Content warning: mentions of gun violence.
On the morning of April 17, 1981 — Good Friday — I awoke in my dorm room to the clanging of the fire alarm at the un-student-like hour of 6 a.m. Like most college students, I scoffed at the interruption. I wasn’t prepared to pull myself from a morning’s sleep, so I listened for footsteps or slamming doors out in the hallway, as if my fellow students’ behavior was ever any sort of barometer for emergency preparedness. I reluctantly tumbled out of the lofted bed and peered down the hallway. Not a soul heading for the exits. Everyone was asleep like I should have been. All indications of a false alarm.
I tried to get back to sleep. Finals were just weeks away and I knew rest would be in short supply. I’m sure I was still awake when I heard the sirens squealing outside.
I was a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan. I still hadn’t settled on a major. I lived in Bursley Residence Hall on North Campus, a bus ride from Central Campus. North Campus was in its infancy in 1981 as the University started relocating all the engineering, art and architecture programs from Central Campus. North Campus at that time was a bucolic environment, with tree-lined walking paths and gentle hills for winter traying (sledding on lunch trays). Removed from the more frenetic Ann Arbor campus area, North Campus was an oasis of sorts.
I had planned to stay most of the weekend in Ann Arbor even though it was Easter. I planned to be home for Sunday dinner, but I cherished whatever uninterrupted study time I could get, especially in the quietude of this near-pastoral setting.
As the sirens’ roars grew thunderous, I pulled aside the stiff residence hall room curtains. Our room’s window faced the circular drive that ran past Bursley’s main entrance. The firetrucks, police cars and ambulances were all parked along the oval strip. What a massive false alarm, I thought.
I saw police and medical responders going in and out of Bursley’s front doors. A stretcher with an unidentified person was being whisked toward an ambulance. The IV bag shook in the transport. Another identical white gurney, unknown occupant, hurried out into another ambulance.
By now, there was stirring in our dorm hallway. As I watched the scene below, someone joined me at the window. Pointing toward the departing ambulances, he said, “One of them is our Doug.”
Over that nearly completed school year, my awareness of gun violence had surged. This current swelling of interest was the result of a flurry of shootings of celebrated and famous people.
In December 1980, John Lennon was gunned down in front of his New York City home by a fan asking for an autograph. A scroll ran across the bottom of our hand-me-down TV set that night while we watched Monday Night Football: Ex-Beatle Dead. 40 years old.
On March 30, 1981, another crazed person fired several rounds at President Ronald Reagan. The president’s communications chief sustained severe and lifelong head trauma. A valiant Secret Service agent took another bullet. The last slug ricocheted and struck Reagan as he was being rushed from the mayhem into his limousine. In the emergency room, doctors found the bullet precariously close to Reagan’s heart.
I was pasted to the activity around the residence hall’s front entrance. In time, a man exited, escorted by two policemen. The handcuffed man was hastened toward an awaiting police cruiser, and then he was gone too. At some point, the emergency vehicles departed and peaceful Bursley life had the illusion of normalcy, though we all knew at that instant our college experience had been profoundly altered.
Then on May 13, 1981, a Turkish assassin fired four bullets from a Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol at Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. All four bullets entered the Pope as he greeted the faithful from his Popemobile. Though gravely wounded, the Pope would recover and eventually forgive his assailant in his prison cell.
It didn’t take long for word to bolt throughout the dorm that two students had been shot in another wing of Bursley. The assailant tossed Molotov cocktails from his room onto the floor’s hallway, igniting the carpet which necessitated the fire alarm. As the students hurried from their rooms, hindered by the smoke and chaos, the assailant came back out of his room with a sawed-off shotgun and fired into the cloudy hallway.
The students I saw leaving Bursley on stretchers were undergoing surgery. One victim was our hallway’s resident advisor, Doug, who left his room to locate the source of the alarm, as required by dorm protocol. He was a senior and was set to graduate in a few weeks. The other, a freshman, was acting as the assigned fire marshal for his floor, tasked with ensuring his hallmates’ safety.
It didn’t seem long before we learned that Doug and the freshman had died.
Disbelief became chaos as students dashed about trying to get assurances to frantic parents. Apparently, the local news limited their coverage to a developing story of an early morning shooting at Bursley Hall on the University of Michigan’s North Campus. I finally reached my mom. TVs and radios throughout the dorm were loudly blasting news reports.
Soon, news trucks and reporters interrupted the quiet of North Campus. The University immediately committed counseling services to us affected students. I can no longer remember the exact details of what I did for the remainder of that day. I called my mom back and pleaded with her to pick me up that afternoon — as soon as possible. The sudden attention to our tiny community was unsettling. Go home for the weekend, study for finals there and be coddled by parents in my old cocoon.
That summer was spent back home working as a custodian at our local church. I cleaned, stripped and waxed all the classrooms in the church’s grade school — the same school I had attended not all that long ago. I took great pleasure in telling my old grade school teachers about my college experiences as they dashed in and out of the building throughout the summer.
I found solace in this little school, where so much of me had been formed and molded. It had been such a nurturing period in my life, with all the exhilarating exploration and innocent wonderment that comes with learning — virtuous in itself.
At some point that summer, I sat in my old bedroom with my new Corona electric typewriter I bought so I could type my college papers, and I banged out my thoughts on this last school year. I sent my little essay to our weekly community newspaper. My short piece recounted the various shootings — Reagan, Pope John Paul II and my two dormmates — and its impact on a 20-year-old student not yet fully launched into life. The paper published it in their editorial section and titled it something like “Mom, Apple Pie and Guns.” My new vision of the American Dream — my new understanding of myself. Seemingly.
Eventually, the gunman was prosecuted and sentenced. It was a week-long trial. The assailant was in his senior year. I didn’t know him and had never seen him before. Apparently, the night before the shooting, he was frantically finishing a key paper for one of his classes, only to miss the filing deadline by moments. The charged man raised the insanity defense, mimicking John Hinckley’s successful defense in his trial for the attempted assassination of President Reagan. The defense failed and he was sentenced to life in prison.
I wonder what the gunman thinks about in prison, what he thinks of guns now.
My fear of guns relates back to my early childhood. After playing “war” with fake guns and knives, I was often left trembling, consumed with images of death much too vivid for any 10-year-old child. In reality, my personal exposure to guns was make-believe: comic book gun violence in movies and on TV. The real warzone was in Detroit and other inner cities, not the safe and comfortable suburb where I grew up. I was irrationally agitated by guns if I gave them any real thought. I did nothing about it, though I suspected my fears exceeded those of people I knew. I avoided guns and any place where they likely prevailed. And that was the extent of it — both my trepidation and my desire that guns be less prevalent.
Graduating after two more uneventful years, I went on with my life. I went to law school and took a job at a major company where I practiced law for more than 30 years and retired to begin the next chapter of my life. During my adult life, I wasn’t oblivious to the escalating number of mass shootings and the resulting polarization of the country on gun control. I watched the litany of shooting rampages across the nation. I saw the Parkland students stand up for sane gun laws. I witnessed the Newtown massacre. I even read the inevitable articles for or against gun control that follow every mass shooting. I was aware of the NRA’s increased political clout and media influence.
Throughout it all, I was a stoic observer.
Good Friday, 1981 acutely influenced my perception and altered my instincts on all matters involving guns and firearms. The shooting intensified those long-held irrational fears, obfuscating opinions that would lead to a balanced view of the matter. Somehow this burn of the Bursley tragedy seared off my capacity for meaningful emotional responses. I was stunted and paralyzed. I think that maybe that horrible morning so filled me up emotionally and mentally that I was now unable to generate one of the most important of human qualities: empathy. No more sincere and heartfelt moments of soul-retching sadness. Since then, it seems that I lived my life as a passive witness to all the purposeless carnage.
I sometimes think back to those early hours of Good Friday, 1981 when I gently opened my dorm room, careful not to wake my roommates and peered down the empty early-morning hallway. Had Doug already left his room in search of the alarm’s origin? What would I have done had I seen him starting down the hall toward his own demise? Would I have accompanied him, now that I was wide awake and curious?
I didn’t act then. And I haven’t acted since. That’s my lamentable legacy from Good Friday, 1981.
The massacre at Michigan State University, from which two of my children graduated, brought back the immediacy, unearthly emotions and the suddenness with which life can be extinguished. Forty-two years later, with another Easter on the horizon — where regeneration and hope are the theme — it seems we have not only failed to learn a damn thing about gun control or to enlarge our valuation of human life, but instead the country has made a ghoulish cost-benefit analysis: Protecting the Second Amendment is worth sacrificing a few lives of the next generation, our future.
After too many decades on the sidelines, I can no longer submit to the status quo, the political cowardice or the maniacal sermonizing of those whose lust for firearms has compromised all else.
Go Green. Go White.
James Swartz is a U-M alum. He can be reached at email@example.com.