Written on the sign as you enter town it says “Webster…Where Life is Worth Living.” It is a town in upstate NY that runs along Lake Ontario, just outside of Rochester, NY. It is home to Charlie Reidel’s, where you can get a Charlie burger and order “hots”, red or white. After proms students can be seen trolling the aisles of Wegman’s and sitting on the beach at Webster Park. It was a place I called home for most of my life and where I graduated from high school. On December 24th, Webster became yet another town victim to another gruesome act of violence. A nation still recovering from the brutality of the violence in Newtown, another bout of senseless rampage filled the news.
As a nation, we are all affected by the tragedy in Newtown. This senseless act of violence particularly strikes a nerve with parents and teachers alike. Just like other parents, I have felt a certain sense of transference when thinking about the events that transpired. I think of sending my own kids off to school, their teachers preparing for the start of another school day, my children walking the halls on their way to a special and lunch. This town is only 2.5 hours away from Leominster, a town that could have very well been any town in America. For most, if not all of us, it hit very close to home. This latest tragedy in Webster has hit far closer to home for me.
Not much different in population than the city of Leominster, Webster is a town. The West Webster Fire Department is run by volunteers. Growing up, many of my friends had relatives and friends that volunteered for the fire department. Driving through town on any given night, it was not unusual to see a car with a flashing light pull up behind you. You knew when you saw a flashing light on an unmarked car it was a volunteer heading to a fire and you pulled over to the side to let them pass. They used their own vehicles and their own time, often leaving their jobs to tend to the calls. My mother donated to them every year. On more than one occasion their trucks graced our driveway. They were there within minutes and always friendly. A gas smell in the basement and teenagers trying to make popcorn that left a pan with oil on the stove too long. Fortunately, my cousin had the good sense to throw the lid on the pan before following me running out the door. The fire station and volunteers were the pride of the town not to mention the cause of the biggest social event of the year, the Webster Fireman’s carnival. That was where you went to be seen.
On the morning of December 24th, I checked Facebook like I usually do. Facebook was exploding with heart felt sentiments and disbelief from old high school classmates that were sharing the news. William Spengler, an ex-convict, had set a fire trap and shot firemen as they arrived on the scene to do their jobs. Killed by the gunfire was Lt. Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka. Two other firefighters were struck and seriously injured; they are now recovering in the hospital. I quickly ran to my year book, and although I didn’t know Mike, he graduated in the class behind mine. Tomasz was Mike’s friend’s son and Mike was also his mentor. I was in disbelief of the events, something like this couldn’t be happening in my home town.
No one can believe these events will happen in places you know, they happen in far off places you’ve never visited. But they do. They happen in towns just like ours, to people just like us. And these events keep happening like our 100 year ice storms that seem to happen every 6 months. And all of us struggle to make sense of it. But the truth is you can’t think rationally about the irrational. We want to do something, anything, so we send teddy bears, stand vigil, think about the lives lost in a moment of silence. We debate gun control, discuss articles written about mental illness, debate healthcare, debate prison sentences and we ask for more safety in our communities. But we still feel helpless.
We want a quick fix. Some sort of solution that will make this madness stop. I for one don’t know if there is any one answer. The desensitization to violence, to people being human, has become so pervasive in our society. And I ask myself, what can I do? I know I can’t make large gestures, but small acts made by many can speak volumes. I can lead my children and my students by example by being polite and kind to people. I can be more thoughtful and open in discussion about the video games my kids are playing. I can lobby to my congressmen about laws I think are important and I can cast my vote. I will not live my life in fear. I can be more aware and not turn a blind eye. And most importantly, I won’t forget. People are resilient and the towns will rebuild in every sense of the word. The fire fighters are still on duty, the children of Newtown will go back to school. But it’s after some time when we get back to the mundane details of life that we often forget about these communities in the time when they need us the most.
Several years ago, a plane crashed at the end of our street. A father and daughter on board died. It took several months, maybe even years before everyone on the street didn’t catch their breath and pause when a plane flew overhead. The initial trauma faded but we never forgot. Our recovery and what we’ve learned about these events make us stronger. Our perseverance, strength and resolve to make this world a better place is what will pay tribute to the lives lost.