One day in the fall of 1991 my friend Michael and I were in a lounge at the student union at University of Iowa. It was my junior year, and I spent an astonishing amount of it smoking cigarettes in the Wheelroom with Michael. It was a cold, shitty gray Friday; somehow we decided this was enough reason to ditch our afternoon classes. So we set out up the hill through campus and downtown; we stopped to rent a couple of movies, then continued up Washington Street another half mile or so to my place. There were flurries in the air. It was November 1st, which was way too early for snow.
I had never seen Female Trouble so Michael insisted we rent it. I can’t remember what else we rented. We sat around my living room on my yellow couch and watched Divine scream about cha-cha heels. Out the big drafty window we could see the flurries getting heavier. We were glad to be inside. We might have even ordered pizza or made popcorn. Near the end of the movie Divine jumped up and down on a trampoline, and then she took out a gun and started firing away at people. I’d seen Multiple Maniacs and this was even better.
At some point between movies I went into my room and turned on the radio for a moment. It was on KRUI, the campus station. The student deejay was saying something like just stay inside until we find out more. He spoke in that usual flat student deejay tone, so I didn’t think to wonder what it was besides the weather. I could see it was snowing steadily outside. Maybe it was worse than it looked. “Something weird’s going on with the weather,” I told Michael. But we weren’t planning on going anywhere for a while. I started playing a tape on my boom box, or else we watched the second movie, whatever it was, I don’t remember.
It must have been a couple of hours later when my roommate’s mom called. Yes, I told her, Kelly’s at work. No, I hadn’t heard what happened.
We turned on the TV. One of the first things we saw was footage of a gurney being rushed down a sidewalk towards an ambulance. I recognized Van Allen Hall. A guy from my Geography lab was running alongside the gurney. I recognized almost everything and it was all on CNN.
The shooter was a physics graduate student. He’d shot and killed four people in Van Allen and then he walked three blocks across to another building and shot two more people. His name was Gang Lu and he was already dead. He’d shot himself in the second building, in a room a few doors down from one of my lab classes.
The phone was ringing a lot. Sometimes the circuits were busy and you couldn’t dial out. We stayed in front of the TV until after it got dark and then we went downtown to the Deadwood to be with other people. The snow had accumulated and the wind was terrible, but we went the two blocks out of our way to see the police tape over the doors at Jessup Hall. All afternoon we’d been shut in with the snow and the news, everything was distant and strange and running in loops on CNN; we had to go back out in it. On the TV at the Deadwood they ran the names and photos of the dead people. It was after nine p.m. by then.
The next morning Michael and I went out very early for breakfast. We got the Daily Iowan and the Press Citizen. As we walked towards the diner we kept stopping to peek at other newspapers that were lying in the snow in various front yards. We found a Chicago Tribune and the Des Moines paper and a New York Times, and through the plastic bags they came in we could see that the shootings made the front page of every paper.
Gang Lu had lived in an apartment near Van Buren Street. We knew even from the address in the newspaper that it was one of those crappy buildings with Mansard roofs and little windows; we knew the complex. On my way back home I went up to the door and into the entry vestibule to look at his name on the mailbox. As I walked back out I was stopped by a reporter who said he was from Newsweek. “Did youâ€”?” He nodded towards the building.
I didn’t know him, I said, and no, I didn’t live there either. I walked away as fast as I could across the icy sidewalk. I didn’t do anything like that again. But there was no point in being curious; there’d be plenty of stories to read about Gang Lu. Too many to read, really.
We had at least two days off the next week. One of those days I spent with my friend Michael and Susie lying on the floor of Michael’s apartment. We decided, among other things, that one of the most definitive steps towards making life normal again would be to come up with some jokes.
“Gang Lu who?”
As hard as we tried, we had no good punchline for this.
Everything after those first few days gets sort of blurry. For awhile we read everything we could about Gang Lu, and the people he shot, and the one young woman who survived the accident, who was paralyzed and, amazingly, returned to classes that spring in a special wheelchair she controlled with her mouth. The shootings were commemmorated a year later, and then two years later. My last year in Iowa City a campus walkway was named for the university vice-president who’d died the day after she’d been shot in Jessup Hall. Maybe now names of all the people who were killed are now the names of things around the unversityâ€”buildings or rooms or fellowships.
When the news of the Virginia Tech shooting broke I clicked on lists of “Other Mass Shootings in the U.S.” expecting to see the Gang Lu killings listed. It wasn’t. It was too long ago; there were too many other shootings that were more recent and worse. Sometimes you can find it listed under “Other Deady Campus Shootings,” though.
In the first few days after the VT massacre, people were still asking why Seung-Hui Cho wasn’t stopped before the second shooting. But how can you stop someone like that? People would ask me the same thing when I would tell them what happened at Iowa. I don’t know, I’d say. He had the gun in his bag and he walked out like anyone else. You just accept that somehow. You don’t have a good answer at all.