Burns: Coming full circle after Boston Marathon bombings

Monday, April 15, 2013. A radio bulletin. “Bombs have exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.” We immediately reached for the phone and called our son on his cell—“Are you at Copley Square?” “No, I’m at home.” Relief.

A Providence Journal photo

A Providence Journal photo

But hours later we learned that a family friend, Kris, was at Copley Square that fateful day — and caught up in the blasts. Her fiancée took shrapnel to the head. Blood-stained Boston had joined New York and Oklahoma City on the list of lethal bombings. Terrorism at home.

Kris’ close call resurrected my writing career. I knew Boston — my wife and I had lived there. I knew terrorism — eight trips to Belfast. And hopefully I still knew how to write. I’m a 75-year-old grandfather.

I was mad, and I was motivated. By Saturday, I had an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Charleston Gazette, and the Tampa Tribune. On Sunday, a second article appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. Just over a year later, I had poured out 23 articles, accounting for 150 columns in some 70 different newspapers.

My reply to the Tsarnaev brothers, the accused Boston bombers, was a steady stream of articles on American values, terrorism, sports and speaking my mind. That’s what newspapers are for. I took advantage. Hopefully I informed, inflamed, entertained and inspired.

I criticized. “Washington excels in spending the buck and passing the buck — a very bad combination.” “Call me old-fashioned, but somewhere between political promises from Washington and Miley Cyrus twerking America, I sense a moral degeneracy in which truth and good taste are being trampled by greed and garishness.”

I quoted. My uncle’s WW I letter from France, 1918—“I never thought one’s part (in winning the war) would be such a small part; but I found out that it’s true when you say you are going to do your bit—it is a little bit.” Alex Haley—“Find the good and praise it.” The Bible—“Think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, and of good report.”

I created. The disillusioned little boy in my satire on college football “came up to me, a sad look etched onto his face amid all the smudges from his sandlot football game and said, ‘Mister, I only have one question—If all those Wall Street banks were too big to fail, could college football conferences ever become too big to succeed?’ ‘Son,’ I replied, ‘that all depends on our definition of success.’”

I also wrote about Gettysburg, the Scotch-Irish, and ethics—but mostly about doing my small bit—and it is a little bit—in alerting America to major impending problems with money, morals, and murder by terrorism. Indeed, I drilled deepest on terrorism, my original motivator for writing, blending my Belfast experiences with the Boston bombing.

“But Boston is not Belfast,” replied one editor, accusing me of being an alarmist. My answering article said that “alerting was not alarming. Could someone have been alert enough to notice (the accused) removing his bulky backpack with a pressure-cooker bomb and placing it on the sidewalk at the feet of children and adults?…Didn’t Russian intelligence give us a heads-up on the possible terrorist tendencies of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? I’d prefer an alarmist to someone asleep at the switch.”

Another article noted that though the Boston death toll was far less than 9-11, the Marathon bombing “may have driven a nail deeper into our psyche. Why? Because it brought 9-11 down to ground level. Flying planes into tall buildings was so surreal that maybe we never really wrapped our minds around it. But a pressure-cooker bomb left at ground level in a crowd at a sports event? So simple, so common, so easy to identify with that it’s left a really chilling imprint on our national nerve center.” And I quoted the mayor of Belfast’s encouragement to us that “you will draw strength from the suffering and courage of ordinary people.”

Our family friend Kris is an ordinary person—with a severely handicapped daughter. With Kris pushing Kayla’s wheelchair, they were on the verge of becoming the first mother-daughter duo to run the Boston Marathon when the first blast sent a horrific shock wave and shrapnel across their path. Kris let her fiancée, bleeding from shrapnel, grab the wheelchair as they all stumbled across the finish line. They had done their little bit in fighting back. On the first anniversary of the bombing, I finally was able to write Kris’ story, a feature piece with pictures that appeared in 22 newspapers across the country. I had come full circle and so had they.

Dr. James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.

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