Where We Live

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A personal journey into the memory of a young friend's life and death.

Holly Eskew

Weapons have a long and expansive history within an American national culture that seems to shrug off the dangers of carrying a gun and any conversation advocating more weapons control.

Yet, for me, a single event, an accident involving a gun and the life of an 11-year-old boy, says it all. This is the shocking, true story of two boys playing with a gun and how our friend, Curtis, died. We are going to talk about Curtis’s Mom and his Dad, his brother, their house, our friends, where we lived and about the boy who accidentally shot and killed his best friend. We are talking about the summer of ’78 not because it’s a cautionary tale, and not because of the evocative and emotionally-charged topic at the center of our story--we are not talking about gun control! We are talking about an 11-year-old boy and the difficulty of speaking about Curtis’ life 40 years after his death. We are talking about parents letting kids play with weapons because people can’t forget how Curtis James died. We are talking about guns.

It was the summer between our 6th and 7th grade year. Mom, Dad, my brother and I stopped by their house just as the responders were getting there. We had bought a lot on the Washougal River campgrounds way up stream where Glenn’s Mom and Dad had one. It was a sad day. I spoke with Glenn within minutes afterwards. One of the hardest things was when we played Gaiser Jr. High in basketball, as that was where Curtis was going.
--Bill Allison

Fig. 1. Covington Jr. High (8th grade) Bottom Row: Glenn, Bill Allison, Crystal J.

In the summer of 1978, before my first year of Jr. High School, I was living in Portland, Oregon with my family. We had been living in the city for less than a year when my parents decided to sell our house and move us back to Vancouver, Washington. Two days before we moved back to my hometown “The Columbian” ran a story about a boy who had been killed in a shooting accident. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my Mom, we were reading articles from the newspaper to one another like we did any other day. My Mom acknowledged the difficulty of the moment the same way she expressed her sadness when my Grandma died; she held my hand and squeezed it tightly three times mouthing, “I. Love. You.” And that’s when I knew something bad had happened. That’s when I learned my friend had had an accident.

I remember going over to Glenn’s house afterward and seeing the rifle mounted on the wall. He told me his parents made him put the gun back where it was before the accident, so every time he walked inside his house the first thing he saw was those rifles...I also remember us talking about the draft and Glenn saying he'd flee to Canada before he put another gun in his hand."
--Holly Eskew

. Covington Jr. High (9th grade). Top far right: Holly Eskew & Kelly Smith

The true horror of that day on August 12, 1978, is less about living in a society that must constantly impose the idea that guns are some kind of a survival skill that helps people to defend themselves; the true horror is living in a society with people too afraid to break the weapons. I think they are afraid they might find themselves without a gun in a world predicated upon war, strengthened by a system of violence and exploitation, which has sustained this country since it was built upon Indian ground. In other words, the true horror of that day is living with a history that is irreversible, a society repeating the same self-obliged roles to bear arms not for play but for protection, which is to say, not for death but for life. When the full realization that one fine morning two boys played with a loaded gun and were not fully aware of what they were doing: armed themselves and played their part to the end; enjoying a form of torture deliberately- pointing pistols and repeating the roles of revolutionaries as though they ‘had’ to do it. The truth is armed struggle is often conceived differently in the minds of young boys; they arm themselves and imagine playing “night of the guillotine” as though it were their duty to live like a soldier. They are kids messing around with weapons, imagining the madness of the military like a marvelous explosion in a world of uncontrollable joy—not immediately aware of what they were really doing: Awaiting death. 

Glenn, Curtis and I were very close. They were getting ready to go to Glenn's parents’ property on the river. I was planning on going with, but was at my grandparents house during summer vacation...My parents made the decision not to tell me while I was away, so I missed the funeral. Curtis was shot in the head and hung on for a day, but was brain dead. Glenn and I were never close again...I think about Curtis at least once a week.

 My Mom took me to see Glenn. He was sitting on the couch with a blanket over him, shaking uncontrollably. Same day went to Curtis' house...His mom took all the pictures of Curtis, including family photos that they hung on the walls, and changed Curtis' appearance to make him look like an angel...very strange. I remember being very confused

. She must of had photo-negatives.(pre-Photoshop days). He was ashen white with a halo.

Went to court a few times...Once Curtis' Mom stood and spoke on Glenn's behalf...Very emotional...Glenn got manslaughter.
 He got man 3... probation and community service
 they both were fucking around with the gun...being stupid and reckless. It could easily have been Glenn who'd been shot. When my parents told me and my brother, Brett, about Curtis, I looked down at my feet and noticed I was wearing Curtis' shoes...a dead man's shoes. I'll never forget that.

 Brett was blown away, like everyone else. And you have to remember that we were all still kids.

 We always wore each other’s clothes

 but I never 
wore those cool Nikes again.

I don’t have any problem talking about what happened to Curtis. It was an accident. Through the years I’ve told his story more times than I can count. Mainly for gun safety. Told my kids many times. One way I’ve tried to honor Curtis is for his story to make people aware of how dangerous guns are around kids.
--Greg Hanger

Fig. 3. Glenn, Greg Hanger, Shawn Teano, and John L (8th grade, 1978).

The realism of grief and loss and longing for the life of an athletic young boy, and all of the anguish that Glenn endured, the unimaginable pain Curtis’ family suffered—-all these unpleasant recollections—you would think would be the last word in a gun culture crowd, but no. The Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to bear arms, and,of course, I respect that. I view guns as neutral but people are not neutral. Any dangerous instrumentality can be misused. The problem I have with carrying firearms is the same problem I have with telling somebody something: it can’t be unheard. Curtis is dead. Bullets kill people. Silence kills, too. And yet, not talking about Curtis seemed a mutual impulse we'd shared at the funeral, years ago. Our tears didn't need to be translated. And so much remained of our friend, as I felt it then, years later, grown up-—unspeakable sadness for the boy in overall jeans—that figure who came to Glenn in nightmares and made him scream, who might or might not have been responsible for knocking out Glenn’s front tooth—compounding a world of sorrow and, with Glenn that burden falls to the end.

We were four kids growing up together as adolescents; growing into young men...Miss him so much...I have never seen his parents to this day...I send love to them. I have many fond memories of us hanging out at Curtis’ house...dancing in the garage full of candy, (his dad distributed it for work). Curtis had the cool house, the cool parents, the swimming pool in the backyard, and a baby sitter who let us make-out with her; she taught us how to kiss. When our first school dance came around, Curtis’s mom, Bertie, had us all in the Den listening to music and she taught us kids to dance. We spent a lot of time at their house. Makes me cry tonight thinking about him.
-–Shawn Teano

Fig. 4. Shawn Teano, Brian Lockhart and Bill Allison on hat day (8th grade, 1978) Covington Junior High 1978-79.

What bothers me most about the summer of ’78, are the parents who gave a loaded gun to the kids and then said, according to their rules, “Curtis died like a man.” But really, he didn’t have to die. I didn’t come from a long line of hunters or soldiers like most of the kids. I didn’t receive my first .22 rifle at age 10, or shoot my first dove a year later. I didn’t hunt deer with my dad, or go fishing with grandpa. My family went camping. We swam in the Lewisville River, lay in the sun, and we played hide-and-seek. We didn’t bring guns, bullets or traps, we brought baskets of food to the place; we ate hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad and we drank bottles of pop. It was great.

Maybe that is the difference between my gun-culture friends and me. Maybe that is why they don’t want to talk about tragedies like this one, but I do. Talking about Curtis and how he lost his life has always been weird in our group, and not much has changed after 40 years. I was looking at old photographs, thinking about the people I once knew, recalling the memory of Curtis James and digging up old wounds—I was talking about guns and reliving it all with old friends because that’s what I had to do—out of respect for both Glenn and Curtis. I can’t “leave it resting peacefully” because Curtis died when he didn’t have to. But I have to admit that writing an article on weapons is tough to do. The story is so heartbreaking that one of the gun-culture-kids began to quarrel with me about who was responsible for Curtis’ life. I said the gun went off accidentally and an innocent child lost his life. But then gun-culture-kid argued back, saying:

“No you’re wrong! His best friend accidentally killed an innocent child because they were playing with a gun that was in the house. The adult didn’t put it there—the child got it from its place of rest and used it not realizing the outcome of his actions before hand. We were not raised the same as kids today and guns were a big part of our lives then, as more families were into hunting game and therefore had guns in the home. Today more and more guns are in homes for personal protection—out of fear more than for the sport of hunting game. What happened was a very painful past that we remember and choose to leave there- never look back. Some old wounds are not always good to use as examples of do’s and don’ts, there are just some things that others don’t want opened up because of the intense pain it cost the first time around and leaving it in the past is where it should stay for the minds and hearts of those involved. Please for their peace of mind, leave this alone and stay out of their past horror!!!

Fig. 5. Burton Elementary 6th grade field trip to Mt. Hamilton, June, 1976. Curtis is middle bottom, blue sweatshirt.

This is what I don’t get about people who own guns. We are talking about life and death. We are talking about children and family members, the people we love. I don’t want to live in a world that holds a child responsible for a crime that should have been placed on the adults whose responsibility it is to care for the safety of their child, and the children they invited that day. The gun should not have been loaded nor made accessible to a couple of 11-year-old kids and their friends. The rifle didn’t just appear magically from someplace. The parents had bought the rifle and then carelessly left a loaded weapon mounted on the wall inside their house. The child is not responsible in any way. I reject the notion of Glenn being charged for a crime. It was an accident. He should not have been sent to jail. I think that what the court system did to Glenn was a crime. I remember him telling me about Juvenile Detention, of course he hated the place, but besides that everyday, they forced him to wear somebody else’s underwear and refused to give him his own personal toothbrush.

Curtis was my boyfriend when that happened, and I was supposed to see him that day. I had just talked with him on the phone. Glenn and Curtis were going to come over. I was at Lisa Anderson’s house when we got the call. It was so unbelievable I couldn’t grasp it. We were getting ready for our double date with the boys when either Sara or Crystal called. I answered the phone. I remember throwing the phone down and crying, "No! No!"

My memory is that Glenn and Curtis were cleaning a gun at Glenn’s house and it went off, shooting Curtis. It was a very sad and traumatic accident for everyone involved. Glenn was not the same for years. He took it hard. I went to the funeral. I still have Curtis’s funeral notice. It was one of the saddest events in my life. Lisa and I were very close since she was Glenn’s girlfriend. She was one of the only people he would talk to for a while. Glenn and I grew up together, went to school together, and we were neighbors and friends since 1st grade. It was so hard to lose someone close at that age and sooo hard to watch Glenn go through what he went through. I remember the funeral was open casket and Glenn did not want to go up to it, but his Dad made him. It was heartbreaking.

Fig. 6. In Memory of CURTIS E. JAMES, July 12, 1964 - August 12, 1978.

I remember that this event/accident made me much more aware of gun safety. I grew up with men who hunted, but we were taught not to play with the guns, as I am sure Glenn and Curtis had been too. My husband has guns, but I was adamant that they never be where the kids could get them or even know where they were. And of course we always have taught them not to play with guns. Not to touch guns. But both my kids have shot guns (when they were older) and they know gun safety. And I have told them this story as well.
–Kelly Smith Solovitch

Fig. 7. Lisa Anderson and Kelly Smith Solovitch, June, 1979.

Someone once defined friendship as “the giving of self” and sacrifice as an instrument of joy, because it is an expression of love. That stuck with me. I remember thinking about that when various grown up folk got word about my friend’s death, receiving the news with a burst of grief and disappointment. Sooner or later Mom used to say, “It isn’t easy to understand.” And it was true. But it helped discovering my Aunt Dorry’s prayer book a while back and reading her favorite responses to life, she wrote: “There were sure to be rough places which would hurt our feet, and try our faith in life.” And it was true. Being with Curtis was a delight, he always made me laugh and feel good. Being separated from him by months, years and now four decades later, it is hard to bear. Sometimes I think about the things I loved in him; what I miss most. First, I think about his hair, and then his smile. But I have to admit I loved him more when I looked into his eyes. I love him because his brief life from beginning to end was about being a part of a small group of friends, a close bunch of kids that started school together at Burton Elementary and Silver Star too—only being separated by boundaries for 7th and 8th grade—and then continuing on to complete the graduating class of 1982 at Evergreen High School.

Fig. 8. Burton Elementary 6th grade. Curtis is top left, second kid

It was 1978 and we had just moved to 143rd Street. Bob and Ernie Moon were our new neighbors and Steve Herrington lived around the corner. In due time, they all made their introductions but they all looked at me peculiarly. There were always knowing looks exchanged between them and someone eventually said, “He could pass for Curtis.” Of course as the new kid, I wondered who Curtis was and what happened to him. Eventually the guys told me the sad story of Curtis James and the tragic loss of his young life. We talked about how devastated Glenn was. One can only imagine the anguish he must continue to experience. In time, people got to know me as me and I was no longer the ghost of Curtis James.
--Craig S. Anderson

Fig. 9. Craig S. Anderson and siblings.

Human beings have done three things consistently throughout life: we eat, we screw, and we share our stories. That is what we do, we tell our stories to pass knowledge to others. We make films to tell stories so others won’t have to endure the same kind of pain. And that is my thinking in sharing this story. It is my belief that keeping family secrets and not talking about tough topics like guns and weapons is exactly what society should not do. Silence kills. Talking about guns and real life experiences, opening up old wounds, and sharing stories about life is not the cruelest thing we could do. It is the not remembering of those days long past and only remembering the good days that is the cruelest thing. Keeping quiet about what happened to Curtis doesn’t help a society to stop the death of so many children—playing with guns.

I graduated in ’85 so I was younger than you guys. My brother was class of ’81 and played sports with Glenn and Curtis. I remember when the tragedy happened. I was a friend of Curtis’s younger brother, Jesse. We played baseball together. I remember Glenn was one of the nicest of my brother’s friends. Being a younger brother usually had its fill of being picked on by my brother and most of his friends. Glenn was always nice to me. I also remember that Glenn spent a lot of time with Curtis’ family, especially his two younger brothers. About a year after the accident, Jesse once told me he thought of Glenn like a brother. It seemed like there was a special bond between them. Something I’m sure helped them with healing. I remember the Evergreen community pulling together and supporting both families. My parents spent time with them helping them come to terms with their grief. I lost track of Glenn after he graduated. I had a chance encounter with Jesse James shortly after I came home from the Army.
--Rodney Krause>

Fig. 10. Evergreen 1976 Little League Major All Stars.

The trouble with guns is the conflicts they raise, and thus my experience of trying to write the story about Curtis and Glenn. If I could bend space and time I would be less concerned about a motley crew who thinks we should keep silent about Curtis—about death and guns—about the rising number children involved in shooting accidents and the pain guns cause. I cannot bend space and time to bring Curtis back to life. Nobody can do that. But we can remember his life and we can recall what happened on August 12, 1978, and share our story—it happened … sadly to a lot parents around the world. And what happened that day affected us all growing up, that is why we are talking about weapons today. Of course I get that tragedy is tough, some people find talking about this kind of pain cathartic, while others find it too painful. Growing up and having to experience a close friend’s tragic death was a bit strange for us—it divided some and brought others closer.

Talking about weapons and how Curtis died is still too difficult for many of my friends; they’d prefer to forget. But I think we need to remember Curtis and that day and to talk about the dangers in life, if not only to remember those we love but to remember the innocence of children playing with guns. We should talk about weapons to remember the life of Curtis James, all of his joy, and the love he gave us.

Holly Eskew is an avant-garde filmmaker, writer, and performer. She holds a B.A. in Visual Arts from the UC San Diego in 2011, and studied painting at the American Academy of Arts in Paris, France. Currently working toward an MFA in the Film Directing Program at CalArts, her films investigate boundaries between literatures and internal dialogues, conditions of mass connectivity and isolation. She has had screenings at The Price Center Theatre, The Annex Gallery at UC San Diego and the Bijou Theatre at CalArts.

Holly's "Goodbye Curtis E. James" can be viewed on Vimeo.

Photo credits:
Figures 1 thru 10, Kelly Smith Solovitch; Fig. 11 s/o Mr. & Mrs. Bob E. James;Fig. 13, Beth Hancock Cross; Fig. 12, "Goodbye Curtis E. James" by Holly L. Eskew.

Copyright © Holly Eskew. All rights reserved.

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