My 15-year-old nephew appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN Wednesday night.
He looked handsome, strong and serious in his crisp ROTC uniform. Jude Lenamon expressed sympathy for his Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classmates and staff members killed and wounded in the Valentine’s Day shooting rampage, then recounted his escape.
Out of a classroom disrupted by a piercing fire alarm, an orderly walk to a football practice field on the side of the school to await further instruction. Then, the staccato pop-pop-pop a short distance away.
Jude turned to his teacher. “That sounds like gunshots,’’ he said, and moments later hundreds of students were herded on an evacuation route across softball fields and along a six-foot-high fence dividing the campus from West Glades Middle School.
With one narrow opening and panic surging, some kids began climbing the fence. Jude encouraged those around him to keep moving and soon they were in the middle school parking lot, then running toward a main road and on to a nearby Walmart. Jude already had called his mother and now, some 30 minutes after the alarm sounded, he finally felt out of harm’s way and began to look for familiar faces.
More and more law enforcement officers were mobilizing, scrambling to the Walmart, armed with rifles, where they approached Jude in his ROTC uniform, gave him a name and description of a teen and asked if he knew him. Jude did not know the person who was arrested a short while later, but not before the killer stopped for a drink at the Subway inside that Walmart.
My sister, Gloria Lenamon, stood shoulder-height alongside her son, looking tired and glazed on TV. This was a few hours after making the agonizing drive from her downtown Fort Lauderdale office to attempt to reunite with Jude, a Douglas freshman, and her other two sons, Gabriel, locked down at the middle school, and Jonah, locked down at an elementary school about two miles away.
And so the horrific reality of a nation always in the crosshairs of massacres has terrorized my family. The vulnerability, the insecurity came crashing down a quiet, tree-lined road, past the regal roundabout statue of grazing horses and smashed through gates guarding a community of majestic homes.
This is a place where success and status is appreciated, but safety for your family is cherished.
“This is why we moved to Parkland,’’ Gloria told one reporter about the universal parental quest for peace of mind now riddled by the barrage from an assault rifle.
Turns out, even in the tranquil confines of suburbia, life offers no certainty. That’s why my nephews have learned what to do in the face of potential evil.
As chaos unfolded at Douglas, all seventh-grader Gabriel Lenamon knew was that West Glades Middle was under Code Red Lockdown.
“That means you get into the farthest corner of the room away from the door and sit quietly in the darkness,’’ Gabriel told me. “We’ve practiced it before.’’
There, my 12-year-old, diabetic nephew and his classmates huddled for nearly three hours, long enough for his blood sugar levels to begin to drop dangerously low. Essential nourishment was in a backpack across the room, but he was not allowed to retrieve it. Fortunately, a friend offered a candy bar he had squirreled away.
At River Glades Elementary, fourth-grader Jonah operated under Code Yellow conditions – you can sit and use computers, but not leave the locked classroom. Jonah found out what was happening at Douglas when a classmate came across a story on The Palm Beach Post website quoting his brother Jude. “Everything got more frightening from there,’’ Jonah said.
Jude, a take-charge-kind-of-kid since diapers, became a sought-after quote. Since he began stringing words together, we’ve all joked that he would someday be president, or at the least, president of something.
In addition to CNN, Good Morning America, NBC and The Los Angeles Times reached out for Jude’s account and perspective.
As Jude spoke calmly and compassionately to Anderson Cooper, my sister realized that she was hearing the details of Jude’s harrowing experience for the first time.
In the frenzy Gloria and my brother-in-law, Terry Lenamon, experienced while rounding up their imperiled children, little time was available to assess the immediate fragility of their sons’ mental states.
The next day brought indication of developing minds processing the carnage.
Jude, who barely slept, insisted on joining his mother, a Broward County prosecutor, at the state attorney’s office to witness the shooter’s first appearance via closed-circuit TV. “I just felt like I needed to see him,’’ he said.
Jude knew four of the students who died. Two, fellow ROTC members, he considers good friends. A closer friend also fell in the line of fire, but survived with injuries from bullet fragments.
Jude, my sister and my 85-year-old mother were long scheduled to leave on Thursday night for one of Jude’s travel team hockey tournaments, this one in Virginia. Jude decided it was best to go.
“Two different reasons,’’ he told me. “One, to get my mind off things. Two, I’m going with three other friends from school and we’re going to make sure we wear Stoneman stuff.’’
But first, Jude returned to the school Thursday afternoon as hundreds began gathering for that night’s candlelight vigil. Gloria was struck by the students’ needs to simply see each other. “I just walked behind him as he ran into friends,’’ she said. “They all just needed to talk … where they were when it happened, how they got out, how they’re doing.’’
“You can’t live in fear,’’ he said. “I’ll be fine.’’
Gabriel, the middle-schooler, described himself as “a little shook’’ in the aftermath. He’s a bright, thoughtful kid given to spot-on, and often irreverent, observances of family members.
“It’s all complex in my head,’’ he said of the shooting. “You never think it’ll happen to you, but it happened.’’
He’s expressing sorrow for the victims and more empathy for the troubled assailant than might be expected.
Jonah, built like a fire hydrant, rarely without a bruise on his body from running into someone or something, but also adorably clinging to his love of stuffed bears, told me he’s “heartbroken.’’ But he also has focused on the actual violence and is on the record that he’s all in on the death penalty for this especially savage assailant.
This would be a good time to explain that Terry Lenamon, my brother-in-law, is one of the preeminent death penalty attorneys in the state and beyond. Yes, that makes for spirited conversation between spouses, and also has prematurely introduced all three boys to the debate.
Sadly, like many children, Jonah already is too painfully aware of massive violence. Not long ago, while vacationing at their mountain retreat in North Carolina, Jonah remarked to my sister that he liked going to the movies in sleepy Franklin more than back home because he felt safer, an obvious reference to Aurora.
“He’s entitled to be angry at 10,’’ Gloria allowed.
“Jonah says he should die,’’ Terry said of his son’s vocal sentencing of the shooter. “Of course, I’ve heard him say that about Jude.’’
Terry’s comic-like delivery of dark humor is a necessary mechanism for his daily dealings with the worst of humanity. And when you’re in the business of defending those accused of unspeakable acts and facing the ultimate punishment, you’re always on call, even when your own child just escaped a mass murderer. By Valentine’s Day night, Broward County public defenders had reached out to Terry for guidance in preparation of the killer’s court appearance.
So the healing begins. Gloria and our mother heading off to watch Jude skate and score. Gabriel, by Friday, ready to return to school. Jonah talking trash with his brother and cousin while seeking brief respite from the madness at a bowling alley.
Late Wednesday night, as the kids tossed and turned, Gloria sent this text to me and our two other sisters:
Can’t believe Dad lives 90 years only to be around long enough for his grandson to be involved in a massive school shooting! I’m sick to my stomach!
Thursday, we shared thoughts and tears as she drove to the airport for the hockey trip, fresh, harsh reality front and center.
“I guess we have to accept that our universe will be turned upside down for a long time,’’ Gloria said.
And it will be a long time before she drives through the gates of Parkland and feels safe again.