A Fire in the Cold and the Dark: Talking with the Children about Uvalde
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My children found out about the Uvalde shootings at school, the day after they happened. I was with the kids this last Wednesday night, and we talked about the mass murder in Robb Elementary School.
My daughter is 13, the age at which young people traditionally become aware of just how badly the grownups have mucked things up. “We’re walking out of class tomorrow to protest,” Heloise said. I gently pointed out that every authority figure in the entire L.A. school district shared her horror at what had happened, and that in this Democratic city, support for an assault weapons ban would be high. “That’s not the point, papa,” she explained; “We know that everyone’s upset. We just want to say we can’t and won’t go on like this. Something has to change.”
Adolescence is when fear turns into outrage, and outrage alchemizes into activism. There is comfort in planning a protest; chants and signs and raised fists offer comfort and purpose; they are a worthy alternative to despair.
David is ten, too young for marches, still convinced the world is comprised of adults dedicated to (and capable of) keeping him and his friends safe. David wept, and begged to stay home the rest of the week. We held him, and reassured him, and promised him what was not ours to promise, affirming that no gunman would ever come to Prescott Elementary.
As his tears dried, my son began to ask questions about Uvalde and rural South Texas. At first, I couldn’t tell where he was going with that train of thought, but soon David asked if these mass killings were more likely to happen in small towns. Perhaps too quickly, desperate to offer a shred of comfort, I declared that school shootings never happened in crowded urban schools. David demanded to look up the history of these awful incidents on Wikipedia, and satisfied himself that there had never been a comparable slaughter in Los Angeles.
Half-joking, half-tenderly, my ex-wife pointed out to her son that his school was located in gang territory. (Rollin’ 20’s Bloods, if you’re interested.) David’s best friend has a father whom we know to be a senior member of that particular fraternal organization, and Eira appealed to my son’s knowledge of his friend’s world. “Hudson’s dad and his friends have their eyes on your school. They’d never let a bad man with a gun get in.” (One notes that given the appalling cowardice of the Uvalde police department, it might not be especially farfetched to place one’s trust in the Rollin’ 20’s Bloods with their red bandanas, instead of in the now-questionable courage of the lads in blue.)
David found that reassuring. He also brightened when we reminded him that he was about to be a fifth grader – the senior grade in his elementary school. “The littler kids will look up to you;” we told him. “They’ll feel safer if you’re looking out for them.” This got my son excited, and largely unprompted, he came up with a long list of things he and his friends could do to keep the younger grades safe.
The summer I turned thirteen, like every summer, we spent at the ranch. I had finally learned to ride well enough that I was able to go out on horseback by myself. One day, my grandmother suggested I inspect the fences on our property line, and report any broken posts or fallen wire. I suspected that my uncles, cousins, and the caretaker had already done this task thoroughly, and though I was old enough to guess I was being given a job that others had already done, I embraced the romance of the responsibility. Since I was tiny, I’d heard of older men “riding the fence line,” and to a child for whom cowboys were the apotheosis of human goodness and potential, I’d looked forward to the day I’d sit in the saddle, my first Resistol on my head, eyes eagerly searching for some small vulnerability in the perimeter.
On this particular day, I found one single drooping strand of barbed wire in the pasture up by Mill Creek Road, and proudly reported it to the family.
Wednesday night, I told David about riding the fence line, and asked him to consider that he could do the same at Prescott. He wouldn’t have a horse, but he’d have his sharp eyes and his boisterous posse of companions, and in a boy’s imagination, a fortressed playground at the gritty intersection of Arlington and Adams could become a shining outpost on a hill, in need of brave defenders.
David was sold, at least for the evening.
Friday night, David read aloud the short biographies of the Uvalde fallen. He’d looked them up online, studied their faces, noted which ones looked like his classmates. The 19 slain children were mostly his age, of course, so this hit especially hard – he who is about to be promoted to fifth grade feels a keen connection to his compatriots who will be fourth graders until the stars fall into the sea. He read of one boy who had just learned to run receiving patterns in football, and who dreamed of being a Dallas Cowboy; he marveled at another who reportedly made coffee for his grandparents every morning.
“Do you need me to make you coffee, papa?”
“In due time, old boy. In due time.”
I cannot keep my children safe, not with stories of riding the range, or pledges that the gang bangers and street vendors and teachers and abuelitas and yes, the LAPD itself will keep all the murderous young men with AR-15s far, far away. I can only do what I can to remind my children that they are loved; that the world needs them to heal what they can, where they can, whether that’s in marching through the quad chanting for safety, or inspecting the tears in the fabric of the school’s all-too-permeable cyclone fence.
I am not so naïve to believe that the Salvatore Ramoses of the world can be deterred from their awful destiny by a warm smile or an invitation to join the group, but I do know that each of my children was given a gift for people. Both are extroverts, much to my surprise, and both are good at inviting in the shyer ones who lurk on the perimeter. Their warmth and their manners will not protect them against all harm, nor will those graces be enough to transform a broken and hurting country -- but their courage and their kindness is nonetheless what the world needs most from them now.
Before bed, David asked where the slain children had gone. “They’re in the arms of the ancestors,” I told him.
“I think they’re playing together,” my son said. “If a kid has to die, maybe it’s good he dies with so many of his friends.”
There was nothing to say but yes, and wait for a more private moment to break down.
If I had a list of favorite films, “No Country for Old Men” would be near the top of the list. It’s one of the best movies I know about the problem of evil. Good people die, and the terrifying serial killer gets away. It’s desperately bleak, and it ends with Tommy Lee Jones – who brilliantly portrays Sheriff Ed Bell, an aging, outmatched West Texas lawman – telling his wife the story of a dream he’s had.
Jones’ final speech is lifted almost verbatim from the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the film was based:
(In my dream, my father and I) was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.
Even if Uvalde, and Sandy Hook, Charleston and Columbine didn’t happen, there would still be Bucha in Ukraine, and the little dusty, blood-soaked towns in Syria and Yemen and Tigray. There would still be so much cold, so much dark, so many dead children. All there is to stand against that, the sheriff in that movie seems to say, is a dad on horseback, fixin’ to make a fire out there in all that dark. And if we follow him, whenever we get there, there he’ll be. And in the meantime, we need to keep kindling our own little flames, no matter the chill, no matter the staggering, hope-crushing surrounding black.
I’m a scared and tired dad. That’s the best I got.
Sabinal, Texas, is a tiny town in Uvalde County, not far from the eponymous county seat visited by the unspeakable last Tuesday. Sabinal is the home of one of the great Tejano country singers, Johnny Rodriguez. I’ve been listening to Johnny for years, but he’s been on repeat this week. One of the first stars to sing in Spanish on major label country music records, Uvalde’s son co-wrote many of his early hits with the legendary Tom T. Hall. Here’s a bilingual gem from 1973.