One of the great things about Altamont is it has a village square — a center, a place where citizens can meet. Sometimes they come together for summer concerts put on by the library, moved by music; kids dance, grown-ups tap their feet. Sometimes they gather to hear speeches after the Memorial Day parade, as patriotism is lauded and taps are solemnly played.
Last Friday evening, as darkness fell, the streetlamps came on, the colorful lights from the Christmas tree glowed, and a solitary figure stood stock still on the edge of the square, holding a handmade cardboard sign.
His name is John Walkuski; a one-time Altamont resident, he lives now in Knox. He struck a mournful pose — head down — as he held the sign across his chest, arms outstretched. He had written in black marker, in capital letters: “Ban all assault weapons.” And then, in smaller letters, at the bottom: “God forgive us.”
All day long, reports had been unfolding of the news about the massacre of schoolchildren at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The count kept rising — to 20 children and six school adults — as the day went on and the details were discovered. Police said that 20-year-old Adam Lanza, after killing his mother in the house they shared, drove to the school and went on a killing rampage, before shooting himself; he used a Sig Sauer and a Glock, and police also found a Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine at the scene.
“I was stunned,” said John Walkuski. “I had to do something.”
As he stood on the edge of the village square, facing Main Street, passing motorists honked approval and waved.
Walkuski, who is 77, has been an active protester for most of his life. He worked as a city firefighter for 26 years before being injured; that re-set his course to become a nurse. He liked working in emergency rooms. “You know you’re really doing something,” he said. “You have to deal with whatever comes up.”
Walkuski was in ’60s war protests and in later protests against corporate wrongdoing.
“The kids were totally embarrassed with Dad marching up and down in front of some corporate building in Manhattan,” he recalled.
But now his children, in their 50s, and his grandchildren, too, have done their share of protesting, some of it global, on issues ranging from civil rights to environmental preservation.
His daughter walked with Native American friends from San Jose to Washington, D. C. and asked him to join them. He remembers tramping through the “flat, flat cornfields of Iowa.”
They arrived in D.C. on Columbus Day with this message: “You didn’t discover us. We were here all the time,” he said.
As Walkuski stood on the village square in Altamont on Friday evening, Jerry Oliver, a minister, walked by. He clapped Walkuski warmly on the back.
“Amen to that!” said Oliver, gesturing to Walkuski’s sign.
“Thank you, brother,” responded Walkuski.
Edna Litten stepped up to Walkuski to shake his hand.
“I’ve stood with peace signs for I don’t know how many years,” she said.
Indeed, we remembered her standing in that very village square in March of 2003 as the networks were airing President George W. Bush’s comments on impending war with Iraq. About 130 people gathered in Altamont’s square that night to be part of a worldwide candlelight vigil for peace. The boy standing next to Litten that cold, dark night professed he was scared. She comforted him by leaning over and saying, “I’m scared, too.”
He smiled a little around the corners of his mouth.
Litten called The Enterprise this week to say that, when she shook Walkuski’s hand last week, she hadn’t known about the Sandy Hook killings. “I just knew we needed to ban assault weapons,” she said. “The only thing they are good for is to shoot large numbers of people. If they had been banned before, there wouldn’t have been a shooting in Connecticut.”
She added, “Statistics show that having a gun in your house increases your chances of being shot; it doesn’t make your house safer.”
Litten concluded by saying, when she saw the pictures of the children who had been shot, she cried.
President Barack Obama made a televised speech on Friday as Walkuski stood alone in the village square. The president gave voice to the nation’s grief as he spoke of the beautiful children who had died. “They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own,” he said.
Other politicians issued statements, too.
“President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newton,” New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said in his statement. “But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem.”
Under President Bill Clinton, a flawed ban on assault weapons was enacted that has expired. How many massacres will it take before high-capacity bullet clips and assault weapons are banned?
They aren’t needed for hunting. They aren’t needed for self-protection.
President Obama said on Friday that, to prevent more tragedies, the nation, regardless of politics, has to take meaningful action. He’s right, but the massacres to date haven’t produced any movement.
What can individuals do in the face of powerful lobbies?
Asked why he was standing in the village square on Friday, Walkuski answered, “Most people will say, ‘Yeah, they should do that’ — whatever it is. It starts with one person.”
We stand with him.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor