Active shooter drill prepares us for the worst so we can safeguard the best

To the Editor:

Across the vast expanse of humanity’s literary canon, no sentence is more hauntingly beautiful than the one which concludes Dennis Sullivan’s 1989 account of our hometown:  “There was a railroad town here once, and its name was Voorheesville.”

To the extent that Voorheesvillagers moonlight as character actors in a living history museum chronicling “the good ol’ days,” failure to read Sullivan’s “A Sketch of the Beginning of A Nineteenth Century Railroad Town” amounts to professional malpractice.  That book is our birthright.

My copy was a going-away present, given me by my friend Katie Lyons, whom I first encountered nearly 30 years ago as a peanut-sized fixture in her mum’s arms when they’d retrieve her brother (my boy Nick) at the end of our Serendipity nursery-school day.  The gift was her way of ensuring I could take Home along, no matter where military service might take me.

Gripping and anchoring, defining and defiant, Sullivan’s nostalgic declaration at the end of his book remains a reassuring mantra in my life.  For no matter how my circumstance or the world about me has changed in the 15 years since I left home, my annual returns are always greeted by faces, streets, routines just as I’d left them.  Voorheesville remains the only place where I feel entitled to a sigh of relief.

And so it was with horrified indignation that I reacted to the headline with which friends sullied my Facebook newsfeed: “Active Shooter Drill Held at Voorheesville High School.”  It took me a second to process the significance of the word “drill”; afterward, I felt so unsettled and affronted that I didn’t dignify the link with a click.  The mere implication that an active shooter might ever roam the halls of my alma mater was grotesque and offensive — an indefensibly profane, sensationalistic insinuation that such a crisis could befall and disturb the sanctity of my hometown.

I resolved to ignore the story, but my stupid newsfeed was persistent and, when I encountered the headline a third time, curiosity got the better of my earlier hostility so I finally just read it.  Sheesh.    

Funny how knowledge has a way of dispelling snap judgment.

What I encountered in the news reports was an account of consummate professionalism and orchestrated community mobilization, all in the service of securing student safety.  I’m not sure why I’d expected (hoped for?) an Orwellian demonstration of the police state’s hysterical fear-mongering — but I suppose it’s because that possibility was so much easier to stomach than the reality: that exercises such as these are necessary in this day and age, even in a neighborhood I clutch at the center of my heart.

Times like these challenge my faith that Home remains a bulwark against the ills of society.  Rationally, I know that denying today’s peculiar dangers is to choose to be blind, but it’s just so hard for me to acknowledge the societal shifts permeating the cul-de-sacs and soccer fields of my boyhood.  It’s as though I confront my own vulnerability if I acknowledge any threat to the community that kept me so sheltered and safe.

I’ve never been good with change, a phenomenon for which Voorheesville’s static dependability is likely responsible.  I was reflecting on that when I recalled an event from years ago.

Griping to my former classmate Brendan Shields about the removal of a tree at the corner of Main Street and Voorheesville Avenue — passionately indicting that reckless disruption to downtown Voorheesville’s feng shui — he responded with a bored shrug: “If it bothers you so much, why don’t you just go talk to Sean’s dad?”

Snapping out of my revelry, it dawned on me:  That’s right!  I could just go talk to Sean’s dad.  Which is to say the mayor.  Which is to say the head of local government — the guy who watched me grow up, perform in school plays, read my school newspaper columns, perhaps even caught a glimpse of any of my many strikeouts on the Kiwanis Little League fields.

With this realization in mind, over the weekend I again picked up Sullivan’s book.  And it’s true: a world I never knew has ceased to be.  The Grove Hotel is gone.  Harris House exists only in old photographs, and proof of the one-time existence of a village ice-cream parlor or cider mill survives only in the pages of “Railroad Town.”

I feel a pang when I consider that just as I must accept active shooter drills at Clayton A. Bouton, so, too, did a long-gone community devoid of electricity and paved roads have to confront new dangers posed by the forward march of technology and time.

And yet —  the mayor is still just our neighbor.  And although Sullivan’s account is of a town’s century-long evolution, so much of each and every page feels distinctly familiar.

Yes, the Voorheesville Train Station might be gone, but Main Street persists just as surely now as it did 100 years ago when that train station still bore fares.  Smith’s Tavern still accommodates the clientele who’ve affectionately called it Smitty’s for generations, and the community’s rallying to preserve the LeVie Barn rivals any venture recounted in Sullivan’s chapter on the incredible, enterprising collaboration of the turn-of-the-century entrepreneurs who built our small village.

There are dangers in this world, and those who would hurt the villagers with whom I feel a critical kinship.  But acknowledging them does not undermine the critical specialness of Voorheesville; rather, it ensures it.

Preparing for crisis will, in such happenstance, enable Voorheesville to mitigate and weather it — keeping our neighborhood a reflection of Sullivan’s words, rather than the news networks’ shorthand for some unspeakable tragedy.

Last week’s active shooter drill emphasizes just how special is our little piece of the planet, where we have not had to endure such tragedy, have not had occasion to mourn the senseless loss of neighbors, have not been forced to reconcile the lingering 1950s flavor of our town with the harshness of a modern society straining under increasingly routine spasms of violence.  By preparing for the worst, we equip ourselves to safeguard the best.

So thank you to all the people involved in those drills.  Thank you for your foresight and proactivity, your preparation and professionalism, for preparing Voorheesville to weather new threats so it can maintain old hopes.

To the stewards of our community — Superintendent (my former teacher) Brian Hunt and Albany Sheriff Craig Apple, local government officials and school administrators, volunteers and first responders — it’s rewarding in and of itself to use the pages of my beloved Enterprise to thank you all for safeguarding the place that makes me “me”.

History has been kind to Voorheesville, which in turn has been so generous to me.  May we keep it safe and in our hearts, adapting to meet new challenges while retaining the local ethos that binds us.  And should Mr. Sullivan ever publish an updated account of our village, I risk a small editorial suggestion to his closing line.  “There was a railroad town here once, and so it remains forever: Voorheesville.”

CPT Jesse Sommer

Fort Bragg, North Carolina

Editor’s note: CPT Jesse Sommer, who grew up in New Scotland and is a Voorheesville graduate, is an Army officer at the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

For coverage of the active shooter drill, turn to page 4 or go online to www.altamontenterprise.com.

More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.