only a madman would give a loaded revolver to an idiot.” Today, alas, we could say with even greater truth: “Only an idiot would give a loaded revolver to a madman.”
Enough. We all mourn for those whose lives were ended or shattered in Aurora, at Virginia Tech, at Columbine—and who knows where next. But it will happen again. Unless guns are more closely regulated in this country, and anything more destructive than a hunting rifle restricted to the police or the armed forces, sooner or later we will all read the same horrible headlines once more. Only the faces will differ, only the death counts will be new.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.