April 20, 2016

Calm and comfort in Clement Park: The Columbine Memorial


On my way back to Iowa last month, I stopped in the Denver area for a longish layover. I had been meaning to visit Denver and the front range again for a while and planned to explore the area for a day or two. Unfortunately, due to incoming snow storms, I did not stay as long as I wanted, nor did I do everything I wanted to do (i.e., buy and enjoy some special edibles). But I did buy some beer and do one other thing I felt was important.

I stayed with a friend in Littleton. While he had a prior engagement during the day, I washed my car (it was filthy after three thousand miles) and then visited the Columbine Memorial in Clement Park a short drive away.

Columbine was a landmark event for my generation. I was a sophomore in high school when it happened and remember the effect it had on everyone. There had been school shootings before, but what happened in Littleton was on another level. Columbine cast a pall across the country and nothing was the same afterward.

Because of its significance and a sense of generational kinship, I felt compelled, almost obligated, to visit the memorial and pay my respects.

I parked next to a small skate park and walked to the memorial, which is carved into a hillside. A sidewalk winds its way up the hill behind the memorial to an observation point overlooking the memorial and Clement Park, and provides an unobstructed, breathtaking view of the wall of mountains to the west. The memorial is simple and unostentatious. Signs ask visitors to turn off their phones and preserve the peaceful setting. Displayed on raised plaques in the center are the details and biographies of the victims. Placed on the outside walls are plaques containing information about the event and the impact it had on the community and country. Low benches are placed outside the inner circle of plaques. The water fountain in one corner had yet to be turned on for spring.

There were a few other people there when I arrived, but after reading the victim bios I found myself alone. I slowly walked the outside and read each plaque placed into the hillside wall. I walked up the sidewalk that lead to the observation point. (I think it may be called Rebel Hill.) To the southeast, mostly obscured by baseball and softball fields, was the school. There was nothing iconic about it at all. It looked simple and utilitarian.

After descending the hill, I returned to the memorial and sat on a bench. Before I got to the park, I had no clue how I would feel. Would I feel a deep sadness? Would the frustration, fear, and uncertainty I felt at the time resurface? Would I cry? I was unsure. While there, though, I was emotionless and calm. It was sunny and a touch cool. People were enjoying the day, walking the park trails. It was beautiful — hard to believe it was the same place where hundreds of frightened teenagers had sought safety. I meditated on the bench for a few minutes, then stood and left.

After leaving the park, I drove past the school. I felt guilty about doing so, like I was engaging in a kind of morbid tourism, but I could not pass up the opportunity to do so since I was there. Much like what I saw from the hill above the memorial, there wasn’t much to see. I couldn’t see much of the school from the street, anyway, but it looked like an ordinary school. There was nothing special about it. The look of normalcy clashed with my memory, with all those horrible images. It was weird. However, it was also comforting.