No Punchline

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 you—?” 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.

“Who’s there?”
“Gang Lu.”
“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 unversity—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.


  1. says

    I agree. There is no good answer.

    My husband works at VT and I’m a grad student there and a member of the community. It’s funny how reading your account of what happened at Iowa brought me right back to that Monday. Like Lu, I doubt we’ll ever know Cho’s true motivations.

  2. Sara says

    Thanks Wendy! I don’t think I knew you all yet when this happened. I was at the Deadwood that afternoon while the shooting was occurring though. Someone ran in off the street and yelled, “There’s a guy with guns running up the street toward the Pentacrest!” Talk about fear. At least he was going away from where we were… then a few minutes later the TVs in the bar were talking about the shootings. I walked home in that snow and wind (I lived at the time on South Capitol) numb. Just numb.
    I’m still here at UI– and as soon as I heard about VT, I thought about that November afternoon in 1991 too. And I still feel vulnerable. Sitting here at my desk on a campus… am I safe? Ae my children safe in their schools?
    But really, are we ever safe?

  3. Dori says

    I was in Kansas last week during the VT massacre…I saw old footage from the UI shooting on TV there! Believe me, if you live here, it’s still very much on people’s minds. Especially now.

  4. says

    As a non-American, and from afar, school shootings in the US remind me of women killings in Mexico. The first ones seemed odd enough, isolated incidents out of character amid the colossal and confusing crime scene in this country. Near the border with the US, after the first 10 to make it to the news, we all thought we had our own serial killer, which seemed quite a Hollywood and foreign concept. Then, as more and more cases turned up, we had to admit that it was not one killer, but one entire city (Juarez) killing, raping, maiming it’s women. We are only now starting to realize that it is an entire country, gone crazy. And that the next dead woman is around the corner. We are trying to learn something from the dead bodies; find a pattern, a way to stop it before it happens again. And failing.

  5. jfwlucy says

    Amazing — I was in Iowa City that day, in some beer pub up on Rochester Ave, sitting with a friend and ordering pizza, when we saw what had happened on the news. We stayed and got rather drunk, watching the TV the whole time. Some friends of mine were in the Physics Dept., and I just kept waiting and waiting to see if their names were announced.

    I also remember meeting Miya at a party one time, and she ripped on me all night for my Southern accent, and I didn’t know what to say. You can’t call someone out who’s a survivor and and a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, I thought. So I just got up and sat somewhere else. But I still remember it sixteen years later. I wonder if I would remember it if it hadn’t been her.

  6. says

    The aforementioned Michael and I were talking about this this morning, and I said how the Piper Alpha disaster was one of those events for me that resonates whenever I hear of multiple deaths.

    The school shootings certainly make you think about gun control – but these type of disasters also make you think how blase we are to think we are safe everyday, and how much trust we put in other people to do the right thing. And like you said, it just takes one person to snap. Or not even snap, to just not care. Scary.

  7. Andy says

    It seems kinda sad that we sometimes mark our time in communities with shared experiences like “where were you when…” stories. My parents generations had Kennedys assasination, I suppose my generation has 9/11, and it seems alot of people have shared murder experiences too…. oh and of course the only slighty better sporting events shared memories, though the story of where I was when Joe Carter hit the homerun to win the Toronto Blue Jays World series in ’92 is a very interesting story….

  8. says

    Another university worker here. I just had a meeting last week with a bunch of advisors, and HOLY CRAP did they have a bunch of “we’ve just got kids that are ticking time bombs and nobody can figure out what to do about them other than to shut down at lunch for security reasons”-type stories. One kid in particular is going around threatening faculty members and sounds quite crazy- and somehow he’s managed to get reinstated! At least one dean is supposedly trying to deal with the kid, too. I can’t exactly say what’s going on, but I got the impression that nobody has any idea what to do about these kids that are within rules and regulations.

    I can only hope that when the gunmen come at my school (so far, the only one I know of offed himself and was caught before he offed anyone else), they don’t head to my part of the office. I feel pretty scared for the people who get to deal with students up close.

  9. says

    Have you read “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard? I believe it’s about the Gang Lu shootings . . . I read it in her short story collection on the recommendation of a friend, and it took my breath away. Wonderful in so many ways, but mostly in that it worries that crazy dividing line you mentioned like the edge of a blanket–explosions in a room and in a brain, even though everyone else is just doing their same old thing, and all the furniture and buildings are standing there like nothing happened, and nobody can incorporate the events any more easily than they could a mid-campus alien abduction. Anyway–definitely worth a read. The whole collection is pretty good, but that one story is on another plane.

  10. Wendy says

    Gaea–I remember reading it when it first appeared in the New Yorker… I just sort of happened upon it and I was a few pages in before I realized what it was about. It was a great essay. The Wikipedia entry on Gang Lu links to it here.

  11. page says

    I wasn’t expecting this… to see Gang Lu’s name after all of this time, to see someone mention Miya- especially randomly in a blog but it was the day I thought of when I saw the news about VT last week, when i saw the news about Columbine so many years ago… all of it comes back to my Junior year of high school in Des Moines, when I realized that no one is really safe, and nothing really makes sense.

    Thanks for remembering- now I know my touchstone for this type of thing is also someone elses.

  12. says

    Wow – that’s a great post. When I was at Western Michigan University in the late 80s there was a woman raped and murdered on the campus track, which was a clear sight from our back door. It happened late one Friday or Saturday night and she wasn’t found until the next morning. We stumbled into our back yard hungover to the vision of many police cars and much police tape. I think it really shook all of us, really driving home the point that we frequently take our safety for granted. Thanks for writing such a powerful and personal entry about a topic so many of us would like to be able to distance oursselves from.

  13. says

    i remember that. i was a sophomore and living just down iowa avenue from van allen at the chi-o house. looking back, i was pretty oblivious to the danger. i knew about the ted bundy murders at florida state, but pre-columbine, the notion that we could be victims of a shooting spree was lost on my sheltered little 18-year-old brain.

  14. says

    I was still a high school student in Cedar Rapids when that happened, and I panicked when I heard of it because my mom was on the UI faculty. And when I was a student at UI a few years later, I thought of it nearly every time I walked through the door of Van Allen Hall.

    Especially when I heard that the VT shooter was also an Asian immigrant, I expected to see the TV news light up with images of Gang Lu. But I didn’t. Like you, I seldom found any mention of it anywhere. It made me quite sad that these types of shootings are such a common occurrence that Gang Lu has been pushed off the bottom of the list.