Kesey wrote an article for Rolling Stone about the shootings at Thurston High School in Springfield Oregon. In it he offers a chance for the readers to get a Ban The Bullet bumper sticker if he and his grandaughter Kate can get it together.
Well, they did get it together and you can get the bumper sticker, two for $5, to Kate Smith, Box 764, Pleasant Hill OR 97455.
by Ken kesey
My grandaughter Kate asks, "Why don't they take the guns away?"
"Because," I try to explain, "one of the rules in the American rulebooks says that Americans have the right to own weapons."
" Hmm," she muses. "Then what about bullets? Is there anything in the American rulebook that says Americans have the right ot own bullets?"
"By golly, Kate, I don't believe there is!"
"Then they should take away the bullets. Bullets are what kill things-- not guns. Let's ban the bullets."
Her logic tolled in the sad air of the room like a silver bell-- so clear; so simple; so on target:
Faye and I and some families happened to be in at Sacred Heart Hospital. We were in the Short Stay Waiting Room, waiting. It wasn't much past seven but the room was already crowded-- mostly middle agers and on up. The atmosphere in the room was subdued yet not grim, not frozen with panic the way some waiting rooms can be. Short Stay families are usually over that first cold jolt of fear that stuns people silent in the Emergency Rooms and Trauma Wards. They can exchange warm smiles and quiet confidences. They can chat.
A few minutes before 8am that warm chatter changes. Icy whispers start whirling in-- "seventeen...seventeen? ...that's what I heard... where? ...Springfield, at Thurston High... O my God that's where my niece Melissa goes to school!"
Or grandson Tony. Or nephew Gabriel. Or Jake. Or Tabitha.
New arrivals provide fresh details: "--the radio says McKenzie Willamette is full and they're bringing everybody else to Sacred Heart. KLCC said there are 17 victims--"
"It was a kid that had been expelled yesterday for bringing a loaded pistol to school. He's only fifteen."
"O my God fifteen!"
"This time he brought three: two handguns and a semi-automatic rifle."
"I guess he figured he needed more firepower."
As the grizzly story continued to flesh out, the room's atmosphere changed. Something far colder than mere panic was spreading over the faces. The waiting patients and families began to avoid each other's eyes. Where minutes before there had been pride and a kind of narrow strength, now there was an awful dawning: we were guilty of something. It wasn't clear of what just yet, but the guilty expression was unmistakable. Guilt and shame were falling over our faces like dirty snow, and we couldn't look each other in the eye.
It's aIways seemed to me that irony is evidence of entities smirking from the shadows above us, or beneath, or at least beyond. When the Freedom of Information act opened old files, Allen Ginsberg was able to ferret out facts that proved (just as he'd been claiming for years) that the CIA was directly responsible for the introduction of LSD into the American psyche, I could sense that sharp smirk of irony. And when fate tossed Tim Leary into the same cell with G. Gordon Liddy, the same guy that busted Milbrook for Nixon, that shadowy smirk became a full-out knee-slapping guffaw. But if there are ironies in this tragedy there is no humor in them . For instance the day before shootings the Eugene Register-Guard featured a homey little human interest piece about the wonderful benefits of firearm education for the young gunmen. And a couple of issues before that they ran a story about a fifteen year-old armed with stolen guns in the woods behind Elmira High School. Authorities told school officals to consider the kid Armed and Dangerous, but not so dangerous that they needed to shut the school down. The boy was on the run with a stolen gun, the deputy said, a 9 mm semiautomatic. The reason the deputy knew the caliber of the pistol was because the kid had swiped it from the deputy's home. A helicopter spotted the kid in the woods and the cops took him into custody. They charged him with burglary and stashed him in at the juvenile detention center, just as though they had caught him with a stolen TV or a boombox.
So this is more than irony, or coincidence, or a wake-up call or a straw-in-the-wind trend; this is a stinging slap in the face. No wonder we feel guilty.
All Thursday morning updates continue to trickle into our Short Stay waiting room. We hear they have cleared a ward in another wing of the hospital for the survivors. We hear there is one kid already dead and others very critical. My daughter Shannon returns from her latest phone call. One of her high school classmates has a kid attending Thurston.
"Maureen says her girl is okay. She says it's on all the national TV stations-- live up-link to the satellites. The latest count lists eighteen victims."
"Sweet Jesus eighteen?"
We had finished with our hospital business by 10:30am, but we hung around. All the waiting room crowd hung around. Many families had become one family. Shamefaced or no, we stuck it out together, staring at the floor and walls. Those who rose to leave couldn't seem to get through the glass doors into the hall. They would stand perplexed, staring through the glass, then return to their seats. River rafters would say we were caught in a backswirl, that treacherous maelstrom at the bottom of a steep rapid. We knew we were caught. We knew as well that we were guilty. I think we were hanging around hoping some judge or bailiff or courtroom stenographer might tell us what it was we were guilty of.
It was nearly noon when the head nurse of our floor stepped in to apprise us of the tally. "I think we've got the final number. Counting those at McKenzie Willamette, the toll has reached twenty."
By then we didn't have to repeat the number to believe it. The nurse's voice was validation enough.
We began to amble back out to the parking garage. Twenty. Twenty was plenty. That was more than those kids shot on the playground in Arkansas. That was more than Paducah. It couldn't be worse than twenty, we all thought.
But it was.
LATER THAT SAME DAY
By Thursday Evening Newstime the cops had located Kip Kinkel's parents, Bill and Faith. They had been found dead in the family's nice riverside A-frame. The cops had blocked the drive to the house, but there was lots of good helicopter footage. This wasn't the home you would expect to produce this kind of situation. It was a sharp looking spread, kept up by caring hands.
Kip's folks were both popular and successful teachers by all accounts. Bill had taught Spanish in the Springfield School District for 30 years before retiring in `91. He still taught part time at Lane Community College. Faith Kinkle had been teaching Spanish at Springfield High since 1988. Kip's older sister, Kirstan, is a cheerleader at the University of Hawaii. The whole family took vacations together in Europe and Latin America. Snapshots show them smiling and healthy.
No, this is not the sort of home and family you expect to produce a murderous gun nut. This isn't your single-parent welfare-cheating ghetto scenerio. This isn't Boulder-Bennet-Ramsey ritzy kinky, nor is it some inbred warren of camouflaged kooks brandishing the Good Book in one hand and a 357 magnum in the other. This is a straight-ahead upscale American home with a lot of class.
Except for a couple of minor infractions, Kip's record was clean. Well, maybe not so clean. He was busted a year ago for tossing rocks off an overpass and hitting a car. He was required to apologize to the driver, pay for repairs, and do 30 hours of community service. He finished his requirements last August.
The only other black mark on his record now looms larger, looking back. The Greenhill Humane Society received an anonymous tip last year: some moody kid named Kip out in Springfield had been bragging about the animals he had tortured. It isn't clear whether there was any follow up on the tip.
The Kinkel house is an impressive double A-frame surrounded by lush Oregon greenery-- ferns and rhododendrons and berries. The gables of the house are set off by yellow gingerbreading that looks homemade and hand painted-- in fact you wouldn't be surprised if you found out the whole house had been designed and built by Bill Kinkel. Photos suggest he was one of those unique Oregon citizens capable of teaching college and keeping a chainsaw sharp as well.
Faith Kinkel seems to have been just as exceptional. When she wasn't at school she was busy with other causes-- raising money for the education of South American kids; setting up chatrooms so students in her Springfield social studies class could talk with Brazilian students. Colleagues and neighbors recall her as a jogger and a recycler and a gardener, but above all-- a dedicated teacher. She had been selected for commendation as the Outstanding Teacher of the Year-- a real honor in this education-oriented community. But the day before she was to receive the award she was murdered by her son.
See what I mean? A tragedy bigger than itself, and growing. I think it's time to take off the gloves and get up on the soapbox....
This is my hometown. It's my family's hometown. It's my wife's and my wife's family's hometown. It's been our hometown since the end of World War Two. I met Faye in the 7th grade in the old vine-covered Mill Street Jr. High which is now the Springfield School District's Administrative building. We started going steady in high school and have been married just about half of forever. We've got four kids one planted down by the pond behind a rusty iron gate. We are the prideful grandparents of three of the smartest and prettiest and funniest grandkids in the world.
We live in a big barn that is a haphazard ramble of halffinished rooms and windows and plumbing problems. The barn is on a 70 acre farm that used to belong to my brother and before him to my father. We share this spread with a meandering of occasional friends and continual dogs and cats and coons and sometimes llamas and nutrias and frogs and bass and dragonflies and wild birds and ducks of various breeds. Yesterday we watched a mama merganzer lead eight fuzzy little ducklings onto the pond for their first swim.
Woodpeckers peck; peacocks shout at the rain; chickens and roosters cluck and crow about marvelous eggs and hens just laid; cows and calves roam the fields with a lazy eye on last summer's baled hay. Three tractors; two mowers; a nearly-new baler, and a Ford rake on the verge of venerable.
On shelves and in boxes and sheds are scattered tools and dead dishwashers and freezers that need defrosting. Stuff beyond belief is stuffed back in closets and cracks and crannies. Overloaded drawers are packed with outgrown drawers and Grateful Dead T-shirts. Cabinets are crammed with gadgets. Big wicker baskets are bulging with teddybears and vintage Tonka Trucks and Fisher/Price pushtoys. Faye's office is a gaudy stirfry of taxforms and crayons and spreadsheets and wrapping paper and rubber balls and art supplies and-- made fresh weekly!-- those big red and blue and yellow saranwrapped gobs of playdough that she uses at her Sunday school classes 3 times a week.
Upstairs is still more clutter and crap not to mention owl-casings that the owl family thumps down on the hayloft floor. Rooms left over from the old Commune Times cling to walls and rafters like mudswallow nests. There are boxes and boxes and boxes of books books books. And in a homemade wooden case by the balcony window are the guns.
These guns are hunting guns, not weapons. They are Always Loaded. Not with ammunition, but with memories. Emotions. Hunting tales and hunting lies... With love, even. My favorite is my dad's old 12gauge pump that he bought new from the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogue the year I was born. The barrel is 4 inches longer than a standard shotgun barrel and choked down tight. The hardwood stock is burnished by a half-century of use. I can feel it even now, the way it jumps so smooth and familiar to the right cheek, swinging that long barrel up after the flushed pheasant and on past the brassy plumage to that specific spot where the flying shot and the flying pheasant were to rendezvous. The gun wasn't so much leading the bird as it was keeping an appointment with it, punctual and courtious. It is a beautiful and holy piece, this old shotgun, and if I were ever cornered by some of these made-for-TV villians, it is the piece I would choose. But it is not a weapon.
Then there's my song Zane's double-barrel. I gave it to him on his 16th birthday. It's a neat and simple Sears and Roebuck piece but too light for a heavy 12 guage highbase. Kicks too hard, sometimes digging its safety into your thumb.
And my dad's .270 Winchester with a scope so powerful that the first time Jed used it he let a big forked-horn stroll across a logging road and never fired a shot. "I thought I was looking at that mountainside but I was looking at his rump."
There's also an ancient .22 singleshot Remington. I can't remember where it came from. This isn't a hunting rifle. I don't think it's legal to hunt anything with a 22. We keep it around mainly to put a suffering animal down, like our sweet old donkey who got tangled in a blackberry and broke both hips.
I don't know where my World War 1 .303 Enfield is anymore. I think I loaned it to somebody. It never had much class, but it did have on of those old Army Issue flip-up sights that you set by dialing it to the estimated distance. I killed a magnificent pronghorn over in the Steens with that sight. He was driving his herd across a dry lake bed at the foot of the mountain below us. I shot and waited. When I saw the puff of dust behind and below him I adjusted the sights and fired again. The puffs got closer and closer, until I was down to the last cartridge in the my webbelt: a big, slow, hollowpoint. I saw the dust puff at his left shoulder and watched him go tumbling like a tumbleweed. He did 3 somersaults before I heard the slap of the slug. We paced it off at 530 paces. The best shot I ever made. But I never cared much for the rifle. Maybe because the heft and the touch and the action of it all proclaimed in no uncertain terms: now this! is a weapon.
The worst shot I ever made was on an antlerless hunt in the Ochocos. We all put in for the drawing, but Faye and I were the only tags drawn. I would have backed out but we were just fresh married and both in college and we needed the meat.
We crawled out of our sleeping bags before dawn. We didn't start a fire. We drunk the thermous of coffee and nibbled butterhorns while we trudged through cold dust. The air was purple and cold and rank with the smell of high plains sage. We weren't fifteen minutes from camp when we saw a herd of halfdozen muledeer sillouetted along a ridge above us-- exactly what you might expect on an antlerless hung: 5 big bucks with incredible racks and one petite doe. "Oh, don't shoot her," Faye said. "She's too small."
"For venison she's just right-- way better than any of those tough old bucks would be."
I was carrying the .270. I braced the gun along a lichen-carpeted boulder, adjusted the highpowered scope and squeezed off a shot. The doe was a good ways away; it seemed as though it took a ten or twelve secons before I saw the magnified image in the scope jerk into the air.
She came back down running, on three legs only. Her right hindqaurters was a shatter of bone and skin, flapping what was left of the leg. She never fell. She headed after her galloping relitives, the ruin of her leg flapping after.
We found the trail of blood but it petered out after a couple miles. We never found the doe.
"I'm not going to do this anymore," Faye said.
I knew I shouldn't have taken the shot. "It's this damn scope. It makes them seem so close-- "
"I'm not going to do it anymore ever."
My infatuation was fading, too. That was the last shot I ever fired at a deer. Every hunter know's the feeling. In The Green Hills of Africa Papa Hemingway writes "You kill an animal until you don't want to kill it more you do." I tried bow hunting but that's just about as bad. A bullet kills by impact; an arrow can go clear through.
Seventeen year-old Mikael Nickolauson was DOA. That was tough enough for any family. But Ben Walker's case was tougher by a bunch.
- The sixteen year-old had been shot in the back of the head and never regained consciousness. Eyes fixed and dialated. Brain dead coma. Tubes down the throat. His family had to make a choice: if they unplug him there is a dozen healthy parts that can be used for transplants. If they don't unplug him and he lingers on comatose those organs begin to weaken. It's a choice our family can relate to.
- For Ben Walker's Folks:
- My wife Faye and I had to make the same terrible choice some years ago up in Spokane. Jed and the U of O wrestling team went over a cliff on their way to a meet with Washington State. After we had been at the hospital two days and nights we were informed that Jed was brain dead.
- We needed to sign a release so they could harvest his organs. Zeroxed forms were spread out on a cold formica countertop for our signitures. It was the hardest thing I ever did. Nothing before that moment and nothing imagined after could be that hard. It was midnight and dirty snow was swirling in the hospital parking lot... Along with all of us wrestling families there were other couples who had journied to the hospital to offer their support. They had all experienced the same agony and signed similar releases. Their silent embraces gave us a solace that even our immediate families couldn't quite match. They understood.
- We were all members in a very elite order that none of us ever wanted to join. A nurse told us later that they used 12 things out of Jed, just like Ben. An even dozen. When the number was announced over TV yesterday, it drove into my heart like an icicle, sharp and cold and hard hard hard.
- Please accept this meager letter as an embrace from Faye and I, and pray believe us when we say we understand. The heart does go on, but it never completely heals.
- With love,
- Ken and Faye Kesey
Lane County is logging country. The Springfield Highschool teams are called the Millers. Across the river it's the Eugene Axemen. Their football field chant is "Give 'em the axe the axe the axe, right in the neck the neck the neck... " Our answering chant is "Give 'em the saw the saw the saw, right in the craw the craw the craw... "
In 1850 the Briggs brothers filed a land claim and dug a four mile millrace. They built the town's first gristmill and sawmill. Logs could be floated down the Willamette, cut into lumber then barged north to Portland and the Columbia and on out to sea. A lot of the lumber that San Francisco was built with came through Springfield.
Timber is different from lumber, but everyone always assumed they were united. Not anymore. The ratty looking logs you see being trucked down out of the hills today probably aren't being bound for local lumber yards. They are on their way to chippers then overseas, where they'll be turned into speaker boxes and sold back to us. I've watched the sawmills of my youth emptied and dismantled or destroyed by suspicious fires. The days of the sweetsmelling cedar lumberyard are ending in old Springfield, and the millworker is scuffling to find different livelyhood. The main gut through the heart of town reveals the handwriting on the rundown walls: four out of five streetfront stores are selling collectables or antiques. Stuff by any other name still smells like mildew. The heart of my hometown has been bent and bruised for years. Now it's broken.
It's been nearly a week now and the phenomenon shows no signs of slacking. The Cyclone Fence that seperates the school from the street is completely filled with flowers and messages. All the big network rigs remain parked and idling along the curb, their dishes all raised and tilted toward an unseen satelite. They look like vast white sunflowers.
The grass between curb and fence is long gone and a nice covering of clean pine shavings covers the mud. Cars creep past slow and quiet, like relatives creeping past an open coffin. Busloads of kids arive from schools up and down the valley, bringing new additions to the fence-- poems and prayers; black balloons that look like clusters of grapes; posterboard sorrow adorned with gradeschool handprints; pom-poms, flags, Indian Drum Circles pounding away in a haze of sweetgrass smoke-- and flowers, flowers, flowers.
In its way the Mending Fence is a bigger deal than that heap of flowers Princess Di attracted. For one thing this tragedy isn't worldwide; it's American. And there is more on the line. The Mother of All Gunbattles is brewing, and this fence is the line drawn in the mud. So far a commendable truce has been observed by both sides-- a courtesy; a decorum-- but this is about over. And the fur is going to fly. From the right you can already hear the NRA rolling out their big guns and girding their big-lobby loins. From the bleeding-heart liberal left comes the sound of much nose-blowing. It's gonna get messy. Trying to take away the gun nut's guns is gonna be like trying to take a bloody pacifier out of the jaws of a Doberman with rabies. Trying to take the Kleenex away from the liberals is going to be just about as messy. So let's consider little Kate's solution.
I want to keep my Dad's long-barreled 12guage but I don't mind turning in the old ammo. I've got shells in drawers and boxes that should have been thrown out years ago. The casings swell with moisture and stick in the breach. The Remington single-shot and a couple of .22 longs is all the I need around the farm, with maybe a few birdshot cartridges to scare the occasional coyote away from the henhouse. That's really all I need. I'll bag up rest and take them in to the gun turn-in in town.
Kip Kinkel's semi-automatic held 50 rounds. What the hell does anybody need with a gun that can shoot 50 times without reloading? "For target practice," I hear from the right. Balony. What are you practicing for?
There isn't any game you can legally shoot with a .22. In fact there are damn few animals you can legally shoot with any of those makes of guns Kip owned. They have a bigger game in their sights: the customer. The .22 caliber Ruger handgun and Ruger semiautomatic rifle brought in more than a hundred million bucks for Sturm & Ruger last year. It's hard to find out what the sales were for the 9 mm Glock because Glock headquarters is in Austria. And it's my bet that if you were to trace the bloodline of Sturm and Ruger it would lead you somewhere back in Der Fodderland.
I mean let's come right out and admit it for once, you gun lovers: most pistols are made to shoot only one specis of animal, and that animal is us. And many rifles accommadate bullets that are designed to shoot that same two-legged target-- wonderful bullets, that can pierce the best police-armor made. Once they reach the flesh the slug fans out into hairsize tendrals that can turn a haunch into meat confetti. Ask a cop how he feels about those armor-piercing wonders.
Poor screwed-up Kip Kinkel. The paper says he used to be on Prozak but was taken off of it a while back. And now the National Guard office reveals that a distraught father had phoned their headquarters the day before the highschool massacre, asking for help with his fifteen year old son who had just been expelled for bringing a loaded gun to school. Forensics think the father was shot in the head not long after that phonecall. The mother got hers later that afternoon, after school.
Think about it: the son then spent the night alone with his dead parents before he took the utility van and drove in to school at 7:30 the next morning. Poor screwed-up kid. Think of all the lives he has screwed up forever-- not the least of which is his. If he thinks he knows a thing or two about animal torture now, just wait until he meets some of the cell-mates his future has in store.
Yet there is about the whole ugly business something that shines. Nobody that passes that fence can help but see that shine. The posters I like best are the ones speaking specifically to killer: "KIP... WE ARE PRAYING FOR YOU." "KIP-- JESUS STILL LOVES YOU."
That's the ticket, people; whether you are on the right side or the left side of that fence, reach out a little, give in a little. Use this rare truce. Something both horrible and special happened in this hometown this week. Let's not allow it to degenerate into bloody bickering. Let's not waste it.
It's been a week. Mud and blood and media in the everlasting drizzle. And as the rain falls the hospital bills rise.
Most members of our community are still assidously looking away from the problem: "It's the educational system's fault!" or the "working parents' fault" or the "Bombs R Us instructions on the internet" or the "lack of moral fiber in society's diet".
Nobody wants to think about those 50 black seeds of death, germinating in the fertile mud. They will soon be sprouting and climbing as fast as the medical bills. Many insurance policies won't cover this sort of injury, and these bills will still be climbing long after the media trucks have moved on to greener glories. If you feel compelled to really help, send real money to the United Way Thurston Healing Fund, 3171 Gateway Loop, Springfield, OR, 97477.
Six months ago Bill Kinkel met a stranger during a 2 hour wait at the San Diego Airport. The guy's name was Dan Close and Bill noticed that he was carrying a book on juvenile delinquency and sociopathic behavior in teens. Kinkel told Close about his problem son, Kip.
"He told me Kip had an obsession with guns," Close recalled, "and that he bragged about small animals he had killed. He said the boy was becoming more and more angry each time he was denied what he wanted. It's my theory that when Kip got home after being expelled from school that the father laid down the law, denied the kid a bunch of priveleges, and the kid snapped."
Me, I have a different take on the problem. If you are caught in school holding a loaded gun they send you home and you get your gun back. But if they catch you at school loaded and holding they take you to jail. There is something bass ackward about this, something wrong way round, something-- dare I say it?-- crazy in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Bullet... all these arcade Blast the Badguys; all these copshows and Lethal Weapons Threes and Diehards Fours and Dirty Harry Make My Days. All these drive-bys and Ruby Ridges and Janet Renos frying the kids in Wako in order to protect the kids in Wako. We don't need foreigners to terrorize us. We seem to be doing a pretty fair job of it ourselves.
No wonder we all felt guilty in that waiting room.
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