Sunday, August 20, 2006

Going Postal

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the event that gave birth to the phrases "going postal" and "disgruntled postal worker." Twenty years ago today, Patrick Sherrill went on an armed rampage at the Edmond, OK post office where he worked, killing 14 people and wounding six more before taking his own life.

I was working for The Daily Oklahoman at the time, so I was peripherally involved in the news coverage that day. I was grabbed early in the day to follow one of the reporters to the post office, because they needed radio-equipped cars to coordinate the coverage. I can remember riding back to the paper with one of the reporters, listening to other reporters on the radio telling about the people they were interviewing, relatives and friends and neighbors. One reporter in particular mentioned that Sherrill's neighbor, completely opposite of the old cliche about the neighbors saying 'he was always such a nice, quiet man,' could not say enough bad things about the guy.

I remember how the newsroom buzzed frantically all day, and how, about 10 minutes before I was supposed to go home, I got grabbed again by one of the editors and sent to Edmond to pick up a photo of one of the victims from her husband. I drove the half-hour out to the home, feeling awfully put out because this would keep me working for an extra hour at least. When I got there, the red-eyed husband handed me a Polaroid photo that had been cut in half so only his wife's face showed. I hesitated as I took it, and he asked me what was wrong. With my usual lack of tact, I mentioned that the resolution of the Polaroid was really not suitable for reproduction. He began to get upset, and someone else came and angrily told me to get out of there, so I took the photo and returned to the newsroom. The picture went out over the AP wires that night.

I really don't like myself sometimes.

That night, at home, I watched the local news of all three stations. One station billed the story as "Tragedy in Edmond," and had the local anchors interviewing Sherrill's sister on the living-room-style set of their morning show, all muted colors and hushed voices. "Did you ever get any indication that your brother was capable of something like this?"

One of the other stations had a blood-red graphic that simply said, "Massacre!" and interviewed Michael Bigler, one of the surviving victims, in a live remote from his hospital bed. "So where exactly did he shoot you, Mike?" asked the grinning anchor.

Bigler later recounted in an article in Guidelines magazine how God had saved his life that day. When Sherrill shot him, God told him to play dead. So Bigler lay still on the floor and didn't move, listening to the shots and screams as Sherrill continued to gun people down. And then the screams stopped. Then Bigler heard footsteps in the adjoining room, punctuated by occasional single shots. "He's shooting everybody again, to make sure they're dead," Bigler realized.

And God said, "Run."

Bigler then scrambled out the nearest door while Sherrill was reloading.

That day was actually my second experience in a newsroom frantically covering a breaking story. The first had been in 1985, when a fireworks factory blew up in Hallett, Oklahoma. But I wasn't personally involved in it like I was in the Edmond story, however peripherally. So the Edmond thing affected me more and taught me some things about myself that I didn't particularly like.

The novel rewrite continues apace. I'm over a third of the way through, and the second draft has expanded quite a bit so far. I've deleted some extraneous material and tightened up some of the dialogue, while adding quite a few scenes to make the timeline clearer and develop the characters and their relationships further. I've also added a lot of sensory descriptions for setting and atmosphere, so the characters aren't walking around in a bland gray void. I still don't know if the book will work as a whole, but I think it's getting better.


Marc Carlson said...

"I really don't like myself sometimes..."

Either you learn from these things or you don't. It was 20 years ago - if you are still that clueless, it may be time to work on it. If not, count it as a learning experience and move on :)

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

Well, I've had enough family members die since then to understand that part of it. But general empathy and speaking without thinking - I'm not sure you ever learn those deeply enough change completely. I don't unthinkingly hurt people's feelings as often as I used to (not intentionally, mind you, just, as you say, cluelessly), but I still do it.

Marc Carlson said...

Yeah, me too. I try not to since I really hate accidentally hurting people's feelings. I don't mind doing it intentionally, but...