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A Pilgrimage To Newtown: A Personal Account

Gary Pontelandolfo: NH+ INDEPENDENT

I had been feeling drawn to visit the town of Sandy Hook to pay my respects after last Friday’s events, but out of respect for the community and a desire not to be in the way or somehow add to the heavy burden people there are carrying, I had stayed away. But after talking with a friend who had made an unplanned stop there late Sunday evening as she drove past the town on her way back from New York, I was beginning to feel like it might be ok to visit myself. Arriving after the President had left town, one of the first people she met as she got out of her car was a woman offering her a brownie from a plate she was carrying. She felt welcomed by the people in town and was glad she had decided to stop.

20121220_GP_bridge_flSo today I finally decided to drive down there myself and, after a late breakfast, I headed down Route 8 to Route 84 and on to Newtown. The village of Sandy Hook is about a half mile north of Route 84 and can be reached from either of two adjacent exits off the highway, the main roads from which meet in a T at the light in the middle of town. There was a bit of traffic when I arrived at about 1:30, but I didn’t have any trouble making my way to the center. I decided to pull into the driveway of St. John’s Church when traffic started to back up just as I got near the main intersection; I pulled around back and drove into the connected, nearly empty parking lot of a neighboring restaurant.

During the last half hour of my drive I had been listening to a radio interview with Newtown resident John Woodall, a psychiatrist who has had a great deal of experience working in communities around the world that have been affected by violent trauma. As radio host Colin McEnroe commented, it was as if he had spent his life training to help the people of his own town at this time.

One of the things Dr. Woodall talked about was the importance of reformulating grief into constructive pursuits that provide noble meaning, rather than stagnating in fear or anger. He has found that when presented with horrific circumstances, people time and again prove themselves to be wonderful, tender, loving, supportive, sacrificing, gracious and kind, and some of the most profound agents of change for better in the world are people who have suffered through unspeakable hardship. So with this conversation fresh in my mind, I made my way down the grassy hill from the parking lot to the heart of the village.

20121220_GP_teddy_flA State Police officer directed the slowly moving traffic at the light that was now set to blinking. The sound of the Pootatuck River could be heard in the background as it flowed over rounded rocks after passing under the bridge just west of the intersection. Hand-painted banners hung from buildings, and everywhere you looked, people had left teddy bears, candles, posters, photos, ornaments hanging from the branches of trees. The main sentiment expressed in these displays seemed to be one of compassion, support and solidarity in the midst of grief. Many local businesses had hung identical signs printed in green and white (the elementary school’s colors) that stated: “We Are Sandy Hook — We Choose Love.”

I walked up one side of Church Hill Road and, after passing the Methodist Church, turned around and started back down on the other side. People were continually arriving from all directions carrying stuffed animals, posters and other offerings for the growing memorials. As I stood on the sidewalk near the light, a car window rolled open and a woman asked if I would open her rear door and take the candle that was resting on the seat and add it to the shrine. She and her husband had driven up from Bridgeport and were obviously somewhat overcome by the scene they had come upon. We chatted for a few moments until traffic began to move, and as they left they thanked me for placing the candle for them. I felt honored, and approached a man on the other side of the street, asking if he had a light. As he handed me his lighter, he mentioned that his friends in Georgia were very interested in knowing how the people of Sandy Hook were doing. It turns out that he himself lives in Georgia; he is a trucker who was returning from a run to upstate New York. He said he had earlier collected fifteen or so stuffed animals from other drivers at a truck stop, and had dropped them off on his way north; he had parked his rig up the road now on his way back home.

At one point as I stood there in the center of the village, a school bus with the logo “Town of Newtown” approached and stopped right in front of me. I decided not to turn away and with respectful intention looked at the faces of what I would guess were middle school kids who were looking out. I can’t really describe the expression on their faces, but as the bus pulled away I wanted to cry. I imagine that there had been a conscious decision on the part of school administrators not to detour away from what I can only surmise was their normal daily route. My hope and belief is that though seeing the memorial must have made the loss the community had suffered even more poignant, witnessing the great outpouring of love and solidarity that was being expressed might be a comfort and provide some source of strength for them.

20121220_GP_clothing_flI spoke with a few local residents about how they were feeling about all the people who were streaming into their town (my guess is that the overwhelming majority of people who drove through and were walking around while I was there were visitors). A high school-age girl who had set up a card table on the sidewalk and was collecting donations for the families said that she really appreciated that so many people cared enough to come to their town, but that they weren’t used to this kind of activity in their normally quiet little village. The chief warden of St. John’s Church, who I met on my way back to my car and who lives just up the street, told me that it was very weird to see national news broadcasts from places like the footbridge over the river that he walks across every day. Last Friday, the first TV news he saw showed the reporter standing in front of Sandy Hook Firehouse, almost next door to his house. He said that although he sincerely appreciates the outpouring of support and understands people’s desire to come pay their respects, he is ready to have the crowds start to thin out so he can have his town back. It was now around 4:00 and traffic had backed up so far that he had parked his car up the road and walked to the church. He was there to gratefully gather packages that arrived daily with unsolicited donations of a variety of items that were being donated to his church and the wider community.

The church warden pointed out to me that there were even more memorials set up outside the firehouse just a short walk up Riverside Road. The road had been narrowed by orange plastic cones to create a walkway, and the road was closed to all but essential traffic. I walked up a small hill past Apex Glass on the right, which displayed a hand-written sign near the road that said: “We Love the Teachers and Children of Sandy Hook.” Across the street were the old, worn headstones in no-longer used Sandy Hook Cemetery (1813-1942). Then, as I came over the crest of the hill I saw and heard off to my right something that nearly took my breath away — there by the side of the building housing the Senior Center, Visiting Nurses Association and Children’s Adventure Center was a playground with yellow plastic slides and swings. The voices of young children at play rang out from the slight distance, while behind them, through a thin stand of trees, I could see the flashing red and blue lights of a police cruiser parked near Sandy Hook Elementary School. My guess is that these kids were perhaps five or six years old — and while I was happy to witness them exuberantly at play, I could only wonder how the parents of those who were so violently torn away last week would react when hearing such sounds.

When I got to the spot where the long driveway down to the school met Riverside Road, a group of official vehicles passed through. This was not by any means the first time I had witnessed such a procession while in town; in fact, I had seen police cruisers from all around the state. As I looked down the drive toward the school, I could see more than a few officers gathered in small groups. There was no temptation to venture down that way, and I am sure that anyone who did would be quietly yet firmly turned away. Appropriately, it seemed, the school building itself could not be seen from that vantage point, as it lies nestled behind a curve in the drive.

At the firehouse I spoke with Ken Carlson, a lifetime member of Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue. When I offered that he must be tired and then began to apologize for such an understatement, he beat me to uttering the single word: “Exhausted.” He said he didn’t know where they were finding the energy to keep going, but of course they were. In reply to my question about how we in other towns could help, he suggested sending monetary donations directly to Sandy Hook Fire Department, 18 Riverside Road, Sandy Hook, CT 06482; you may include a note to indicate if you would like your donation to be passed on directly to affected families, or if you would like to support the volunteer fire company — whose members have been working so tirelessly and which has undoubtedly incurred extraordinary unanticipated expenses.

When I had made my way back to the center of the village, I decided to see if the restaurant I had parked behind might have coffee on. Although there were only a few more cars in the lot than when I had first arrived and no one could be seen through the windows of their dinig room, I spotted the flicker of a TV and found the take-out entrance unlocked. When I tried to pay the waitress for the coffee she had graciously poured me, the owner waved her off from behind her in the kitchen. A free cup of coffee — just another small kindness in an afternoon spent in the midst of kindness and compassion and, dare I say, profound Love.


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