I watched the news about the high school shootings in my hometown with horror, but also with a sick sense that it wasn’t all that surprising. The Littleton I grew up in during the ’60s and ’70s was the picture-perfect suburb: affluent, with tree-shaded streets, friendly neighbors and plenty of open space. The people who settled in Littleton were real Westerners, who landed in the plains just south of Denver with a sense that there was still wilderness to be conquered there. They kept shotguns in their split-level ranch houses, just in case.
On the surface, Littleton was a prosperous, happily homogenous community. There was a Main Street with breakfast restaurants, a library, a stationer’s store and a place where you could get your shoes fixed. Littleton was the home of the famous Little Britches Rodeo, and we all went once a year to see how long the cowboys could last on the bucking broncos. The independent town newspaper listed all the local marriages and deaths, along with pie recipes and high school basketball scores. Littleton was a town to itself — still mainly agricultural, not yet a sprawling suburb — that regarded Denver as a distant big-city cousin.
Yet for all its perfect lawns and happy high school marching bands, even then Littleton had its dark side. This is a conservative, Republican town, with an underbelly of suspicion. Until this week, its most notorious citizen was frontiersman Alferd Packer, Colorado’s only cannibal. He ate four out of the five Democrats in Pitkin, Colo., an act many of the local residents did not regret. He’s buried in the Littleton graveyard, with a splendid view of the mountains.
My parents moved to Littleton in 1959, lured by the high peaks nearby and the promise of a tightly knit community with perpetual open space. From the house where I lived, we had a clear view south to Pike’s Peak, and straight west to Long’s Peak, both 14,000-foot mountains that kept the prairie and the people living there in perspective. My parents fit in easily with the landscape, but not so well with the neighbors. The people who lived in Littleton tended to be politically conservative and favored development of the vast tracts of Littleton land. My parents were Democrats. It was the Frasers and the few Jews who were the Democrats in town, and everyone knew it.
In the 1960s, my mother realized that none of the local realtors would rent or sell houses to blacks (there was only one black student in my high school). She became involved in the fair housing movement, trying to pass legislation making such discrimination impossible. The town quickly snubbed her for her views. I remember coming home from kindergarten when she was all shaken up, having received scrawled notes in the mail: “Nigger-lover. Jew.” Littleton was not such a happy suburb when people broke rank.
It was a town so homogenous that complete alienation was the only alternative to fitting in. At school, you had to wear your hair in Farrah Fawcett wings or you were uncool. You had to be a jock or a cheerleader or you were a brain or a freak, which meant you were an outcast, a target. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t the first alienated kids to crack. I remember a guy in high school who didn’t quite fit in. He was quiet, unathletic and unfriendly. You didn’t dislike him because you didn’t notice him. He was a cipher. He had the locker two doors down from mine and never spoke up in my Spanish class. One day he murdered his brother. He tried to chop up the body in pieces to push it down the garbage disposal, but bones and flesh were a little too much for the machine to handle. This was the ’70s, so he did it with an ax; he didn’t have automatic weapons, bombs or a Web site. We all pretended it never happened.
When I grew up, the pressures of homogeneity were at least tempered by a sense of community. You got some rewards for just being a part of the town. You got mentioned in the newspaper once in a while, whether you had a touchdown pass or your big sister got married, and you were greeted by name in the movie theater, the hobby shop and the grocery store. But then Littleton grew out of its little britches. This fiercely individual prairie town went high-tech and big business. The developers won the fight against those who liked big tracts of land for their horses, and condominiums started sprouting on all sides. Columbine, which used to only have a few farmhouses in the prairie that stretched straight to the mountains, started filling in with houses that seemed stuck too close together. Columbine High School used to be in the middle of a vast wheat field; now it’s surrounded by housing developments and shopping centers. Even when there was a sense of community in Littleton, kids felt alienated; as the town burgeoned into a mass of pop-up houses and malls, that estrangement turned into derangement.
Now, when I visit Littleton, it’s almost unrecognizable. Gone are the flocks of geese alighting in fields still partially covered with snow. Gone are the prairie-dog towns. Gone are the expansive blue views of the mountains, now blocked by houses too big for their lots. Instead of local stores where people know your name, there’s only OfficeMax, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and a 24-plex theater. The independently owned newspaper is now a chain with very little local news. The high schools house up to 2,000 kids, and the budgets for counselors and school nurses have been cut back. The ice skating rink where kids used to go on Friday nights has been shut down. Now most of them gather to play video games at the mall, and annihilate their opponents. The malls — Southglen, Southwest, Southwhatever — stretch from the Platte River Valley all the way to the mountains. Everyone has become anonymous.
Oddly, the massacre at Columbine High School has created, temporarily, some semblance of community in Littleton. There have been church services with people holding hands and singing in circles. There have been crisis counselors and lines at the blood banks and a huge public outpouring of grief. The state Legislature has put off its debate — for a week — on a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons anywhere they want. But most people in Littleton will argue that if all the teachers and students could have been armed, this never would have happened.