I covered the Bellmore-JFK High School Homecoming parade in the fall of 2004, photographing the revelers and floats as they headed from the Bellmore Long Island Rail Road station off Sunrise Highway to the Bellmore Avenue school. It was a sunny day, full of carefree teenagers.
I could never have imagined then that day would haunt me still.
All journalists who’ve been in the profession a while have stories they can’t shake. You might think you had locked them away at the back of your brain, but they reappear without warning, leaving you in a state of disbelief or sadness or anger. Thinking back on that Homecoming parade leaves me feeling all three.
Covering the recent West Hempstead Stop & Shop shooting, in which 49-year-old Ray Wishropp, a father of seven from Valley Stream, was killed and two others were injured, sent the memories of that parade streaming back.
That day, I snapped photos of Carol Kestenbaum, a 17-year-old JFK senior, as she drove the Homecoming king and queen in her white convertible. A little more than two years later, Kestenbaum was shot dead while studying education at the University of Arizona. She had warned a friend that the young man she was dating seemed unhinged.
The 22-year-old found out about the warning, killed Kestenbaum and her best friend, Nicole Schiffman, another Kennedy High graduate who was studying journalism at the University of Maryland, and then took his own life. Schiffman had come for the weekend to celebrate Kestenbaum’s 20th birthday.
They were among the tens of thousands of Americans who have died in a perpetual cycle of gun violence in this nation. I held back tears when I covered their funerals on a cold winter day in 2007. They were buried side by side at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon.
I knew Carol’s mother, Rita Kestenbaum. In 1999, she won a seat on the Hempstead Town Board. She lost it in the next election, but remained active in local politics for years after that. At the JFK Homecoming parade, she walked behind her daughter’s car from the train station to the school, beaming with pride.
Her daughter was the first person I knew to die of gun violence. Her death leaves me feeling unsettled to this day, understanding how suddenly and senselessly a life can be taken in this country.
Wishropp was a Stop & Shop manager. Nassau County police said his alleged killer, a 31-year-old Hempstead man, had sought a transfer to another supermarket. When he didn’t get it, he left the store, but returned 40 minutes later and started shooting.
I’m a runner. Last Saturday, I ran to the top of the giant hill at the Town of Hempstead’s Norman J. Levy Park and Preserve in Merrick, where there’s a human sun clock dedicated to Carol Kestenbaum. You stand in the middle of the circle, where a rectangular stone block forms the centerpiece of this hallowed ground. The 12 months are marked on it. On a sunny day, if you stand on the month you’re in and raise your hand straight to the sky, your shadow will point to a number from one to 12, giving you the approximate time of day.
“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time,” reads the plaque in honor of Kestenbaum.
I sat enjoying the 63-degree weather on a sunny, nearly windless day. The azure sky stretched out before me, with wispy cirrus clouds high above. I could hear the creaky windmill to my left spinning, its moving blades forming a frenetic shadow on the seashell-coated path before me. In a grassy patch to my right, a family — a mother and father, their children and the kids’ grandparents — had spread out a blanket to sit and talk and laugh.
It all felt so normal, peaceful, a world away from the chaos of gun violence that had erupted at the West Hempstead Stop & Shop April 20 and in Arizona all those years ago. Kestenbaum, who wanted to become a teacher, would have loved the sound of children at play, I imagined.
Then a loud shot rang out, I believe from the gun range just across the Meadowbrook Parkway in Freeport, piercing the quietude, an eerie reminder that guns are never far away in America.
As I ran down the hill to head home, I heard three more pops of a gun in rapid-fire succession. Then again, and again. The shots continued as I ran out of the park. I had heard them many times before while at the preserve, but had never paid much attention to them. Now I wanted them to just go away, never to be heard again.
I only wish our elected leaders at the federal and state levels might sit in Carol Kestenbaum’s circle, soaking up the normalcy of everyday life and imagining this young light of the world extinguished in a heartbeat.
How would they vote on gun-control legislation then?
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.