On a frigid Valentine's Day morning in 1977, when I was an eighth-grade student at Pelham Memorial High School, a man named Fred Cowan walked into the Neptune Moving Co. warehouse in neighboring New Rochelle and began shooting up the place.
He was armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle, two .45-caliber pistols, two 9 mm automatics, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in bandoleers that formed an X across his chest. Strapped to his leg was a large hunting knife in case the ammo ran out. Cowan donned a cap bearing a Nazi SS insignia as he fired at Neptune employees, and, later, police officers.
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The incident happened out of the blue, just as all mass shootings seem to do. When it was over, almost seven hours after it began, 10 victims had been shot; six died -- five on scene and one weeks later in a hospital bed. Cowan, who had worked at Neptune and at a local service station where my parents often bought gas, was the seventh casualty. He put a bullet in his head to end the standoff.
The rumor at school, where classmates had fathers on the scene as police officers, was that the shooter had booby trapped his body with hand grenades before dispatching himself to hell. I can find no record today of that actually occurring, but it's an integral part of the narrative I recall. For eighth-grade boys it served to punctuate the rage a single man had just inexplicably unleashed.
The Neptune building is gone today. A Home Depot stands on the site, in and out of which hundreds of shoppers pass each day with no knowledge of the massacre that once occurred there, or that a self-described neo-Nazi named Fred Cowan ever -- existed at all, for that matter. Whatever fame Cowan achieved was short-lived. I had to Google the incident to recall his name. And the name didn't ring a bell when I reread it all these years later.
Another shooter has now stepped forward seeking infamy. His name will be largely forgotten, too, one day, except by the friends and families of those he killed. They will never forget the name James Holmes. It will be burned into their minds the same way the name Fred Cowan is remembered by the families of the New Rochelle victims, and the way Charles Whitman is assuredly still remembered by the loved ones of University of Texas students cut down by him 11 years before that. Whitman, a former Marine with sniper training, killed 16 people and wounded 32 from the 28th-floor observation deck of the University of Texas Austin administration building.
What none of us can figure out is why. Why would anyone do something like that? The day before each shooting the sum of the shooters' existence was so very different from it would be 24 hours later. Charles Whitman lived a peaceful life for 9,168 days. But on day 9,169 he became one of the biggest mass murderers in American history. For 1,280 weeks, James Holmes was a slightly geeky, run-of-the-mill kid. Had be been struck by a car and killed a week before the Batman movie shooting, he would have been mourned at the University of Colorado rather than loathed.
One doesn't hear too much about the devil these days. He has become passe, I suppose. I can't remember the last time I've heard ol' Lucifer invoked, even in church. But for centuries, a lot of smart people believed that the fallen angel was responsible for the madness that would suddenly seize a man's soul and cause him to lash out at innocents in his path. Today, we seek scientific explanations for such behavior. They rarely materialize.
One of Charles Whitman's final requests was to have his brain examined post-mortem. He had an inkling that something was bending his mind. And, indeed, a tumor was discovered therein during the autopsy -- a tumor that might possibly explain what he did.
But for other mass murderers -- for Fred Cowan and James Holmes -- there is nothing. Nothing to make sense of the appalling carnage they left behind, except, perhaps, the old-timers' explanation. Real or metaphorical, Satan has shown his face once again.