Tragedies sink joys of spring break

Julius Caesar discovered the dangers of the Ides of March many spring breaks ago. Today, we still face the same dangers. We’ve had to witness the fact that tragedies play themselves out when we would least like them to — even if it means that they dominate what should have otherwise been an enjoyable spring break.
For whatever reason, as if reassuming our roles in the Sisyphean tasks of studies at the University isn’t daunting enough, we still face an unusual amount of spring break buzz kills. I’ve already marked off break for next year on my calendar: “Anywhere but in front of the TV.”
Break began with the Oscar hype surrounding a cinematic iceberg and ended with the fury of a tornado. Somewhere in between the two — one disaster, a little too close for comfort — we found out a little more about our mortality than we had bargained for.
The plot of the multiple Academy Award winning film, whether you’ve seen it or not, is universally understood: Tragedies know no timeliness or human constraints — lovers, vacationers and students are all part of a drama that few of us understand, too often with lethal results.
As a culture, it could be said we’re obsessed with the stuff of which tragedies are made. Even though mystery and disaster are already parts of our daily lives, we go out of our way to create more — strangely, perhaps, because true tragedies remind us of what it means to be human.
Aerial camera shots of what was St. Peter, Minn., meanwhile, remind us of what spring break shouldn’t be. They bring us closer to destruction and devastation than we’d ever dream of on those sunny shores of Florida, California and Mexico.
The entire town of St. Peter looks like it got hit by a bomb. Yet, the strange truth is that St. Peter’s devastation is only the tip of tragedy’s iceberg. Greater lessons lie within our ability to cope and go on.
In one of those stories becoming more and more associated with the freak show El Ni¤o, last Sunday’s tornadoes chose the life of an innocent victim, a 5-year-old boy who was literally sucked out of his family van and hurled 150 yards to his death.
The students at Gustavus Adolphus college, however, were still on break when the tornadoes smashed through St. Peter. Reports indicate that the toll of the storm could have been unspeakably higher if class schedules had been any different.
So, just as the greatest of the tragedians would tell us, there really is the proverbial silver lining to that wall cloud, isn’t there?
Making sense of tragic messes is all part of humanity’s attempt to understand who we are. Homer got the ball rolling some 2,800 years ago when he outlined and even glorified the fundamental nature of human tragedies. He suggested through a host of poems and myths that war, conquest and brutality are a natural part of the existence from which we must learn. Playwrights since him have, of course, added love gone wrong to the list of painful mysteries in the canon of human experience.
And unless you were part of the fortunate clan of vacationers who really did get away from it all — textbooks, TVs, newspapers and the like — you are left with the lingering reminder that Spring Break 1998 really was foreshadowed with tragedy by the hype that is “Titanic.”
One of the more lasting news stories that broke in the midst of Oscar hoopla made the headlines before the end of finals week. Eleven students in Pennsylvania burned to death in a nightmarish, spring break- related cabin fire.
The group of high school and college students found a place to get away from the hubbub of studies to fish, hike, cook and play cards. They went to a hunting area, about 20 miles from State College, Pa., the home of the Penn State Nittnay Lions, to enjoy time off from school.
Their deaths were a freak accident, of course; another one of those things that just happens, right?
Whether there really is an understandable explanation for misfortunes such as these, we have to believe one exists. Otherwise, attempts to enjoy anything in life — on vacation or still in class — really would be a waste of time. Even the greatest tragedies are filled with a celebration of life.
Rest assured that beach bum T-shirts are still floating around that read something like “Spring Break was Great in 98!” Simply checking in with MTV will confirm the annual convergence of this season’s meat markets in the warmer parts of the country. And the pursuit of bliss, in the midst of suffering we can’t understand, goes on.
Of minor consolation, the annual outbreak of binge-drinking related deaths and unruly party-goers shutting down entire coastal cities appeared absent from this year’s headlines. But I’m sure plenty of us have still heard a fair share of stories from fellow students about exploits during booze-drenched tours of cabanas and nightclubs.
Events much more sobering, however, continued to pour out of the headlines. Not even the hype of “Titanic” at the Academy Awards — amounting to a celebration of one of the most spectacular disasters in human history — could have prepared anyone for the ugliest disaster of 1998.
In a sleepy little town in Arkansas, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Drew Golden, 11, completely abandoned their ties to the human race in a gun-toting rampage. The two are now being held on murder and battery charges.
Police reports say the two, dressed in camouflage and armed with rifles and handguns, ambushed classmates and staff members who streamed out of the school after one of the boys triggered a fire alarm. The two then blasted 22 shots into the crowd during a four-minute barrage, taking the lives of four fellow students and a teacher.
The ultimate tragedy, even beyond the scale of Titanic, is that Johnson’s and Golden’s actions lie somewhere outside the boundaries of not only what is intelligible, but everything we know of tragedy itself — there has to be a lesson in all of this.
But now it’s back to the books and we can only hope for some form of resolution that will tie these tales of human experience together.
If Homer is right, and there is an enduring lesson in every true tragedy that rolls our way, students across the country may have never really had a break from the kinds of lessons in literature and quantum physics that school is back in session for. Whether or not we realized the lessons would take place during spring break, we still found something even closer to the value of life. Tragedies of the past two weeks revealed lessons more profound than those in even the most well-meaning textbook. Students away from campus around the Ides of March — especially those in St. Peter — can testify to our mortality and suffering as well as the saving graces we least expect.

— Gregory Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected]