82. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (1)

“Life is not a well told tale.  Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed.”

On the day after Martin Luther King day in 1989, terror struck Stockton, California. I was teaching in a small middle school about forty miles away and writing a novel about being a middle school teacher. As I said in post 35, I had decided to have events in my novel mirror events in the real world, not knowing what a trap I had laid for myself. The next three posts are an except from that novel. For factual research, I had only to open the day’s newspaper.


Life is not a well told tale.  Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed. There is frequently no warning, and even afterward, those events may make no sense.

In Stockton, thirty miles north of Kiernan School, at about eleven thirty in the morning, a distracted young loner named Patrick Purdy parked his car outside Cleveland Elementary School. As he left his car, he used a fourth-of-July sparkler to light a pipe bomb in the front seat, and entered the school yard through an unlocked gate in the fence. He crossed a grassy field, rounded a classroom building and waited there watching the playground where the students were at recess. He was wearing a 9mm automatic pistol and carrying an assault rifle.

Purdy had attended that school for four years when he was a child. At that time it had been a white, middle class neighborhood. Now the community was filled with southeast Asian refugees. Most of the children in the playground were Asian.  Purdy had told acquaintances how much he hated Asians.

Two things happened almost at once. The bomb Purdy had left in his car exploded, and the bell ending the recess period rang.  The children turned from their play and ran back toward their classrooms. Purdy raised his AK-47 and calmly, matter-of-factly, fired a burst of thirty rounds into the mass of students. They fell, screaming and bleeding, or silent and already dead.

He replaced the ammunition clip and fired again.  A teacher herding her children toward safety was shot down, and more students fell. Teachers inside the building at Purdy’s back huddled on the floor with their students, but he did not turn in their direction. He walked to his right, crossing in front of them, still firing into a school yard now littered with huddled heaps of the dead and wounded.

He rounded the far corner of the building just as the first sirens began to sound in the distance. Laying aside his assault rifle, he pulled out his pistol, put the barrel of it to his chin, and fired once.

He was dead when the first officers arrived at the scene.  Five students lay dead. Twenty-nine students and a teacher lay wounded.


Terror was not invented on that day, nor did it end with Stockton. However, no other event ever struck so close to home for me. I went back to school the following day in a school little different from Cleveland Elementary. Our ethnics were Mexican, but so what? Mexican, southeast Asian, or Black – or, in other decades, Polish, Japanese, Irish, or Italian, so what?

I didn’t want to write about Purdy and his handiwork, but I did. It did not exploit the children of Stockton, but honored them by not hiding the truth.

More follows in the next two posts.


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