Armored Backpacks and Winnie The Pooh

The chain link fence is about seven feet high, not high enough to dissuade climbers, but precarious enough if you are dangling from the top by your inseam, snagged and humbled, while two small boys patiently explain how they got over easily and you can too.

This snagging occurred on a long ago day (actually, on numerous long ago days). I do not condone trespassing, but I will tell you that on the other side of this fence is the elementary school the two boys attended, and behind that, the playground where those boys and their father with the mangled inseam spent hours playing. This is what children do. The boys have since grown up, but the playground is still there, with its swinging bridges, and slides and colorful turrets of orange, green, and purple, where you might engage in tag, capture the flag, and all manner of imagined pretend (they do look like real castle turrets).

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The fence went up some ten years ago because school kids were walking off campus, loose dogs were wandering on to the school grounds, and parents and kids who didn't go to the school were coming on to the playground to play during school hours. Harmless stuff mostly, although once someone fleeing the police hid in one of the kids' bathrooms during school hours forcing the school into lockdown. The then PTA president, who is no shrinking violet (I can write this accurately, and without fear of reprisal, because she is a good friend), wrote a letter to the city stating in no uncertain terms that if anything happened to a child she would be on the five o'clock news that night. Up went the fence.

Pre-fence and post-fence, for eight years I walked our sons to and from this elementary school every day. In transit we crouched to examine insects, stooped to put acorns in our pockets, and stopped in our tracks to ponder questions like how we grew from the length of the little couch to the length of the big couch. It was not a wholly carefree existence, but never once in that time did I consider the horrific possibility that I would drop them off at school and never see them again.

In this 24/7 information age we are all now intimately familiar with the terrible details of the December 14 killings of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. You probably know the killer's name. If you don't, you can look it up. When police arrived, he shot himself. How you feel about this is your own personal business.

Reaction these days is always swift, erupting from humanity's every corner. Here in Ventura County a workshop on school violence prevention at the Ventura County Office of Education drew a sellout crowd of educators. A second workshop has been added, and now a third. One of the workshop leaders, a Ventura County Sheriff's Office officer, said, "I think Sandy Hook is the 9/11 for educators."

Local schools also fell to revisiting their safety plans on their own. Some schools already have a full-time deputy or officer on campus. Other schools have officers who make random, but regular, school visits. Behind closed doors, school administrators who didn't already have armed officers on campus full-time wrestled with the idea; some debated carrying guns themselves. At the school where my wife teaches, a fence went up.

Schools, of course, were not the only ones who responded. Gun sales instantly went through the roof and beyond. A gun show at the Ventura County Fairgrounds saw hundreds of people waiting patiently in long lines to buy guns and ammunition. Some were worried that proposed restrictions would soon make it difficult to impossible to get what they needed. One man was simply trying to buy ammunition for an upcoming shooting competition. Many in line were first-time buyers. Why the crowds? After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, our local gun stores sold out, literally -- lock, stock, and barrel.

That gun sales blossomed alongside workshops illustrates the kaleidoscope of the human condition.

This reaction, of course, was not unique to Ventura County. Numerous states set records for gun background check requests, California among them. In Rapid City, South Dakota a gun store owner closed his store and turned off his phone, claiming the rush of customers had become "a madhouse." Turning his back on business, he quipped, made sense, too. "The price is only going to go up higher," he said. There was a skyrocketing increase in the sales of armored backpacks (an armor insert fits into the back panel of the child's backpack) designed to shield children caught in shootings (they would hold up the backpack, using it as a shield), although it should be noted that this was according to the three companies that make them. The backpack I remember had Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, and Piglet smiling up at a shooting star.

Here in Ventura County and across the nation, adults are weighing in on the Sandy Hook shootings. Many of the adults are well meaning; some spew hateful vitriol and bizarre conspiracy theories. President Obama has unveiled sweeping gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association sent out an urgent fundraising appeal to its members, saying "This is the fight of the century." Politicians proclaim they will not give an inch. On television, on the radio, in print, people scream at each other. It makes you wonder who the children are.

I don't worry about most of the adults. Adults have a way of taking care of themselves. But I do worry about some of the adults. A mother who lost her 6-year-old son in the Sandy Hook shootings dreams that her son is brushing his teeth at the sink. He looks at her. Mommy, I'm having fun. This mother now has a tattoo near her wrist with angel wings, her son's name, his birth date and the day he died. In a perfect world this tattoo should forever remain incomplete.

But it is not a perfect world.

I do worry about the children. What does an armed guard in a school hallway mean to a child? How do they see a bulletproof backpack? What do they think about a playground fenced off on the weekend? What does this look like to someone who still believes in Santa Claus and wonders how they grew to be too big for the little couch?

I wonder if children see things differently these days.

Or if, eventually, we will make it so.

It's Sunday. I just walked up to the playground. It was empty.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine is the author of eight books and lives in Ventura. His most recent novel, “Juncture,” is a cerebral “Jaws”; a suspense-filled thriller, a story of primal love and our changing oceans and, perhaps, a final fork in the road.
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