4/20 by Scott Loring Sanders

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close up of april calenderNo, this isn’t about smoking weed. I wish it was that benign. That simple.

I share my birthday, April 20, with Adolf Hitler. The Columbine tragedy in 1999 happened on that day. The shooters didn’t choose it accidentally. It wasn’t the first (or last) time tragedy struck around my birthday.

My grandmother died on April 20. My other grandmother died on April 19. I was told about it the next day, on my birthday. David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas, was destroyed on April 19, 1993. Two years later, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech, my alma mater. Where I currently teach. I was on campus the evening previous with my wife and son at an international food and arts festival. As we left, I felt overjoyed that so many nationalities had gotten together to celebrate their food, dance, and cultures. Fifteen hours later, absolute chaos.

At that time I taught at the nearby community college. Many of my students lost friends that day. My son’s lacrosse coach, a professor at Virginia Tech, was killed. My wife’s uncle, who acts as a judge in psychological cases, had presided over a previous case involving Cho. Part of Cho’s studies at Virginia Tech were with the creative writing program, the same department where I now proudly teach. My office number is 416.

Something horrible doesn’t happen every year, but the number of personal occurrences and international news events is haunting. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 25, 2011, the largest recorded tornado outbreak began in the South: 358 tornadoes in three days, killing 348, one of the deadliest outbreaks ever. Merely coincidence, all of these events? Certainly some are. But psychologists have found links between mental illness, depression, and springtime. Suicides, for example, peak in April. As illogical as it might sound—or maybe it doesn’t—I’m a bit gun-shy each year as my birthday approaches.

On April 11, 2013, I told my students about some of the events that had happened around my birthday. The following day, a young man walked into New River Community College (the same school where I’d taught during the Virginia Tech shootings) and opened fire with a shotgun, injuring—but not killing—two women. The shooter, Neil MacInnis, was my son’s friend, and I coached him for several years in a basketball league. Neil wasn’t an athlete, but he worked hard and was likeable. My favorite coaching memory came during their freshman year. The seniors were beating us badly. With two minutes remaining, the ball was passed to Neil at half court. I screamed, “Shoot it, Neil!” because in practice, when screwing around, he occasionally hit a long one. So he shot and swished it. The seniors quickly scored, so we inbounded, again to Neil at half court. I yelled the same thing, and he drained a second one. I laughed, every player laughed, the refs laughed. The small crowd went nuts. With a few seconds left, Neil again got the ball at half court. He shot…it soared through the air…hit the backboard…then caromed off the front rim. He missed by a hair. Throughout high school, Neil was known for nailing two consecutive half-court shots. Almost three. A year after graduating, he was on the news in an orange jumpsuit, standing in front of a judge, now known for a different set of shots. It most likely would have been a much larger story if not for two men, three days later, who set off homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon. And so it continues.

On April 30, 2014, a seventeen-year-old boy in Minnesota was picked up by police after a woman noticed him acting suspiciously near a storage unit. Inside the shed, police found bomb-making materials, including a pressure cooker, gunpowder, and steel ball bearings. During questioning, the boy explained he planned to kill his mother, father, and sister, then go to his high school, where he wanted to set off bombs during lunch. Once the students fled outside, he’d be lying in wait, ready to open fire on the confused, unsuspecting crowd. He admired the Columbine shooters and wanted to carry out the attack on April 20 as a tribute. But as it turns out, April 20fell on Easter Sunday last year, so nobody would have been at school, thus why his plan was delayed.

I’m not religious at all, but…thank God.

So this year, all I can wish for is the most uneventful birthday week ever. It’s what I wish for every year. For nothing to happen. For life to simply carry on, peacefully, without incident.

scott loring sandersScott Loring Sanders lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In addition to this essay in Hippocampus, he has another in the spring ’15 issue of Creative Nonfiction. In fiction, last year he had a story included in Best American Mystery Stories 2014. He’s published two novels with Houghton Mifflin, was Writer-in-Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and has been a two-time fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He teaches Creative Writing at Virginia Tech.


  1 comment for “4/20 by Scott Loring Sanders

  1. Happy birthday. Your piece resounded with me because 4/20 is my wedding anniversary. It was not until after we chose the date (it was between that and the week before which was Friday 13th that year) that we found out about Hitler, Columbine and other connections. We got married April 20, 2001 on the 17th floor of a building with a panoramic view of our beloved NYC skyline. Looking north we could see the Chrysler building and the Empire State. Looking south, we could see the Twin Towers. For us, NYers, the significance of April 20 that year was obliterated five months later on September 11. I am grateful that I have not only my anniversary to remember on that day, but also a memory of that intact skyline, on a day that I get to remember for reasons other than hate and fear.

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