A light rain was falling from a gray, sullen sky as I pulled my Department of Natural Resources fire control engine in behind a police cruiser from Roseville, Minnesota. As I exited my truck, a steady stream of other law enforcement vehicles was filling in behind me. There was a little over a quarter-mile hike to my destination, Cameron School, on which I was kept company by a continuous throng of law enforcement officers dressed in their duty uniforms. The patches on their shoulders testified that they had come from all corners of Wisconsin as well as surrounding states. The last 75 yards or so we fell into a formed line, two to three persons wide, which led into the school.
Everywhere I looked there were people. Walking, standing, waiting. By the time I reached the school entrance, the enormity of the situation was seeping into my bones. The line wound through the school hallways leading eventually to an area set up where via projector we would watch the memorial service being conducted in the packed gymnasium just a few yards away.
As with most funeral services, it was very emotional as family, friends and community members spoke of who their lost loved ones were and what they had meant to them. The size, scope, and suddenness of this funeral made it feel much different, however. Though I had never met Emily Breidenbach or Hunter Scheel, the Chetek and Cameron police officers shot and killed during a traffic stop one week earlier, by the time the service ended I felt I had got to know them and the lives they had. Several times during the ceremony, tears welled up in my eyes but I was able to discreetly brush them away while seemingly rubbing my cheek or adjusting my glasses. All the love, caring and concern shared through both spoken words and simply by the presence of so many from near and far was a strange juxtaposition to the senseless and unspeakable evil that had precipitated this outpouring of goodness.
At the conclusion of the service, the congregation moved outside to assemble in the school parking lot for the police honors ceremony. Packed in tightly, shoulder to shoulder, it amazed me when I took a look around and noticed that almost the entire parking lot was filled with close to 3,000 people. Other than an occasional cough, there was not a sound from the crowd as we waited 20 minutes or so for the ceremony to begin. Above this silence rose the faint sound of bagpipes, which as they emerged from the school became the unmistakable melody of “Amazing Grace.” “Powerful” is not a big enough word to describe the moment I first heard that sound. The tears flowed freely then, and I didn’t even think of trying to hide them.
Following the police honors ceremony, all law enforcement officers retired to their vehicles to begin an honors procession from Cameron School to Chetek, about a 12-mile route via state Highway 8 and County Road M. People lined the streets of Cameron as we drove on with emergency lights flashing. Leaving town and driving through the rural countryside all the way to Chetek, people were gathered here and there in small groups along the roadside, at the end of nearly every driveway, and crowds at every crossroad, many holding flags or doing heart salutes. Again, this (was an) overwhelming outpouring of love, caring, support and appreciation. On a straight, flat section of Highway 8, there were flashing lights both in front of me and in my mirror for as far as I could see, the procession stretching for reportedly more than 10 miles. Coming into Chetek, we were greeted by crowds of people and fire engines from departments all across northern Wisconsin lining the streets from one end of town to the other, lights flashing. In all my life, I had never seen anything like this and hopefully never will again.
And then it was over. Exiting onto Highway 53 and heading north back toward Cameron, there were no more people or flashing lights. It was just back to normal, where good and evil live side by side, where love, caring, support and appreciation are unfortunately not always so easily seen or displayed. Driving through Cameron past the empty high school parking lot, it amazed me how quickly all visible signs of this day, other than blue ribbons hanging along the road, had vanished in about an hour.
That is when I started thinking about a third funeral service, one that I, like most, wouldn’t be going to. The shooter, the one who had caused this heartbreakingly sad event, also had a family, friends and a life. What will that service look like? Now at that moment, a big part of me said, “I could care less what it looks like or what happens to him. He can go to hell for all I care.”
But there is another part to me. I would like to think the biggest part. A part put there by a mom who raised us to care and try to help others whenever we could, especially those who were struggling. Put there by an education in Catholic grade and high school where beyond core academic subjects, I was taught to live in such a way to make this world a better place. Put there by a lifetime of going to church, reading Scripture and hearing priests share the word of God and what it means to live as Jesus lived. I want to believe that eventually God will guide me to an understanding of how and why one troubled soul could snuff out two beautiful and vibrant lives.
It would be nice to say that as I neared home, a ray of sun broke through the gray veil hinting of a better day tomorrow. That is the way it goes in the movies, but life is not a movie. Still, I carried a hope that one day the families and friends of all those whose lives were turned upside down on a horrible afternoon the day before Easter, and the communities in which they live, would somehow find joy and peace again. That hope is a testament to how truly amazing the power of grace can be.
Ron Weber is a member of Ss. Peter and Paul, Weyerhaeuser.