Thursday, December 31, 2009

Murder-Suicide and Family Trips West


Three shots
Still echo down the decades
Sharper than cannons' roar.
One survived
To bear the scars
His brother wished him dead.
One came home
To piece together shattered lives
And ever know the knife-twist
What had she done so wrong?
Others gathered
New to shock
To marvel that these things
Were REAL.
And though they blessed their luck
And told themselves
"We did not see!"
"We could not know!"
"No one could have stopped it!"
They'd come to know
That they were never safe
However they'd pretend.

It's approaching fifty years since Greg Larsen, nicknamed "Mouse", loaded the family rifle while his mom was at work, shot both his younger brothers, one fatally, then reloaded and turned the rifle on himself in his home in the small town of Park Rapids, Minnesota. He was around 13 at the time.

As much as that incident affected me, there's much that I don't know about it. I can't tell you if his last name was spelled -on or -en. I know one of his brothers was Eric, but not whether he was the one who lived or died. I don't know the exact year or Greg's age, but I was in junior high and he was a year younger, also in junior high. I don't know where the boys are buried or what happened to his mom and brother. And I don't know whether anybody ever really found out why.

With all those holes, there is still much I do know. This was when we were still pretty much in an age of innocence, just coming out of the 50's, before the JFK assassination, when violence meant sound effects on everybody's favorite radio show, "Gunsmoke". I knew Greg because we went to the same Methodist church, back when it was still located just off the Fishhook River and next to the world's best swimming beach, ever. And I also knew Greg because he actually talked to me.

Not too many kids did, back then. I was not one of the popular or cool kids, my neighbor-girlfriend didn't even go to the same school I did since she was Catholic, and I didn't share many of the interests that the other kids took for granted. By third grade, when we moved into town, the cliques and friendships were already established, and they didn't include me. My hair was a mess of unruly curls when straight hair was the rage, and my clothes were either hand-sewn or ten-year-old hand-me-downs. So I welcomed Greg's attentions, even though he also wasn't one of the cool kids, though I'm not sure whether I was aware of that at the time. I did know that the nickname "Mouse" came from his short stature, but it never occurred to me to think anything of it other than that he would grow out of it. I had no idea how much he hated it, and occasionally used it myself. I never knew his parents were divorced and the boys lived with their mother. Partly, it never entered our conversations, and partly this was back when that kind of thing - divorce - just never happened to people. We just talked, occasionally, mostly outside church.

Back then church was one center of our social life, the other being school, especially band. Church meant you saw kids Sundays, Wednesday evenings for choir, and one morning a week during the school year for Tuesday School. For those who participated, the day would start at church for an hour of religious instruction, after which we'd all hike over to the school for our regular classes. It was the only legitimate reason not to attend school.

One Tuesday School session stands out starkly as the only one I really remember. Kids were standing around in tight clusters, asking each approaching kid, "Did you hear?" Nobody knew much, but the news of what Greg had done shocked us as nothing had before. Then not only our regular teacher but the minister himself showed up to usher us inside and talk to us. He confirmed much of what we'd heard and did for us what would now be called grief counseling. This was the first I'd heard of Greg's family situation, or how unhappy he was. Somehow the idea caught on that he was in so much pain that he thought it was an act of mercy to take his brothers with him. I find I want to think that was why he shot them, however misguided that was, and not that it came from any sort of malice.

Our regular teacher was Ladonna Ogden, one of the few adults in town who let it be known that she actually knew I existed. She took me aside in private conversation to ask me questions about our conversations and whether I'd had any hints about what was going on in his head, but I was both naive and completely clueless. I in turn wondered what I might have noticed that might have made a difference, but remained unenlightened. I think I found out during that conversation that she was actually related to Greg. I hadn't known her in relation to any other
people except her husband, son and two daughters. The younger one, Mary, was in my grade. She, Doyle Hubbel, and I were in my estimation the three smartest kids in our class, and one of us was bound to have the highest score on something with the others close behind. It spurred my competitiveness to achieve in school, but never developed into any kind of a rivalry. While I liked Mary well enough, we lived on opposite sides of town and seldom actually connected. The one time we did, she introduced me to her chihuahua Pepper, and we both thought it hilarious when he growled, jumped and snapped at me after she induced me to lightly slap her on the leg.

Just a couple weeks after the tragedy, our family went on one of its two-week mega-vacations to the west coast. They happened twice, one on a southern route including Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon, Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland, plus a coastal fog so thick that my brother had to get out of the car and walk with one hand on the front bumper to keep my Dad steered just right of the center line until it eased up a bit. The other one went further north, including clamming on a Washington beach (which clams Mom promptly fried to rubber), tuna fishing where I discovered this like-a-fish-in-water girl could be seasick, the daily-increasing pong of a starfish in a plastic bag in the trunk which stubbornly insisted on rotting instead of drying out, and a return through Canada with a spur up to Banff & Jasper, where I somehow decided that Mt. Edith Cavell was the most beautiful mountain in the whole world.

I lump these vacations together here because they are lumped together in my memories, both with each other and with my still being in the shock of mourning. They hold many similar memories. Mom would pack a thermos of coffee whose aroma would fill the car, and sandwiches that always had to include lettuce. Tang had just come out, and she decided to mix that for us kids. It wasn't just practical, with no refrigeration either in the car or the motels we stayed at, but it was cheap. Especially the way she mixed it, at half strength to save money, mixed with whatever nasty stuff came from the local motel bathroom tap with its unique mineral blend. For some reason, vacation time was when she decided to inflict liverwurst on us as well. We didn't have it at home, and its peculiar flavor was not well received. For many years afterward, I knew I was sick with a fever when I could clearly taste those sandwiches in my mouth again.

The other hallmark of those trips was speed. With limited time and thousands of miles to cover, is was usual to put on 600 miles a day, driving dawn to dusk, stopping only for gas and restrooms. We entertained ourselves with number and word games, riddles, and spying different state's license plates. And, of course, we had all the scenery you could waggle your fingers "bye" at while you sped past.

For one of those trips, I also had plenty of time to grieve and ponder, wondering what I could have known, how I might have prevented the shooting, whether I even might have wanted to get that involved in his life if I had known. There were no family discussions, just me with my thoughts while mountains whizzed by. Should I have felt guilty? I didn't think so. I wasn't to be expected to know how to prevent that kind of tragedy. I hadn't actually seen or heard anything that today's standards would call "reportable". Guilt aside, then, did I have some responsibility? Could I do something to prevent a next time? Did the fact that he singled me out to talk to say that there was something terribly wrong with me as well, that something in him recognized something in me, hitherto unsuspected? There were no answers.

Well, except from coming home from each of those and all subsequent trips with eyes hungry for the sight of mountains on the horizon. There is something about mountains that fills and calms me spiritually, and when they are in sight, my eyes are riveted to them, caressing each ridge and fold, recognizing them as home. That trip, with that timing, gave me what I needed: space and time to process what had happened.

I did promise myself never to forget Greg. I also determined to find some way to be there to help the next Greg Larsen I came across. That led to my choosing psychology as my major in college, which carried me through to the point where I discovered that each separate branch of the field was its own zealously guarded fiefdom, each entrenched in the belief that it held all the answers, when really, each was just starting to ask some of the right questions. I think for me the final straw of disillusionment was reading a study that showed psychotherapy was equally effective as having a good friend to talk to.

These days, I try to be a good friend.

And Greg, your touch has made a difference.

Schadenfreude I

I try to be a better human being than that, really, but sometimes when I see another's misfortune, I think that they really deserved it. At the very least, it's satisfying to see consequences imposed, and easier knowing I wasn't the one who had to do the imposing. That way I can still tell myself that I'm a nice person.

The first case in point happened maybe 10-15 years ago. It was one of those January mornings when it was -31 and roads all over the metro were icing up from the exhaust of slowly moving vehicles in rush hour traffic. Black ice! Even if you couldn't see the stuff, and an observant person could, you should be able to feel the increasing lack of traction under your tires. And if you were still too sleep-deprived or whatever to notice road conditions, the radio had been trumpeting all morning the dangerous conditions and the mounting toll of spin-outs and accidents, part of what was slowing traffic down so more ice was laid down so more vehicles lost traction so traffic got slower.... It was the classic vicious spiral.

My journey that morning took me south from Minneapolis on 35W to the Crosstown Commons and beyond. They're supposedly fixing it now, meaning for a couple years it's even more dangerous, but at that time two freeways came together at right angles, with the larger squeezing down to two lanes, doing a 90 degree right turn to connect with the other for a mile while they swapped vehicles back and forth, and then performed a 90 degree left turn and went north/south again. In that mile you went from the right two lanes to the left two lanes to keep going the same way.

That morning with the black ice, traffic was a pretty steady 25-30 MPH, fine if you didn't need to turn or slow or anything. An annoying black SUV had been tailgating me for the last couple of miles before the first turn. The driver sped up a bit, moved back, and flashed his lights at me to move over, presumably so he could tailgate the car in front which also was going the same speed I was. Both knowing how futile his quest for increased speed was, and keenly aware how dangerous to me such a lane change was, I kept steady on my course. If anything, I backed slightly away from the car in front of me, figuring more space was needed for safety with this impatient idiot a part of the mix.

I white-knuckled it through the turn, now hoping against hope that the newly added left lane from the Crosstown was either clear or that the joining vehicles didn't see a sudden need to pull over right in front of me and risk a spin-out that I couldn't avoid. Fortunately, it was clear for a space, which gave the idiot behind me just the break he thought he needed. Gunning his engine, he fishtailed out of my lane into the left one... and kept fishtailing down the lane, overcorrecting with each move, until about halfway along the commons his SUV tried to mount the concrete barrier separating our lanes from the oncoming one.

The rest of us gave a huge sigh of relief that his antics hadn't impacted our cars, literally, and continued at our steady crawl to our destinations, risking brief glances over at the black SUV hung up on the barricade with one wheel hooked over the top. I, for one, laughed as I passed, partly from the adrenaline rush easing off from another accident avoided, and partly because the idiot so deserved it!

Let him stew!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


1: Signs are one of my pet peeves, as well as a source of endless entertainment. I mean, of course, those which are poorly worded or badly in need of punctuation. I long ago lost track of how many Burger King signs informed the world that they were hiring whoppers. The speculation on the permutations of that policy kept me going for hours, over months. Sometimes cleverness shows itself, as in a local video store that managed to arrange new movie titles so if you ran them all together they almost made sense, however peculiarly. My all-time favorite was a gas station in Chisago City a number of years ago that invited us to stop in and try out their new fancy car wash: "It'll knock your socks off!" Unfortunately, somebody caught on after about three days and found a gentler invitation.

2: The second biggest drawback of listening to commercial radio is the incessant bombardment with commercials. I have gotten very good at tuning them out while driving, or if I can't, forgetting them quickly after they play. My ears did perk up tonight, however, when one of them closed its big sale announcement with, "Offer good until supplies last."

3: MPR is much more my speed for consistent radio quality, and I'm lucky enough to be listening in Minnesota with three easily accessible stations, 2 music and one news. This afternoon I was listening to some expert expound on the rationalle for arresting somebody in Turkey who had a house full of explosives. It was set in the context of a government/military rift. Perhaps it was the presentation that started me giggling, as dry as a traffic report with absolutely no awareness of any kind of humor, when he stated, "Collecting C-4 is not a proper hobby."

Friday, December 25, 2009

An American Funeral

An American Funeral

Recently I witnessed something remarkable - yet altogether ordinary.

I had the honor of being invited to a family’s memorial service a few weeks ago. While not a member of this family, I am very close to one member and through him knew the deceased. To the others Sylvia was sister, sister-in-law, aunt, great-aunt, and relationships extending outward from there. Her own family had scattered after her divorce, and she moved up to Minnesota to be close to her brother’s family. She was one of those people that other folks sometimes refer to as a character. Loving and spirited, never shy about sharing an opinion, she had filled her 70-plus years in ways both ordinary and not so ordinary, including honorable service as a U. S. Marine back when women were told their place was in the kitchen. Had grief not clouded their thinking, the family could have gotten her an honor guard with a 21-gun-salute, “Taps”, and a flag, but they thought about it too late. To me it was a shame, not just because it was an honor she richly deserved, but because I would dearly have loved to see the reaction to the 21-gun salute of the other residents of the apartment building whose party room hosted this event. I have a feeling that if it had stirred them up, Sylvia would have loved it. Partly it would have been her wonderful sense of humor, and partly the simple acknowledgment that her years of service were worthy of it.

Why a party room and not a funeral parlor? Money, of course. None have gotten wealthy, or held fancy titles in this family. For some there is the constant struggle of raising small children, putting food on the table, coping with another layoff, sharing transportation among those who have cars. One is working hard to finish college without incurring excessive debt, and was in fact supposed to be studying for midterms this evening instead of being here. Frequent smiles and laughter reveal teeth which have not been replaced. But to judge them by economic standards would be a serious mistake. This family is rich in love, loyalty, generosity. Every member is involved in the others’ lives. Any child present, whether infant or teenager, is lovingly minded by each adult in the room, and each child knows it. Tears are dealt with by the nearest adult. Family is who they are. For this event, everyone took a hand, brought food, shared cooking on the grill outside, set up and cleared off tables, shared memories, shared tears.

They also shared laughter. This, after all, was to be a celebration of the life of Sylvia. Tables were spread with pictures of her, from being held as an infant by her mother to recent ones where two broken hips confined her to a wheelchair. Her treasured keepsakes were also there, and throughout the event, all present were encouraged to select the ones that held personal meaning and memories of Sylvia to take home themselves. One member of the family played piano well enough to provide music, choosing old standards and songs that she’d loved, but not to the exclusion of his participation as a family member.

In the spirit of this sharing, even a restraining order was temporarily forgiven so that all could gather. All but one, that is. One member is behind bars. He was caught in the swing of the political pendulum. Fifteen years ago his offense would have been considered punishable, yes, but minor enough that a few years of jail time would have been all society demanded of him. But too many complained that this society wasn’t harsh enough on its criminal offenders, particularly its young ones, so more recently jail terms have gotten longer and keys thrown away. Thus he sits, no one knowing when or whether he’ll be freed. No one can afford the really expensive attorney that might make the difference.

He could not be released for this, but in the infinite compassion of our prison system, the restrictions on his allotted phone time were lifted for the evening. Once the connection was made, a tiny cell phone was passed from one person to the next so that all present could talk to him. Each could share a favorite memory of Sylvia and let him know how much he was missed. One young woman related how she got the “stamp of approval” just after she started dating one of Sylvia’s nephews. After a private conversation with the woman, Sylvia had turned to her nephew and declared to him that “this one’s a keeper!” On the phone I recalled a bit of advice for selecting a dog: the secret was to let the dog select you. Since I was in the process of showing off my new dog to Sylvia at the time, I found the timing of the advice questionable, but felt relieved that in fact I’d picked out the dog that picked me first.

The battery on one phone was used up, another phone located, the call reconnected, and the conversations with him went on. Meanwhile food was served, eaten, and cleared away. Other conversations went on as well. Plans were discussed for upcoming holidays: whose house was big enough, when to hold the event, who’d bring what. Summer travel plans had now been amended to include at stop near Aspen to scatter Sylvia’s ashes in a spot she’d found restful and whose beauty had spiritually refreshed her periodically throughout her life.

After all had talked with him, the phone was handed back to his mother. Removing herself from the centers of noise and activity, she sat and and carried on her own personal conversation with her son. As she spoke to him, she started rocking back and forth, back and forth, through the whole rest of her conversation. I doubt she was even aware of it. This, then, is the thing that struck me, the thing I found both remarkable and ordinary. Anyone walking into the room at that moment, knowing nothing of funerals or prisons or any of the other dramas playing out in that room that night, upon seeing her would instantly know one thing: the person on the other end of that phone conversation was this woman’s baby.

Hello World

Hello, world.

This is my first blog, although I have previously been published in a variety of ways and places. Following is a list of articles and stories I've had posted as a guest on Quiche Moraine.

Goodbye Toby
The Picture
Two Towers, Part I
Two Towers, Part II
Religion Hunter Bites the Dust
Thoughts on Stuffing a Turkey

A very dedicated internet searcher might be able to find articles written years ago for the Aqua News, the publication of the Minnesota Aquarium Society. A few years ago I googled my name and found them, but it's harder now, and frankly, I'm stuffed from X-mas dinner and tired from all the festivities. If you're interersted, knock yourself out and send me a link for my ego's sake.

There's a lot more, but mostly stuff that never made it to the internet, like 3 books of poetry (self-published, of course) or 8 years of city newsletters which, frankly, I wouldn't go back and reread either. Some of the poetry might find itself resurrected in future postings here. And there will be ongoing essays and stories, just because, readers or no, I'm one of those people who just HAS TO write.