Ten minutes up the road, six if I take the highway, sits Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
At around 5 p.m. on a rain-drenched Monday night, with low-hanging clouds cuddling the Housatonic River, I decided to have a beer.
I didn’t want to go to my regular haunt here in my hometown of Southbury. My watering hole of choice on this night was 100 Church Hill Restaurant in the center of Sandy Hook.
When I left the Press-Republican in the late 1980s, I took my pens and notebooks and set up shop in the Newtown bureau of the local daily paper there. For five or six years, the bar in the middle of Sandy Hook served as my real office.
Although I retired from newspapers long ago, I visited my friends at Church Hill and in Sandy Hook often.
On Monday, that’s where I found Joe from Wisconsin.
For two days, Joe’s eyes had been glued to his TV set in Milwaukee, his head shaking in disbelief as the carnage at the elementary school played itself out. Something in him stirred. The age of the victims? The town’s anguish? The senselessness of it all?
On Saturday night, Joe found it hard to sleep. He tossed. He turned. The next morning, Milwaukee Joe, blurry eyed and determined, packed a bag and drove more than 10 hours to a speck on a New England map that he never knew existed until last Friday.
“I needed to be here,” he said.
I, too, was drawn back to Sandy Hook. When tragedy of such indescribable magnitude strikes in your own backyard, it seems a bit more brittle, a bit more raw. There really are no words.
I wallowed in my grief, and Joe wallowed in his. Then we found ourselves sitting next to each other, a bar stool away — Joe from Wisconsin, a 6-foot-something power forward who spent time playing basketball in a league in Mozambique — and John, a Connecticut scribe who hadn’t written a word in nearly a week.
We talked sports for two hours. Joe’s 30 years old, a flooring contractor with hands as big as pie plates. He gave up basketball. Too old, he said, and besides, his best playing days were behind him.
We gushed over RG3. (Boy, is he exciting to watch.) What’s the game tonight? Jets at Titans (I’d rather go to sleep).
I told him stories about Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
“I’m too young to remember them,” he said.
Joe sipped a Jack and Coke, and I, a Bud Light.
The conversation was easy. We laughed and cracked smiles, the first in days. We forgot our anguish, if only for a moment.
“It’s good to talk to somebody who could keep up,” Joe said.
Then it was time for Joe to go. The long and damp road back to Milwaukee was calling.
“Thanks man,” I said. “Thanks for coming. I know it means a lot to the people of Sandy Hook.”
I shook Joe’s powerful hand.
“I’m glad I came, too,” he said.
And with that, Joe from Wisconsin sauntered out of Sandy Hook and disappeared into the misty black night. Just then, I thought I heard a bell-like chime coming from the dining room, a cellphone ring tone.
What is it they say about bells, angels and wings?
— John Perritano spent four years as a reporter in the Press-Republican’s Ticonderoga bureau. He’s now a writer and editor living in Southbury, Conn.