My friend Jeff and I sat on the thick green carpet in Tim’s bedroom, distractedly considering a baseball card trade. I was trying to stockpile the Oakland A’s base-stealer extraordinaire Rickey Henderson cards; Geoff favored Dwight Evans of the Red Sox.
Downstairs, several of our classmates smoked cigarettes while sitting on the floor of the screened-in porch–if nearby, neighbors might have noticed mysterious plumes of smoke rising above the half wall. Others commandeered shots of vodka from the liquor cabinet; moans emanated from the living room where others watched VHS porn. Things were happening quickly.
Suddenly Tim burst into the room, waving a revolver around and laughing maniacally–all the more terrifying due to his cracking, pubescent voice. He spun the chamber of the revolver, probably like he’d seen on TV. He pointed it at my head and pulled the trigger. Same thing with Jeff. I was only kidding, he told us, as our eyes filled with tears. I made sure it wasn’t loaded.
That was 1994; I was thirteen years old.
Fast forward to now. With the crazy news cycle and our limited attention spans, our home country may still be collectively grieving/praying/protesting/amassing bump stocks in the aftermath of Las Vegas, and all the while hundreds more Americans have been gunned down. Somehow, it almost feels outdated to be talking about a mass shooting from several weeks back–this is how numb we Americans have become to these massacres.
Nonetheless, after Vegas, I started thinking about all of the exhortations from friends and family for us to stay safe on our journey. The irony is not lost on me.
We’ve been comfortable walking narrow cobblestone streets at night through eclectic Old Town Tbilisi, with its crumbling facades, wrought-iron balconies, and arbors with thick grape vines looking like gnarled limbs. We’re boarding packed public transit–busses, yellow minibuses, the subway–and while we feel claustrophobic, we’re not fearful of mass carnage.
And this doesn’t mean I’m naive; I know being a traveler can make you a target in many places and shit happens. But in general–and by adhering to a reasonable level of vigilance–we’ve felt just as safe–or safer–in places as far flung as Nicaragua, Thailand, Portugal, and now Georgia.
A little over 10 years later after the incident at Tim’s house, two of my teacher friends and I were walking home from a neighborhood pizza place on a balmy, early autumn evening in Louisville. A man yelled from a bus stop across the road. Hey! Let me borrow a cell phone! We shook our heads and kept walking as the sun sank towards the horizon. Within minutes, we found ourselves under a corner streetlight with a gun pointed at our full bellies, just one block from the refuge of my newly purchased home. We dropped the little cash we had on the pavement–only 14 dollars–and walked away hoping hot metal wouldn’t rip through our spines. He never did need to use our cell phones.
In 2011, I opened the newspaper and learned about one former student’s fate. He was shot to death by Kentucky state police officers after allegedly attacking them after breaking into his own grandmother’s home.
In 2013, I was helping out at a friend’s family farm in central Michigan over Labor Day weekend, picking sweet corn and anticipating some local beers, a cookout, and rocking chairs on the porch later in the evening. Several huge reports thundered; we’re pretty sure we heard–or sensed–the bullets tear through the rustling stalks. Within 50 yards, it seemed. We learned later that the neighbor was shooting at targets with a high-powered rifle, whose bullets certainly were not stopped by whatever his backdrop was.
In 2014, a student at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, where I taught English for seven years, shot a revolver into a crowd near a third floor stairwell, allegedly aiming at a classmate who had duped him on a transaction with counterfeit money. An innocent bystander named Javaughtay ended up with a bullet in the abdomen, but fortunately he survived.
In 2015, another former student at Fern Creek killed his best friend while playing with a handgun. He’s in the midst of serving five years for reckless homicide.
I can’t imagine what this catalog of events might look like if I wasn’t a white male from a privileged background, given the countless trauma-filled stories I’ve heard from my less-advantaged students over the years.
We aren’t about to put our guards down while on the road…But from afar, thinking about my own confrontations with violent crime–and the unwavering repetition of mass shootings–reinforces my belief that it is an absurd position to accept our incredibly lax gun laws and discount how freakin’ violent American society is. According to the World Economic Forum, here are the safest countries in the world. The US is ranked 84th, far behind places like Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and just about every country in Europe.
A few questions: What is it about travel that triggers calls to stay safe, versus facing the fate/luck/chance/danger of day-to-day living? Do you have any reflections on well-being and travel, either positive or negative? In what places (domestically or internationally) have you felt most secure or vulnerable? Why?