Newtown, Conn., wasn’t exactly my backyard.
But it was close, way too close.
So Friday’s unspeakable horror is not just a story, it’s personal.
Newtown is in north-central Fairfield County in Connecticut. When I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s in southern Fairfield County, Newtown was pretty much a backwater, because no one could get to or from there except on clogged roads like U.S. 7 or nasty, winding back routes. More than a few kids took those back roads to cross into nearby New York state, where you used to be able to buy liquor at 18, and wrapped their cars around trees on the way home. The town was bucolic, but with a definite working-class streak, particularly in Sandy Hook, which now has become a household name many wish they’d never heard of.
The interstates changed all that. I-84 east to Hartford and I-684, which made the town accessible to New York City’s literati and young Wall Street zillionaires, made Newtown a much larger, more desirable, and affluent, community in which to live.
I know Newtown, and not just because for five years in the 1980s and ‘90s I worked on a daily paper in Waterbury, Conn., that occasionally covered big or weird news in the town. And not because I know some former colleagues are undoubtedly covering the Newtown story, and guaranteeing themselves a slew of nightmares in the process.
I know it because Newtown was where one of my daughters played in her first travel soccer tournament (and came away with a concussion as a lesson that 9-year-olds shouldn’t try heading a ball until they’ve been taught how).
I know Newtown because my ex used to buy scads of books at the annual sale at the Cyrenius H. Booth Library, a wonderful Gothic structure. Heck, I even played in a Scrabble tournament at the library and wrote 45 elegant inches on the event, only to see a fed-up editor slash two-thirds of it to the floor.
I know Newtown, because it is home to the Blue Colony Diner, off Exit 10 on I-84, one of the few decent all-night places near the interstate. I could tank up on enough coffee there to keep me awake for the hour it would take me to get home to Fairfield, Conn. Or if the coffee didn’t do it, I could sleep in my car in the parking lot and not be disturbed.
Not all my memories of Newtown are good. Some of my kids’ soccer games were played on the lush grounds of what used to be Fairfield Hills State Hospital, a large psychiatric institution that some maintained bore more than a little resemblance to the facility in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
When my kids played soccer on those fields, the psychiatric hospital was long-closed, but the buildings remained, empty and foreboding, a grim reminder of how Fairfield County and Connecticut used to sweep too many mental health problems out of sight.
On balance, though, Newtown was a nice, pleasant place to visit, perhaps have a slightly overpriced cup of coffee or some pastry in the center of town and get away from the crowds and conspicuous consumption much too evident in other communities in Fairfield County.
In recent years, I have not been in Newtown much, although I drove through it several times two years ago when I was helping to take care of my ailing father a few towns away. It didn’t seem like much had changed.
I spoke Friday with Amy D’orio, a former colleague on a Connecticut paper. She and her husband lived for years in Newtown and now make their home in the adjoining community of Brookfield.
We hadn’t talked in the 20 years since she was a fresh-faced but hard-nosed reporter, but when I reached her, her first words, after “my God,” were, “Is this about the shooting?”
You never could fool Amy.
She may live in Brookfield now, but on Friday, Amy’s heart was in Newtown.
Being in the next town, “It’s kind of like your community,” she said.
“It could have been your school.”
Amy and her husband, Wayne, also a journalist, have two children, one in high school, one in middle school. Her high schooler came home to tell her that the school, even though in the next community, had been locked down in the morning, and the principal had gone to every classroom to explain what had happened. She had also received an emergency phone alert from the town about the incident and the lockdown.
As for her 14-year-old son in middle school, Amy said she had decided to let him stay home Friday to catch up on schoolwork. “But he didn’t get anything done,” she said, because the two of them had spent the entire day watching TV news on the shooting. Her son was “devastated,” Amy said.
In decades working on newspapers, I’ve seen enough misery and death, both in Connecticut and Maine, to harden me to almost anything that can happen. I’ve handled the deaths of 28 workers when a high-rise building under construction collapsed; the killing of five in a suburban house by the landlord, who then torched the place to try to cover up what he did (a story, by the way, that had to be covered on the same day as Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building), and, of course, 9/11, the day I would have been in one of the WTC buildings an hour later.
Somehow, bad as all that was, this is worse, much worse.
This is different.
This is my former state. My colleagues and their kids.
This is personal.
Keith W. Hagel is a consulting editor at the Bangor Daily News. A former night managing editor at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, he has more than 20 years of daily newspaper experience in Maine and Connecticut.