Good Friday, 1981 (April 17, 1981)
I woke to the sound of sirens. It wasn’t all that unusual. I lived in a dorm, over 1200 freshmen and sophomores learning to conduct their lives independently of their families. They got drunk a lot and did stupid things. On Friday and Saturday nights, there would often be a fire truck and ambulance parked out in front. Girls passed out from too many beers and other drinks from the unofficial progressive parties held secretly in rooms up and down the corridors. Guys, whether angry or exuberant, punching out the glass in the breezeway that connected the residential rooms with the lobby and cafeteria and public spaces of the building. It happened often enough, the broken glass, that the university finally put up sunny yellow panels of what looked like whiteboard material in the breezeway, replacing most of the glass. But even with that on weekends as you met the pizza delivery man in the lobby, almost certainly behind the beater car with the pizza sign would be the fire truck, lights spinning crazy shadows into the night. The fire station was right up the street, and even though the dorm was probably their best customer, at all hours of the day or night, you could hear the sirens as they sped off to another emergency.
But this was odd. It was early Friday morning and the trucks were there wailing, and a lot of them too. Far more than usual for a typical dorm problem. But I had to get to class and so I had no time to spend looking out the window at the trucks below. Inorganic Chemistry, 8:00 AM, my only class on Fridays and then I was free for the day. It was always a rough start – who wants to go to class at 8:00 AM on Friday, especially Chemistry – but according to where my name fell in the alphabet I had to register dead last and got stuck with classes that no one else wanted. So I went off to take a shower and get dressed.
I had the dorm room to myself, these days, so I could turn on the lights at least to get ready. My roommate VeeVee who had moved in in January was no longer there. She would always sleep in, she was an Art student who had only afternoon classes and she would laugh at me with my bright and early heavy duty science schedule but I’d laugh too. We got along great. My first roommate had moved out after the first semester and I dreaded getting another person and having to get used to their habits all over again but VeeVee and I hit it off immediately. So much so that I didn’t mind when her boyfriend came up from Florida and lived in VeeVee’s bed for several weeks, not even when I’d come back from class and be locked out of the room for a while so they could finish whatever they were doing in there. We just got along. I’d come home and the room would be rearranged and I’d be in awe of what she could do with 2 beds, 2 desks and a long dresser we shared. I grinned at her a lot, happy that she was my roommate.
But she wasn’t anymore. After Dana left to go back to Florida, VeeVee, being lonely, called her cousin to come get her for the weekend. I remember her cousin as a slight man, almost elfin, big eyes in a small face, and brown floppy hair. VeeVee packed a small bag – they were taking his motorcycle and she couldn’t carry much – and then they were out the door, and she looked happier than she’d been since Dana had gone. But they never made it. The motorcycle was hit in an intersection. The cousin was killed instantly, the handlebar went right through him, and VeeVee was throw off the back and shattered nearly every bone in her body.
I had no way of knowing this, when VeeVee didn’t return after the weekend, no one I knew that I could call to make sure she was okay, but finally her aunt phoned me mid-week. She didn’t say much, I think it was her son who was killed, but she said she was coming for VeeVee’s things and that VeeVee was in intensive care and so I couldn’t even go see her. The aunt came the next evening and silently packed everything up. I was there, telling her what belonged to her niece. And then, she was gone. VeeVee was the only friend I had made, being a freshman unaccustomed to meeting new people, and now I had no one to talk to. I missed her.
But I needed to forget about that and get to class. I took the university bus to get to the main campus and the bus stop was right were the fire trucks were still parked, sirens no longer wailing but lights still flashing. Odd, I thought, that’s really odd. And then, as I was waiting for the bus, wondering if it even could get to the stop with all the trucks partially blocking the street, I saw a guy I knew slightly from German class last semester. Herr Stevens or something, we always went by our last names in class, like proper Germans. I didn’t remember he lived in my dorm but then again he lived on the other side, the dorm being shaped like an H with the lobby and cafeteria in the middle and people on the west side tended not to mingle with people on the east side like me. He looked strange though.
And then I realized: he was crying. Not just crying, but sobbing uncontrollably, just short of screaming. And he was in his pajamas. And then suddenly he began running, barefoot, as fast as he could, blindly into the woods across the street. And after him came others, all guys, running, barefoot, sobbing and screaming, their eyes terrorized and blank, running blindly into the woods. I didn’t understand and was frozen, trying to imagine what was going on, and then the bus came, weaving around the fire trucks, and I went off to class.
An hour later I was back. The fire trucks were gone by then and all seemed normal. I went into the bathroom and there was a sign: "Call your parents!!! Immediately!!! There has been a shooting and people were killed!! It was announced on the Today Show and they mentioned a University of Michigan dorm but not which dorm! Call and tell them you are ok!!!"
My legs went weak. It was our dorm. People had been shot and killed in our dorm that morning. That’s what I saw, Herr Stevens and the others running from the killing, or maybe the sight of the aftermath of the killing this morning. I called my parents. “Come get me now”, I demanded. “Why?” my mother asked. “Why can’t you just wait until this evening and your father will pick you up on his way home from work like we planned?” “There are people dead in my dorm. I can’t stay here. I can’t.” “No you need to wait, we are not going to make a special trip, just for this. He’ll be there at 5:30, just like we planned. Goodbye.” I didn’t know what to do. VeeVee was gone and I couldn’t go home and there was no one to talk to.
I went down to the cafeteria, not to eat because I couldn’t, but because there would be people there. I heard things: a guy, a loner, had a single room, didn’t come out much, ROTC guy, had guns in there but no one knew, was maybe cracking up like people did right before finals, usually they’d jump off the bell tower not throw a smoke bomb down the hall and fire at anyone coming out of their rooms to investigate, two guys dead, one a Resident Advisor, blood all over the hall carpeting and walls, it would be cleaned up over the weekend, new carpet would be laid, maybe the university policy about not having to take exams if your roommate dies would affect the entire hall where the two guys died, maybe the students from that hall will be able to move into another dorm because they might not want to go back to their rooms ever again, there would be a counselor coming that evening for anyone having to stay in the dorm that weekend but since everyone mostly was going home for Easter the counselor would be there only this evening.
So that was the story. I didn't hear much of anything after that. There was a small story on the Detroit TV stations that night. “Look!” I said to my parents, pointing to the TV. “I told you that’s what happened this morning!” “Yes, we believed you,” they said, and that was that last I ever spoke about what happened Good Friday morning.
I saw VeeVee again 4 or 5 years later. She was in transit between Maine and Las Vegas, had had a baby girl and a bad relationship, looked good despite the scars, but was still in a great deal of pain. She didn't mention her cousin. I lost track of her, after that.
The year after the shooting, a student lounge at the University of Michigan’s Bursley Hall, the dorm we lived in, was dedicated to Douglas McGreaham and Edward Siwik, the students who died that day.
Even though it's been nearly 30 years, every Good Friday, I think of them.