Coming to terms with Columbine

A carpenter's traveling roadside memorial prompts prayers, tears and unsettling questions about violence in America.

Cover Story

November 07, 1999|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff

It's a curious place for a memorial: a roadside bank on a busy street in suburbia, a sanctuary penetrated by the constant rush of cars and trucks. Yet it is here, on Bay Dale Drive in Arnold, that five young soccer players are struggling to place an eight-foot wooden cross into a freshly dug hole.

"Is it leaning forward too much?" asks one teen-ager as she fills the hole with dirt. Her friends steady the cross carefully, gently, as if it were a Christmas tree already decorated with precious ornaments. Laden with photos, poems and the scrawled love of friends, this cross is a memorial to a young girl. It tells an unforgettable story that began last spring in Littleton, Colo., when America realized just how troubled its children had become.

The cross is for Kelly Fleming. She was 16 when she was murdered by one of her fellow students at Columbine High School. She had long, shiny hair and a newfound passion for the guitar. She was learning to drive, to find her way into the world of adults.

The girls steadying her cross are learning to drive, too. They also have long, shiny hair, deep enthusiasms and friendships. But they know they could suddenly lose everything they love, know it in the way that Kelly couldn't.

These young girls from Broadneck High School have read about Kelly. They've read about Cassie Bernall, and Rachel Scott. They've read about all the kids who were killed in Colorado. Now they are visiting the Columbine memorial crosses that have traveled to their neighborhood. Like so many people across America, they are coming to terms with the tragedy, fitting it into the context of their own lives. They dropped by together, between practice and dinner, to see the tragic relics and arrived just in time to plant Kelly's memorial in the long, somber row of crosses going up in their neighborhood.

The simple pine cross has just arrived here from Texas in the back of Greg Zanis' white pickup truck. Zanis is a carpenter from Aurora, Ill., who built crosses for the dead of Littleton as soon as he heard the grim news. He took them to Colorado last April and set them high on a hill overlooking the high school murder scene. It was a gesture that brought forth a deluge of emotions from the students' relatives and friends, who wrote messages and left mementos that are still taped and stapled to individual crosses.

It also provoked rage. Brian Rohrbough, father of victim Danny Rohrbough, destroyed two crosses that Zanis had brought to mark the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students who had plotted and carried out the nightmare before killing themselves. Shocked that his crosses had been defiled, Zanis removed the rest and left town.

By June, however, he had received hundreds of requests to erect the crosses again, and managed to reconcile with Rohr-bough. He began to travel around the country, accepting invitations to display the crosses, making ends meet on voluntary donations.

Cheryl Carnwath of Camp Blaze, an organization that runs programs to strengthen family life, invited Zanis to come to Anne Arundel County. The Colorado tragedy, she says, revealed the magnitude of the country's problem with alienated teens, with children who do not believe they are valued or understood.

"What Littleton did is spark the fact that this could have happened in Anytown USA," Carnwath says. "It was so unexpected -- both with the affluence of the killers and the length of time they had been angry. It made you think: 'How many other time bombs are we sitting on? How do we recognize and get to them before they explode?' "

She thought exhibiting the crosses would spur communication between parents and children. With Zanis' approval, she also decided to invite folks to build a duplicate set of crosses that would remain in Maryland.

Now the original Littleton crosses have departed. But 13 new crosses, near-replicas of the originals, will stand on the field belonging to Broadneck Evangelical Presbyterian Church until Dec. 9. Two more, signifying the killers, lie on the ground nearby. And people continue to seek out the memorial. They contemplate the withered petals of roses tied to the wood, the sagging Mylar balloons. Every day, more teen-agers and parents inscribe thoughts, hopes and words of comfort on the wooden posts.

The crudely fashioned crosses have a potency that is hard to explain. They speak of waste and of unimaginable loss. They remind you how marvelous and keenly felt are the dreams of youth, how furious its passions. And as the November wind tugs at mementos stapled to the wood, the crosses also remind you of lives that are fragile, shaky, in need of attention and protection. They speak of how everyone has to do a better job.

A sense of order

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