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New meaning for ‘Exit 10’

Reminder of a recent, living tragedy

Heading south to New York, my husband and I always make the same pit stop — Exit 10. It’s two hours from Greenfield, and a quick jag off I-84W. A traveling habit that started back when the kids were young and someone always had to “go.” “Exit 10,” we’d promise, “soon.” And now, we have to go. Exit 10: bathroom, fuel, stretch and coffee.

Only this last time, when we stopped something else clicked into place. This time, we noticed a place name. This time we noticed that Exit 10 is Newtown. Sandy Hook. It was not simply an exit, but recent history, a living tragedy.

“Always remember 12/14 ,” was inked across the door. As I read the graffiti, I remembered: The children, the incantation of 26 names, the pictures of teachers trying to shield and lead their charges to safety, the suddenness of such insanity bursting into the sacred halls of the school house. It was terror writ large, in the obscene epidemic of gun violence here at home, right here off Exit 10. “Sandy Hook has heart,” read the yellow and pink placards set in the window of the convenience store. “Remember us for change,” I had heard a grieving community plead. We want to be remembered for policies that will make it harder to massacre our children.

Facts:

More people have died from gun violence than in all U.S. wars since 1949 combined, according to journalist Mark Shields. It’s easier to obtain a Bushwhacker than rent a car. To rent a car, you need to show a valid driver’s license with photo, to have insurance and of course a credit card. To buy a semi-automatic weapon with a high capacity magazine, at a gun show, you just need cash in hand.

A troubling recollection:

When I was 16, I almost got jumped. It was one of those petty grievances, a misunderstanding really, one that today could get you dead. Here’s what happened. I had signed up for a typing class on mother’s orders. She wanted me to have at least one employable skill by the time I graduated high school. To pass, I was expected to acquire a typing speed of 50 wpm. Every day I pecked away at my Smith Corona, practicing that all-inclusive exercise where “every good man comes to the aid of his country.” What I wasn’t mastering (not even close to mastering) was the art of inserting a typewriter ribbon with its heavy black ink onto the necessary spool. My ribbons unspooled, they blotched my fingers, which then smeared paper, sleeves and the shiny-new machines. Mrs. Penny, a generally optimistic sort, had given up on me. “Never mind,” she’d said, “you’ll get it next year.” That’s when my neighbor, Frankie, decided to take pity and make me his special project. He’d lean forward, extend his long, deft fingers and set wrongs to right. By the time Mrs. Penny came around again to tsk, I was clicking away letter perfect on a taut ribbon. “Every good man” was indeed coming to the aid of his country, until, that is, until we got caught. We were seen, not by Mrs. Penny, but by Frankie’s girlfriend, Angie. She had peeked through the glass-windowed door and seen what looked like love. His head close to my head, his fingers intermingled with my fingers. My breath, his breath.

There was zero opportunity to explain. By the second cafeteria shift, word had spread, “Angie was planning some hurt.” Needless to say, I didn’t go to the cafeteria, So, a second message was conveyed. Angie would be waiting at three o’clock. Of course, I hid out until at least four o’clock and left under escort, looking right and left as I made my way to the downtown IRT subway.

Over time, the incident was settled or forgotten. I never returned to typing class and never learned to insert a ribbon properly. But here’s the thing, Angie had her verbal threats and her fists, and maybe according to rumor, a sharpened nail file hidden in those fists. And yes, a nail file was no joke, but it’s also no gun. A grievance then wasn’t a grievance now.

And what if I, in my fearful state, seeking self-protection, I had found my father’s old service revolver, the one I was positive he kept in a closet drawer. What if I had taken that gun with me to school the next day, nervous and even trigger-happy? What if grievance plus fear had wrecked two young lives?

Exit 10 will still be our pit stop and it will still be Sandy Hook and Newtown, a forever tragedy. But let us all hope it will become a turning point in our country’s future.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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