Autumn is my favorite time of year. I have mentioned that one or a hundred times on this website. In September the weather cools and the leaves start changing. In late-September my thoughts turn to the Ahnapee River. By late-October my mind is in my deer stand in Polk County. Since I became a father Halloween has become one of my favorite holidays. Trick-or-treating with the kids and mac and cheese dinner at Dave and Cindi’s is one of the best nights of the year. Thanksgiving, deer hunting, my wife’s birthday, BREWERS IN THE NLCS…fall is the best.
As much as I love it, when the calendar turns from September to October I get a chill. It has nothing to do with the weather. It’s a different kind of chill. The same chill I get every time I pass the corner of St. Augustine and Green Bay Street in Pulaski, Wisconsin. The same chill I get when I drive by Shippy Park. The same chill I get every time I hear “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys. Or “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS. “Could’ve Been” by Tiffany. Just thinking about that song literally makes me shudder. It’s a feeling I’m sure a lot of people from my hometown get this time of year.
30 years ago Pulaski was a town of about 2,500 people 15 miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was the kind of town where you could leave your doors unlocked, car windows down, and garage door open 24/7 with no consequences. Everyone knew everyone. As a kid you could take your bike anywhere, anytime without worry. We’d play in the neighborhood until well after dark and it never crossed our minds that something bad could happen. If Norman Rockwell’s America still existed in the 1980’s, I was living in it.
In October, 1988, I was a 7th grader at Glenbrook Elementary School in Pulaski. I believe there were 53 kids in our class at that time. I have no way of backing that up, but I’ve had that number stuck in my head for my entire life so I’m going with it. For the most part the 53 of us had grown up together since kindergarten. There were kids who moved in or out, but generally we had known each other for years. We were a tight group. We weren’t quite old enough yet to form cliques and grow apart. When I think about my Glenbrook classmates I can’t recall a single person I didn’t consider my friend. It wasn’t just me. I believe we all felt like that.
It’s been 30 years but I still recall so much of what happened like it was 30 hours ago. I don’t want to harp on the details because it’s still painful, but for anyone unfamiliar, here’s a brief review: On October 7 a bomb threat was called in to Glenbrook. When the school was evacuated many of the kids in junior high congregated at a house across the street from school. As day turned to evening it became a party. I had been to parties at that house before. There was music in the house. There were boys playing basketball in the driveway. There were kids all over the place, including the front yard. On that evening while a group of kids stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, the driver of a car coming down the street had a seizure behind the wheel. He lost control of himself and his car and struck five of our friends – Brenda, Jessie, Jodi, Laura, and Nicki – with his car. His car came to an abrupt stop when it hit a telephone pole on the next block. The driver and his younger sister, a passenger in the car, survived. Our five classmates did not.
I will not go in to further detail because what I’ve already typed was enough to make my body numb and my eyes red. I can’t imagine what some other people feel just reading those words and I have too much respect for the pain they must feel 30 years later to describe it further. I also can’t describe it further because by some stroke of luck or divine intervention, I wasn’t there. My dad got me out of school that day to take me up north with my grandpa for my first duck hunting opener. We were headed to the hunting shack in Florence County, which was two hours north of Pulaski. The shack didn’t have power, running water, or a phone. This was bad because my dad happened to be the Principal of Glenbrook Elementary. A tragedy had struck our town and people were looking to him for answers. The only people in our family who knew the location of the shack were already there. 1988. No mobile devices. My mom called the Florence County Police to tell them that there was an emergency and they needed to find him as soon as possible. I can only imagine the description she gave them: “Uhh…it’s a hunting shack on a dirt road. I think there’s a river nearby.”
The Florence County Police knocked on the shack door at 1:45 AM and asked for him. They had been searching for him all night and finally found him. They said he had to drive in to town to call my mom and that it was urgent. He left. I fell asleep. 30 minutes later he arrived and said, “Pack your things. We need to leave now. Five of your classmates were killed tonight.” The details get blurry from there because I’m sure part of my brain shut off at that point. We stopped at a gas station in Pembine. I think I threw up. Not sure. I was numb. I tell you this story not because I want to make it about me, but to point out that I was incredibly lucky.
When I was 12 years old the full weight of what happened didn’t hit me. I didn’t realize until much later in life the horrifying experience so many of my other friends endured. I knew it but was too caught up feeling bad for myself at the time to recognize it. I experienced the same loss, but they actually had to witness it. How do 12 and 13-year-old kids react to seeing their friends lying dead in the street? As I’ve gotten older I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I was shielded from that. I also can’t tell you what respect and sympathy I have for those who were there. When I was a kid all I could think was that I should’ve been there with my friends. Now I’m grateful that I wasn’t.
My enduring memory of that time is what happened on October 8. After our late-night drive back to Pulaski, I fell asleep in my parents’ bed. They never went to bed and I’m sure my dad had emergency meetings with school administrators. I awoke at 8:00 AM to a ringing doorbell. Then another shortly after. It continued throughout the morning. As the day progressed, more people showed up. By midday I think most of the junior high and our parents had come together in our backyard. I don’t know how it happened. We had a house in the middle of the town and a backyard big enough to hold dozens of people. It was exactly what we needed that day. The awful pain I felt was erased temporarily by the presence of my friends. We played in the backyard. We played Nintendo in my room. Parents brought enough food to feed everyone. Our school and town were healing together. That evening my friend Emily’s dad opened the public pool for all of us and we had a pool party at the high school. Things not only felt normal, but actually fun for a few hours.
Then everyone left and I was alone with an awful feeling I hadn’t experience before or, thankfully, since. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I didn’t sleep much that week. I felt like the girls were in my room. Did anyone else feel that way? If I looked out from under those blankets they were going to be standing there in my room haunting me. Why did I think that? I have no idea. Why was I afraid anyway? They were my friends. It took a long time for me to sleep without blankets covering my head after that.
I attended the memorial service that was held in our high school gymnasium the next week. My parents made a point to only allow me to go to one of the funerals. I was a pall bearer at Jodi’s funeral as were some of the other boys. I was kind of mad at my parents at the time, but as I’ve gotten older I understand. They were helping me. I had enough. I didn’t know it, but they did. There was already enough grief. I didn’t need to see my friends buried. I was upset at the time because I wanted to be with my friends, but I’m happy now that I didn’t have to witness any more of that than I did.
After a while, with the help of friends, family, and the best group of teachers a kid could ever have (yes, dad, you were right) we slowly moved on. A wound that I thought would never heal mostly did. There’s still a scar for all of us, but we did what kids do. We grew up, eventually grew apart, and went our separate ways.
The 30-year anniversary of the tragedy was yesterday. I’m 42 now and I still think of Brenda, Jessie, Jodi, Laura, and Nicki frequently. Where would they be now? How are their families? I stop by the cemeteries occasionally to say hello. Mostly they remind me of the gift I’ve been given and the fact that it was taken from them far, far too soon. Am I happy? Am I making the most of the opportunities that they didn’t get? It would be a waste if I wasn’t. I’m not talking about achievements. I’m talking about living a happy life.
I have two amazing daughters now and one of them is a few months shy of 12 years old. She just started middle school. She had her final cross country meet of the season tonight. She was elected to her first student council today. She plays basketball and trumpet like I did. She’s in dance and gymnastics classes like her mom. She loves art like my mom. It crosses my mind often that she’s almost the same age as the girls. Is she as happy as she can be? Am I giving her the life my five friends never got to live? Are their spirits living on in her? I hope so.
Now that I’m older I think a lot about what all of our families went through. Not just the families of the five girls. They had to endure heartache I can’t imagine. I hope that wherever they are they have been able to find peace. I’m talking about the families of the rest of us. My dad was the exact age I am now when that happened. He had the eyes of that entire town on him and had to make decisions about that school that I can’t even comprehend. How did they seem so strong to us when they had to be terrified inside? My mom was one of my teachers at our school when that happened…also the exact same age I am now. They made decisions that week that influenced the lives of hundreds of fragile children. I like to consider myself a responsible adult, but I’m also still kind of a jackass. I struggle with the classification of “adult.” I constantly tell my kids that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. The biggest issue I deal with at work is loss of productivity if a server crashes. Seriously…how lucky am I? Were they the same way? Did they have to grow up a lot after October 7 like we did? All things that did not cross my mind as a 12-year-old.
Last but certainly not least, I think about my fellow classmates from Glenbrook. I’m talking about those of us that were in 7th grade together in 1988. If by some chance any of you are reading this, I hope you know I think of you often and I hope every single one of you is happy and well. You’re like brothers and sisters to me. I have a feeling most, if not all of you would say the same. When I quit Facebook earlier this year in a self-righteous fit I unfortunately lost contact with many of you. We have talked for years of a Glenbrook class reunion. We need to make it happen. I’m serious. It’s long overdue. I’m going to start organizing. Let’s rent out Zielinski’s Ballroom and tear the roof off. Ben and I can get our old DJ gear out again. Let’s just not have it in October, OK?
I’d like to end this with a quote that reminds me of the girls every time I hear it. One of my favorite books/movies is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the book Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits who are sent on Christmas Eve to save his soul. He wakes up on Christmas morning after seeing the error of his ways and at one point he says, “The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” I feel the same way about our five friends. I hope in some small way they live on in me and all of us and I will not forget the lessons I learned from them and October 7, 1988. They will never be forgotten.