Asking the right question
Back in the ‘90s, after my kids were old enough to go off to school, I’d take time to go visit my folks. Dad enjoyed sitting around the kitchen table, telling me tales of the “good old days” and analyzing the latest news. Nothing troubled him like hearing about yet another senseless killing — especially when a young person was the cause. He’d shake his head and say, “When did things get so bad?”
“Get so bad?” I’d ask. “Dad, you said you can remember when there were wooden sidewalks in Porterville, Main Street wasn’t paved yet and cowboys wearing gun belts drove cattle through the middle of town. Hey, wasn’t Joaquin Murrieta still holed up in the foothills near where you used to live?”
We’d share a laugh, then Dad would lapse into thoughtful silence.
Born in 1908, my father, Milton Nagata, grew up in Tulare County back when it was a pretty rough place. Poverty and injustices abounded. Boys in his day used shotguns and carried pocket knives — sometimes for sport, sometimes for protection and sometimes just to put meat on the table. The Nagata brothers did their share of farm work. In their spare time they read, played games, hunted and rode bikes. My grandparents were often too busy providing for a family of eight children and coping with life to pay close attention to their sons. Sometimes, Dad and his friends amused themselves with pranks like tipping over outhouses, shorting out power lines and stopping trains by putting objects on the tracks. Dry cattails provided hours of entertainment. When a car or train hit a pile of cattails, a huge, blinding cloud of dust would go up. One of my uncles even set off dynamite in an empty field for fun.
“I almost got myself killed a few times, but we were always careful about what we shot at, blew up, knocked over or shorted out. We used to laugh and laugh to see the looks on people’s faces after what we did,” Dad would say, chuckling at the memories while telling stories about the trouble he used to cause. “Sure we made people made, but we never wanted to cause any real damage or hurt anybody.”
“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” I said to Dad. “When you were a teen, you had guns and ammunition.
You carried a knife. You could even get your hands on dynamite, but you never dreamed of...”
“Things were different,” Dad would say, nodding wisely. “Sure, we heard about shootings when I was younger. Once in a great while someone was shot for stealing money, livestock or someone else’s wife.
But these involved adults — not children. Well, there was the time a kid I knew got a BB gun for his birthday and accidentally shot his mother in the behind while she was hanging up the laundry. Boy, did he get in trouble.” Dad chuckled to himself then grew quiet again. He sighed. “Now, schools want metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and armed guards.
“Back then, we were all dire poor. Everyone walked around with holes in the soles of their shoes. Now days, kids have holes in their souls.”
Dad is gone now, but I still remember our talks when I read of yet another tragedy like the one that just happened in Taft. School districts are trying desperately to prevent disasters with lock-down drills.
Communities talk of having armed guards on all campuses. Legislators argue about gun control laws. It seems people are looking to better security, better policies and better gun laws for a solution. Are we trying so hard to find an answer to sch
ool violence that we’ve forgotten the question? What is happening to the hearts and souls of our kids?
Sadly, I believe Dad was right about the holes.