Poe Elementary Bombing
Suffer the Children
While it may seem like a signature element of our times, the murder of schoolchildren is, sadly, nothing new. It’s how we cope with such tragedies that’s undergone a sea change.
Like everyone else in the world, Susan Cooley was riveted by the events of Friday, December 14, 2012: the first news reports of a tragedy in the hitherto unknown hamlet of Newtown, the horrified faces of parents arriving at Sandy Hook Elementary, the briefings by law enforcement as grim details of the carnage began to emerge. Like everyone else, she marveled at the heroic efforts of the school’s teachers, both the living and the dead, and choked up when she heard the shaky voice of Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy saying, “Evil visited this community,” at a vigil in a Newtown church. Even though Cooley’s home in River Oaks was about as far from the crime as you can get, she knew every excruciating detail about the massacre, like all of us, and she knew this because the story played in an endless loop on the cable networks, over and over for days. “I thought it was hideous,” she said. “Thank goodness we didn’t have that much press coverage in my day.”
One particular image—of a teacher leaning down over her pupils, who covered their eyes to block out the horrors around them—haunts her. “If I was a child—not one of those children, but any child—that would make me afraid to close my eyes. It’s great that they had them hide their eyes, but if I was a child, I would think, ‘Oh my goodness. Hide your eyes means something very strange, very weird has happened.’ To me, ‘Hide your eyes’ should mean, ‘Okay, you’re about to get your birthday present.’”
And the still photos of the children marching out of the school in a terrified line—the same photos, again and again and again—also captured Cooley’s attention. She knew those children’s fear. She’d been one of them.
Tuesday, September 15, 1959 began like any other in Beaver Cleaver’s America. Dozens of well-scrubbed boys in cuffed blue jeans and girls in long, puffy dresses converged on the tony, live oak-lined grounds of Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School. It was a sunny morning at the school just north of Rice Institute, and like so many sunny mornings in that halcyon era, students walked to school unchaperoned or pedaled there on Schwinns they didn’t bother to lock.
Some kids likely debated the results of the season’s first college football poll. Unveiled the day before, it was topped by the LSU Tigers who, led by future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, would trounce the Owls from nearby Rice four days later. In celebrity news, Bing Crosby and his wife finally had a girl after five boys, Mary, who would grow up to become an actress and eventually shoot J.R. Ewing on TV. Bonanza, the first network drama in living color, had premiered the Friday before, and though few of the kids had color TVs, that probably didn’t stop them from cheering on Little Joe in his daring escape from the evil Virginia City mining moguls. Perhaps some of the Poe children were reenacting his abduction from the Ponderosa.
A steady stream of gloriously finned and handsomely grilled Lincolns, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs rumbled to the curbs of Hazard Street and gracious North and South Boulevards, their radios oozing musical caramel on the order of “Sleep Walk,” “Sea of Love,” and the latest Gentleman Jim Reeves hit, or maybe crackling with reports of Khrushchev’s first meeting with President Eisenhower on American soil. The portly premier had come to gloat; the day before, the Russian space agency had crash-landed an unmanned rocket on the moon.
Among the children walking to school that morning were next-door neighbors and best friends Carolyn “Honey Bear” Wolters and Susan Cooley, both seven years old, along with Cooley’s two sisters, Mary and 5-year-old Louise, a.k.a. Weezie, daughters of soon-to-be-world-famous heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley and his wife Louise, a nurse. The families lived on South Boulevard near Woodhead, half a block from the school.
And he drove up too, in an ivory-and-green 1958 Chevy station wagon, wavy-haired Paul Harold Orgeron, along with his 7-year-old son Dusty. Orgeron was a 47-year-old thrice-convicted safecracker from rural Louisiana, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in the flesh, a man very much out of his element in the well-to-do Museum District neighborhood. On this day, the elder Orgeron had it in his head that he was going to enroll his tow-headed, freckle-faced son in Poe that morning, come hell or high water. Time was of the essence, he said; the term had already been under way for a week.
The bell rang and announcements began. Poe’s principal, Ruth Doty, then in her fortieth year of working in Houston schools, got on the loudspeaker to lead the children through the Pledge of Allegiance before reciting her famously sing-song, falsetto renditions of the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…
At that moment, in Jennie Kolter’s second-grade classroom, Cooley, Wolters, and all the other students donned pairs of imaginary gloves, each holding up ten little fingers as they recited the ten words of the Golden Rule: Do! Unto! Others! As! You! Would! Have! Done! Unto! You!
And so the school went to work. For Bill Thomas, then a coin-collecting, model plane-building, Mickey Mantle-worshipping 11-year-old, this was a tense morning. His sixth-grade class was deep in the throes of the dreaded Stanford Achievement Test. To this day, Thomas can still hear his teacher Miss Huff prowling the classroom in clicking heels, still see her, hands clasped behind her back, ultimate proctor-style.
Meanwhile, in principal Doty’s office, Orgeron’s attempt to enroll Dusty had run into a few snags. The recently divorced, unemployed tile-setter had been gently rebuffed by Doty’s secretary, Juanita Weidner, after Orgeron could not produce any of Dusty’s paperwork. Indeed, when asked, he could not even state his address.
Appearing only slightly agitated Orgeron promised to come back and straighten it all out the next day. But he returned just minutes later, and Orgeron’s method of ending the impasse was something no one could have envisioned. Soon, the whole country would know about Orgeron’s method, thanks to that greatest of 20th-century inventions, the mass media.
Think of it. Think of how well you yourself know what happened last December 14. You know that the shooting began at about 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time in a hitherto unremarkable village in western Connecticut. It was a place you’d never heard of before—1,700 miles distant, farther than London is from Moscow—and yet within hours you were reciting the events of that morning with an accuracy that rivaled any Newtown resident. You knew that the shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary and that the shooter’s name was Adam Lanza. You knew precisely how brutal the carnage was: 20 schoolchildren and six adults murdered, the shooter’s mother, the shooter himself.
People in Brazil, where a makeshift memorial appeared on Rio’s Copacabana beach within hours of the shooting—26 black crosses in the sand—knew all this too. They knew that Lanza suffered from Asperger’s and took medication for a personality disorder. In Moscow, where piles of toys and flowers hugged the gates of the American Embassy, they knew he had an obsession with video games and that Lanza’s mother owned a Bushmaster rifle, a Sauer, and a Glock. Pakistani children lighting candles on the sidewalk in Karachi had seen the faces and knew the names of the children they were honoring—Noah, Charlotte, Emilie, Jack…
There’s something comforting about a world where, within minutes, those paralyzed by grief can find millions of fellow mourners willing to share their pain, but something troubling too. For one thing, the massive outpouring of sympathy turns that most private of processes—grieving—into a public event. For another, such generous expressions of solidarity aren’t available to everyone, not to those whose losses, however terrible, are too commonplace to capture the public’s imagination.
But for those who face tragedies uniquely unthinkable, the kind that bring 20 sets of parents to their knees in a school parking lot, things are different. There are grief counselors to fly in from around the country to offer community support, mountains of Teddy bears, memorial services with presidents, performances at the Super Bowl, and—oh yes—the thing that catalyzes these strange afterlives in the first place: the major news organizations. They come with satellite news trucks, bright lights, boom microphones, and reporters from places far, far away, almost as far away as 1959 itself, when just 88 percent of all households owned a TV, probably a black-and-white one, with four channels that went off the air around midnight.
At around 10 a.m. on the playground at the rear of Poe Elementary, Orgeron and his son approached second-grade teacher Patricia Johnston. “Teacher, read these,” said Orgeron, handing Johnston two notes.
Johnston had trouble deciphering the chicken-scratch that Orgeron, himself a second-grade dropout, handed her. Meanwhile, he mumbled about “the will of God” and “power in a suitcase.” Looking down at the case, Johnston made a chilling discovery: there was a doorbell-type button affixed to the bottom of it. She became even more alarmed when Orgeron began insisting that she gather all her students around him. Johnston instead asked two students to fetch principal Doty and school custodian James Montgomery, and ordered the rest of the kids to go inside.
“The door was open and I saw Mr. Montgomery go down the hall,” remembers Bill Thomas, a sight that distracted him from his Stanford test. In those pre-air-conditioned days, all the schoolroom doors were left open so that fresh air could circulate from the relatively cool corridors.
In Mrs. Kolter’s second-grade classroom, Carolyn Wolters noticed that her teacher, for some reason, had left and joined the charged conversation on the playground. What’s more, she saw something even more unusual through the door: her elderly principal running down the hall, big black orthopedic shoes flying. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s weird. Mrs. Doty running?’”
A third teacher, Julia Whatley, had also become aware of the commotion and gone outside. According to police accounts, once Kolter arrived at the scene, Johnston handed her Orgeron’s letters, even as the man kept talking about his suitcase full of power and how he “needed to get to the children.” When principal Doty and Montgomery arrived, Whatley and Johnston, now, according to Johnston, fearing that Orgeron had something “horribly obscene” in his suitcase, hurriedly whisked more of the children inside.
Doty told Orgeron to leave the campus at once. Orgeron pointedly ignored her. “I have to follow the children to the second grade,” he reportedly said, waving around the suitcase, which was later estimated to have contained something horribly obscene indeed: six sticks of dynamite primed to explode at the switch of an external trigger.
Nobody is certain what happened next. Montgomery, the custodian, may or may not have tussled with Orgeron, preventing him from entering the school with the suitcase (a blessing if true, because otherwise the ensuing explosion would have been even more catastrophic).
At that moment, two second graders, John Fitch Jr. and William Hawes Jr., were on their way to recess. Excited by the chance at some free time, they bolted ahead of their classmates and raced toward the playground.
Back in Mrs. Kolter’s classroom, second-grader Susan Cooley flushed the toilet.
And then came an eardrum-shredding boom. It was so loud it could be heard for blocks. The playground erupted in fire and flame. John Fitch and William Hawes ran straight into the blast and were killed, as were Montgomery, both Orgerons, and Kolter. The blast stripped off every bit of Doty’s clothing and broke her leg, but miraculously, she survived. Among the 19 people taken to Hermann Hospital were two boys—Robert Taylor and Earl Fogler—each of whom had to have a mangled leg amputated.
According to a Time magazine report a few days later, one of the boys was heard to sob: “That mean old man! That mean old man! Will somebody get him? Will I need a crutch for my foot?” And then the 7-year-old asked a question that rings out even louder today, post-Sandy Hook:
“Why did he have to do it?”
To Bill Thomas, it sounded like someone had fired a shotgun right next to his ear. The blast shattered windows and blew a clock from the wall, injuring one of his classmates.
“Our room faced the courtyard, and when the blast went off, all the glass from the windows blew into our room,” remembers Doug Young, then a Poe sixth grader. “I don’t know how many kids got cut.”
“It was just a huge explosion,” recalls Carolyn Wolters (now Shepherd). “One of the boys in our classroom yelled out something about the water heater blowing up and we all walked into the hallway.”
Susan Cooley blamed herself: “I remember wondering what I had done to make such a mess. Had I flushed the toilet too hard?”
Thomas feared something far worse than a boiler room or toilet disaster: He believed Poe was under Soviet nuclear attack. He remembers his teacher telling the kids to “duck and cover” under their desks. Even with his ears still ringing from the blast, Thomas heard what he now believes were screams coming from the playground. At the time, however, he thought they were “bombs whistling down on us from all around,” a legacy of a childhood steeped in nuclear paranoia and war movies.
Then, to Thomas’s relief, the fire-drill bell rang. (There was a different bell to signal nuclear Armageddon.) “We’d drilled that enough and the teacher knew that drill plainly, so she lined us up and walked us outside,” he says.
Parents were slowly gripped by horror. Louise Cooley was hosting a meeting of Brownie parents at her South Boulevard home when the bomb went off. “They were building the [Southwest] Freeway when it happened, so I don’t know why none of us thought it was that,” she remembers. “I ran to the school. I think I was the first one there on the playground. And there they all were on the playground. It was terrifying. Horrible. Dreadful.”
A few years ago, Susan Cooley wrote a partial memoir of the event. “Teachers in shirtwaist dresses were herding children, teachers were blowing whistles,” she wrote. “‘Oh, just a fire drill,’ I thought. I fell in line, like a zombie, marching to the front of the school just like we did every Friday at noon.”
But this was Tuesday, not Friday, and “the faces of the teachers were ashen, some crying. ‘Hurry children,’ one said. I moved along with the others to the hall just outside the principal’s office. I dared not look at the faces of my friends. I had a secret. I had caused whatever this terrible thing is.”
It’s not uncommon for children who witness horrific scenes to mistakenly take responsibility for them. The difference of course is that in 1959, 7-year-olds like Susan Cooley weren’t always disabused of these notions. There were no grief counselors at the ready in 1959, no one to help the children process or reframe the experience. In fact, 1959 seemed to have only one piece of advice to offer those who witness the unimaginably awful: ignore it.
“We were marched right back to school the next day,” Susan Cooley recalls. “We had a substitute teacher and we just went back.”
“We didn’t have any counseling, or anything like that,” Louise Cooley remembers. “We just sent them right back to school.” Cooley says that not until three years ago did she discover that her daughter once believed she’d caused the explosion, when Susan gave a speech on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.
Doug Young was an 11-year-old on the day of the bombing. He says that he did not attend Poe the next day, or, he believes, ever again. His family moved to California just a few weeks later. The move was directly precipitated by the bombing, he believes, although he can’t say for sure, because the entire subject was off-limits in the Young household. “I didn’t even think about it for years,” says Young. “My parents never brought it up at all.”
“I don’t think it was spoken of much at our house either,” says Carolyn Shepherd, whose father had come by his stoicism the hard way: he had been a Navy Corpsman attached to the Marines at Iwo Jima. “My parents didn’t sit me down and have a long talk with me, other than, ‘Mrs. Kolter is in heaven and you will have a new teacher.’”
To our ears, meeting children’s questions and fears with wholesale denial seems cruel, not to mention a big reason why the 1950s gave way to the 1960s. It’s one more instance of Beaver Cleaver’s America being far more perplexing and troubling than we’re often led to believe, and it raises some interesting questions. Are the times we live in now really messier and more painful than times past, or do they only seem so because now we admit the pain? What if the tragedies themselves are a constant? What if the only thing that changes is our reaction to them?
America’s first school massacre took place on a hot summer afternoon in colonial Pennsylvania in 1764, when four warriors from the Lenape tribe stormed a schoolhouse and shot schoolmaster Enoch Brown dead, before tomahawking and scalping all 11 of his pupils. The deadliest school massacre in the country’s history, the Bath Township School bombing in central Michigan, is nearly as far removed from today’s world. It was there, in 1927, that Andrew Philip Kehoe, a disgruntled former school board treasurer who had recently been defeated for reelection as town clerk, killed 38 elementary schoolchildren and six adults, including himself. (A 39th child died three months later.) Kehoe had spent months rigging his farm, the town school, and his truck with dynamite, and on a pleasant day in May, detonated as much of it as he could. An entire wing of the school was destroyed; the carnage might have been even worse if a 500-pound bomb planted in the other wing had also ignited.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Red Cross set up shop and spearheaded the recovery effort, staffing phone banks, updating lists of the injured and dead, helping facilitate burials. Newspapers covered the event for days on end. The bloodbath vied for space with the joyous news of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and more than 100,000 outsiders drove to the small town to gawk, offer sympathy, or both.
After the Poe bombing, Bill Thomas, Doug Young, and the other sixth graders were taken outside toward the rear of the school. This proved a mistake. “Once I exited the building, just outside the door approximately 30 feet, I saw a person’s leg; probably an adult leg with the center bone clearly severed,” says Young. “No blood and when I looked up I saw smoke off towards the asphalt play area.”
That was ground zero; a playground transformed into an abattoir. A passerby said that the injured children looked like animals that had been field-dressed.
“We walked right into the massacre,” says Thomas. “Even at that age, I was thinking, ‘I don’t think they meant to do this,’ just sending us right out there. There were bodies out there, unidentifiable hunks of flesh, big gobs of ... something.”
“I was a nurse but nothing will prepare you for that,” Louise Cooley says. “There they were on the cold ground. There were pieces of what I believe was the bomber up in a tree. Finally people started coming out of their apartments and I was calling for them to get blankets. And then I guess ambulances started coming.”
Soon, the schoolyard was bedlam: police and fire teams, gawkers, frantic parents, screaming, injured kids.
“All at once, a sea of parents rushed through the heavy double doors to my right,” Susan Cooley wrote. “In their frantic search to find their children, they looked over the rows of young faces … I could see it on their faces, brows together as they mentally sorted children, ‘No, no, no,’ and then when the correct child [registered], the face softened as the parent grabbed the child from the line-up, squatted down to eye level, and held the child too close.” Bill Thomas recalls that one mother was in such a hysterical state, she ran right past her uninjured child.
Dr. Denton Cooley was driving downtown to a meeting of the board of the Bank of Texas; he first heard of the Poe bombing on his car radio. The initial reports indicated that there was no word of survivors. Cooley, then in a thigh-to-ankle cast because of a broken kneecap he’d gotten from a kicking horse, U-turned and headed to Poe at top speed.
“When I got down there, they told me that Johnny Fitch had been taken to Children’s Hospital,” Cooley remembers. (The Fitches were close friends of the Cooleys.) “So I got back in my car and headed to Children’s Hospital. When I got there and went to the emergency room, they told me that Johnny was dead. So I had the unpleasant task of having to tell Mr. Fitch that their little boy was dead.”
In the chaos, some kids slipped away into the neighborhood. Doug Young went to a friend’s house and stayed there till four o’clock—six hours after the blast. “When I came back to my house in the afternoon, my mom and dad were standing on the sidewalk near the house,” he says. “I didn’t know that they had been through such hell not knowing where I was. So I got hugs, and then a spanking after that.”
Susan Cooley recalls that she and Shepherd heard a radio report announcing that their beloved Mrs. Kolter was dead. “We just looked at each other, you know, we were second graders. You can’t even comprehend it,” Shepherd recalls. “I think we were all in shock.”
Around sundown, Young and his parents drove back to Poe to inspect the scene. A crater six inches deep had been blasted into the blacktop on the playground. A maple tree had been stripped bare, its leaves replaced by bits of clothing and strips of human flesh.
“Firemen were climbing it and washing all the blood off,” Young says. “Skin was still hanging from the tree. I remember that.”
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, parents whose children had been murdered were ministered to directly by grief counselors. But soon, people nowhere near Newtown were seeking psychological or spiritual counsel for the ordeal they’d suffered, having watched wall-to-wall, 24-hour coverage of the massacre on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the like. And everyone else was encouraged to participate in the “national conversation” that the event had occasioned, a conversation that included tips for parents on how to cope with the fear that their kids’ schools were no longer safe, not to mention their kids’ fear of the same thing. Curiously, this conversation never included a discussion of the media, whose obsession with Sandy Hook is what stoked these fears in the first place.
“We weren’t bombarded every single day with these images, these photos that are just everywhere of these teachers who were screaming and the children,” Susan Cooley says. “What we saw [with Sandy Hook] were just these images over and over and over again. There’s no way to really shield the children from that. That’s the difference between now and then. Our televisions were black and white and rarely on except for particular shows. There wasn’t this constant news feed of human interest stories that border on voyeurism.”
“I think we live in a totally different world; a social media, networking, 24-7 media world, and today it’s global,” says Dr. Susan Lipkins, a psychologist specializing in school violence. And while our modern-day connectivity effectively traumatizes larger and larger swaths of the population, she says, it can also spur quick action. The Red Cross, the United Way, and other organizations set up funds for the affected families almost overnight, scholarship funds were established for siblings of the children killed and children of the adult victims. In Washington, perennial political adversaries suddenly decided that the time was right to bury the hatchet, at least temporarily, and discuss gun violence. Would any of these things have happened without the constant, obsessive gaze of the mass media? “We all owned Katrina,” says Lipkins. “Everybody felt Sandy, everybody felt Newtown.”
No one felt the Poe bombing. Certainly, it was covered by the newspapers and wire services and by evening news programs anchored by the likes of Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley, but in those days, television was only a sometime thing, and the Internet a distant dream. Poe would not send the entire nation into mourning. Only those in the bomb’s immediate vicinity would grieve, and sometimes not even them. The Poe students did not go to memorial services or perform at the Super Bowl. They got a single moment of silence.
“That was it,” says Bill Thomas. “And our teacher; she didn’t want to talk about it. She wasn’t abrupt about it. She just would say, ‘Listen, there’s nothing we can do about this now.’ And that epitomizes the entire attitude of our culture back then. ‘Nothing we can do about it, it’s over.’” (In 1960, HISD named new schools after two of Poe’s heroes—Kolter and Montgomery. As for Poe itself, still an elementary school, there is no memorial, no plaque, no reminder of the bombing.)
“Did we need processing? Did we need counseling?” Susan Cooley asks. “I am sure we did, but that was not the norm then, and can you overdo the processing and scare the children even more and make a mess of it? I am sure you can.”
Still, it seems likely that Cooley, who grew up to become a nurse practitioner specializing in pediatrics, would have benefited from some form of professional help. “I have probably told the Poe School bomb story thousands of times,” she says. “As a teenager and young adult, I was probably still trying to work it out in my psyche somehow. In retrospect I do realize that. I have a colleague with whom I worked at the medical school a long time and she would take bets with some of the other people. We’d get a new group of medical students every six weeks, and she would say ‘I wonder how long it’s going to take before Susan tells the bomb story.’”
For her part, Carolyn Shepherd believes that her parents’ decision to sweep the bombing under the rug might not have been such a bad approach after all. “Quite frankly I don’t know what discussion I would have if something like that would have happened to one of my children,” she says. “You would discuss how terrible it is, but to belabor it and keep talking about it? I am not sure how helpful that is. For a child to get their fears out is obviously helpful, but I don’t remember a fear of going back to school.”
“The positive side of [going back to school] is that good, solid normal routines are helpful,” says Dr. James Garbarino, a Loyola-Chicago professor. “It’s just, if that’s the only thing you are doing, and you don’t give any opportunity to debrief, clarify, and have kids ask questions, you might get them functionally back in the swing of things, but you might also be sowing seeds that may blossom in some kids that you could have prevented if you had added that [psychologically nurturing] element to the response.”
Regardless of how immediate and nurturing the response, any child who witnesses first-hand the violence of a Poe school or Sandy Hook will be profoundly affected by the experience. Still, Garbarino believes that 85 percent of such children return to normal functioning within a year, and there are continuums of psychological and physical proximity to the event that help determine outcomes. In terms of recovery, it’s better to hear an event than to see it, it’s worse to lose a sibling or best friend rather than a kid you barely knew. And the psyches of the children before the tragic event matter too. Those who have just lost a pet, say, or are in the midst of family strife or dealing with ailing grandparents tend to fare worse. “The event tends to piggyback on that,” Garbarino says.
No matter how hardy they are, however, almost all children will have short-term stress responses, he says: crying, an increased sense of dependency, insomnia, and “traumatic play”—such as reenacting the event with action figures, blocks, or Legos. And even for those kids who ultimately adjust quite well, such events often affect life choices years down the line. Garbarino gives the example of author Stephen King, who as a 4-year-old witnessed a freight train obliterate a playmate. King has since said that while adults have told him that he was traumatized as a child, he now has no memory of the event and that it had no bearing on his career as America’s greatest master of the macabre since, well, Edgar Allan Poe. Still, Garbarino can’t help pointing out the frequency of monstrous, bloodthirsty machines in King’s body of work. “Maybe he’s still working that through,” he says. “The point is, some people find creative outlets for it. Some people just can’t get through it. Others are like World War II veterans. A lot of them drank.”
All three of the Cooley girls who were at Poe that day followed their parents’ footsteps into medicine. After a 30-year career as a nurse practitioner and faculty member at the University of Texas-Houston medical school, Susan Cooley now works for Redi-Clinic, a local company that helps people find affordable health care. Her older sister, Mary Cooley Craddock, was a medical illustrator for many years before becoming a painter of commissioned portraits. Weezie Cooley Davis lives in Los Angeles and is an ophthalmologist. (Interestingly, none believe the bombing shaped their choice of career.)
Both Doug Young and Carolyn Shepherd say that the Poe bombing prepared them well for tragedies yet to come. Young served in the Air Force in Vietnam, where he regularly saw body bags loaded onto planes. He believes that because of Poe he was more unfazed by that sight than other airmen. This January, he randomly emailed Bill Thomas—a stranger to him now as well as back then—about the tragedy. He says it was the first time he had talked to anybody about the bombing in 53 years. Since he and his parents left for California, however, Young has never returned to Houston.
Shepherd became a wedding and event coordinator and, more recently, a teacher in her church. “My mother died of a heart attack when I was 13,” she says.” I had some family members die in a plane crash in 1987, and I have a daughter who became cripplingly ill real suddenly and is now very disabled. So for me it was just my first experience with sudden tragedy, and I can’t say it caused emotional damage.”
One Poe student who did claim to have been hugely affected was a fifth grader, Larry Schacht, who later played a prominent role in an even greater massacre. According to Sherrie Tatum, his high school girlfriend, he felt angered and betrayed by society for its seeming lack of compassion for the Poe victims, some of whom already suffered from generalized atomic bomb angst, he said. During long phone calls with Tatum, Schacht would often rail against Poe school officials. He told her that he and his classmates, who had been weaned on duck-and-cover drills, believed that Orgeron’s bomb was The Bomb, the one they’d been so fearful of, the one signaling a nuclear attack. According to Schacht, no one ever bothered to tell the kids the truth, an omission that incensed him.
By his early 20s, Schacht was an intravenous meth addict, alternately manic and paranoid, and seemingly destined for an early grave. (Garbarino says that such self-medicating is not uncommon among sensitive survivors of childhood trauma.) But then, in the ’70s, Schacht cleaned up his act with the assistance of some mysterious benefactor, who paid for Schacht to attend medical school. Back home in Texas, Schacht’s friends were pleasantly astonished to hear that their lost cause of a friend was, by 1977, a doctor in a San Francisco hospital. Then word trickled back that Schacht had left the States to become a medical missionary in South America.
Guyana, to be exact, where he served as camp physician at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project for his benefactor, the Reverend Jim Jones. It was Schacht who mixed the grape-flavored, cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid concoction that Jones’s congregation consumed in their infamous act of mass “revolutionary suicide” that claimed a total of 918 lives, including Schacht’s own.
Then again, to pin all those deaths on the bombing is a stretch. Schacht was troubled in other ways. His parents were both Jewish and Communist in Cold War Houston, which made the family the target of everyone from the Klan to the FBI. Lots of Schacht’s contemporaries fell prey to drugs despite a trauma-free past history, and Jones’s religio-Marxist idealism might have appealed to Schacht no matter what school he attended.
One definition of trauma, Garbarino explains, is “something from which you never recover.” But it is something that must be dealt with. It’s in the dealing that the seeds of salvation or destruction are sowed in survivors, and the media barrage that such events often engender is a very big part of that dealing, at least these days.
The repetitive drumming of these stories into the heads of those with no personal connection to the event, says Susan Lipkins, teaches us, if nothing else, that such horrifying acts might be committed anywhere. “So we do have to worry about them,” she says. “We do have to concern ourselves with school safety and with treating people’s mental health.”
James Garbarino believes that parents especially shouldn’t get too caught up in media coverage of such events. Kids, he says, “need their parents to get back into the routine with them, but a lot of times their parents get caught up with the TV coverage and their own upset. They become psychologically unavailable at the time kids need them the most. We often tell parents now, ‘Your kid needs you. Your kid needs dinner at six if that’s when you eat dinner.’”
When it comes to the grief process for trauma survivors and victims’ families, Lipkins sees the ever-present media as a mixed blessing. “It could possibly further traumatize them in some ways, but on the other hand it could help them work through, because they get to tell their stories over and over.”
She confesses to being troubled, however, by such spectacles as the recent Super Bowl appearance by the Sandy Hook children’s choir. “They are now in the international spotlight. I am sure that is exciting for them, but is it good for them? Is it appropriate? Are we washing away the memories of the tragedy by giving them new memories of something exciting?” Lipkins believes the children’s time would be better served spending time with their families, “mourning, working through, going on playdates, participating in athletics, getting as back to normal as possible.”
“I am horrified by all of that,” says Susan Cooley, referring to the Super Bowl and other performances. “I cannot imagine that that’s the right thing to do. On the other hand, the kids coming together and having an activity may help them process. But I don’t think you want to create stardom out of tragedy.”
In the end, the success of a trauma victim’s afterlife can really only be measured by one thing: how they move on from the event. Just a year after the Poe bombing, Mary Cooley Craddock remembers seeing Robert Taylor and Earl Fogler, the two boys who lost legs in the bombing, on a surrey. Each was using his one good leg to pedal it around the school grounds. Fogler went on to build artificial legs for Muilenberg Prosthetics, the same Midtown Houston firm that made his own in 1959. In later years, he built a new one for Taylor.
As a child, Bill Thomas, like Larry Schacht, had been terrified of nuclear conflagration, something that seemed distant and abstract until the Poe events. “When the bomb went off, we all just realized, this is what it’s going to feel like before the lights go out,” he says.
Thomas says that he was certain he was doomed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and that he had frequent mushroom-cloud nightmares in his early 20s. He attended Rice University and graduated from the University of Texas, dabbling in photography all the while. Eventually, he got an MFA in photography at the University of Houston, although he now works as a land man in the oil business.
When he was assigned an art project, the Poe bombing was the first theme that popped into his head. “I was just trying to free-associate and examine whatever passed through my consciousness. And that was right there front and center, just ‘Hello.’”
The resulting work, Suicide, is a series of both somber and blackly humorous photographic portraits of Thomas killing himself in a variety of Rube Goldbergesque contraptions, and Thomas openly traces its inspiration back to Cold War terror and how the bombing made it seem all too real. (Suicide gained plenty of acclaim and exposure; it was exhibited not only here at the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Blaffer Gallery, but also at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Aspen Museum of Art and elsewhere.)
Several years ago, a young woman helped Thomas gain some perspective on what he witnessed at Poe. The student was from Iran, and she had lived through some of the worst of that country’s war with Iraq. “She would go to school every day and see this,” he says. “Bombs were going off at night, bombs were going off during the day, she’d step over bodies on the way to school, and I’m pretty sure there weren’t any shrinks around to debrief her about it.”
Still, Thomas does not believe that he ever attained the “closure” one hears bandied about so much these days. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it, really. Every time there’s a Columbine, it’s the first thing that pops in my head.”
“These traumatic memories do not spontaneously decay,” Garbarino says. “If those memories have not been processed, even decades and decades later, they can seem as real and intense as they were at the time.”
Aftereffects of such traumas can lay dormant for decades, he says, giving the example of his own mother, who grew up in London during the Blitz. “To hear her tell it, they just went about their business. However, I’ll never forget, when CNN was covering the bombing of Baghdad in the first Gulf War, for the first time in decades, she was sobbing. That bombing was bringing back her childhood experience, which in typical English fashion—‘Stiff upper lip’ and all that—was never mentioned until she saw the stones of a building falling.”
Trauma, as Garbarino puts it, truly does seem to be something that you never recover from. Still—
“That doesn’t mean it has to be debilitating,” he quickly adds.
Earl Fogler, Bill Thomas, Doug Young, Carolyn Shepherd, and the three Cooley girls are all proof of that.