Russell Foltz-Smith is a father, thinker, doer, writer, artist, hack and programmerish type. His website is SocialMode.com
I’ve told some of my story to friends and family in my life, but never really publicly and certainly no one knows this internal dialog I’ve had with myself for 19 years. When you write something down and/or tell a wider audience about it it takes on a whole different level of real. should I tell my story? should I put down the never ending stream of questions and failed answers for others to read? is it grandstanding? is it helpful? is it selfish?
Like most of my questions, I don’t have a good answer for these so I’m just going to DO.
First, I don’t think I’m unique. People die. People are murdered. All of us will experience people die around us and we will die ourselves. I don’t know the horrors of war, haven’t seen someone die in the ER, have not been in a gang fight and have only see one dead body in real life, and it was at a distance. Hell, I haven’t even been to more than one funeral I think.
When I was 17, a month removed from an appendectomy and having finally earned the white-shirt for Employee of the Month, 4 of my coworkers were murdered and another one shot on the night of December 14th, 1993. I worked at Chuck E Cheese in Aurora, CO. The murderer was Nathan Dunlap, the brother of a classmate of mine.
I often had the closing shift in the kitchen having been revoked of the mouse costume because I had too much energy and we needed that energy in the kitchen. On that night I had a conversation with the lone survivor of the shooting, Bobby. He wanted extra hours as he had a family and needed some cash. I wanted to get out early that night for a variety of teen ager reasons. So we agreed to switch shifts.
Random coincidence? fate? divine intervention?
Bobby came in and I was out the door around 9:40p ish after having made a rare last late sandwich orders. Turns out that was Dunlap’s order I made.
I clocked out, took off my apron and said good bye to all the closing staff. On the way out I noticed Dunlap, who i did not know. It was definitely strange to have someone hanging out at a chuck e cheese late at night. Then again sometimes our friends would wait for people to finish their shifts.
I drove home. It was pretty late so I started my night time routine. And then the news started to break. In the time between me leaving and and brushing my teeth my coworkers were dead. Bobby managed to somehow escape out the kitchen exit bleeding from the shot to his face. I’ll spare any other details as I really don’t know the full story, only what I’ve heard.
That was my shift. Bobby saved me.
Bobby and I spoke only one other time after that, at the trial 3 years after that night. It was a brief conversation. Again, words fail. I thanked him.
Immediately after realizing what was going on my mind started to fill in details. I tried to remember everything. And I was imagining what happened inside that store. What would I have done? How did Bobby do it? What was everyone doing? Thinking? Feeling? How could I have stopped him?
I went to school the next day. I did a tv interview in the following days I briefly talked to the police. I met up with friends and talked about it. My brain became a swirl of information, memories, imagined memories. Shadows of events that could have happened.
After 19 years these shadows still follow me.
And I wasn’t even there. But in an infinite number of imagined memories I was there. I process my own mortality all the time, constantly. My own death over and over.
How does Bobby feel? How do the families of my former coworkers process this?
I’m not a depressed person, wasn’t a depressed person then. In fact I went on to work at another chuck e cheese in the area with my buddy Scott within weeks. The rest of high school was great and I went on to college.
In the middle of my freshman year at the University of Chicago I had to fly back to Colorado as a witness in the trial. 3 years later I had to retell everything I knew and in front of Dunlap.
How does a person remember important details after 3 years? I felt so disoriented. Was I making stuff up? Was my memory being altered by the weird ways in which the media and lawyers and trials play out? Can I please stop thinking about this?
Senior year of college included the unfolding of Columbine – not too far from Aurora. 6 years later my brain yet again went into overdrive chasing shadows of the past.
And so here we are one day after yet another massacre in the suburbs of Denver. So much sadness and distress fills me because it will never make sense to the survivors, the families, the friends, the family of the killer. Yes, I’m sure folks will find some peace in some explanation or some belief system. But in those quiet hours of the night, every July 20th, and with a million other cues their brains will run wild with shadows.
Again, I don’t think I’m that unique. We all grapple with death and the seemingly meaninglessness of it all.
I have a great life. I play and work hard. By all means I am functioning human.
I treasure every moment as much as I can. I love my family and my friends as hard as I can all the time so if the randomness strikes they will know I loved them.
The shadows still haunt me.
I am really alive?
Did this really happen?
How will I die?
Have a lived a life worth surviving that night?
Had I been there would it be different?
Should I talk to people about this?
Am I defined by this?
Does anyone care about my internal struggles?
Should I even try to get rid of the shadows?
How much of my behavior is shaped by this?
So here I am.
Maybe I’ve come to believe that all of existence is information and computation because it’s the only explanation I’ve come across that accounts for people brutally murdering other people senselessly.
I’ll never be at peace with this stuff. And I’m ok with that. In some ways it helps me live and love more.
In the end I decided to post some essays on this because there’s now another 100+ people out there with shadows looming. Maybe they will come across my story and find some peace in that were all connected and we don’t have to face the shadows alone. And maybe this is selfish in that now there are others out there for me to connect to that know aurora, co, that live with these shadows.
I’ve long believed that the worst kind of pain is loneliness. Even worse than death. I don’t think I can offer any grander help or relief or purpose than telling a story that leaves me and a reader or two less lonely.
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