In the 1960s, my younger brother’s long-deceased father, known as Big Burt, shot a black bear by accident.  He and a buddy named Scott had driven in Big Burt’s station wagon out of the city of Portland, Maine, to the woods.  The object was to bag a deer.

Trudging through the forest, Big Burt and Scott happened upon a full-grown mama black bear with her cubs.  Burt, Scott, and mama bear startled simultaneously.  The bear charged.  Scott leapt around to the other side of the station wagon and tried to wedge himself under the car.  Big Burt kept calm, aimed, and stopped the charge.  One shot.

The power of a rifle.

Instead of coming home to our parking lot behind our apartment building with a deer, they brought a bear instead.  They hung it up spread-eagled and a local photographer from the Portland Press Herald came out to take a snap that appeared the next day in the paper.

People came to see just because most people had never seen a real bear before.  Especially city-folk.

In the photo, Burt poses with the bear and his rifle.  That was the first time I was even aware there was a gun in the house.  I never knew, so he must have been pretty good at keeping it under lock and key.  And I never saw it anytime after.

Outside of Big Burt’s hunting rifle, I never saw a real gun up close until I was in elementary school.  A neighbor kid showed up behind my apartment building one Saturday with a small unloaded revolver he’d pilfered out of his Dad’s sock drawer.

A friend of mine and I stared at the pistol.  Each of us took turns gingerly touching it with nervous index fingers, afraid it might go off by itself even though we could see there were no bullets in it.  There was unspoken reverence for the potential power of this thing.  We’d grown up playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians, but this was a real weapon, not a toy six-shooter.  And the difference was not lost on us.  The kid with the gun asked us if we wanted to hold it ourselves.  Neither one of us dared to.

I first personally witnessed the power of a gun on my stepfather’s farm when I was 16.  He was a mink farmer and part of their food blend depended on mixing in ground-up horse meat.  Routinely, farmers who owned decrepit horses with bowed backs would offer up their critters for my stepfather’s use just to be rid of the maintenance.  Occasionally, it would be a healthier horse, but it might have suffered a broken leg.  That was the situation with the first put-down I witnessed.

My stepfather had the massive animal tied securely in the back of a pickup.  He jumped up into the bed of the truck with his .45 pistol and positioned himself alongside me.  Without ceremony, he brought the gun up to within a couple of inches of the diamond between the horse’s eyes and fired one booming shot.

I remember there literally was a second where time seemed to freeze.  Where nothing moved or breathed.  And then that horse went down in a thud.  This powerful creature collapsed without argument.  And that’s when I thought, “Always respect the power of guns.”

School shootings have been around since the 18th century.  The United States of America holds the record for most school shootings.  One of the earliest noteworthy events went down in Florence, Alabama in 1856.

The schoolmaster had a tame sparrow.  He’d threatened his students with death if anything happened to his beloved bird.

A boy stepped on the bird and killed it.

The boy returned to the school the next day.

The schoolmaster waited until lessons were over whereupon he took the boy to a private room and strangled him to death.

The boy’s father went to the school and shot the schoolmaster dead.

Total dead:  2.

They don’t include the sparrow.

As school violence goes, this situation almost makes sense in context and with distance.

But the lesson is clear:  Violence begets violence.

The biggest death toll from violence committed at an American school happened almost a century ago.  It was called the Bath School disaster, but was also known as the Bath School massacre.  The school was situated in the small village of Bath Township, Michigan.

On May 18, 1927, a 55-year-old man named Andrew Kehoe was responsible for killing 38 elementary school children and 6 adults.  58 others were injured.

Andrew was an angry man.  Serving as a school board treasurer, he was angered by increased taxes brought about by the building of the new Bath Consolidated School.  A year earlier, he was angered when he lost an election for township clerk – an office he’d already been serving in temporarily for months.  That same year he got tossed out of the clerk job was when he was notified his farm mortgage was going to be foreclosed on.  That made him angry, too, especially since his not being able to make mortgage payments was at least partially based on not being able to pay higher taxes incurred by the construction of the new school.

Mr. Kehoe had a reputation for his temper and was well-known to be a “difficult” person when it came to school board and personal dealings.

The perfect storm was brewing.

His plot for “murderous revenge” began hatching after his election defeat.

Andrew Kehoe was a trained electrician.  The school hired him over a period of months to do electrical work on their lighting system.  This was during his angry period after he’d lost the township clerk job.

He spent the better part of a year quietly buying up explosives from different vendors and planted bombs with detonation timers under buildings on his farm and underneath the school.  He used a combination of hundreds of sticks of dynamite and over a ton of pyrotol.  Pyrotol was an incendiary explosive that was widely available after World War I as an inexpensive surplus item.  Farmers often used it to clear tree stumps and ditches.  By 1928, the pyrotol surplus had dried up and it was no longer available.  But in 1927, pyrotol was in supply and it happened to work really well with dynamite.

Andrew outfitted his Ford truck with shrapnel and configured it to explode as well.

During the months of Andrew’s preparation, a neighbor noticed that Andrew stopped working his farm.  Completely.  The neighbor thought Andrew might even be suicidal.

Multiple neighbors observed Andrew wiring up his house, but didn’t say anything.

Where was the village?

Prior to carrying out his attacks, Andrew murdered his wife Nellie.

At about 8:45 AM on the morning of May 18th, Andrew detonated devices that destroyed his house and other farm buildings through a combination of explosive blasts and resulting fires.

He’d wired the legs of his horses together so they would not be able to be rescued from burning enclosures.

Volunteers rushed to Andrew’s farm.

Andrew drove away from his burning property in his truck, stopping to tell the volunteers fighting the fires, “Boys, you’re my friends.  You better get out of here.  You better head down to the school.”

Then Andrew sped off.  It took him about a half hour to get to the school.

The initial explosion at the school went off at about the same time as Andrew’s homestead.  Classes started at 8:30 AM.  Andrew’s alarm-clock timer went off 15 minutes later.  The north wing of the school pretty much collapsed, killing 2 teachers and 36 schoolchildren attending 2nd through 6th grade.

A teacher recounted, “It seemed as though the floor went up several feet.  After the first shock I thought for a moment I was blind.  When it came the air seemed to be full of children and flying desks and books.  Children were tossed high in the air; some were catapulted out of the building.”

Rescuers raced to the school.  A portion of the roof that had crushed people inside needed to be pulled off, but those rendering aid were unable to move it.  One of the men drove to his farm to get a heavy rope and passed Andrew on his way toward the school.  Andrew grinned and waved as he drove by.

As rescuers worked at the school, Andrew drove up, stopped, and used a .30-caliber Winchester bolt-action rifle to detonate his truck.  In addition to injuring more people, Andrew ended up killing himself, the school superintendent and several others nearby.  The truck explosion deaths included an 8-year-old 2nd-grader who had survived the initial explosion and wandered outside.

Timing is everything.

Rescue workers in the south wing discovered 500 pounds of unexploded dynamite and pyrotol that was timed to go off simultaneously with the first blast, but the detonator had failed.  Andrew’s intention was to blow up the entire school.

Andrew Kehoe had some questionable behavior in his past.

Years prior, after his mother’s death, Andrew’s father married a much younger widow.  In 1911, as Andrew’s stepmother attempted to light an oil stove, it exploded and set her body on fire.  Andrew threw a bucket of water on her which caused the oil-based fire to spread over her body.  She died from her injuries.  Neighbors gossiped that Andrew had caused the explosion in the stove.

Years after that, Andrew shot and killed a neighbor’s dog that came on his property and annoyed him by barking.

He beat one of his horses to death when it displeased him.

He had a tendency to set off a lot of explosions on his property.  One neighbor referred to him as “the dynamite farmer.”

He made repeated trips to stores to purchase explosives.

During the time leading up to the massacre, a neighbor witnessed Andrew carrying objects into the school at night on numerous occasions.  The neighbor never thought to mention it to anyone.

Investigators later found a wooden sign on Andrew’s farm with stenciling on it.

“Criminals are made, not born.”

There was a trial to determine if any employees associated with the school had been negligent in potentially identifying warning signs.  Everyone was exonerated.  The jury gave them all a pass because Andrew conducted himself sanely.  There was no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary.

But if you were to ask me with my 20-20 armchair hindsight, I might tend to disagree.

I think all the signs were there.