Two new messages vibrated my cell phone, as soon as I walked out of the doctor’s office to the Brookline medical complex parking lot. I pressed View, to see my teen son’s cell number displayed. This is not a usual Friday afternoon occurrence. If it’s the weekend, 17-year-old Max is ready for friends and fun. Must be looking for car keys, I thought to myself, never expecting what I was about to read:
“Hey,” always casual Max had written. “School’s in lockdown cuz of smthn happening on Great Plain Ave. Do u now what?”
Great Plain is the main street through our upscale Massachusetts suburb, home to specialty shops like Mucca Blu Italian Café and the artsy Grey Goose gift shop.
I read the message to myself a second time, then aloud to my daughter, Glenna, who was with me.
“This must be a test of the new town alert system,” I said. “They probably just haven’t told them it’s a test yet.”
On my morning commuter train ride to work in Boston, I had just read the local Needham (MA) Times article about the 911 emergency notification system going live in town this week. Local school and police now had the technology to notify parents and residents of emergencies via automated phone and e-mail message systems.
I had gone through a similar unannounced ‘lockdown test’ a few years back at the middle school, in Canton, where I did a brief part-time stint as a special needs aid for dear Michael, who has muscular dystrophy. It had taken the surprise scenario to convince administrators that more planning was needed to safely evacuate special needs students and to find a better way to quickly account for all students and teachers.
But what if this lockdown really WAS for real, I asked myself? What if some crisis was going on our wealthy, peaceful, pretty suburban Boston town? What if my son really was in danger?
I called Max’s Dad at work. He hadn’t heard anything. He had no idea.
David. I thought. I’ll call David. Photographer, tech whiz friend David is home, or at least not office-bound, during most day time hours these days, as he works to build his new photojournalist career. David will know how to find out what’s happening if anyone will. That’s just David.
“David has that scanner now, doesn’t he?” I asked my daughter as I dialed.
Within minutes, David called back to read me the NECN ticker: “Elderly man murdered in Needham. Suspect believed at large. Schools locked down as precaution.”
Okay, Max’s Mom. This is real.
We type the NECN text to Max and start the driving back to Needham, via heavy Route 9 traffic and construction backups. No word back from Max. And I’m now really agitated, yelling at the SUV drivers tailgating me and cursing yet another red light and lane merge. AM 1030 gives me nothing but traffic and weather. Come on!
The Centre Street exit to Needham Street is gridlock, with at least two rear-end accidents blocking the intersection. I worked on the Newton-Needham line for years, so I am fortunate to know my shortcuts – Winchester to Kendrick to Greendale to Highland. So far so good until we hit May Street just beyond the high school. Cops are everywhere, diverting traffic from main roads and side streets. Crowds of parents are huddled with cell phones on the corner near St. Joseph’s elementary school. Flashing fire trucks and police cars form barriers from every angle. Needham-based Channel 5 News helicopters hover above us.
I head to the Dunkin Donuts across from the high school, where I have no trouble parking (a rarity for sure) and see the first real TV news coverage. I learn that every Needham school is in lockdown and police, with guns pointed at the ready, have a suspect surrounded at the downtown Stone Hearth Pizza. Reporters tell us that an elderly man was found beaten to death in his home, with another female relative beaten but alive and airlifted to Boston’s Deaconess Hospital. Allegedly the suspect was installing a sprinkler system at the house and attacked the residents with a baseball bat after some type of disagreement. Heck of a disagreement, I think.
Still no text message back from Max. We head home to flip channels through local TV news, which seems more confused by the minute. Two separate crazy things happening in quiet Needham, where no homicide has hits in more than 30 years, could it be? Sure sounds like we have a hold up downtown AND a murder suspect running for the highway at the opposite end of town? Bizarre.
I’m supposed to be trying to tie up loose ends of an inspection on a house I’m buying a few towns over. In the middle of all of this, I’m half listening on calls from my realtor, mortgage broker, and my attorney. Emotional and sensory overload.
I text Max as soon as the news announces that the lockdown has ended.
“R u out?” I type. He calls within minutes, tells me that he’s still trying to find his girlfriend, Tess. He promises to call right back. All I know is that I need to see my son, for real, in front of me, with my own eyes. Then I’m hugging him tight.