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Sniper Turns Fall Into 'Lost Season' for Young People

October is not just any month for teens, it's the month. That ended when killings began.

October 18, 2002|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. — Around here, the annual Cub Scout bonfire has become a rite of fall. Dads stoke the flames until they crackle and roar. Little boys huddle under blankets and sing. Marshmallows sometimes catch fire right on the stick. And storytellers weave ghost tales made all the spookier by the dark woods around them.

Now, though, the woods are scary for another reason: a roving sniper who has killed nine people and wounded two in 16 days of terror. So tonight, the Scouts in this Northern Virginia suburb will move the ritual inside a church recreation hall -- their fire becoming an illusion of red streamers and lights, their flashlights illuminating the cold linoleum floor, the marshmallows for s'mores melting in a microwave.

"I always ask the kids at the end of the year what their favorite event was and the bonfire is always near the top," said Steven Knizer, a scoutmaster in Arlington. "Now we just have to rig something up. It's terrible."

Fear has gripped all that was once ordinary here; Arlington was home to the 47-year-old FBI analyst who was shot dead in the parking lot of a Home Depot this week. From filling a gas tank to walking the dog, it may have fallen hardest on the children -- who woke up one day to find huge chunks of their lives canceled, contained or made tedious by the fact that they cannot go outside.

Outdoor recess is a dimming memory. Football games, soccer matches and track meets are suspended. College recruiters have no game films to watch. Scholarships are in jeopardy. Pep rallies have moved into the gym. Cross-country runners sprint in the hallways. Cafeterias are packed with students who would otherwise leave campus for lunch. Even once-inviolate safety rules are in question as administrators weigh one threat against another; for now, fire drills are considered a more immediate danger than a fire.

For young people, this is shaping up to be the Lost Season. October is not just any month in a high-schooler's year, it is the month. Marching bands compete, homecoming queens are crowned. It is the reason some kids sacrifice their last month of summer traipsing around a scorched field with tubas on their backs or running wind sprints in the heat.

All of that seems wasted now. The mood at Yorktown High School here is typical of most schools in the area, where students have been under security lockdown almost daily since Oct. 2, when the killings began.

The football team grunts and yells with a diminished sense of purpose at afternoon practice held in the lobby outside the auditorium. Last year the Patriots were the district champs. This year, the season effectively ended Oct. 5, until further notice. They could finish a humiliating 1-4.

"It's horrible," said senior Brett Merkel, 17, the Patriots' co-captain. He's been playing football since he was 7, a defensive end. Football could be his ticket to an Ivy League education, if he gets the chance to show the college scouts what he can do. "This year I played decently but I didn't do anything amazing. But every game it seemed like I was getting better. Just one amazing play would open up my college options -- huge."

The marching band is no better off. The musicians spent a week last summer at a Pennsylvania academy memorizing a halftime show they never had much chance to perform. It takes as much as 25 hours to learn one page of music and footwork and they learned 50 pages -- all of it leading up to this weekend's state marching band festival in Charlottesville.

On Thursday, the district waived the field trip ban and granted them permission to travel. But they'll have to stand still to play.

"Two weeks ago we died -- everything stopped. We can't remember all the moves. So they'll be judged by their music alone," said Timothy Niebergall, the school's director of bands. "This was supposed to be our ultimate experience. A lot of the kids are disappointed. The group is dissipating slowly but surely."

For adults the anxiety is palpable; some have even taken to walking a zig-zag pattern for distances greater than 20 feet. But the children talk more of frustration than fear.

"When you are a senior, you can leave for lunch, that's one of the things you get to do as a senior. But we can't," Danielle Oulin, 17, complained. "People are guarding the door. It's boring, it's tedious, you have to stay here and you can't do anything."

Indeed, daily routines have changed in measurable ways -- so many students are staying on campus that food service sales are up 80%, district officials report. And there is no end in sight as some parents and teachers question how much longer the lockdown can continue.

Looming in their thoughts is a police investigation that, publicly at least, does not seem to be making much progress. District superintendents are looking for ways to salvage the year, including moving sporting events out of the county or centralizing them on one highly secured field where teams take turns playing.

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