A city loses its innocence in increments — not in batches. I was alarmed to learn my hometown — Lincoln, Nebraska — recently had an incremental loss of its innocence blared in headlines and broadcast in frightened feelings. The incident happened between two strangers caught in the February chill on a Lincoln Public Schools bus. The city was irrevocably changed.
One month into Ed Rypkema’s new job, trouble jumped onto his Lincoln Public Schools bus and the retired over-the-road trucker didn’t hesitate. “I seen the knife sticking out of his pocket and I knew it wasn’t good. So I just grabbed that knife and pushed him off.” … “There’s murderers out there,” Rypkema recalls the man saying.”They’re going to kill us! They’re going to kill us!” Rypkema saw the handle of a knife sticking out of his sweatshirt pocket as the man crouched on the steps. Rypkema grabbed it, pushed the man off the bus and closed the doors. Then he radioed his superiors and waited for police.
One of my professional musician friends from Chicago told me the the most amazing thing he learned about Lincoln, Nebraska 20 years ago was how much everyone trusted each other. My friend could not believe how all the cars downtown were unlocked and the windows were rolled down in the heat of the summer.
He told me in Chicago you’d never see anything like that anywhere in the city — everything would be rolled up and locked up tight. When my friend told me of his first impression, I felt it was my duty to tell him things had changed in Lincoln. Downtown crime near the university was on the rise and people now lock their doors and roll up their windows. My friend seemed disappointed that his warm memories of Lincoln had been cooled by a new reality. You could see evidence of Lincoln’s incremental loss of innocence as the shine in his eyes dimmed a bit.
LPS officials called the Thursday afternoon incident a “teachable moment” for administrators in the midst of a full-scale review of security measures in the district. “Anytime we have a situation like this, it becomes a training situation,” said Dennis Van Horn, associate superintendent for business affairs.”We’ll go back, make sure to talk to drivers about what to do in those situations.” Training currently includes bus driving skills, emergency evacuations and keeping order on the bus. Now there will be an additional subject: intruders. “It will become a standard part of training,” Van Horn said.
When I learned about the knife-wielding stranger trying to gain access to a Lincoln Public Schools bus, I could not help but wonder back to my own childhood there when the streets were safe. You could play alone outside until the streetlights came on — then you had to run home — and every school bus and school were rightly treated as extensions of the safety of your own home. From afar, Columbine and Virginia Tech warned us off the assumed safety of our schooling.
The strangers on a school bus was another incremental loss of city innocence that changes things forever. I find it fascinating that new bus driver Ed Rypkema wasn’t a Lincoln native. He’d seen the world. He knew of the treachery and killing that lived in other urban cores. Rypkema wasn’t charmed into a false sense of well-being in Lincoln and he wasn’t coddled by the advertising ideal of “The Nebraska Good Life” motto. Rypkema knew the highs and the lows of the road as a truck driver, and he’d witnessed firsthand how a city loses its innocence and — as a stranger in a new homeland — he fought that increment in a shove back against another stranger’s a knife.
Rypkema, who used to own a hardware store in North Dakota and drove a truck after he and his wife moved to Lincoln to be close to their two daughters, was hired by the district in December. He said he saw a story in the paper about how LPS needed drivers and decided to apply. Nothing like this ever happened in his years as a truck driver, he said. “I slept in New York City, went through Harlem at 2 in the morning. I slept in a lot of bad places, and a lot of times I didn’t even lock the door. Nothing.”
Sometimes, when strangers in a common land meet — the goodness in one triumphs over the black will of another — and in that fight for morality and duty, and and in that battle for the preservation of The Good Life even in the darkening of innocence lost — is an inching towards the light instead of away from it.