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The Aftermath Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

27 May 2014

We spend a while each morning visiting a number of trusted sources for the news. But on Saturday morning, we interrupted our usual round when we read about the mass killing in Isla Vista.

The more we read about it, the more alarmed we became. We have a niece studying there who has an apartment in that corner of the small community where the tragedy took place. And she's blonde, which mattered to the killer.

We emailed her to see if she was all right. Almost always, we reminded ourselves, these tragedies turn out not to involve the people we fear they will involve. But as the hours went by without a reply, our concern withered into worry.

Forty-four years ago, we remembered, we pulled a 1958 Plymouth Sport Suburban into Isla Vista with Layla by Derek and the Dominos playing on the AM radio. You might think that sounds like a more innocent time, but it wasn't. You only had to come back from the beach with tar on your feet to realize it was not going to be a party.

As we mentioned in our Independence Day piece last year, we studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara, spending our freshman and sophomore years there before transferring to Berkeley.

In our sophomore year, we popped into the office of The Daily Nexus, the independent, student-run newspaper at UCSB, and somehow got a job as a reporter. It only lasted a few months before we were asked to become the City Editor -- just in time for the spring riots protesting the escalation of the war in Vietnam.

No, it wasn't a party. But we have a very soft spot in our heart for Isla Vista.

We never really got used to the fact that it faces south, not west, so the sun rises on your left as you look out over the ocean and sets on your right. But learning to see things differently was just one of the things the place taught us.

In our freshman English class one day, the poet Edward Loomis gave us an unusual assignment. We remembered it as we waited to hear from our niece.

Loomis entreated the class to stop whatever we were doing Saturday evening at 5 p.m. and read Le Cimetière Marin (the Cemetery by the Sea) by Paul Valéry. As we read it alone, he said, remember that -- even though you can't see them -- every other person in the class is reading it, wherever they are.

On that Saturday, we went to the Point, a cliff on campus beyond the lagoon that overlooks the ocean. And before the sun set to our right, we had read the poem.

We still have the copy of Valéry's poems that we took to the Point that long-ago evening. We opened it again, thinking of Isla Vistans then and now, classmates unseen, some of whom we have known and others we will never know -- all of whom suffered in some measure the events of Friday night.

We read out loud again those words meant not just to comfort us before the specter of death but to also stir our blood:

Break, body, this pensive pose!
Drink, lungs, the wind's first stirrings!
A coolness of the sea exhaling
returns my soul to me ... What strong salt!
Dive into the wave and jump up alive!
The wind is rising! ... We must try to live!

It wasn't long after reading that verse that we learned our niece was safe. She had been away from Isla Vista that night. "Thanks for thinking of me," she wrote.

We smiled. How could we have thought of anything else?

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