Try to think back to August 2, 2019. I know many of you do. Or how about the morning of August 3, 2019? I do—a lot.
Memories of a normal Saturday: of ‘to do lists’ and errands. A Saturday like any other, except it’s the last one of it’s kind, and we know that now.
It is now recognized and referenced as date only, shorthand for our violent time. Aug.3. It joins a long, sad list: Dec.7. 11/22/63. April 4, 1968. 9/11. So many other unfortunate dates.
It’s a day delineated by violence, a before and after story for us all.
‘Tell me about your time in the war, grandpa.’ My question was always met with a smile and stories.
Stories of friends, jokes, smiles, and everyday observances of a world he had never seen before. Of Captains yelling and cursing. Of women smiling and waving.
Joy at seeing London, anger at being diverted from Paris. The joy of a new Army 6×6 truck, the disappointment of not being assigned a ‘Tommy Gun’ like some other soldiers.
The endless gray/blue of the Atlantic. The infinite green of England. The White Cliffs of Dover. The farmlands of France. The autobahn in Germany.
And then a pause and a stare into the distance.
‘What’s the matter, grandpa…?’
‘Oh mijo, one day, there were so many planes passing over us one time, the ground shook, and it felt like there were bees in our helmets… afterward, they wouldn’t let us go near the cities, you could smell them before we got there. And there were other, worse, smells from these…factories.’
‘And then, grandpa?’
‘Oh mijo, let’s go inside for lunch…’
We would never talk of the war in front of my grandmother; it made her uneasy. She feared he’d ‘go back.’ We never EVER spoke about the war with our great uncle Tommy. He was mad. Angry. She said the Pacific did that to him. I didn’t know that the ocean could make someone mad. I asked grandpa what that meant.
He said that they were two people in one body – the one before and the one after – and sometimes they didn’t get along after what they saw and did in the war. It was like that with a lot of the boys who came back, he said.
‘Not you, grandpa, right?’
A smile, a nod, and a gaze out into the distance.
I catch myself in that distance now. I know a lot of people do. There are those who experienced August 3, and there are those who lived it.
The families, the soccer team, the SWAT Team, shoppers and First Responders, reporters and photogs; those who were going to shop there and those who had. Everyone.
We are all split into the before and after.
Other memories pop up. At a stoplight, I am transported back to that day. At that light.
The mechanical way that the Border Patrol Agent took command of the intersection. Waving traffic through, halting only to let shoppers run across the street, away from the scene.
His eyes were in the distance, his radio non-stop chatter.
‘I’m with the press, where’s the rally point?’ I asked, somewhat automatically after pushing through a small crowd.
Without dropping his gaze, he motioned toward the mall, and said ‘Go ahe…’ the rest was cut off by a trio of Suburbans roaring by, and the buzz of a chopper, low overhead. The street shook, and it felt like bees in my eardrums.
Surrounded by a handful of other reporters and a couple of camera operators, we were one group. Setting up our gear, framing the picture, checking with one another about the latest ‘news.’
‘I heard it was the Dillards…’ ‘Bassett Center’s on lockdown…’ They just ran everyone out of the Fountains…’ There’s someone that shot up the parking lot at Walmart…’
You look up, and there are long lines of shoppers being led out of the mall, hands above their heads. The ones that were out earlier are all on phones, you hear words like ‘shooting,’ ‘running,’ ‘blood,’ and this gasping for breath, heaving with sobs.
Witnesses share stories. Of laughing it off first, but then seeing others run, and hearing shots, they run as well. And don’t stop until they’re a half-mile away.
Phone calls to loved ones. They are alright, but the others… cell phone video of someone with grey hair sprawled out just past the familiar entrance of Walmart. Arms askew. What did they spill when they fell? It’s not a spill.
We look up, and out into the distance.
OH. Oh my god…
‘Oh, mijo, you should have seen Germany…so beautiful. After the Ardennes, so much green and trees, still a bit cold, but so beautiful. Oh, and the roads, the autobahn they called it. It was so good to not have my truck bounce me around for hours and hours.’
‘What else did you see grandpa?’
‘We were lined up to get on the autobahn, like the exits here, but many, many trucks and as we were turning, we started seeing Nazi tanks and trucks, all burned up. My friends are talking about the wrecks, and we see this line of Nazi soldiers, walking the opposite way in the middle of the road. We get closer and see that they’re stepping over old uniforms, all spread out and flat – but they turned out to be other Germans, I guess our tanks ran them over…”
Grandma comes out, Grandpa looks into the distance, down Texas 20, where it disappears into the green of the pecan groves.
“Ay, mijo, those roads were so good, so smooth…”
Minutes turn to hours. Hours seemingly stretch into days. Other reporters are shifted to the media area overlooking the parking lots of Sam’s Club and Walmart; both still packed with cars. Here and there, I can see carts filled with the day’s shopping haul, left beside cars with open doors.
The grey of the parking lot and the black of the asphalt. The black of the SWAT uniforms and trucks. All lined up—the buzz of helicopters, interweaving flight patterns over the scene.
In my mind, the first flowers showed up about that time, as did the first of the big broadcast trucks from the national news outlets. What was a Hooter’s parking lot is now a quickly-filling broadcast center.
It must be 2 or 3 pm. I head back to our studios at that time, only 1/2 mile from the site. Walking to my car, the road is empty and smooth.
There’s a shirt there, and a grey Walmart bag with something in it. Just there, on the road. People are stepping over it, heading to the growing memorial.
A few more live reports from the studio. My crews meet briefly; I give them water and food, there’s plenty as there was supposed to be a huge meeting at the studio. Five minutes into that meeting, police swarm the building and send everyone home, the boxed lunches and waters stay.
We sit in near silence, save for the buzz of the helicopters, muffled by the empty building. I send them home. I think I check in with home as well. “I’ll be home soon,” I say, somewhat automatically, not knowing what time it really is.
I go back to the media center. The sun is setting. There are more flowers. And candles. It smells like my grandmother’s house— then a blur of interviews and faces.
A steady stream of relatives walking down that smooth road, between the bustling media center and the shell-shocked Hooter’s. Relatives who are weeping, while others continue to dial cell phone numbers and leave messages for those who are still in the store. And then repeat.
Somehow it’s 10:30 pm. I check with my friends, who are all still working. I bring them water from the car, borrowed from the studio meeting. We drink. And stare out over the parking lot, our noses thick with the smell of fresh-cut flowers and exhaust from the trucks.
We don’t talk much. Minutes pass. We shake our heads and say goodbye and fade into the early August night.
‘What about your friends Grandpa? Did you ever shoot anyone? Did anyone ever get killed? Did you ever see anyone get killed?
‘Ay, mijo…it’s a hard thing. We stayed together to help each other, sometimes that was when we were unloading fuel, sometimes it was when we were marching. And sometimes it was when we were being shot at. It’s a hard thing to be like that, but your friends help you through it –and when you get back, so does your family.’
‘And now, after, Grandpa, how do you feel?’
A sigh. A glance to the horizon. A smile.
A before and after story. We are all living with that; each and every one of us now has that split.
I know loss – by no means even close to what happened to my Grandfather or the families on August 3 – but the losses, sometimes sudden, other times lingering all share a commonality: Friends and sentiments shared. That there were friends who were there, that’s what got me through.
Now take that feeling, that friendship and the attempt to make it better, and spread it across this city. That’s where we were and where we are once again.
It’s been a hard year; our before stories will tell tales of non-socially distanced fundraisers for teams at Walmarts and stores around town. We will smile when we remember that there were no cops at the doors of stores, with their cars parked in front ‘just in case.’
Tales of carelessly walking into a store, and not worrying about anything. Shooters. Viruses. Nothing.
We will tell the stories – pause – and look into the distance.
And I know what I’ll see: Hundreds of El Pasoans gathered, praying, placing candles and hoping beyond all hope that just one more person would make it out of that store alive.
It’s what my Grandfather saw. Hope in the face of evil.
And we will smile, and then start telling the ‘after’ story.