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The Heroes That Shouldn’t Need To Exist.
A few years back, not far from this exact moment in time, I was meeting my son at Brandywine Creek State Park so that I could take pictures of him, his prom date, and his friends that I’d known since they were just boys.
About a month later, I would be taking a picture of him in his cap and gown while he was brandishing his diploma at the University of Delaware, where his graduation from Concord High School was being held.
He is now 21.
Back in December on his birthday, and while he was back home from Los Angeles, I watched him order his first beer at Iron Hill Brewery.
It was a ‘Santa’s Little Helper‘.
For me, that was my son’s first beer…even though I’m not delusional enough to believe that it actually was.
Regardless, it was his first ‘legal‘ beer, and his first beer in front of the old man.
I remember thinking about how I couldn’t believe how fast the 21 years had gone.
I thought about how it felt like just yesterday that I was taking him out to hunt for action figures and ‘Wacky Packages‘ cards.
During these treks, we’d discuss movies, music, and whatever other trendy things he was into at his age.
As my son got older our conversations graduated to more adult topics.
The political climate in America, technology, his interest in Crypto Currency, and of course, the now common mass shootings that take place in America – although our most recent conversation on that topic was about Christchurch, New Zealand and how awful it was that this madness had been escalated to live streaming.
Riley Howell was also 21 when he died heroically trying to stop a gunman’s massacre at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
Upon seeing his High School graduation photo that seems to accompany his story everywhere it’s posted, I was immediately reminded of the one I took of my own son.
When I saw his age, it all became even more real for me.
Riley’s father might have been taking photos of his son going to the prom right around the same time I did.
He too might have reflected on the group of boys that were now young men that his son called ‘friends‘.
He may have been present when his son had his first legal beer, he may remember exactly what it was, it might have thrust him too into memories of what they used to do when Riley was young, and he might have been asking himself the same question I did of “How the hell did we get here so fast?“
And he may have discussed the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand…or the anniversary of Columbine…or Vegas, or hell…throw a dart and pick any one in the vast catalog of mass shootings in America.
Mr. Howell and his son, and my son and I may have shared all of these commonalities.
But now his son is a component of the newest mass shooting story.
Now their story has taken an exit off the highway of similarities that we may have shared.
They won’t get to talk about this one, as I have with my son, because this is where our shared experiences as fathers and sons have become altered.
Riley Howell’s story ends here.
He’s simply a hero now.
He’s like a military war hero whose body is being greeted by hundreds of people; some crying, many with hand-drawn signs, as it’s driven back through his home town.
But he never should have had to have been a hero. There should be no heartbroken crowds lining the streets.
Riley Howell should have been able to graduate from college, begin his career, find his soul-mate, become a father….Riley Howell should have had so many more experiences in his life that caused his father to reflect on how his boy has grown into a man, and was now set on the path to find his own retrospective moments when watching his own child grow into an adult.
I wish I didn’t know Riley Howell’s name.
Not for this reason.
And I don’t want you to ever know my son’s name this way.
Riley Howell shouldn’t be a hero today.
There shouldn’t be another one of him.
Not like this.
But what’s most depressing about all of this for me is not just seeing the reflection of my son in theirs, it’s not just about knowing that they’ll never see their son again, and it’s not about his hero status that I wish he never had to earn.
It’s not about any of that.
What’s most depressing is knowing that the next Riley Howell is out there right now going about his life, and maybe seeing Riley as just a name on the news. Maybe he’s spoken with his father about Riley. Or maybe the next Riley Howell won’t be the son, but it will be the father.
Maybe it will be a mother or a sister…a husband or a wife.
They might be in a school, or a shopping mall, a place of worship, or at a concert.
Point is…the exact person and the exact venue are unknown. But what’s certain – what we can guarantee in America in 2019 is that there WILL be another Riley Howell who will replace Riley’s name in our fleeting national consciousness.
And another after that.
Somebody else’s…something…will be the hero they should have never had to have been.
The hero we never wanted them to be.
And we’ll move on in short order.
Because that’s all we do now.
And that’s the worst part of it all.
My sincerest condolences to the Howell family for the loss of your son.