WEST POINT, N.Y.- One of the reasons West Point and Marist were two of my favorite places to go last season was because of the relatively tranquil, peaceful drive, away from the New York City traffic bedlam that has surely claimed some of my quickly disappearing hair in the last couple of weeks.
So Friday, I was excited for my first trip to West Point of the season, one of my favorite college basketball venues for many reasons. I got out of school, made my way through New Haven and hopped on Rte. 34 that goes through Orange, Derby, hugging the Housatonic River for a great view, going over the Stevenson Dam for a fantastic view
. It runs adjacent to Lake Zoar, actually a reservoir, as it meanders through a small piece of Oxford and Monroe, finally running through Newtown before it connects with Interstate 84, which takes you into New York state.
Twenty-four hours ago, even 12 hours prior to me writing this, you'd never heard of Newtown, Connecticut unless you lived there. Now you have. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, it is now a town that will live in infamy.
After some consternation, I decided to take the same route Friday afternoon, listening to reports of the unimaginable school shooting all the way to West Point. Other than a couple of news trucks and a helicopter overhead, there wasn't much unusual in driving through Newtown Friday, I got on I-84 without much trouble, and made it to West Point just in time for sundown.
For someone who has struggled his whole life with sports and its overall meaning
in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a good day.
As word started to trickle through my school Friday morning about what happened in Newtown, I saw a colleague who lives there. He didn't know much, but his daughters - both older - were safe. As time went on, and the reports got worse and worse (with social media, there aren't many secrets anymore, even for minutes), you could sense things weren't quite right in our school. It was quieter than usual, and people- students included - didn't quite know what to do or say.
Our soccer team had played a game in Newtown this fall, and Newtown had gone on to win the state championship just three weeks ago. But I don't know of anyone in our school that knew anyone directly affected. And, yet, like people around the country, most were stunned into silence.
As the school day drew to a close, there was one place that seemed relatively close to its usual self, and that was the gym. A kickball game went down to the final out, with both teams sweating and hollering. There were smiles, laughs, fun. All temporary, of course. The kids walking out of the gym and into their weekend looked like anyone else.
I briefly debated going home to watch television Friday. But what the hell was that going to do?
I listened to radio, both local and national, try to make sense of the situation while on the road. Newtown was called "a sleepy hamlet", a "bucolic, classic New England small town", neither of which was really correct, but if it helps the narrative, whatever. They misidentified the shooter, speculated on his motive, degenerated into a gun control debate.
"Who fucking cares?," I yelled into the radio.
Yet I didn't stop listening. Soon the President of the United States was nearly breaking down talking about the Connecticut tragedy, which was quite surreal.
And I was going to a basketball game? Why?
It was more than a touch ironic that I was heading to West Point, the place that helped me last winter with the same questions
I was asking Friday. The famous Douglas MacArthur quote greeted me when I approached the Hollender Center.
But as I watched Army, and some of the future leaders of our military (and probably nation), warm-up for their game against Maine, I thought about that MacArthur quote: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory."
However, no matter how many seeds are sown, these guys aren't going to be able to protect us from a crazed lunatic killing random young kids, are they?
We want to believe that we can control our lives, that things will mostly make sense. If we work hard, we'll be successful. If we do the right things, we will be rewarded. When something jars us out of that order, we're left where I was driving through New York on Friday afternoon, wondering what our small place is on this planet, and how miniscule our existence really is.
Army and Maine observed a moment of silence before the national anthem, and the Black Knights went out and basically crushed the Black Bears from start to finish. Army- using a new up-tempo, keep throwing bodies at them style that Zach Spiker implemented this season - buried Maine in a barrage of superhoops that turned a 16-15 game into a 53-28 lead at the half.
The Black Knights almost hit 100 points in regulation for the first time since 1988, but came up four points short as the game slowed down with massive subs. In all, Spiker played 10 players 10 minutes or more, and a whopping 17 in all. Army is now averaging more than 90 points per game at the Christl Arena as they look to make noise in the Patriot League and for its first winning season in two decades.
It wasn't a big crowd Friday, and there wasn't a huge cadet presence as they prepare for finals, but my seats were in the row behind a few. They cheered on their classmates, made some jokes (the cleanest ones I've heard this season) about Maine and their struggles, ate some popcorn, and generally seemed to have a good time before the buckle down with their studies. I noticed how young they seemed to look to me, knowing that in a few short years, they may be leading troops into a hostile situation somewhere halfway across the globe (I pray not, but human history doesn't have a great track record).
They could use a couple of hours off, couldn't they?
The Army players always sign autographs for kids at the end of home games, and as the children that played at halftime waited for the Black Knights to come out of the locker room, they found a hoop lowered to just a few feet in the corner of Christl Arena. An impromptu dunk contest commenced until they were politely told to stop.
No matter, about that time, the victorious Cadets made their way out and spent a good 10-15 minutes signing things. It struck me that these kids weren't all that much older than the ones that were helplessly murdered in Newtown.
The Army team talked to the parents and friends who had visited them, shared a couple of laughs, said their goodbyes, and are probably back to the realities of cadet life by now.
I'm still watching people on my television try to tell me how horrible the tragedy is and why it happened. Apparently, the way they do this is my descending on the town en masse and searching for any minute details about the person who went nuts, as if finding his motivation will open the time-space continuum and allow us to change history.
Or asking little kids and town residents who have lost children of friends how they feel, that's how we start to "heal" or get back to "normal" I guess.
The truth is there is no answer for every Why in life. There is no logical way that the sane human brain can comprehend 20 six-year old children being executed, just as there's no way to understand many of the other tragedies, both big and small, that befall our life and the lives of people we know.
No matter how much the people inside your television sets tell you it's possible.
I guess we can lock ourselves in a room, keep our kids chained to us at all times, eliminate anything that might be remotely dangerous to us or others. Some of the talking heads might give that as the answer as well.
As I close the curtains and get ready for bed after a long day, I think of that kickball game in gym class. I ponder the cadets and the joy they had watching their friends and classmates play. I drift to the little kids and the dunk contest, and the Army players with their families.
I smile. And I feel a little better.