Finding Ideas For Horror Stories: The ‘What If’ Strategy

Sometimes, we overthink things as writers.

It goes something like this: You run across a call for submissions in some local rag, and the deadline is just far enough out there that you know you have just enough time to put together a half-decent story.

You make the decision to go for it. Now all you need to do is come up with a good story and just write the damned thing.

Already, you have a few things working against you: the pressure of a deadline and the pressure of developing a complete story line that has a chance of pulling in a cash prize.

Then it comes: Gridlock and the negative self-speak: There isn’t enough time. That’s a stupid story idea. It’s already been done a thousand times already. You’ve never published there before; what makes you think this time is any different? You suck!

Weeks pass, as do many possible story ideas. Then, suddenly, with just days before the deadline, you get a magnificent idea and draft it out, only to bitch and moan that there isn’t enough time to shine it all up before the deadline.

Next time, you think, as you stop working on the piece and start searching for a new competition.

Or worse– you post it on your blog so that your friends can tell you how much they loved it.

The final result? No submission. No reward. No cash prize. No possibility for publication.

I always look at it this way: If, in July, I read in the paper that there is a contest at the State Fair for the best home-grown tomato (and in Maryland there are a lot of great home-grown tomatoes), I don’t start planting the seeds then and hope to have a two-pounder by the time the state fair rolls around the end of August. I need to prepare the soil, nurture the seeds, provide the right environment, and when the deadline looms to submit my best tomato, find the most healthy one in the patch that is fit to win the big prize for that particular contest.

Stop using those Call for Submissions as your motivation to write or even generate ideas. Writing any kind of creative piece on deadline for contests usually produces work that is forced, contrived, and a tad too cliche. When a Call comes out, you should be looking at the pile of drafts or revisions that are a step or two away from publication. Creating your best work takes time, and finding a draft that fits a Call and polishing it up before the deadline is hard enough. Write every day, and this won’t even be a problem.

Also, stop trying to craft the beginning, middle, and end of the story all in your head. This is where most writers get stuck. They end up frustrated that they can’t plot it out perfectly between meals or on a drive out to some burger joint, and they end up throwing away a perfectly good story seed.

Instead of thinking of how a story might play out, simply open your mind to the possibilities of “What If…?” This is a game that I play while walking or driving around, and it seems so easy that I feel like I am cheating at generating story ideas. Take any character or setting and What If the hell out of it. Here is what I noticed yesterday, and here are the notes I jotted down afterward in my journal:

Old Barn with Vines. What if the barn (converted to a cute home) was built on some kind of freak Venus Fly Trap-like plant that preyed on the residents every few years? This barn that’s on the side of the road — I notice that the ivy is growing really fast around the building and up its walls. It seems to be focused on the doors and windows, like it is sealing up any possible place for a family to escape. What if the vines do seal it like some kind of cocoon, and on the 28th day of the cycle, the ivy releases millions of small poisonous insects into the barn and feeds on the inhabitants? What if the family that is in the barn is aware of the cycle that has fed on families in the past 5 generations, and is prepared to fight back? Who wins?

Ghost Rider in Barn. What if the ghost of a horse rider resides in a barn and befriends a teen girl who uses the barn as her place of refuge? What if the ghost takes over the teen, who was once a mediocre rider at best, and becomes a leading rider in the equitation circuit throughout Maryland? What if that comes at a cost, though? What is that cost? What does the ghost want out of all of this?

Use a journal to freewrite your What Ifs and take risks with where they might lead you. For the two story seeds above, this is just the beginning of any freewriting that will happen in the next few days. These stories may pan out in a dozen different directions before the right one emerges. I just have to trust the process and let it take me where it needs to go. That doesn’t mean that the ending won’t become apparent to me along the way; it just means that I’m not forcing it to happen because of some contest deadline.

Finally, set your own deadlines, and worry about those calls for submissions later. There’s always a new one just a few weeks away. They are wonderful for motivation, but they should motivate you to polish works that you planted seeds for many months ago.

 

A Writer Writes: What Lies Behind The Words?

baseball1I was working on a short essay earlier today about attending Orioles games as a child with my father at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Near the end of the essay, I wrote:

The silence we shared as we sat in the stands, two fans side by side as the orioles played, made me grateful and longing at the same time for what we did and did not share. I find that, even now with my own son, I panic when silence comes, fearing that he, too, will grow up longing for that experience that reached beyond the shared physical space of two creaking seats on the third base line.

These feelings of belonging, of desiring a close, meaningful relationship with my father, resonate in much of my writing today. It doesn’t surprise me, really. Such memories, such powerful experiences, are a part of who we become. As artists, it is only natural that it would be expressed in our work in some fashion.

I am fascinated with what lies behind the words of writers. We are all filled with memories, experiences, and exposures that contribute to our offerings — whether they be in the form of spoken or written words, gestures, or creations.

So, as I get older, I begin to better understand the depth of each human being that chooses to create, to write: the incidents and experiences, combined with unique personalities, concoct a most interesting and unique cocktail, a one-of-a-kind elixir poured on to the pages of literary magazines and between the covers of longer works, deemed delicious by editors, agents, and publishers as they stand watch at the literary gates.

Sometimes, those elixirs are too bitter or too bland for the likes of some agents and editors, so they stay on the shelves, a stagnant staleness lying in wait, until that shelf life expires, and they are no longer deemed consumable for the masses.

What does the writer do? Compromise the concoction? Tweak the brew and lose the voice that gives it its twang, its spicy kick, its overdue aftertaste that leaves the reader dry-mouthed, looking for more?

If the writer is true, the work will stand on its own long after the pen has expired. It will survive the taste-testers, lying low in dormancy among the basement dwellings – to be discovered by connoisseurs who understand the ageless flavor of the author’s authentic words.

It’s all we can hope for, those who write from within – and not merely to the masses – the words that capture a life of experiences melded with the passions of a singular personality.

The Artist’s Process Blog Train Stops at Rusvw.net

Glen Miller Band plays “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the background as I write…

Several weeks ago, I was asked by fellow writer Jodi Cleghorn to join the Blog Train and share my work and writing process. I was unable to jump aboard and follow through with my best intentions at that time. Then, just last week, another fellow writer, Michael L. Swift, invited me once more to participate, and I accepted (once more). This time, however, I have fulfilled my obligation. I am grateful to both Jodi and Michael for the invites.

At the end of my responses, I share with all of you the crafty, artistic, and energetic writer who has accepted my invitation to keep this writerly train rolling.

So here I am, on Track 29, leaving the station…

1. What are you working on now?

What am I not working on right now? ;) I have the summer ahead of me – nearly 8 weeks of full-time writing to accomplish several goals.

I will continue to write for our local paper, both my column and selected features. Personally (in a most professional sense), I am focusing on four specific works.

-Night Terrors, a 115,000-word novel written 20 years ago and revised for release this month as an eBook.

-Fossil Five, a novel-in-progress about a teacher who, after his death, leaves five very special students his last, essential lesson taught in three unexpected journeys.

-Critical Essays, primarily about Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore, and the provincial nature of the towns along Chesapeake Bay.

-Journaling Strategies, a handbook for individuals interested in journaling toward wellness.

2. How does your work differ from others of the genre?

The very thing that separates me from other authors is that I do not spend too much time in any one genre. My longer works are fiction (from literary to horror), and my shorter works are creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays). Somewhere between them is a collection of uncut ramblings and less-than-contemporary poetry. I try not to box my work into trends or the guidelines of genres. In fact, much of my work is ill-defined as one “close” category or another. The result? Effective lines (I have been told) that don’t really have a prescribed home.

Is it too wild? Too undisciplined for the more traditional business-side of publishing? Probably. Agents and pubs don’t like inconsistency or writers who are not afraid to throw down the joker every now and again. This is one of the reasons that I self-publish most of my work. To me, it’s more important that the writing I do closest to my soul gets out to my readers in a form that is as genuine and authentic as when I wrote it.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I have heard many authors – young and old alike – equate their necessity to write with the largely autonomous process of breathing: to go without writing would be to go without oxygen; it is what keeps us writer-types alive.

With that said, I write what I do because each work is a unique, self-standing part of who I am, and there are many parts.

In the words of Hugh Prather, “There is a part of me that wants to write, a part that wants to theorize, a part that wants to sculpt, a part that wants to teach…To force myself into a single role, to decide to be just one thing in life, would kill off large parts of me. Rather, I recognize that I live now and only now, and I will do what I want to do this moment and not what I decided was best for me yesterday.”

Each work that I publish is a part of me. In the world of publishing, though, that is not necessarily a good thing that my work is all over the genre map. Agents and publishers like focused little writing experts, machines that crank out the formulaic pieces that build credentials, establish authority in a particular area, and make good dough from all that intensely focused concentration.

This is, in large part, why I am poor.

I write what I do because it is in me, and I wish to share it with my readers. If that means that I break the conventional genre barriers from time to time, then so be it. Two things, however, you will find consistent in my work.

First, I stick to the line of truth. My writing always falls a little to the left, or a little to the right, of the truth line. My fiction is very realistic, and my nonfiction is very story-like. I respect the line that separates fiction from nonfiction, though it is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what is not.

Second, regardless of what I publish, I try to reach into the inner sanctuaries of my characters, to get to the core of the human condition that is relevant and relatable to each of us. Writers need to touch their readers in some capacity, and I believe that is done through my characters and the way they experience the events in my stories.

4. How does your writing process work?

Trust the process.

I first learned this phrase from some good friends of mine over at the Maryland Writing Project. It’s a simple mantra that represents the myriad approaches to writing.

Trust the process.

For most of my works, it starts with a seed: a line, an image, or a conflict that I experience in my day-to-day interactions with nature and with others. I then turn to my Daybook and expand on those seeds and see what grows from them. Sometimes, a work of fiction blossoms; other times, a deeply personal essay that never leaves the pages of my journal. I never know how it is going to end up until I begin writing.

Once I make the conscious decision to publish the piece, then my writing takes a turn, as it recognizes that an audience is now a part of the equation. The graphic below details that transition once I make the decision to publish.

revision graph 2014

I have multiple works in process, and sometimes my energies pull me from everything else to get one work wrapped up and out to my readers. At other times, I dabble a little each day on 3, 4, or even 5 different pieces.

Trust the process. It’s the only way to know for sure what is to reach a larger audience, and when.

Who is up next?

Cara Moulds is an extraordinary writer, photographer, and designer. She has produced dozens of videos on living a rich life beyond measure; hundreds of essays on wellness, art, writing, and living fully; and thousands of photographs of nature’s beauty that have been displayed throughout the country. Next week, on June 30, Cara shares with us her secrets to her success as she hops on the blog train. Take the time and enjoy her insight; you will not be disappointed!

 

To Holland: When Daffodils Bloom

To our daughter, who graduates today.

I have spent hours upon hours poring over pictures overflowing from dull blue bins in the garage. They are all of you: images of your first year, where you fought to walk two months’ shy of your first birthday; your toddler years, when determination and drive compelled you to compete long before you learned how to speak; and your childhood days, when you expressed – at times – a quiet reserve to observe, and at others, a relentless drive to win, no matter the cost.

This is too hard.

I remember when you were probably 4 or 5 months old, and we went to Gambrills State Park and played and played under the falling autumn hues. You laughed so hard as I held you in the air, spinning you around, stopping time, and understanding – perhaps for the first time – how deep a love can be, how strong a wish for safety, how powerful a command to protect, to provide.

We have all the time in the world.

That’s what I thought then.

What I know now is that the deep love only deepens, the strong wish for safety only intensifies, and the powerful command to protect, to provide, evolves, whether I want it to or not.

And so, there is a letting go, on this Graduation Day.

I admit that it has been hard at times in the past year to evolve with you. The giggling baby girl I threw in the air all those years ago now stands a strong, confident young woman, ready to embark on a new journey to Denver.

I am sorry that it has been hard for me to let go. Love does that at times. But as you have done all your life, you let the world know that now – more than ever – it is time to let you love, and let you grow, as that individual.

In that dull blue bin, I found a particular picture of you that inspired me to compose a few lines. It’s not much, really, but it is an expression of my love for you, my absolute pride in who you have become, and my unquestionable belief in you, and in all that you do.

Happy Graduation Day, Holland. May this be the beginning of even greater days ahead for you. Don’t ever forget the joy of spinning ‘round and ‘round, giggling as the breeze catches you at every pass, and holding that smile no matter how high or low you might go.

And most of all, know that no distance will ever separate the love and admiration that we have for you.

holland 2

To Holland: When Daffodils Bloom

In early spring, you held daffodils when you were two,

And I marveled at the innocence both in the hand and in the bloom;

Two miracles of life that held my heart,

And I watched you spin in the wind

Swirling hues that were rich in beauty, rich in art.

Now, here we are:

The sun-splashed fields of summer’s dawn.

I struggle to recall those moments in youth

When the world seemed still before us both.

Life-times bank’d of together-times to come.

Now, all grown, those days are done.

As you graduate into the wilds of summer’s bright light,

And radiate a path in the glow of your shine;

(New Daffodil-yellow rays that fill these grown-up days),

We adjust our ‘strings,

Let go of the child,

Hang on to memories, the dreams,

The very moments that now define

A young woman: beautiful, refined.

 hollandcurrent1

Congratulations, Holland.

The pride, love, and happiness I have for you has never been greater.

I will always love you! Dad

 

Embracing The Vision Of An Unparalleled Life

SECUEaster1

I have just returned from one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life with Church of the Nativity, compared only to a late summer afternoon 23 years ago at Chesapeake Presbyterian Church in Calvert County, MD. At Chesapeake, we were running a summer camp for kids, and our theme for the entire week was Beauty and the Beast. As the Beast, I had the powerful role of transformation. That experience, in itself, was both humbling and uplifting.

At the end of the week, all 700+ children joined us together in the auditorium for a culminating celebration. As I stood on stage with the rest of the cast, we were brought to tears from the song of 700 voices as they stood, waving their hands, in grace and gratitude. The energy and excitement we felt in that church was beyond any connection I had ever made, anywhere.

I have experienced great moments of solitude on the top of mountains; I have worshiped quietly among the natural sounds immersed in the woods. I have even stood in meditation on the edge of the ocean, with the subtle roar of the water coming and going, washing my feet and feeling the push-and-pull of the tide in the moving grains of sand. Each of these experiences has brought me great strength, and they will continue to provide energy in the years to come.

These moments serve a genuine purpose in our lives; they allow us to return to the core of who we are. They quiet the noise that has surrounded us, pulling and pushing us this way and that for whatever reason – noble or otherwise.

These bigger experiences, with hundreds or thousands of people, are quite similar. We find ourselves surrounded by an even greater energy, a collective spirit that abandons pain, suffering, and anxiety.

Yesterday, I felt such a communion with about 5,000 others at SECU Arena on Towson University’s campus, where Church of the Nativity held their Easter Mass in an event that took me back to Chesapeake and those 700 hand-waving, singing children who filled the auditorium with love, life, and energy.

The service began with a “warm up” that included sports-like introductions, electric guitars, a lip-syncing contest, and a social media scavenger hunt. This was not your typical Roman Catholic Easter Mass.

It worked. The crowd was engaged, laughing and celebrating as the two hosts, Kristin Costanza and Chris Wesley, welcomed everyone to a service about resurrection and establishing a vision for living purposefully, authentically.

SECUEaster3As the band concluded the warm up and Rev. White watched on stage, I was struck with the beautiful fusion of traditional worship and contemporary praise for recognizing the power of the present, leaving behind the past and all of the pain and suffering that are wrapped up in the archives of those moments long gone. The picture here really captures that fusion for me.

For years now, I have focused on mindfulness and awareness of the energy in the present moment. We carry so many heavy burdens with us from our pasts, and they anchor us into the ground. For some reason, we keep looking to others to break the chains for us; worse, we often feel like we are deserving of the pain, and we become resigned to an existence tethered to what is in the past.

The story of Jesus’ Resurrection reminds us that the past is gone. Rebirth is all about leaving behind what has anchored us from our past.

Still, although we have been released from its pain, its suffering, we wallow in this status quo of what has happened to us, to the ones we love, and to the world. We base our existence on pain and memory. There is great fear in this way of thinking, of living. Unfortunately, it is the premise of an existence for many millions of individuals, struggling every day with depression, anxiety, and pain.

It doesn’t have to be this way for any of us.

At one point in Rev. White’s sermon, he said, “Excitement overcomes fear; that is what Vision is all about.” This vision that we have for ourselves has to first come from within. The energy that 700 children or 5,000 individuals creates comes from that personal belief, that energy of self-worth and excitement for living today and letting go of yesterday.

This is not easy to do. We are inclined to believe that our pasts have defined us, that we are where we are today because of who we are. But this is not true. This is only who we believe we have been all these years. We have allowed our past experiences filled with pain and suffering to define us. Our perceived self has been a self-fulfilling destiny because we have believed it as if it were truth.

It isn’t. It is nothing more than a false image of ourselves built on fear. Once we realize this, we can begin to diminish the hold this fear has on us, and we can let go of the chains. We can free ourselves to see the beauty and the power of the moments in our present lives.

When we are able to do this, a different kind of fusion happens — the fusion of the self and the greater spirit that is available to all of us. That fusion happened yesterday, as it did all those years ago at Chesapeake. There is a great message here for all of us. We must silence the noise of our pasts and find solitude in quiet worship, but we must also return to our friends, our communities, and share that excitement for our vision of living an unparalleled life.

I offer my thanks to Church of the Nativity for sharing their own vision, bringing excitement back into our lives, and giving us all courage to let go of the fear that has gripped us for so long.

Enjoy this short clip of the final song of yesterday’s Easter Mass, and may you feel the energy and excitement of resurrection in your own life today!

Let The Fear In, Then Let The Fear Go

MPV No Fear

We are all doing our best to carry on, but sometimes fear grips us. We find ourselves paralyzed by a certain event, or tragedy, or simple twist of fate that puts us in a challenging situation. I really believe, too, that the older we get, the more fatigued we become in such challenges. We begin to ponder resignation; we feel too tired to fight again.

It’s okay to feel that way. What’s not okay is to harbor it, offer it a room and free board, and let it take up an indefinite residence within you.

In the past three weeks, I have experienced three deaths: a 20-year-old former student, a 49-year-old former classmate, and a 67-year-old friend. The youngest fought for his life and inspired hundreds of thousands; the middle-aged friend struggled in many ways throughout his adult life to find happiness. The oldest was like a mother to me and a grandmother to my children. These three very different deaths prompted three very different reflections within me.

Individually, the youngest gave me strength, the middle-aged gave me anger, and the elder offered me love.

Collectively, though, their deaths served up a not-so-healthy dose of fear.

I am getting older, too. We all are. The 20 year old lived more fully than most do in a lifetime, even in his battles to defeat cancer. The 49 year old, on the other hand, battled more than most do in a lifetime, but in a pursuit for happiness. The 67 year old lived a life, as I knew her, filled with loving kindness, opening her house and her heart to all.

How well have I lived my life?

The fear is strong within that single thought — nearing the age of 50, clearly not in the best shape, and expending too much energy into areas that are not good investments in my overall health and well-being.

This past weekend, I spent three long days at my daughter’s Finale for her equitation season. In comparison with what she did in those 72 hours, I did very little. I did, however, spend a great deal of time observing her and the work ethic of the other eight riders. They worked well into the night preparing the horses and the trailers, then awoke at 3:30 a.m. for the final prep before the big event began just before 9 a.m.

They did more work and conquered more fears in those 72 hours than I face in a full week — maybe an entire month — and not one of them complained.

I look at the picture of my daughter, featured above, and I see what it looks like when you let go of fear. I see she believes in herself. She has confidence to go from a trot to a canter. She has courage to approach the next jump and soar into the air.

That’s what I need to remember. That’s what we all need to practice. When fear grips us, we need to acknowledge it. Let it in fully. But then we need to do what so few of us are good at doing: we need to let it go. Release it forever. Then get to work.

And what is that work? Living. Fully. It’s all about letting go of the past. Letting go of the fear. Letting go of the what-ifs.

It’s all about realizing the present. Embracing what is. Running full speed into the next moment with belief, confidence, and courage.

We are going to face those challenges every day, and some are going to be tougher than others.

We just need to remember: We can make the choice to let the fear in, then we must make the choice to let the fear go.

What choice will you make?

When A Classmate Dies: Gone But Not Forgotten

Gone1Our classmate, Pat Doyle, has died.

I didn’t receive the news from a call on my phone. Instead, I received it via status update, which scrolled across my screen like any other on my birthday as I thumbed through friends’ updates and birthday wishes. Wendy’s words were stuck somewhere between a meme about Mondays and a meteorologist’s mea culpa about his miscall on the latest winter storm.

I regretfully tell all of you that we lost a wonderful friend, Pat Doyle this last weekend.

I was immediately struck with the memory of the call I got in March 12 years ago. Phil was on the other end, shaken, trying to find the words to tell me that our younger friend, Donnon, had just passed away. It was the first experience for many of us in losing a classmate so early in our lives, which were forever changed by his death.

I read Wendy’s words as I had heard Phil’s: the reluctant bearer of bad news shared with a broken heart. It wasn’t hard for me to jump back another 25 years to 1989 when I had to make the phone calls to all of Dad’s friends after he had died. Nobody wants that job. Nobody.

When that announcement is made, though, it cements a certain bond between friends and loved ones; we inherit and share a stark and indefatigable certainty that nothing is guaranteed, our time together is limited, and we will forever be bound by the love and the loss of the passing of our friend.

Siblings

When I arrived at Pat’s afternoon viewing, I heard the familiar voices flowing from the small Worthington Room just to my left. There they were, assembled together in the mix of tears and laughter, of hugs and shrugs, of generations of loved ones sharing in the grief and shock of Pat’s passing. I walked through the doorway, and it was like I had joined a sacred group of fellow grievers. In this room, despite our differences in age, demography, and even political or spiritual beliefs, we shared a common bond that would forever connect us.

Pat and I weren’t that close. You could say we were always one radio station away from each other. 98 Rock and B104.3 (Means Music!) might have been on different ends of the music spectrum, but they were always just a twist of the dial from each other, as we all are as classmates.

Immediately to my left and sitting on a small padded bench were two friends from Loch Raven. They called my name, and we shook hands, hugged, and shared memories of the good times and the shock of Pat’s passing. Another classmate entered the room, and when we hugged and talked about Pat’s final months, tears welling in our eyes, I realized that we were no longer classmates; we were brothers and sisters, siblings of the class of 1983. We did not stay in touch as often as we should, and we definitely did not see the world through similar eyes. Yet, in this small room in a funeral home wedged between a beltway and a busy intersection of car dealers and the National Guard Armory, classmates who shared math classes with Mr. Dwyer, Drama with Mr. DeVita, and English with the wit and charm of Eddie Marbury, we now shared a different kind of classroom, learning that love and friendship among the people you grew up with are the most important things we hang on to as we get older.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Gone2As I made my way through friends and loved ones to pay my respects and say goodbye to Pat, who lay hidden within the closed coffin at the other end of the room, I stopped to offer Wendy a hug. She kissed me on the cheek and spoke with genuine kindness, a concern for all of us, and a respect for the fragility of life and love. Pat is gone, yes. But in his passing we recognize that we are still here together, and the very least we can do is care for each other as we never have before. We are no different than the signatures scrawled colorfully across the pages of our yearbooks; we carry with us the unique beauty of our individuality. These lines of love, of which Pat is one, will bind us as brothers and sisters, now and forever.

This is what Wendy stirred within me, and I carried that feeling, that bond, as I approached Pat’s casket.

I placed my hand on the curve of the casket’s soft wood and closed my eyes. Pat, our brother, had left us, and it was time to say goodbye.

As I began to whisper my prayers, I felt a surge of energy that was bigger than me, bigger than this coffin or this room. From handshakes to hugs, from tears to prayers, I felt the energy of hundreds of brothers and sisters around me near and far, all remembering the phrase of our 1983 yearbook: Gone But Not Forgotten. Like a slide show, the pictures of Pat that everyone had shared ran through my mind against the soundtrack of muffled words of comfort behind me. Here we were, just like countless others who have faced the passing of a classmate, with the charge to live our lives more closely, more sincerely.

I lowered my head, kissed the soft, warm wood where my hand had been, and offered peace and promise to live and love more genuinely.

It is the least we can do to stay close, to live with a daring charge to remember this fragility of life, and to carry our brothers and sisters tomorrow as we do today.

 

gone3 pat

Why Nobody Wins In The Ray Rice Assault Case

Like so many other citizens of Baltimore (and football followers across the country), I am nearly speechless about the incident involving Ray Rice and his fiancee, Janay Palmer.

As of this evening, this much is known. Two complaint summons were filed with the Atlantic City Municipal Court on Feb. 15, 2014. In the first summons, it is written that Palmer “did…commit assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to Raymell Rice, specifically by striking him with her hand, while at the Revel Casino.”

In the second summons, it is written that Rice “did…commit assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious, at the Revel Casino.”

Before the two summons were released, TMZ.com released a video purportedly showing Rice dragging Palmer’s unconscious body out of an elevator. Rice’s attorney, Michael Diamonstein, has confirmed the video is authentic, but also argues that it shows the end of the incident and should not be used as the sole basis for judgment or even understanding of what occurred.

Regardless of what happened before he (allegedly) dragged Ms. Palmer’s limp body from the elevator (and then walked away), there is no side-stepping the enormity of this incident for Rice, Palmer, and others.

In fact, this is just plain ugly on too many fronts, which is why the story is so big in Baltimore and beyond. It has polarized the nation on various platforms:

Football: How should the Ravens handle this? The NFL? Should his success as a football player be kept separate from his personal matters? Will Rice play again for the Ravens? For anyone in the NFL?

Bullying: How can an individual so outspoken on bullying be involved in an alleged assault with a woman? Does this negate his advocacy? Undo the many projects he has supported and endorsed? Diminish the impact he has had locally in Howard County, Baltimore City, and elsewhere?

Domestic Violence: How will a public figure be viewed and, ultimately, judged in a matter of domestic violence? Will his clean record and social advocacy act as “contributing factors” that might lead to him receiving a sentence on the lower end of the spectrum? There is already discussion that the charges don’t fit the crime; will they be revised to more accurately reflect what happened, thus focusing on the issue of domestic violence as opposed to a football player, or a once-antibullying advocate?

He vs. She: Mutual assault charges were written against Rice and Palmer, leading many to ask, who was at fault? Is there even a victim? I have seen many online fights already, claiming she deserved it and he had every right to fight back. Others argue that under no circumstances do you ever hit a woman.

Which platform — if any — will rise to the top of list? Is any one of these more important than the other?

There is a fifth platform that has yet to be discussed.

Local Idolatry: We have raised Ray Rice to be a hero for our children, and few local athletes have done more to stop bullying and stand up for the victims. He empowered so many with confidence, trust, and courage. What will our children think? What do any of us think when we build up such public figures and they embrace the opportunity to lead – at one time by example?

This is why we all need to care about what is happening to Ray Rice and Janay Palmer. This is not just about football, bullying, domestic violence, gender roles, or local idolatry. It’s about all of these things, but each is so intertwined with the other, like thickets of wild thorns impossible — and dangerous — to separate.

Maybe this is why, in the end, none of these platform fighters will be satisfied with any outcome. Nobody wins in this case.

We can only hope that our own sensibility rises from the thickets, that we take care of ourselves, and of each other, and know that we can never raise another individual to a level above us, or anyone else.

We need to continue our fight to end bullying, to end domestic violence, to end idolatry. We don’t need to waste our energy mulling over the what-ifs and how-comes of limelight individuals who have struggled themselves. While we may offer our thoughts and prayers that they get the help they need to resolve their differences and overcome their issues, we cannot let this single incident detract us from the hard work that needs to continue with these and other important causes, and with the masses who are not football heroes or community leaders who struggle with the bullying and the violence every day.

 

Chasing Fire: Understanding the Death of Baltimore’s Mayor in 1904

 In 2003, I completed my 306-page thesis on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. In my research, I stumbled on a little-known fact about the mayor of Baltimore during that historic conflagration, and I composed a much shorter piece (below) about his death and my pursuit of the truth about how he died. In the process, I found myself trying to understand the death of my own father, who fought fires in Baltimore for 29 years before he died.

The parallels between the death of these two men were haunting, to say the least.

Read on. All of the information is true, triple-checked in multiple published sources from 1904.

And do me a favor: Let me know if you think I should pursue this story.

 

CHASING FIRE

by Rus VanWestervelt

The more I go, the less I know.

Will the fire still burn on my return?

Keep the path lit on the only road I know.

Honey, all I know to do is go.

~The Indigo Girls~

I

 1971

Wes, as my father was known in his firehouse on Greenmount and 32nd Street in the heart of Baltimore, introduced me to fire when I was six. He was taking me to my first Orioles game and decided to park behind the station, just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. When he opened the back door to the firehouse, the acrid rush of diesel suffused the air around me, in me as I stood before a magnificent and intimidating sign on the back of Truck 7.

He led me on a tour of the station, walked me up the black iron steps that spiraled tightly to the left, and offered me a chance to slide down the fire pole, which I declined. When we returned to street level, he lifted me with ease into the driver’s seat of the hook and ladder, where I stretched my arms around the steering wheel, peered over its edge to see the back of Engine 31 so close to me, and then reached up to pull a blackened cord that rang the fire bell loudly.

That illusion of being a firefighter–being just like my father Wes–ended before I could realize what was happening.

A booming voice echoed in the fire hall, dispatching both fire engines to a service call. Wes grabbed me out of Truck 7 as firefighters jumped into fire pants and boots and the firehouse gates rolled up, revealing a bustling Greenmount Avenue. One firefighter ran out with flags and stopped traffic as Wes carried me to the side of the station.

Sirens wailed, bells rang, horns blared.

From my father’s strong arms, I watched Engine 31 and Truck 7 rumble past us and out of the station.

I wanted to follow them, chase them out the door. And that was when the hunger, the passion for fire was born.

The front gate began rolling down just as Truck 7 cleared the house, and I looked over Wes’s shoulder to watch that magnificent, intimidating sign turn left and out of sight:

BEWARE: KEEP BACK 500 FEET AT ALL TIMES.

 

2

22 April 1989

Several hundred feet from where my father lies dying, I sit against painted concrete in a cold hallway at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where I watch the EKG monitor above me. Dad’s life line is erratic, jumping from zig-zagging peaks to near-flat lines that make me think the end has finally come for him. He is taking his final breaths after a medic call three years ago infected him with hepatitis. A most prolonged, agonizing death, in the line of duty.

With me in this hallway is my brother-in-law, Rob. We have spent the last 30 minutes in silence, just a fraction, though, of the 17 hours since paramedics brought Dad here.

We are outside a small room where Mom sits with some of her children.

Dad remains on a gurney through double doors and down another hall. My brother Jim, who fights fire in Baltimore County, is with him, as is our grandmother and a few other family members.

I keep my distance. I’ve already said goodbye.

My eyes return to the monitor, where the zig-zagged peaks have become frantic. I look to Rob, who has nothing but strength for me, and I rest my head against the cold concrete and close my eyes. The monotone whispers seep from Mom’s room but have no meaning. We all pass this time a little differently.

What seems like a minute passes.

I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.

 

 

3

 

13 Years Later

The screen of my lap top is black, empty. I can’t find anything to bring it back to life.

I’ve been here at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for just over two hours looking for new information on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. My story, about the men who fought the greatest fire in Baltimore history, is going nowhere beyond the greatly publicized facts: in early February of that year, firefighters from Baltimore and neighboring states chased fire around Baltimore’s harbor for nearly 30 hours; on the evening of February 8, more than 1,500 buildings lay charred across 140 acres of commercial land; Baltimore’s entire financial district and the original colonies established in the seventeenth century had been reduced to rubble and ashes.

I push away from the table and return the three green document boxes filled with handwritten military letters to the information desk. Should I continue this blind search or call it a day? I pay no attention to the old man taking my boxes.

“That’s a good story, that fire,” he tells me. He rocks back in his worn, wooden chair after taking my boxes and locks his hands behind his head–a makeshift headrest that seems comfortable.

I nod in kindness.

“The real story happened after the fire, you know.”

I tell him I did not.

“If you want a better story, find out what really happened to the mayor a few months later.”

I say nothing but shrug my shoulders, now mildly wondering what he is talking about.

“The mayor,” he says. “They say he killed himself after the fire, after just getting married.” He leans forward and looks up at me over the counter.

“That’s what they say, at least. You won’t find much about it.”

He pauses. We don’t blink.

“There’s a reason for that. There’s your real story.”

He smiles, jots down a few reference numbers for me to look through some more rolls of microfiche that I never asked for, and passes me the slip of paper.

“Good luck. Maybe you’ll figure out what really happened.”

I turn and head toward the drawers of microfiche just on the other side of the Archives building.

Figure out what really happened?

4

 

I spend weeks following the old man’s advice and research all that was written about the mayor’s death. Smith & Wesson .32 caliber handgun “of the latest pattern” used; bullet enters through the right temple and exits just above his left ear; powder burns are light, and estimates are that the pistol was fired at least 8 inches from his skull. All this happening 113 days after the Great Baltimore Fire, 16 days after his runaway marriage to Mary Van Bibber, and four minutes after leaving his new wife alone in her study, just 9 feet down the hall.

None of this matters to me, though. After reading dozens of articles written about the fire and the mayor, I feel detached from all of it. Just words on pages printed 100 years ago.

I feel nothing.

So I decide that, tomorrow, I will visit Mayor McLane’s row house at 29 West Preston Street.

 

* * *

 

From Maryland Avenue I turn right onto Preston, and there it is. So anticlimactic, I think. I have passed this place so many times on my way to downtown Baltimore, realizing now that, for every block I drive through Baltimore–anywhere, for that matter–I am passing by history. Events unknown. Unrevealed. Still locked up behind sheets of plywood and plaster walls.

I park on Preston and stand in front of the row house where McLane died. In the late 1960s, The Greek Orthodox Church converted the mayor’s home and three others into an annex for its congregation. The other houses to the right along Preston are still in their original state. Time-worn planks of plywood cover first-floor windows, but the second and third-floor windows all seem to be of original, uneven glass; some are shattered where rocks have been thrown through, while others are intact but show their age, holding decades of dirt, pollen, cobwebs. These houses sag with the weight of history; even a fresh coat of paint along the gingerbread trim that adorns the windows and the edges of the roof would not reignite their charm. They are tired, ready for demolition.

I am disappointed, as I know the chances of ever getting inside one of those boarded-up row homes is remote, at best. Still, I need to see for myself the layout of the rooms, where Mary rested, where her maid Lizzie Redchurch ran up the stairs when she heard gunfire, where Robert McLane died.

I have to do this. I have to find some way to get into one of those original row houses, just doors away from the row house that Mary Van Bibber and Robert McLane called home.

 

5

 

The Thursday after I stood in front of McLane’s home, I meet my friend Trina at our local YMCA for our usual cardio workout.

I tell her the fascinating story of the end of the mayor’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death.

I share my frustration in not being able to get into one of those row houses across from the Greek Orthodox Church.

She looks at me in disbelief.

“You mean the Greek Orthodox Church on Preston?”

I nod, suddenly realizing the serendipitous connection my Greek friend, Trina Kalathas, has with the same Greek Orthodox Church across the street from where McLane died.

The same Church that had turned McLane’s house into a Greek Annex.

And, as my luck has it, the same Church that owns the rest of the row houses along West Preston.

 

6

 

Next day: overcast, with sporadic light rain.  Trina parks on West Preston, across the street from the strip of row houses, and we sit in her Hyundai as I replay the last minutes of the mayor’s life. We are here to meet Father Dean, who will unlock 41 West Preston for the first time in many years.

Father Dean is very busy. He is a harried-looking man who thinks first of his church, his mission, his people. He sits behind a desk in his rectory, a room filled with papers, books, and plaques on the walls. He seems eager to help, but first he has questions. Who am I? Why am I doing this research? How did the Church play a role in the story, both in the past and now? The church is celebrating its own anniversary soon, and he is concerned that some local writer spinning stories of murder in his annex will not be good for his parish.

I answer his questions and pledge a donation in appreciation for his time and for the opportunity to enter the row house.

A few minutes later, we are on West Preston Street, facing the row houses.

I shoot a few pictures of McLane’s house as well as the home a few doors down on the right. I frame the shot, and I see the row of houses return to their natural state, looking pristine. For a moment, I hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves in front of me, the bustle of citizens passing by to my left, then to my right on this holiday afternoon. Windows seem to be opened randomly along the second and third floors on this late May day.

Perhaps, I think, we will not be alone. Perhaps in the coming minutes we will discover some truth about the mayor’s death that had not been considered 100 years ago.

And if we are not alone, perhaps what we discover inside and on the third floor of 41 West Preston Street might just bring some relief, some resolution to those who join us, perhaps, in spirit.

I snap off two pictures, happy to capture this image.

I turn to Trina and the priest and nod.

7

 

Father Dean unlocks the first door, and Trina and I step into the small foyer area while we wait for the priest to unlock the second door. Fresh air mixed with rain mingles with the damp, musty smells of this tiny area. A gust of wind seems to breathe new life into these old walls.

In the low light the priest struggles to find the right key to open the main door. After several failed attempts, Father Dean smiles.

“Got it.”

The rush of the stagnant, cool air blows through the foyer, around us, and out the front door.

Father Dean steps out of the way. Trina takes the lead.

The stairs aren’t easy to climb; bulky banisters line each rickety and narrow flight of stairs. They twist sharply, always to the left, as they spiral up to the top floor.

8

The weather on the morning of Monday, May 30, 1904 was cool and calm with rain showers threatening from the northwest. McLane spent the morning with his new wife, Mary. It was Memorial Day, and all city offices were closed. He had no need to go into City Hall, had no meetings scheduled, and thus spent most of the day with Mary. Early in the morning he met socially with Mr. Henry J. McGrath, who noticed that the mayor was in an excellent humor, laughing and joking.

After McGrath left, McLane spent the next hour catching up on some memos and preparing for meetings later in the week with the Burnt Fire Commission, established to handle the aftermath of the fire just three months ago.

Mid-morning, McLane and his wife took a brief walk along Preston Street. They returned home just after 11 a.m., and McLane then scratched out a memo to Judge Henry D. Harlan, informing him about a meeting he would like to have the following day regarding the status of student examination papers he was reviewing.

In the early afternoon, he enjoyed lunch with Mary and his older stepson and retired with his wife to her study in the third floor front room of their upscale row home at 29 West Preston Street.

 

9

 

Trina and I reach the third floor, and I cannot believe how small the rooms are. I pictured bigger rooms, longer hallways, and plenty of space to move about freely.

Instead, the hallway is only four or five steps between Mary’s study and the mayor’s dressing room, where most of his belongings were packed. We compare the layout with the published reports of Mary’s home, and the only difference we can detect is that these rooms no longer have doors.

Each room is less than 14 square feet in size. Armoires, beds, and dressing mirrors took up the majority of the space available in each room. Add a fireplace against the right wall and plenty of boxes still unpacked from the move, and the McLanes lived in one very tight space.

Father Dean seems uneasy already. He has appointments waiting for him across the street.

We mark where the pieces of furniture would have been arranged: armoire toward the back against the left side wall, tall dressing mirror in the back left corner, and a large bed against the opposite wall, with the fireplace just to its left, and a small closet tucked neatly between the fireplace and the back wall.

After we determine where the furniture would have been placed in each room, Trina assumes the role of Mary and I the role of McLane.

We are ready to reenact the mayor’s final minutes.

 

10

At 3:11 p.m., Robert McLane joked with his wife in her study about the way she had tied up a bundle of clothes, presumably to be packed away for the summer season, and he made plans to take a second walk with her later in the afternoon, before the rains came. She thought the idea of a walk was good, especially after such a big meal, and asked only that she have the chance to rest a bit in her study, alone.

The mayor honored her wish.

“Well, I’m going over and straighten some things in my wardrobe,” he said, crossing into the hallway and leaving Mary in her study.

A click of her study door. The four steps to his dressing room in the rear on the third floor. And then, a second click, this from his dressing room door closing. Inside this room, he planned to unpack summer clothes he had brought over from his father’s residence, as well as some personal papers and letters, including a congratulatory letter he had received recently from his sister in France.

Two rooms separated by nine feet.

Silence followed for four minutes. Mary would tell authorities later that she spent those moments resting, alone, in her study.

11

Trina and I move to the front of the house, where Mary’s dressing room was. There, we talk and joke about bundles being tied up, taking another walk, and what we might do after dinner.

“I’m going to unpack a few things while you rest,” I say. I leave Trina in the front room, close her imaginary door, and walk the few steps down the hall to the back study, which I enter and pretend to shut the door to the hallway.

Our intention is to wait in our respective rooms for four minutes so that we can see how loud a gunshot might sound in contrast with the long silence. I don’t have a gun, of course; I plan on using the journal I brought with me and merely hit it hard against the wall.

Two minutes into the reenactment, a loud “Bang!” two flights below shatters our silence. It startles all of us out of the reenactment. Father Dean calls down the stairs to see if anyone is on the ground floor, but there is no answer.

Trina, closest to the stairs, goes down to the ground floor to see if we are no longer alone.

 

12

Breaking that silence at precisely 3:15 p.m. was a loud, sharp sound that was followed by a muffled thump, as if something had fallen. Mary later said that she was startled by the sounds, which she described as something like a shutter banging once against the back of the house, causing something to fall inside the back room on the third floor, where the mayor was unpacking.

She called Lizzie Redchurch to come upstairs to check on the mayor. Lizzie was already on the way, though, believing the noise to be more alarming.

She knocked on the mayor’s dressing room door.

No answer.

Lizzie turned, took three steps to where Mary stood in the doorway to her study.

“He’s not answering, ma’am. Shall I try again?”

Mary nodded.

“Open the door, Lizzie.”

Lizzie turned, retraced those three steps to the mayor’s closed dressing room door, and turned the handle.

At first she did not see him in the small room. She panned right to left, looking first over the bed at the fireplace against the right wall, then the small closet in the corner,  the closed window against the south wall, and then the dressing mirror, which stood tall in the far left corner of the room.

It was here that she saw the mayor’s reflection, a man dressed in a dark suit who did not, could not answer his maid’s persistent rapping.

Lizzie, her face now white with fear, looked over her shoulder to Mary and whispered, almost unable to speak, “Why, Mr. McLane has fallen down!”

Mary hurried to Lizzie at the other end of the short hall. Together, they entered the room and rushed to the mayor, lying on the wooden floor in front of his dressing mirror. He lay still as Lizzie kneeled to his side.

For a moment, silence returned to the room, as they thought the mayor had suffered a brief fainting spell. Lizzie put a hand on the mayor’s shoulder to wake him. But just as she leaned in to whisper his name, to nudge him a little harder, she noticed the blood that began to seep from where McLane’s head rested against the wood.

Lizzie Redchurch gasped.

“Oh, dear God.”

She backed away from the body and showed Mary the blood that was now flowing steadily from under the mayor’s head and along the floor.

Both Mary and Lizzie left the mayor and the room, screaming.

At 3:15 p.m., just four minutes following shared laughter with his new wife only steps down the hall in her study, Mayor Robert McLane lay dying.

13

“Just the second door slamming in the foyer. Everything’s fine.” Trina climbs the three flights of stairs and returns to Mary’s dressing room.

Trina and I try to pick up where we left off, but the noise terrified us, derailed us, and I think that Lizzie Redchurch must have been just as startled when she was on the first floor and heard the sound of a gunshot on the third floor. If that sound had been a mere four or five steps down the hall, it would have been so alarming that there would be no other possible response but one that was swift and immediate.

Father Dean looks at his watch and realizes that we have already spent more time in the house than he had planned. Back at the Church, several colleagues are waiting for him to return, and he urges us to wrap up our reenactment.

I feel that we need at least another hour to play out several scenarios of how the gun might have been fired, who else might have fired it, and how it eventually ended up under McLane’s body before he fell to the ground.

Begrudgingly, I finish the roll of film, taking pictures of every angle of every room. Father Dean waits for us downstairs, in the foyer.

 

14

 Much like the speed with which flames consumed six full blocks within the first hour of the Great Baltimore Fire, news of a single gunshot in the mayor’s dressing room spread quickly.

Soon after leaving the room, Mary composed herself surprisingly well and immediately gave orders to everyone in the house. She called her son, Ralph, to the third floor and sent him to alert Dr. A. Trego Shertzer, a physician who lived just two doors down on the corner of Preston and Maryland Avenue, and bring him immediately to help the mayor.

Mary then sent Lizzie to the home of Mrs. Elliott Schenck, a long-time friend of hers who lived just a few blocks away for help.

Within one minute of the events that had begun to unfold, Mary was alone with Robert McLane as he lay dying.

Ralph ran into Dr. Shertzer’s front office and screamed for help. The terror that filled Ralph’s voice startled Dr. Shertzer enough that he wasted no time asking questions. He grabbed his hat, ran past the young Van Bibber, and hurried to 29 West Preston. Within three minutes, Dr. Shertzer was by the mayor’s side.

When he reached the room, he found the mayor lying on his face upon the floor. His head was twisted toward his left shoulder and rested in a pool of blood that flowed from a “horrible wound” through the right temple.

He turned to Mary, who seemed to be paralyzed with fear.

“Mary, listen carefully. I need you to send out a summons at once to all of the physicians who can be reached.”

But instead, Mary did not move. “Good heavens! Why did he do it?”

Dr. Shertzer repeated the need for her to assemble as many physicians as possible, but only with stern encouragement did Mary eventually leave the room with Shertzer’s words of hope that, perhaps, more  physicians would help the mayor’s chances for survival.

But that was not Dr. Shertzer’s intention at all. In fact, he sent Mary out of the room to occupy her, to make her feel as if she could do something of importance to help her dying husband.  Later that night, Shertzer would explain to a Baltimore Sun reporter, “The moment I examined the wound I saw that the mayor could not possibly live, and I did not want to have the responsibility of being the only physician with him when he died.”

While he waited for other physicians to arrive, he placed pillows under the mayor’s head and body to bring some comfort, if any.

It was then that Dr. Shertzer first saw the gun underneath McLane’s body. He picked it up and examined it closely. The gun was fully loaded, with the exception of one cartridge, which he assumed had just been fired.

* * *

As Shertzer tried to comfort the mayor and examine the weapon, Lizzie Redchurch had reached the home of Mary’s friend, Mrs. Elliott Schenck.

Schenck wasted no time in sending Robert Kempf, a servant, to be with Mary. On his way to Mary’s row house on West Preston, Kempf stopped by the Central District police station to tell two officers on duty of the mayor’s condition. Both men had already heard the commotion on West Preston, however, and were preparing to go to the house to see what was the matter.

Kempf, Redchurch, and the two officers raced toward 29 West Preston Street.

* * *

Just moments after Dr. Shertzer discovered the pistol and returned it underneath the mayor’s body, Dr. Nathan R. Gorter arrived at the scene and was horrified by the mayor’s wound. He looked around the room, desperate to help in any way possible.

Dr. Gorter hurried to the only window in the room, just inches from the mayor, and opened it. A rush of cool, humid air filled the room.

Gorter encouraged Shertzer to move the mayor closer to the window, where he hoped the mayor would be more comfortable.

Dr. Shertzer hesitated. He wasn’t convinced that moving the mayor a few inches was going to make a difference in his condition. But Gorter ignored Shertzer’s concern and started to move McLane’s body across the floor, dragging the revolver still under his body.

Within minutes, three more doctors joined Shertzer and Gorter. William Greene, William T. Watson, and Joseph Baborg all entered the bedroom in equal horror at the mayor’s condition. The last physician to join the others was Dr. Claude Van Bibber, the brother of Mary’s first husband. Dr. Van Bibber had remained close to his sister-in-law in the years that followed his brother’s suicide. In direct contrast with the other five physicians surrounding the mayor, Mary’s brother-in-law seemed surprisingly composed and in charge, taking such actions as meeting with friends and members of the press outside to offer that, although there was no doubt that the mayor had shot himself, it looked almost certainly that the shooting was accidental.

In the mayor’s final moments, nine men surrounded Robert McLane, including Adjutant General Clinton L. Riggs, who had led his men courageously during and immediately after the Baltimore fire in February. He had heard the news of the mayor’s condition and rushed to his friend’s room, understanding the inevitable, yet wanting to be with him in his last minutes.

No reports documented the whereabouts of Mary in the mayor’s final moments.

 

15

Back on Preston Street, Father Dean looks for keys as Trina stands nearby.

Closer to the mayor’s home, I lean against the cold brick building in the light rain and stare up at the brick façade.

All is still.

 

16

 

Precisely at 4:55 p.m., one hour and forty minutes after the bullet had passed through the mayor’s brain, Dr. Claude Van Bibber made his way through the crowd, found a Baltimore City police officer on the edge of West Preston Street, and informed him officially that the mayor was dead.

It was only at this time that the police were involved in any capacity in the shooting, and now the death, of Baltimore’s mayor.

A death that, within 24 hours, would be declared a suicide, a “pistol-shot wound in the head from hand of deceased while suffering with mental dementia. Contributory cause of death is shock and cerebral hemorrhage.”

Case closed.

 

17

 Father Dean pulls the door closed, turns the lock, and gives the knob an extra twist.

Locked.

He hurries back to the Greek Orthodox Church, and Trina and I head back to her Hyundai. We drive along West Preston and pass row home 29, then 41. Trina turns right on to Howard Street, and West Preston disappears.

I should be grateful of what we have already learned, but I want more. Being there, acting out some of the reports of Mayor McLane’s death, was not enough.

We inch our way through the city, crawling past buildings scarred by fires–some from long ago, some only hours old, still standing in outright defiance. They hold the reminders of how vulnerable we will always be to fire.

Trina turns on Charles Street. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the windshield wipers scraping across the front glass window. I want nothing but for it all to leave me, dry up, go away. But I see orange. And red.

Fire.

 

18

1989

I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.

“Do you understand what has just happened?” my brother-in-law asks.

I nod.

Jim, my brother, comes through the double doors. Enters the small room where Mom waits. One whisper heard now as he tells Mom that Dad is dead. She stands up, leaves the room, collapses in Jim’s arms, then disappears behind the double doors that open and close now as routinely as the chambers of a heart, allowing the stream of family members to come and go, come and go.

 

19

 

At a red light on Charles Street, I hear the wails of a fire engine approaching the intersection just ahead of us. A hook and ladder turns left onto Charles, and the KEEP BACK 500 FEET sign fades from my view as the truck weaves its way through snarled traffic before turning right and disappearing down a side street.

Wipers sporadically clear the light mist from the windshield.

Gas fumes mixed with rain find their way into the car. Swirl around me.

Trina asks what our next move is.

I wonder how significant it is that Mary’s first husband died as mysteriously, why the Baltimore Police weren’t more involved between the time the gun was fired and when the mayor drew his last breath, and how a town, still reeling from the devastation of the fire that burned down its city, dropped this story within hours of the mayor’s graveside service.

Was it just as ridiculous for me to chase it, especially when the likes of H. L. Mencken scratched out only a few sentences about the mayor’s death decades later, alluding to McLane’s inability to handle the stress brought on by the aftermath of the fire?

I’m no Mencken, but I can’t let this one go. My research on Mary ends in New Jersey in the form of a postcard-sized picture of her, decked out in burlesque clothing and, from what I can gather, married again.

“I think our next move is to head north. See what Mary was up to after she left Baltimore. Up for the chase?”

Trina nods, the light turns green, and we go with the whish of the wipers clearing the rain.

“Fire and rain,” she says, and I laugh.

“Yeah, Fire and rain.” I add, as we drive north, suddenly in silence.

 

 

# # # #

 

What We Can Do In The Wake Of The Columbia Mall Shooting

Saturday morning, January 25. I am working on my syllabi for the upcoming spring semester, feeling pretty good at what I have already accomplished. I pour another cup of coffee and begin to look ahead at what still has to be done.

Still so much to do, so much. So much.

At 11:32 a.m., I receive a tweet notification from the Baltimore Sun:

breaking alert shooting

 

Immediately I forget about the work I need to do for the semester that begins next week and retweet the Sun’s breaking news. I begin scouring the various news sites for information. Twitter. Facebook. Websites.

Nothing.

Finally, news sources begin to broadcast the news that a shooting has occurred. There are mixed reports – all unconfirmed – that there are injuries. Fatalities.

The journalist in me awakens, and I get to work.

I do my best to inform so that others might be safe, broadcasting factual information that others need to make good decisions, to reach family members and friends. I use the power of social media to reach as many as I can, and I am grateful that this technology exists.

But still, underneath that steel, unemotional approach of a journalist, I can’t stop the thoughts creeping in that this is my school’s hometown. The kids I have taught for over a decade work at this mall; my current students and their families shop there frequently. This is their back yard, and tragedy has struck them on a personal level.

The teacher in me awakens, and I begin to worry.

A friend and former student who is an emergency responder texts me that he is en route to the mall, and I realize that my own current and former students could somehow be affected by this. What are they experiencing? Are they witnesses? Is it possible that they are affected in an even more tragic way?

My oldest daughter is their age.

The parent in me awakens, and I begin to panic.

The names of the two victims are released, and we realize that Tyler Johnson, 25, was a former student of ours. Our social media feeds blow up with RIPs and expressions of utter shock. I hear condolences from students I have taught, from friends I know, from acquaintances around the globe who have experienced similar tragedies.

The journalist, the teacher, the parent, the individual within me merges, and I am left to ponder the enormity of what has happened.

I imagine the same has occurred for countless others here in Maryland and across the country. An event like this forces us to remember similar tragedies in our lifetimes, some of them so personal that we are rocked by tremors of those memories.

I don’t need to list them. We do not need to be reminded again how senseless acts can devastate lives over and over again.

Instead, I consider where we are, and where we can possibly go – as individuals, as a community, and as a country.

In the coming days, we will hear national debates rise up about mental wellness and gun control. We will hear arguments to make our public spaces safer. We will hear and experience fears that copycat killers will rise up and seek some kind of sick glory, riding on the coat tails of this tragedy.

But right now, in these hours that follow, the only thing I want to hear is of people pulling together, of a community rising in faith in each other, of a state and a nation putting aside the debates and focusing their spirit and energy on comfort, healing, understanding.

We will all feel the pull to “be” the journalist, the teacher, the parent, the friend. In the end though, we are all just individuals trying to comprehend the senselessness of such moments.

This is what binds us. It’s our choice – right now – to choose to see beyond the debates of what should have been done and what we should do now.

So much to do, so much to do.

But not today.

What we need to do right now is choose to embrace the ones around us – not just in Ellicott City, Mt. Airy, and College Park. If we truly want to find a solution, to make a difference, it begins here.