Generation to Generation:
Horror and Healing along the 10 Freeway
When I heard my son’s middle school was on lockdown because of an active shooter on the nearby UCLA campus, I got in the car. It was an otherwise uneventful Wednesday in 2016. I was working in Palm Springs that day, and there were two hours of roadway between my son and me. Two hours of news radio and rotations per minute and wrestling familiar fears: Is nowhere safe? How is this the world we live in? I wanted better for him.
My young years were riddled with the heart-skipping pops of gunfire. I grew up in Fontana, a dusty Southern California town south of the 10 Freeway known for steel, trucking, and auto racing. Less than seventy miles from the sparkling coast, my childhood home was nestled among gangs whose rivalry sometimes left shell casings in our front yard. An especially horrific drive-by shooting left one of my neighbors (who may or may not have been the target) wheelchair-bound. He was in his early twenties when his leg was torn apart by bullets. In the simultaneously fast- and slow-motion moments that followed the shooting, some of the adults on my block emerged from their homes to aid the victim and his family. One of the de facto first responders — wiry, tattooed, and charged with adrenaline — sprinted up our front walk to join my dad, who was among those en route to help. He reported to my dad, within earshot of us kids, that it looked like a shark had taken a bite out of our neighbor’s leg. I had only heard what transpired outside, but somehow I can’t unsee it.
Less than seventy miles from the sparkling coast, my childhood home was nestled among gangs whose rivalry sometimes left shell casings in our front yard.
It was the early nineties, before Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and my elementary school had active-shooter drills with the same regularity as fire and earthquake. We called them gun drills at the time, and the protocol began with a teacher or aide interrupting recess with three shrieking whistle blows. That sound alerted us children to stop wherever we were on the yard and lay flat until one long whistle communicated to us that the situation had been cleared, and we could file back to our classrooms. I will never forget the feeling of hot asphalt baking my belly through my thin T-shirt, gritty pebbles sticking to my sweaty little palms, my mind running wild as I lay face down in the heat imagining the scenario around me. In my imagination, a shadowy figure would emerge from the adjacent park, cross our sports fields through the chain-link fence that was always ajar, and spray bullets across the yard where we played.
By the time of the Columbine massacre, I was a freshman in high school and had moved to a different town. Claremont is only a twenty-minute drive from Fontana, but a world apart. Home to several small colleges, Claremont is a place of relative privilege and peace. Coming from where I did, I deeply resented it for those qualities.
I also resented the shock and horror, on the news and in Claremont, following Columbine. My teen brain could not fully accommodate other people’s tragedies when my own wounds hadn’t even started to scar. I wanted to know where the outcry was for my old neighborhood and for people like me and my neighbors who experienced the terror of gun violence regularly for years. I concluded that everyone cared about Columbine because it was happening to suburban white kids, and the heat of a complicated guilt arose in me as I realized I was now a white kid living in a similarly idyllic and unsuspecting suburb.
I concluded that everyone cared about Columbine because it was happening to suburban white kids, and the heat of a complicated guilt arose in me as I realized I was now a white kid living in a similarly idyllic and unsuspecting suburb.
On April 21, 1999, the day after Columbine, the halls of my high school were eerily quiet. There were rampant rumors among students that the massacre wasn’t an isolated event, that the shooters were part of a network, or that copycats would be inspired to action. Like many, my parents gave me the choice of going to school that day or not.
While many of my peers took the out, I opted in. I had carried on with regular programming many times before — after shootings on my block and in the park next to my school, after one of my father’s closest friends was shot and killed following a confrontation in his own driveway. Given my personal history with gun violence, I have since considered why Columbine affected me so profoundly; it’s more than the coincidence of my being in high school at the time or the deeply disturbing nature of the events that day. It was the day after at school: the palpable void left by so many absent students, the solemn and complicated conversations among my peers and teachers, the shadowy figures of my imagination that I needed to chase away from our quads and classrooms and out of our library. With the other students that showed up that day, I participated in processing, healing, and reclaiming our spaces and ourselves from being overcome by fear.
Almost twenty years later and my sixth-grade son was on lockdown and it was not a drill nor was it the somber day after a massacre three states away. It was an active shooter in progress a mile from his middle school. It was unfolding on the university campus where I had earned my master’s degree three years earlier, a place my son knew and loved well for its coral trees and sculpture garden and vending machine snacks.
An active shooter in progress a mile from his middle school… was unfolding on the university campus where I had earned my master’s degree three years earlier, a place my son knew and loved well for its coral trees and sculpture garden and vending machine snacks.
And it was a two-hour drive to get to him, 125 miles west on the 10 Freeway. Only six months earlier, I had traversed that same stretch of road listening carefully to coverage of the San Bernardino mass shooting. I was on high alert that day, too, as I approached the Waterman Avenue exit where some of that pursuit had taken place just a few hours earlier. I listened to live interviews with people who lived in the San Bernardino shooters’ neighborhood, which was on lockdown, leaving families separated by barricades. Grandma and young grandson at home, parents on the other side of the blockade imagining the worst. Anxiously waiting. Pleading to be reunited, to be able to hold their sweet ones, their most vulnerable ones, and to feel secure in the knowledge that they were out of harm’s way.
And now I was listening to live coverage of a situation unfolding close to my sweet one.
Would I be able to get to my son when I reached LA?
Landmarks of my own childhood blurred by at eighty miles an hour: the Oak Glen exit where my family used to go berry picking every summer. I’d been meaning to take my son there for years.
Would Westwood be barricaded?
The Sierra Avenue exit in Fontana where my son had his first cavity filled by the same dentist I’d been seeing since I lost my first tooth.
He must be so scared. What could I possibly say to him to make him feel safe again?
That narrow overpass just before Monte Vista where I had my first fender bender at eighteen.
If I could speak to myself as a child, lying on my belly in the hot sun during a gun drill, what would I say?
By the time I reached my son’s school, the active-shooter situation at UCLA had concluded and was now deemed a murder-suicide. The lockdown had been lifted, and I walked onto his middle-school campus like any other day. I signed my name and noted the time on the check-out board, and an after-school staffer radioed for him to come to the front for pick up.
He emerged, recognizable. At eleven years old, he was the youngest in his class but among the biggest, tall with dark brown skin and a signature mop of hair I didn’t expect to see until his freshman year of college.
I didn’t hug him like I never wanted to let go. That does not a secure child make. Instead, we gave our usual high five that ends with our hands clasped in a momentary hold. I told him I missed him during the day, and I was met with an eye roll and a mumbled, “You always say that.” On the surface at least, he was himself. Unscathed.
I didn’t hug him like I never wanted to let go. That does not a secure child make.
We said our thank yous and good nights to the staff and friends we passed on our way out. But we didn’t go home.
My son is a slow burn; he doesn’t download right away, and he never gives up all the information at once. It takes until around Thanksgiving every year for me to get a basic sense of how it went at summer camp. He would require some prompting if any processing was going to happen, so on the sidewalk next to the marquee with its scrolling red text, I asked him what had transpired that day.
“UCLA had a shooting.”
“Yes. And you guys were on lockdown.”
“Were you worried the gunman would come here?”
“I wish he would come here so I could take him down.”
Where I have a strong instinct for flight, my son, at least by his own account, is inclined to fight. In my read of him, that’s partially true, though the talk gets bigger proportionate to the degree of insecurity he is experiencing.
I would learn later that some of his friends were at UCLA that day, eighth graders on an end-of-year field trip. But in this initial conversation, he described how he planned to crouch behind a classroom door and take an armed intruder by surprise. I understood what his mind was doing, weaving together snippets of conversation and pieces of information while his imagination filled in the blanks. And with that, I knew what we needed to do. We had a lot of good memories in Westwood, and we needed to reclaim it and ourselves.
So, we walked. A bit apprehensive at first, we walked the streets until they felt familiar again, we stomped our favorite grounds, enjoyed our favorite ice cream sandwiches. And when we came to the road that connects the village area with campus, we stopped. Across the street, the university buildings appeared bigger than usual, quieter, daunting. But when the walk sign turned in our favor, my son and I crossed the street together. We couldn’t make sense of the day’s terror, but, side by side, with our presence and persistence, we could chase away the shadows and begin processing.
Nikki Gordon is a nonprofit professional who holds an MFA from UCLA. She lives, writes, and enjoys gardens in the San Gabriel Valley.