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Two dead children in Benton, Kentucky, 16 more shot there, but as we adults say, what are you going to do? It’s fog of war when the news hits, all first responders, official empathy, thoughts and prayers going out as the shaky first step toward acceptance. Numbness as best practice. Kentucky’s Governor Matt Bevin says, “I encourage people to love on each other at this time.”
My cousins went to Marshall County High. It is on the other side of the state, 300 miles from here in the hills, flat and filled with beans and tobacco that people worked when they got home from their work at the plant. But before I went away to college, I got a construction job in the next town over in Mayfield, Graves County. We broke ground and poured footers there for a 2 million square-foot Ingersoll Rand plant that would manufacture the air compressors of tomorrow. There I learned sledge hammer from the best, and more specifically some “Son, if you go any slower the termites’ll eat the handle out of that shovel.” It was a long time ago. I made $3.25 an hour, and that paid rent, bought fake I.D. beer, and took care of a year’s tuition at the University of Kentucky. Now that compressor plant has been long shuttered, re-opened as a tire plant, shuttered again, then opened, closed, abandoned. What are you going to do?
But that summer was my first time away from home, changing everything. My buddy and I rented a house trailer, cooked, washed our own dishes, and only discovered late we were living without a sewage hook up. We figured out how to get underneath the floor and spray Lysol on the sludge before visitors came.
Marshall County where my Aunt Ann and Uncle Art lived was our destination for real cooked meals, conversations about work, and being mistaken for adults. Sledge hammer shoulders. Sometimes I would ride around with my uncle, an engineer, as he checked on property to survey or took a load to the dump.
I matured that summer. He taught me to drink scotch. (Turns out you mix it with ginger ale.) And he taught me about Marshall Countians: decent, conservative, hunt and fish, Church of Christ. They don’t borrow, they put what they make at the plant in savings bonds and keep those bonds in a shoebox under the bed. They only cash them in when they need a new car or a new house.
I felt like an anthropologist coming upon a lost tribe.
That summer another governor appointed me to the Kentucky Commission on Children and Youth. The powers-that-be thought young adults should have some say in how other kids were looked after and listened to. It was a different era, different ethos. I knew as much about how you manage the state’s Child Welfare Agency or foster care policy as I did about mobile home plumbing, but I was one of four picked for the job. I remember my uncle looking at the official letter from Frankfort and saying, “This is a big deal.” For me it was, a chance to see the sausage made, how the lines were drawn between what you hope for and what you get.
So now word comes, another mass shooting, this time it is not in Colorado or Connecticut, it’s in what could have been my backyard. Kids that I never knew, from families I never met, but could have if I was Church of Christ or fished at the lake.
The governor says, “This is an opportunity for Kentucky, though we would not want to be in this position, this is an opportunity for us to show how these situations can be handled.” Spoiler alert: Here is how we will use the opportunity. I can say this because I was on a commission. We are going to get good at schoolroom active-shooter drills. We are going to make a big deal about armed guards at schools so they can shoot kids who show up with guns. We are going to officially blame those that political expedience allows us to blame. What are we going to do? Die a little.
The Kentucky General Assembly was recently sidetracked from an attempt by some members to change the law so college students could carry sidearms to class. My kid teaches at Kentucky State. He learned to hit a baseball in my backyard. We live in a time when elected officials can convince themselves that if everyone was strapped, violence would meet its match. And we live in a country where for every 100 men, women, and children, there are 101 guns. And we live in time where half of those 330 million guns are owned by 3% of the people. Whether they are pillheads, potheads, drunks, Nazis, or sad young men who have lost their way, they still have our tacit blessing to assemble their own personal arsenals. It is a free country. We can’t check them for paranoia. We live in a country where the government will not even allow the Centers for Disease Control to study the health risks of shooting each other. In the face. Numbness is our go-to response. It is our official policy. We are inured. Those are somebody else’s kids. We open our hearts and send them our practiced prayers. We mind the soberness of the moment. We note that we are all in this together. We don’t argue with people who might be armed. We don’t call out governors for hypocrisy or legislators for being dumber than a bag of rocks. We hope for something better. We accept what we get.
Dee Davis (@iAmFlyRock) is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. He lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky.