Among the many hundreds who crammed their way into the First Congregational Church in Danbury this morning were many journalists present and past, some of whom had reported on other people’s tragedies in the past.
Even among the computer-stained wretches, there’s a surreal element when a tragedy of worldwide impact involves someone you know, or the loved one of someone you know.
Lauren, one of the Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers shot last Friday, was the daughter of Terri and for-all-intents stepdaughter of Bill, a couple with whom I worked at my first newspaper and who are still in the business (Terri at the hometown News-Times, Bill at The Hartford Courant).
She left a huge extended family (which also included her father and his wife) and dozens of friends from college and the restaurant where she once worked and the Starbucks where she still worked until her death, and between them and her families’ friends, it created a huge circle of love and support that translated into hundreds of people lined up for a block along Deer Hill Avenue waiting to get in for the memorial (along with over a dozen cameras perched at City Hall, across the street).
The church was standing room only — several friends and I were able to get into the lobby as the service was starting, where I watched the service through the main entrance, while quite a few others weren’t as lucky. Between the post-memorial hugs outside the church and the reception at the Fox Hill Inn in nearby Brookfield, we were able to share the best and only way any of us really could.
Six days removed from the horror, with the shock and grief turned to a psychic exhaustion, an eternal bewilderment and even a sense of relief, what started out feeling very much like a day to dread transformed, at the risk of entering cliche territory, into a celebration of life and love. Of course there were tears; how could there not be? But there were a huge amount of hugs, of smiles, of years of distance dissolving, of bonds reforged, of reassurance. Of comfort. Maybe the only thing a family can take away from such a senseless death — aside maybe from Congress finally enacting sensible gun-control laws — is seeing the love they and their daughter sowed in life come back to them at their worst moment.
But the sea of emotions was swirling and churning much more violently four days before, when I was doing a fill-in show at WPKN. It’s the one show I would truly like to forget but never will.
It was a fill-in for a fill-in. The night before, Jeff Day and I revived our Christmas custom of our radio read-through of Rudolph. It was fun, but it was really rough. Our timing was off and, coming off my first cold in six years, my voice was shot by the end. But it was still a glimmer of fun in a sea of shit.
It had been a trying week. On Wednesday, I found out that I was rejected for the job I interviewed for six weeks before, a six-hour interview at that. It felt like utter, abject, absolute failure, as if I’ll never be hired again. Then, two days later, the school massacre, and on this Saturday morning, the release of the victims’ names and learning about Lauren.
Doing Rudolph provided at least a little escape. And afterward, our pal Rod Richardson stopped by the studio to drop off something. And he asked me to fill in for his fill-in for Bill & Joan Nolan’s Antique Blues show. I gladly obliged. I figured I’d at least put a bluesy, toned-down spin on Christmas music, and the three hours would go quickly.
Well, on the drive down, just before I got to the station, I got a call from the program director telling me he was pre-empting the show to run a vigil from Newtown. Was pretty livid about getting such short notice, and without even asking. But I tempered that with keeping in mind the gravity of the occasion.
And in the 40 minutes leading up to the vigil, as one of the engineers worked at the air studio board to make sure the feed from News 12 (a feed of an NPR feed) would work, to pass the time I popped in a disc of songs from another memorial — my old Fresno Bee friend Tom’s farewell disc from nearly three years ago.
In retrospect, the show kinda worked. Except by the time Obama finished his remarks, just around 8:55, I was really in no mood to play music. I mean, how do you follow that up? Certainly with nothing upbeat. And the CD players weren’t reading my Christmas mixdiscs. Great. Just one thing after another.
I found some of the more spiritual songs in my CD and laptop stashes, plus a song that reminded me of another national moment of grief. The week following 9/11, hanging on the streets of New Haven and one night in the subways and on the streets of Manhattan, I saw how differently people treated each other — people smiling or saying hi or at least acknowledging each others’ presence. It was “Silver Bells.”
And with a dearth of songs in my stash that weren’t upbeat, I read a couple of massacre-related items I found online over the weekend. One was The Onion’s Dec. 14 posting — obviously words changed to skirt FCC obscenity rules, but it was entitled “Fuck Everything, Nation Reports.” (Why do the sharpest commentaries come from the fake news people: Colbert, Stewart, The Onion?) I also read a blog post that blazed hot across the interwebs that day — by Liza Long, aka Anarchist Soccer Mom, talking about her own son’s autism and violent tendencies. It’s been roundly and justly criticized for her tack — outing her son, after all — but it was also the first commentary I’d seen addressing the subject of mental illness in the wake of what we learned about the Newtown shooter and his mental state.
In short: It was the longest, most excruciating hour of radio in my life. I was so relieved when David Schwartz was ready to go on at 10.
And what sucks on top of this was this is the only show I’m doing before Christmas. One of the station staffers messaged me a week ago to ask me about doing a Christmas Eve fill-in, then left me on the hook for a week before telling me nevermind a short while ago. This on top of being left hanging on two possible jobs for two months this fall before being rejected … I’m sensing a trend.
Oh well. Maybe it’s best this Christmas just comes and goes quickly this year, y’know?
Then again, it could be worse. Much worse.
Busted – Ray Charles
Always Late With Your Kisses — Lefty Frizzell
Amarillo by Morning — George Strait
Candy Kisses — Tony Bennett
Oklahoma Hills — Jack Guthrie
Bring It on Home to Me — Sam Cooke w/Lou Rawls
Begin the Beguine — Artie Shaw
Chattanooga Choo Choo — Glenn Miller
A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square — Frank Sinatra
Old Cape Cod — Patti Page
Live feed from the vigil in Newtown
Someday at Christmas — Stevie Wonder
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth — David Bowie/Bing Crosby
Ave Maria — The Irish Tenors
The Wexford Carol — Nanci Griffith with The Chieftains
What Child Is This? — Ray Charles
The Onion article on the shooting
The Newborn King — Doc Watson
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear — The Louvin Brothers
O Holy Night — Tiny Tim
Silver Bells — Bing Crosby/Rosemary Clooney
Anarchist Soccer Mom’s post about having a child with mental illness
Xmas Time (Sure Don’t Feel Like It) — The Dogmatics
Adeste Fideles — The Roches