This is from my personal “archives”, so I apologise to those who have read it before. I had another article to write this morning, and I didn’t have time for two. I think it’s appropriate to share here though because it’s the reason I struggle with anxiety over my trip to the US. It’s what I was thinking when I wrote last Wednesday’s blog.
Tasmania lost its innocence on April 28th 1996.
I don’t think about it much, but I’ve got friends now who weren’t there, and friends who were barely children themselves when it happened, and although it seems like a very long time ago, today the memories seem unusually fresh. Maybe it’s time to remember.
I was in the kitchen over near the fireplace, and Tony and his mate Matt were sitting at the table when he told us. That was the first I knew, and that felt weird because with something that big you’d presume you’d know already, not second or third hand like that. You’d presumed that in a place this small, in a place like Tassie that you’d hear the helicopters, and that would make it feel real. And you’d presume that Matt would have told us as soon as he came in, not half an hour later as if he’d forgotten. Maybe he wasn’t sure of the truth of it either.
But Matt told us. He said it in that edge-of-your-seat kind of voice; that awed voice of “we see this in movies, but this is our thing, our very own Tassie thing”, even though it was never something to be proud of.
“You know what? I heard this guy pulled a gun at Port Arthur, and he’s shot about twenty people”.
We’d presumed the report was an exaggeration. They always are. Twenty people dead is too many, and this is Tassie. Nothing happens in Tassie. Nothing like that.
But it did. We heard later about how the helicopters kept coming and coming, not enough to get everyone to hospital in time, and people kept dying.
Twenty became an understatement, not an exaggeration.
I wasn’t there, of course, at the hospital. I can only imagine the fear and the confusion and the blood and the stench of death and dirt. I can only imagine the fear at the site, and having to pick up the bodies, of waiting for the phone calls from family members who’d been out for the day and not come home. I can only imagine the grief.
By the time we went down it was some three weeks afterwards, after the memorial services and the news reports had burned the images into our brains; after those poor little children and their Mum had been found and buried along with all the rest of them, people whose names were becoming as familiar to us as our own.
The drive felt normal, fun. We sat in the back of the car and chatted about the weather and about church and about life and haircuts and bread and things, until there on the road we saw first bunches of flowers and then the police tape over the driveway where the first victims had fallen, and we fell silent together.
As soon as we entered the Port Arthur historic site we felt the grief. It hung over the place like a cloud, even though the day was barely overcast. I didn’t know before that day that emotions could cling to the sides of a place like mist to the valley. I didn’t know that I’d walk into a place I’d been to numerous times before, and just by being there I’d want to cry.
I felt like an intruder at someone else’s funeral. I didn’t know anybody who had died, although in months to come I’d meet people who’d known them, and I’d meet people who’d been there only the day before, or were meant to be there except for an illness or a broken-down car that maybe saved their lives.
We all wanted to cry, but if we did we looked away and wiped our eyes so nobody saw us, because it felt wrong to feel a grief that wasn’t ours, and nobody knew how to act.
There were kids with us too, and their natural curiosity and questions mirrored our own unspoken ones. We followed them to the sea of plastic-wrapped flowers outside the café, and we laid our own tributes as well. The first flowers were decaying now, and went all the way up to the police tape, but the sea of them went for twenty metres or more. There were flowers upon flowers upon flowers, and cards, and teddy bears for the little ones, an outpouring of grief from a community who didn’t know anything else to do, or any other way to feel. People like us, who traveled a hundred kilometers or so because that day we were all part of the same community.
Maybe we should have allowed ourselves to feel it more than we did, but at the time we didn’t know. Nobody tells you how you’re supposed to feel when 35 people are murdered for no reason in a place you’ve always considered safe. We felt relieved that we were safe, and guilty for crying when we had nothing really to cry about. We were alive, after all, and our families were safe. And we felt guilty for that as well. We wanted to come and feel with people who felt, and mourn with those who mourned, but beyond our pointless presence and our prayers there was nothing we could do.
Nothing could prepare us.
We prayed for the families of those who’d been killed, and for the people still in hospital. We prayed for the people who would always have to live with the memories of what they saw that day, and we prayed for those in the hospitals where there weren’t enough beds, and for the people who had to fly those helicopters that carried the survivors home.
We drove home with thoughts unspoken simply because there were no words for what had happened on that day. A place of so much suffering in history had again become a place of so much suffering. There was only one thing we knew for sure: On the 28th April 1996, God cried.
The Port Arthur massacre was the catalyst for massive gun law reform in Australia. There was an amnesty on all automatic and semi-automatic weapons after this. Handguns are banned, although I’m not sure if it was because of this or not. It’s such a different reaction to the US, where people seem to respond to mass-shootings by arming themselves.
I can’t say whether either country’s response to guns is right or wrong, but I do understand that this is where my fear of guns comes from, and why it’s taken me a while to really believe that I won’t be shot dead at LA airport the minute I get off the plane. Memories – and feelings – are funny things.
So what you think about guns, about unexplained fears that resurface when you thought you were over them, about feelings you’re never quite sure why you have? Talk to me. I’d love to listen.
Hi Megan — events that happen close by and affect many, many people (even if they don’t harm us personally) leave indelible memories indeed. I lived in Berkeley/California when the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the whole area in 1989. Although I found only a couple of broken cups that fell off a kitchen shelf, I went through many of the inexplicable and intense emotions you describe so well. Neighbors and friends, everybody had a story — and each story hammered my personal memories deeper. I felt more connected to he people of the San Francisco/Bay Area.
Well, and guns — I have a deep-seated antipathy. The laws controlling them in the US are singularly inadequate, due to an all-powerful gun lobby. But don’t be afraid of visiting! Don’t let fear stop you of doing something you want to do. I grew up in Germany, and when I was a kid my grandmother would always remind me that a flower pot could fall on my head, if I was too scared to do something I really wanted to do.
Thanks for your stories — I always enjoy them!
Thanks so much for sharing your story of the earthquake – that’s helped a lot. I kind of figured intellectually that my reaction would be considered normal, but until you can share these things you never really know. It still seems odd.
At the time I was so pleased at the government’s hard-line anti-gun reaction, but now, venturing into a place where those hard-line laws don’t apply, I suspect that the government reaction helped bolster my fear.
I don’t know. I know now that it’s not as simple as right-and-wrong, and that is helpful in itself.
And yes, I’m not letting a little thing like fear stop me visiting…although it may well stop me doing stupid things like walking round LA in the middle of the night by myself. but I can handle that kind of limitation 🙂
Sorrow lingers and sticks to a place. We holidayed in Lynmouth a few years ago where in 1952 there was a flood wiping most of the village away. We went to the museum dictated to the disaster and I cried buckets. Later we walked some of the lanes that had been washout, and even after all these years and the rebuilding you can still feel the sadness.
As far as guns go I have mixed feelings, on one hand I hate the things with a passion, but then when I see reports of elderly people being attacked and terrorised, I think I wish they had had a gun and shot the little %^$*&^
Wow, even back from 1952? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – Port Arthur felt sad always, even before the shooting, simply because of all the hardship, death and tragedy the early convicts went through there (it was the penal settlement established by the British in the early 1800s).
And yes re the guns. It’s kind of a pity that it’s those same little old ladies that wouldn’t even dream of doing such a thing.