A lesson too hard, too soon

The reality begins to take hold of this Sandy Hook Elementary student after the shooting today. Michelle McIoughlin (Reuters)

The horrific reality begins to take hold of this Sandy Hook Elementary School student outside the school today after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Michelle McIoughlin (Reuters)

“The sun is out today.”

My mother always used those same words as she stepped in between the sitting or prone bodies of me and my brothers on the floor of the family room on many Saturday mornings. We were spread out in front of the TV, all set for a morning full of cartoons. But whenever I heard those words, it also meant that she was making her way to that TV and about to hit the off button.

“The sun is out today. It’s too nice outside for all of you to be in here,” she always said. “Now, go outside and find something to do. Out, out, out!”

And out we’d go, reluctantly, for another day of playing. Goofing around. Getting into trouble. Getting out of trouble. All in all, just being kids.

It wasn’t so bad. Not as good as a slew of Bugs Bunny cartoons, but not so bad. We didn’t sweat it. Heck, life is pretty simple when you’re just a 6-, 8- or  9-nine-year-old, which at some point during our collective childhoods was how old we would have been.

That’s the way life is, when you’re one of those ages. Pretty simple.

“The sun is out today.”

Those words came into my mind again a few hours ago. Over and over. The sun was out at that moment. I was sitting in my truck, in the parking lot outside of my office. Taking a break from work. I’d just turned the key, and turned up the radio. I keep it tuned to the local public broadcasting station. I was expecting to listen in on whatever heady, wordy talk show was being broadcast at that time.

Instead, I heard the station’s news reporters talking. Live coverage. That could only mean one thing – bad news. Very bad news. News so big that it had knocked off the regular programming. Or news really close, somewhere in my home state of Connecticut.

It was both.

At that moment, all the reporters could report was someone had walked into an elementary school – kindergarten through 4th-grade – and started shooting. According to an anonymous source, the reporter said he’d been told there were up to 28 dead. And at least 18 of them … were children.

The story would become clearer, in time. There were 28 dead, that was spot on. But 20, not 18, were children.

Students at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Kindergarten through 4th-grade.

Including 6-, 8- and 9-year-olds.

“We were in my art teacher’s room. We heard some gunshots, like 20. Then the police came with guns and told us to close our eyes.”

Fourth-grader Vanessa Bajraliu, 9 years old.

In another report, a father told of his six-year old son’s dramatic escape from a room after the gunman burst in and opened fire. Robert Licata said his son was in class when the killer burst in and shot the teacher.

“That’s when my son grabbed a bunch of his friends and ran out the door,” he said. “He was very brave. He waited for his friends.”

A hero. A boy. A 6-year-old.

At my age, you’ve learned long ago that life is not simple. It’s complicated. It can be very, very good. But it can be cruel too. Harsh and unforgiving. Infuriating and frustrating. And very, very painful. Not always, but that’s the way life often is.

At my age. Maybe yours too.

State police officers lead evacuated students from the school after the shooting. Shannon Hicks (Newtown Bee)

State police officers lead students away from the school after the shooting. Shannon Hicks (Newtown Bee)

But why did it have to be that way … for these kids?

“The sun is out today.”

That’s all life was for me when I was 6-, 8- and 9-years old.

And what did the kids at the Sandy Hook Elementary School learn today?

It isn’t that way for them.

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Crimes of the century?

I’m not a criminal by nature. I’d be a lousy crook if I ever set out to become one. Just don’t have the proper kahunas or mental deficiency to do it.

Consider this: On a Halloween night many years ago, my brother and I set out to be the cause of an inglorious night of mayhem in our neighborhood. After spending a good chunk of the night skulking around in the dark – and doing nothing – we summoned up the courage to initiate one of the most personally celebrated Jack o’ Lantern grab-and-smash incidents of all time.

That they were the two carved pumpkins sitting on the front steps of our own house didn’t diminish its heinous nature. Not one bit.

And we got away with it too.

When asked, “Why do you rob the front steps of homes, John?” Dillinger replied, “Because that’s where the Jack O’ Lanterns are.”

While I’ll never be the next John Dillinger, I do have my thoughts concerning crime and the committing thereof. I’ve always felt if you’re going to do something bad enough to get yourself thrown into prison, do it big, or don’t do it at all. Murder and any torturous crimes against any beings excepted. Do that and you don’t go to prison – you go to the chair. Otherwise, it’s the dungeon for you.

But for Alcatraz’s sake, don’t embarrass yourself getting there. At the very least there should be personal honor among thieves.

“What are you in for?”

“Petty theft.”

“How petty?”

“Grabbed three bottles of chewable multi-vitamins and snatched a couple bags of Good & Plenty on the way out of a Walgreens.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nearly knocked over a baby in a stroller on the way to the door …”

“Guard! Guard!! I want another cellmate!”

I’m evidently not the only person who feels if one goes bad, one should go big. Say, you check into a hotel and you want to leave with more than bed bugs. Sure, you could make off with a couple towels and the little shampoos, conditioners and hand soaps in the bathroom.

How ho-hum. Remember, think BIG. Like this woman in Florida.

She checked into a hotel in Tampa and checked out with the room’s television, ironing board, iron, curtains, trash can, bedspreads and even a couple of rugs.

It seems the only thing this woman didn’t steal … was the surveillance camera.

Puts a whole new slant on the concept of “Vacancy,” doesn’t it? She left the towels and toiletries for the next occupants. The wimpy ones.

Now, say you have a yen for walnuts. But you have no walnuts. And you have no money. You could go to the supermarket and stuff a bag under your shirt. And then probably get caught and laughed at, all the way to the jail. Or you could back your semi up to the loading dock of a processer and make off with 40,000 pounds of walnuts.

And not once. But TWICE.

According to a report on the website of The Record Searchlight of Redding, Calif., police authorities in Tehama County were notified by a freight brokerage firm that 40,000 pounds of processed walnuts were picked up there but never got to their destination in Florida.

They said the nuts were hauled off up by a man with a “very distinctive Russian accent” driving a white tractor-trailer truck who had all the proper shipping information to take the load.

While police were investigating this incident, they discovered a man and truck fitting the same description apparently also had made off with another 40,000-pound load of walnuts a few days after this theft. This load left a plant in Los Molinos, Calif., was supposed to go to Texas, but never got there.

That’s 80,000 pounds of walnuts. That are worth around $300,000. And that tells you: when Vladimir Putin wants walnuts, Vladimir Putin gets walnuts.

Sure, these incidents are worth their weight in crime, but what about big AND big-time? Well, if you want that, you’re going to have to go to the town of Desna, in the Czech Republic, to find it.

Only you’d be too late, because you’re not going to find it there. Someone already stole it.

Now you ski it, now you ….

“It” is the local ski resort’s ski lift. And not a part of the ski lift – all of it. Right off the mountain. In April, no less. The thief/thieves couldn’t even slide everything down a snowy slope. The steel support structures, three posts, a pulley and a half-mile-long wire rope. Poof. Vanished. Gone without a trace and police left behind, without a clue.

I’m wondering … how do you say “Bravo!” in Czech?

Man is no match for his mother

The grainy, semi-focused security-camera video didn’t seem much different than any other one aired by the local TV news. A man approaches a counter, drops down a bag of Doritos and hands the clerk a couple of bucks to pay for it. Then he reaches under his shirt, pulls out a gun and asks for his change in ones, fives, tens and twenties. All of them.

But then, he glances to his left and freezes. A woman appears at the bottom of the frame. She’s yelling at him, he’s staring at her. She calmly reaches out and grabs the gun by the barrel, pulls it out of his hand and then pushes him out through the door.

Huh?

What did I tell you about playing with guns and pointing them at people?

Life Lesson No. 374: When about to hold up the neighborhood store, first, do your research. Scan the aisles to make sure Mom and/or Dad aren’t shopping at the moment. The would-be robber had been snagged by his mother.

Now, you may be thinking that an event like this is a rarity and you’d be right. But take it from me, the power of a mother over her children is very, very real. And displays of it, even in extreme real-life situations like this, are more commonplace than you might think. Unless you’re a mother, of course.

Not being a mother myself, at least literally, how do I know this? Because I witnessed this power during one of the closest near-death experiences I’ve had so far in my life. And I’ve had a few.

It happened while I was working part-time as a bouncer at a bar in a rather well-to-do nearby suburb. Only problem was the bar wasn’t so well-to-do.

That’s me on the left, played by Sam Eliott, in the bouncer movie, “Roadhouse”. The guy on the right? I taught him everything.

On one side was a large college campus surrounded by affluent residences. On the other was the neighboring town – a mostly farm-based burg. Needless to say, these rather disparate social sects didn’t always mesh well. My job was to see that they didn’t wreck the place or kill each other. But first I had to ID everyone to prove they were humans of legal age and/or indeed truly certified, state-registered humanoids.

Wasn’t a bad job. Routine, really. Me, the bartender and the waitresses sober. Every one else, not.

One Friday night seemed pretty much like the previous ones.

Until the Friday night I saw them.

Well, initially I saw only one. The man coming to the door was big, dark, hairy and scary. And not looking to be in too pleasant of a mood. As he opened the door wide, two much smaller males scurried out from behind him.

They were from the next town. Salt-of-the-earth types, shall we say. Well, closer to dirt-of-the-earth, since most of it was all over them. Plowing was done and it was time for fun.

“Hi guys, I need to see some identification.”

Though I would learn later he was a man of few words, the towering, dark scowling one spoke first.

“You’re kidding me.”

That was followed by a grunt as he walked right by me and straight to the bar.

Being a native English speaker, I quickly translated: Now don’t you worry, kind sir. I assure you that my identification is fine, in order and with me. Thank you so much for asking and have a nice day.

“Don’t take it personal,” one of scurrying companions said with a smile while holding out his license for me. “It takes a while for Johnny to warm up to people.”

“Warm up? From the looks of him, I’m surprised he’d wait that long. Just kill them and eat them raw, like sushi.”

The only other Johnny I’d ever met before this was an American bison my uncle bought one summer to add to his animal farm. He kept him in the bull’s pen at my grandfather’s farm while he prepared its new prairie at his place.

The damn thing was a Mack truck with hair, hooves and horns; the meanest, scariest animal I’ve ever encountered – lions, tigers and bears (oh my), rogue elephants and Sasquatch included. If Johnny’s general dispostion was indicative of the species, and I was a native American when millions roamed the plains, the only way I’d have hunted them was with an M1 tank.

Make that two M1 tanks.

But my grandfather, being the consummate farmer and animal man, within a few weeks had Johnny eating out of his hand and following him around the pen like a hulking black Labrador retreiver on Qualudes.

Everybody else just looked like a bale of hay to him.

So, if Johnny’s companion that night had told me my grandfather had taught Johnny to talk, stand on his hind legs and drink beer, I would have believed every word. Would have to, I was looking at the finished product.

After that, things seemed to settle down to the normal Friday night routine. Man drinks beer. Woman drinks beer. Woman and man see each other. Woman and man can’t quite see each other clearly. Poof – love at first inebriated sight.

But what I also was beginning to notice was that Johnny was drinking beer. I mean, a lot of beer. Given his size, I figured the holding tank had to be pretty big. But, no matter the size of the man or his tank, eventually the beer always, always will conquer him.

I waited. I watched. I prayed. It didn’t work.

One the scurrying ones had reached his limit. Turned and said something to Johnny. I have no doubt he was convinced it was the funniest, wittiest thing ever uttered by one man to another. Too bad Johnny wasn’t one of them.

Time to go to work.

Lord, though I’m about to step into the Valley of Death, located in between these two devils, I pray that I will show no fear, and not pee myself until after I’m dead.

“Excuse me, guys. Didn’t mean to cut through here but Johnny, I noticed your beer there is almost gone. Since I was just passing by, how about I buy you another one?”

“Get out of my way.”

You picked a fine time to leave me, dear Lord.

It seemed that diplomacy and outright bribery wasn’t going to work here. Next: Try honesty.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that Johnny. I don’t know what this guy said or did, but you can’t kill him. And you can’t kill me either. I’m just doing my job. Sucks to be me.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No I’m not and it’s nice of you to recognize me. I’m the bouncer at the door, remember?”

At this point, Johnny stopped talking. But he didn’t stop glaring at me. These were two not very good signs.

To my left, I could hear the bartender swear under her breath. And pick up the phone.

“Margaret? Sorry Margaret, I know it’s late. It’s me. You’d better get down here. Quick as you can.” She hung up.

Now, not knowing who Margaret was, my best educated guess was St. Margaret, matron saint of bouncers. The bartender had called her to head on down, gather up the remnants of my body and soul and carry them off to that big beer cooler in the sky.

I was just glad to be wearing clean underwear. For the moment.

Then the bartender spoke again. This time to the still-glaring Johnny and as loud as she could.

“Johnny, cut this shit out! I called your mother and she’s on the way!”

Ever wonder what Moses was thinking and feeling when he watched the Red Sea part in front of him? I have. And I know.

Holy crap, it actually worked.

I could have hit Johnny with a sledgehammer tied to the front end of a John Deere and not stopped him as quickly as the words, “your mother”. It was the most astounding thing I’d ever seen.

“You still gonna buy me that beer?”

“Uh, yeah. Of course, why wouldn’t I?”

Johnny sat down, drank his beer and waited. The scurrying ones left, pronto. Must have heard their mothers calling them too. A few minutes later, the door opened and I turned to see who it was. Didn’t quite believe it, though.

No lie, she couldn’t have been five feet tall. She was dressed in a coat, then a housecoat, then probably her pajamas. She looked pleasant, sweet, grandmotherly. And really, really pissed.

She stuck her head inside, found her son and spoke.

“Johnny! Let’s go!”

Johnny didn’t look. Just finished his beer, got up and quietly walked out. I looked at the bartender. She just raised her arms, shrugged, and smiled.

Me? I exhaled.

Inside the criminal mind … not much

I do believe that old saying “Crime doesn’t pay” is only a partial statement. I’ve been clicking around the WWWW tonight, the World Wide Web of Wrongdoing, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the adage, and nothing but the adage, really is:

“Crime doesn pay well, otherwise it would be able to hire a much better caliber of criminal.”

I can understand chopping it off, though. Definitely more catchy. Fits better on a billboard. What I can’t understand is why the criminal element doesn’t better vet its applicants. Considering how badly so many of the hires turn out, you’d think they’d be a little more aggressive in their interviewing, maybe conduct background checks.

Or IQ tests.

Did I say that? Let me re-phrase …

Consider the case of the young man on the left here, Houaka Yang. The Wisconsin 20-year-old is a suspect in the theft of a camcorder from a car.

But it would seem that while the word “suspect” is the legal word used here, it’s very loosely used. Not because the cops found Yang a few days after the theft with the camera in his possession, mind you. That alone would seem to make this an open-and-shut case. But that wasn’t enough for the young man, apparently. Accidently – maybe – he made sure of it.

When the camera was returned to its owner, he found a few extra video segments on it. Including one starring and narrated by, guess who.

“This is my house, yes, and a stolen camera that I stole. But it’s OK, the cops won’t figure it out,” the suspect says during the video. He follows that gem with another lowlight.

“Oh yeah, to introduce you, my name is Houaka Yang. So yeah, how do you do.” And then he aims the camera at himself for the full cameo effect. “And this is me. Hi.”

Well, hi there yourself, Houaka. And how do you do, indeed. Get back to me on that when you get out, in a couple of years.

Zebra, what zebra … oh THAT zebra.

Oh, but Yang’s not alone in not yet exactly perfecting the perfect crime.

Take Jerald Reiter of Cascade, Iowa, over here on the right. Reiter was backing out of the Dog House Lounge in Debuque after staying a little too long and allegedly drinking a little too much. That was his first mistake.

His second was not having his passenger do the driving.

But his THIRD mistake just may have been the clincher: the zebra in his back seat and the macaw parrot on his shoulder. Onlooking and always-observant cops tend to notice odd, out-of-place things and you know how they can be so damn curious. Unfortunately, while unique pets certainly are conversation pieces, they can’t reduce blood-alcohol levels. Not a good nightcap for this pet owner, whose girlfriend told a reporter they’re pretty used to people’s surprise over their exotic pets.

“It’s not every day you see somebody that’s got a zebra or a parrot in the house, and who knows tomorrow what might be in our house,” she said.

Maybe so. But you can be pretty sure – bet the bail money on it – it ain’t going to be Jerald.