A zoo gorilla.
A race truck.
An alligator in a resort's man-made lake.
All were central players to recent individual tragedies involving young boys garnering national media attention.
We don't live in a Pollyanna world like the 1940s and 1950s. Having a good time now in a nightclub means being a sitting duck for any crazed gunman. Horrific attacks that were previously limited to the Middle East are growing in intensity in our cities.
Oh we had our share of California tragedies growing up. I remember a Sirhan Sirhan gunning down presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, the Juan Corona killings of 25 migrant workers and the Zodiac killer. I never forgot the horrific Sept. 24, 1972 crash of the F-86 jet into Sacramento's Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor during a child's birthday party, killing 22 persons and injuring 24. I remember the ad nauseum coverage of the April 1973 Roseville railroad explosions caused when 18 railcars filled with 6,000 bombs detonated, injuring more than 350 people.
Having been in the Modesto area since 1966, I remember the tragedy of the Mary Vincent case in which rapist Larry Singleton hacked her arms off with a hatchet; and the 1974 Tommy Lauver kidnapping at the former Beno's (now Walmart Supercenter) on McHenry (worked on by the late deputy Larry Hersey of Ceres). There was a bizarre case where a deranged soul shot to death a female driver on Oakdale Road at Briggsmore Avenue because she was "smacking her lips." There was the 1972 Steven Stayner kidnapping, then the 1997 Cary Stayner slayings of three tourists. There was also the deceptively kindly looking Dorothy Puente who was prosecuted as Sacramento's Death House landlady and her nine victims.
More of our innocence was lost in 1984 - the year my first child was born - when there was a massacre at the McDonalds at San Ysidro. Crazed gunman 41-year-old James Huberty shot and killed 21 persons and injuring 19 others. In January 1989 there was the Cleveland School shooting in Stockton where five children died and 32 were wounded. Then came Columbine in 1999 with its 13 killed. I remember the Good Guys hostage situation in April 1991 in which over 40 hostages were rescued. A total of 11 were wounded and three killed.
We were horrified last year to learn five females, including Dr. Amanda Crews, were killed in a house in an upscale area of east Modesto.
No place is immune from tragedy - not even elementary schools. My former elementary school, Catherine Everett in Modesto, was the scene of a grisly 2009 incident in which a deranged woman slit her skull open with a ginsu knife before police shot and killed her.
I'm sure the parents of two-year-old Nebraska boy Lane Graves never believed a trip to Disneyworld would end in a nightmare as an alligator dragged him underwater as he waded in a foot of water of a manmade lake at the Grand Floridian resort last week. "No swimming" signs were posted in the man-made but not a single clue alligators infested the shallow pond.
The mother of a 3-year-old boy never thought a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo would result in her nightmare. The child fell 15 feet into the gorilla enclosure and was dragged around by 400-pound 17-year-old gorilla "Harambe" until it was shot to death by zoo officials to prevent the boy from ultimate death.
But I know for sure that Brandon and Melissa Hendriks had no idea that a fun outing to watch the off-road Baja 500 race in Mexico would end with their son being tragically killed.
As I mentioned two columns ago, I personally know the Hendriks family and had been around Xander for several years. The Hendriks lived on Mars Hill Street in Modesto where Xander grew up. Brandon served as the youth pastor of Community Baptist Church in Waterford. Melissa reached out to my wife when she was going through her fight against leukemia. On one occasion, they joined us for camping above Sonora. When Brandon took a job in San Clemente, the couple offered to sell me their house but it wasn't for me. Although they moved to Orange County, two of my children maintained contact with them. My daughter Jennifer has photos with Xander taken last year at their home.
The Hendriks are fine, honest, decent, fun-loving and loving people. Xander was an exceptional child, and lived richly in his short time. He was inquisitive about science and always active. To show you where the child's heart was, Brandon tells this story about Xander: "He also had a contagious passion for Jesus and would often become concerned about how many people he would meet that didn't know who Jesus was. Once on a plane the person sitting next to him asked who his favorite superhero was. Xander's response was quick, ‘Jesus!' The man furled his brow and replied, ‘Well Jesus isn't real.' Xander has brought up that man many times since then, asking if we could pray that he would learn that Jesus is real."
It was surreal to witness Xander's death in the national media. CBS and Fox were most interested in the story because the driver of the truck was Vivant Corporation CEO and Utah millionaire Todd Pedersen. It's heartwrenching to watch the accident and its aftermath on Youtube. One video shows the souped-up truck thundering down the dusty Ensenada road before taking the fateful corner too sharp and too fast before rolling down an embankment. Mass pandemonium breaks out as the crowd realizes that people have been struck. One video shows Melissa's bloody shin stripped of flesh. Dazed, she's hobbling around and being restrained from walking over to her lifeless son as people are working in vain to save Xander. She screams at the horror before her eyes. Pedersen is visibly distraught, kneeling, possibly in prayer or in shock at what has occurred. Brandon is kneeling over Xander's body, calling for him to pull through, "You can make it, you can do it." Unseen angels were attending them.
I grew angry when I saw the armchair quarterbacks freely dispensing insensitive and sometimes hateful things about these wonderful people. After CBS LA TV broadcast a story explaining that the Hendriks had forgiven Pedersen - Christians are indeed called to forgive - one contemptible individual suggested grace was only granted after a generous payoff from the driver.
It's really no different from those folks who condemned the zoo for shooting the gorilla with bullets rather than a tranquilizer dart. Zoo representative Thane Maynard told reporters, "That child's life was in danger and people who question that, or our Monday morning quarterback or second guessers don't understand that you can't take a risk with a silverback gorilla. They're very big ... This child was being dragged around. His head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing." After 10 minutes the decision was made to kill the gorilla, believing a dart would have taken too long to drop the large creature.
Many on social media came down on the child's parents. The mother accurately noted that, "As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child ... accident happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place."
Had the Ohio boy died - and I know some value animal life above people - critics would have condemned the zoo for not taking preventive measures. It's one of those cases of "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Some unfairly judged the Hendriks, blasting them for putting their child at risk. What they don't know is Brandon did realize they didn't want to be in harm's way and were attempting to get to a safer spot when the truck came around the bend and lost control. To say they shouldn't have been at the race is to say that parents shouldn't take their children to a beach because of the waves, or take their child to an amusement park because people die on rides, or board a plane because they can crash, or go to a soccer game where people have been stampeded, or attend a hockey game because flying pucks have killed people. The Hendriks went, believing things would be relatively safe. Fear could stop us all from doing anything enjoyable in life. Life, of course, presents risks at every turn.
I know all too well how people assassinate with words, shooting from the hip. They shoot first and ask questions later. At the risk of opening up old wounds, I experienced people's salvo during the Gary Condit scandal involving intern Chandra Levy. Facebook and Twitter didn't exist then but I was hit with letters because, as editor of Condit's hometown paper, I called for Condit to resign. I felt the scandal was damaging Condit's reputation and ability to remain connected to his constituents. On national TV I also defended wild tabloid claims that Carolyn Condit was "an invalid." I also never once said I believed Condit had anything to do with Levy's disappearance which, of course, would later be revealed as a murder pinned on Ingmar Guandique, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. Still a man from Miles City, Montana angrily wrote me: "The Washington Police should be very angry with all of you who claim Gary has had something to do with a crime. I hope the case is solved and he is found innocent of any crime here. And then I want him to sue all of you for millions."
Imagine being Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in today's toxic environment. Despite my disdain for Mr. Obama's policies, I would have been thrilled to meet the president in Yosemite over the weekend because of the respect of the office. That stands in contrast to Michael Sandford, 19, who was arrested Saturday in Las Vegas after he tried to pull an officer's gun at a Trump rally to allegedly kill the candidate. (Sandford is in the country illegally, his visa having expired.) Or contrast that to the San Jose thugs who picked trouble with Trump supporters, or the man who rushed Trump in Ohio and defended his actions by calling Trump a "bully," "coward" and labeling him an "opportunist" who is "willing to destroy this country for power for himself." That's how assassins think.
Social media is dripping with self-righteousness and a total lack of civility these days. According to a Powell Tate and KRC Research survey, 45 percent have defriended or blocked someone online because of uncivil comments or behavior.
What's happening in our country is ugly. We need to take a deep breath - all of us - and for once accept some sage old wisdom from the scriptures to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger." And while we're at it, wear a cloak of compassion and reason more often than not. Wouldn't our country - at least the internet - be a more civil place?
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org