Mike Magnuson

On the Road to a Mass Shooting

Mike Magnuson shared a bike ride with his daughter on their way to the location of a tragic shooting that happened a year ago at Fritse Park in Menasha, Wisconsin.

 

A year ago, late in the afternoon on Cinco de Mayo, I suited up for an easy spinner bicycle ride with my 18-year-old daughter Anne and stood in the garage waiting for her and feeling like my brain was leaking out of my ears.

“Goddammit, Annie,” I yelled. “Are you coming, or what?”

I heard her in the house, fumbling around, probably looking for her sunglasses, which had been lost since she bought them two years previous. “Dad,” she yelled, “will you please mellow out this one time?”

I couldn’t. I had ants eating me alive from the inside out. I had too much work to do at my desk and not enough time to ride my bike as much as I wanted, to get outside four hours a day, at least, for weeks on end, in the wind and the rain, to experience real life, to achieve something I could feel, as opposed to sitting at my desk sorting through an endless pile of nonsense and dreaming about happier times to come.

“Let’s go,” I yelled. “Before I get too old to ride my bike!”

When I did have time to get out and ride, like then, I would sometimes try to kill an extra bird with my one stone, so to speak, and go for a ride with someone in the family. That way, I’d get my ride in and still have that quality American family time that apparently we work ourselves to death for the freedom to enjoy. That didn’t always piss me off, but on that day, it did. I should have ridden alone.

Finally, Anne erupted from the house into the garage in her bike kit and holding her helmet and a water bottle but no sunglasses: a short girl, five feet one, and blond and pale and generally amusing, but at a time like that, an hour after her long shift in the kitchen at Noodles & Company, she looked wild-eyed and raggedy and vaguely menacing, as if she’d spent too much time with the Wildlings beyond the Wall and had been planning an unnamed revenge against an enemy yet to reveal itself.

“You got your shit together now?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said with a sharp p, a habit of hers to pronounce yep that way. Linguists describe a p as a plosive, meaning that to say a p we hold our lips shut and explode air through them.

“You sure you wanna ride to the park to see what’s up?” I asked.

She plunked her water bottle in its cage and tugged with some irritation to click her helmet strap in place and lifted her eyes and said, “Yep.” That same pop to the p, a sound like a pistol report somewhere in the distance.

“We could ride somewhere else,” I said. “Doesn’t matter to me where.”

“Nah,” she said. “We’ll go to the park.”

Fritse Park. About eight miles to ride there: three miles on the road, the rest of the way on the smooth black asphalt of the Friendship Bicycle Trail. In Fritse Park, the Friendship Trail becomes the Trestle Trail, a half-mile converted railroad trestle that connects the west side of Lake Buttes des Mortes with the paper mill city of Menasha, Wisconsin. It’s a beautiful place, really, and we had ridden to the trestle dozens of times before and found a bench in the middle, at the pavilion there, and ate candy bars and contemplated the meaning of life in the gray, lapping waters on each side of the trestle. “Buttes des Mortes,” I always said out there on the trestle, “means Cliffs of the Dead.”

“Okay, Dad,” Annie always said. “I get the concept already.”


We live in Grand Chute, on the northeastern edge of Appleton, or at least what used to be the edge of it. This has been farmland for generations, with narrow, perfectly straight roads alongside the fields, roads designed for farmers. But the farmers are leaving or are already gone, and the fields around here don’t grow corn or soybeans or alfalfa anymore; they grow houses with three-car garages, and these houses grow people, and people grow cars, and cars make people angry.

So, on Cinco de Mayo last year, when my daughter and I rolled onto Mayflower Road, a breeze blew into our faces from the south and the oncoming traffic approached with it: workers, in the trucks and vans necessary to build and maintain and clean and remodel the houses with three-car garages; and residents, in their BMWs and Audis, with children who need transport from one self-fulfilling soccer practice or choir rehearsal or church youth group meeting to the next.

“I hate ’em all,” I said.

“Me, too,” Anne said.

We didn’t hate anybody. That was just something we said because we knew that on Mayflower Road, at this time of day, our lives would mean nothing to that mom in her BMW X5 trying to get little Tommy to his piano lesson on time.

“Here’s some irony for you,” I said. “Today is Cinco de Mayo, and here we are riding our bicycles on Mayflower Road.”

“What?” Anne said.

She hadn’t quite mastered the art of having a conversation while riding single file, so I swung my bike to her left and rode side by side so my mouth would be closer to her ear. So I said that thing about Cinco de Mayo again and added a few thoughtful remarks on white Christian exploitation of indigenous cultures, which maybe didn’t actually have anything to do with Cinco de Mayo but felt like a good place to start a conversation and she appeared to ponder the matter.

I kept pedaling alongside her because I could tell we were about to have a quality father-daughter moment. Most of the traffic came toward us, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to be riding two abreast.

Anne said, “You know what really pisses me off?”

“Tell me,” I said.

“Eddie at work,” she said. “He’s such an asshole when I’m working Line 1.”

As usual, my political/social philosophizing had bored the shit right out of her. She had been thinking about her job in the kitchen at Noodles & Company and its staff of douchebags with bad tats and vape pens and Monster energy drinks and Xboxes waiting for them at home. She was the only female in the kitchen and the guys treated her like shit, especially Eddie, one of the shift managers.

“That seriously sucks,” I said.

“Eddie’s a jackass,” Anne said.

Just then, a blue minivan roared by from behind with the windows down, a man yelled, “Get the fuck off the road, asshole!”

Without hesitation, I yelled, “Chickenshit!” and gestured to him in Italian sign language for Ah fanabla, raising my hand and curling my fingers, indicating he should get his ass back here and apologize for his behavior.

That might not have been the exact wording or exactly what happened, but then again, it was. It’s all pretty much the same, every time. That’s part of recreational cycling in the Land of the Free. If you put on spandex and a helmet and shades and roll on the streets, someone is going to look at you and see a giant leotard stretched over a lollipop and take offense.

I wasn’t innocent in this instance, of course. I hadn’t been riding single file, and even though the League of American Bicyclists encourages us to ride two abreast at all times to give ourselves better visibility and to take better control of our place on the road, motorists never appreciate two abreast.

It took the guy in the van a while to assess the meaning of my gesticulations and their accompanying Italian phrases, but his brake lights flashed and he pulled into an industrial driveway across the road from Little Mittens day care center and its friendly, welcoming sign near the front door.

My confidence and self-righteousness surged the closer we drew to the minivan. I didn’t want violence. I just wanted to make a simple observation about how we could work together to maintain a civilized society: I wanted him to mellow the fuck out.

My daughter wasn’t thrilled with my behavior. She kept surging forward, trying to get between the driver of that van and me.

“Dad,” she said. “Take it easy.”

But I wasn’t putting up with bullshit. “Get your ass behind my back wheel,” I said. “Now!”

Sometimes I wonder why I react like that and how I am able to go into those situations without fear: me, with my artificial hip, with my right shoulder so ravaged from arthritis that I can hardly reach back with my right hand to scratch my ass. My lack of fear could be a function of the sport of cycling itself. You know that guy who plays lunch hour basketball? The guy who throws elbows and plays like each trip down the floor is the final possession of the NCAA Championship with victory on the line? We often say it’s the sport bringing out the worst in the man, that he’s a sweet, wonderful man when he’s not on the basketball court. But me on a bicycle? I’m arrogant, loud, dismissive, and opinionated. In other words, I’m exactly the same asshole as I am the rest of the time, so I guess that means the bike has nothing to do with it.

When I reached the minivan, I nosed my bike next to the driver’s door and got myself ready to keep the guy inside from opening the door and jumping out and beating the shit out of me. Were he to have had a gun, of course, the party would have ended on the spot, but then again, if he were to have shot me, either the cops would have caught him almost immediately or he would have had to shoot himself to avoid imprisonment. That was his call, not mine. But why did I take this risk? What the hell was wrong with me? Then again, fuck ’em. There’s only so much harassment a man on a bicycle can endure in this life.

The man in the minivan seemed about my age, salt-and-pepper hair, weathered-looking. He had a mustache and pale green eyes. He wore a dark blue windbreaker with a Town of Seymour Volunteer Fire Department insignia on the chest.

“You goddam bikers!” he said. “The law is single file.”

“You’re right,” I said. “We should have been riding single file.”

“Fuckin’ right,” he said. “Single file unless you can ride 35 miles per hour!” He did not make eye contact with me but kept his eyes fixed on my daughter, who easily could be mistaken for a twelve-year-old, and he spoke only to her. I could tell that he was afraid I might bust open a can of whup-ass on him; or worse, produce a gun and shoot him.

“It’s our fault,” I said. “We should have been riding single file.”

“And you need to learn the rules of the road,” he said.

“Hey, man,” I said. “I have apologized. I have admitted wrongdoing here. But there’s no need to get so upset.”

He leveled a hateful look at my daughter as if he were trying to get inside her brain and plant a set of profound moral instructions that would stick with her for life and keep her the hell off his roads for good.

She said, “We told you we were sorry.”

“Tell that to the police,” he said and then hit the gas and tore off onto the road and kicked up some pebbles that stung my legs.

He could have run us over with that van and killed us if he had wanted to.

We started pedaling again, two abreast, and pedaling calmed me.

Anne said, “What was his problem? We weren’t doing anything wrong!”

“I know, kid.”

She was still wrapped in the moment. “Can you hear the police coming?”

I saw birds in the trees, probably calling to each other, but in the afternoon hiss of traffic, who heard them? Who heard sirens this time of day?

I said, “That guy’s not calling the police.”

“I hope he does,” my daughter said, “because he’s the guy causing problems. Not us.”

“My guess is he had some troubles,” I said, “and yelling at us made him feel better.”

“Fuck that,” she said.


At the end of Mayflower, we hopped onto a short single-track dirt trail where, a couple of years previous, my wife crashed her cyclocross bike. I remembered the sun was shining and I saw a flume of dust where she had once been with her bike. She had to go to the emergency room with a twisted knee. I remembered the ER nurse asking her, “Do you feel safe in your home?”

She did. But she said, “I certainly don’t feel safe on my bike.”


A few miles later, Anne and I reached the end of the Friendship Trail and stopped for a second before riding out on the trestle. More people than usual were on the trail, most of them on foot, a number of them carrying bouquets of flowers and looking at the ground as they walked toward the trestle and onto the trestle and headed toward the red-roofed pavilion in the center. In the playground area, not one child dangled on the monkey bars or squealed on the swings and slides. At the edge of the parking lot and near the lapping gray shore of Little Lake Buttes des Mortes, police squad cars were parked, with officers standing at attention nearby. The parking lot was crammed with white news vans with their satellite extensions raised high into the cloudy heavens like baby birds sticking their beaks out of a nest, waiting for a taste of their mother’s regurgitated worms. In every available patch of grass, confident, well-adjusted-looking reporters spoke into cameras or composed themselves before their live spot would begin. The reporters seemed young to me, not one of them much older than 23.

My daughter and I knew all that would be there. We wouldn’t have missed it. That was all anybody in the area had talked about for two days, and we rode there with the express purpose of seeing that spectacle.

Forty-eight hours before, a Menasha man named Sergio Valencia del Toro, a former mechanic in the Air Force, got drunk and into an argument with his girlfriend in their upstairs apartment five blocks on the other side of the Trestle Trail. According to the Menasha Police Department’s final report on the incident, his girlfriend thought the time had come to be just friends because she didn’t feel love for him the way she did in Texas, when she was stationed with him on the same base. Del Toro had been depressed in Wisconsin and was not taking his medications and the only thing that made him happy, his girlfriend told police, was his gun collection. So she left the apartment for a while to cool off the argument and he went into the bedroom and selected a revolver and a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and some clips and stuffed them in a messenger bag and rode his orange Motobecane Fat-tire bike over to the Trestle Trail and out to the middle of it, to the red-roofed pavilion, where he leaned his bike against the guardrail and then took a while to collect himself, to stare in the waters of Little Lake Buttes des Mortes and search for the meaning of life.

Del Toro was out there for nearly an hour, most of which time, as can be seen in various cell phone pics the police collected from people who were on the trestle that day, he was talking with a thirty-one-year-old youth minister named Adam Bentdahl. You have to imagine the youth minister recognized the distress and tried to succor it with the word of God and the spirit of Jesus Christ, our personal savior. Jesus Christ, who could not save Adam Bentdahl, Jesus fucking goddam Christ.

Del Toro removed a pistol from his messenger bag and shot the youth minister right between the eyes.

At that moment, Jon and Erin Stoffel, both thirty-one years old, approached the pavilion with their three children, two girls and a boy, all under seven years old. Erin Stoffel describes hearing a bang and seeing one man standing over another in the pavilion, then the man reached into the bag again.

Del Toro shot Jonathan Stoffel seven times and killed him and shot five-year-old Olivia Stoffel three times and killed her and shot Erin Stoffel three times, and then he pointed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Erin Stoffel, the mom, had been shot in the stomach and in both legs and somehow managed to guide her two surviving children two hundred yards off the trestle so they could run for help, and she lived, and her story went viral. CNN ran the story on its website: “Mom shot 3 times saves kids in gun attack.” In fact, nearly every media outlet in the country ran it on their websites or mentioned it briefly on the air, and that day, when the Trestle Trail reopened after two closed days since the shooting, every local media outlet in the state of Wisconsin was in the trestle parking lot, finding a way to recapture the horrors for the people watching at home.


Anne and I rolled across the trestle toward the pavilion in single file, not saying a word, and on the benches in the pavilion, hundreds of bouquets were stacked like firewood.

Two men in their thirties, guys who had that acetate-windbreaker look that suggested developmental disability and cases on file with Winnebago County Social Services, stood in front of the benches and stared at the evident blood spatter and were saying, “He was just blasting away.” “I hear he reloaded twice.” And so on.

We rode to the far side of the trestle and found a bench and parked our bikes and watched the procession of mourners and gawkers that came and went.

Anne had nothing to say. She gripped her water bottle and stared at the red-roofed pavilion.

Someone in the media area fired up a generator. It looked like one of the vans was trying to raise its satellite antenna higher. A camera crew stood near us, really young-looking kids; the girl reporter could not have been a day older than sixteen with a cheap dress from Forever 21, the kind of dress all her friends would wear for girls night at Olive Garden when they would line up and take pictures of their perfect life with their beautiful friends in their permanent smiles and flattering poses. Sure enough, she said, “This is Alyssa Van Something-or-Other, Menasha High School Student News ….”

Beyond that reporter was another young reporter and another young reporter, all the way across the trestle, all of them just kids, just second-string beginners there covering a mass shooting that wasn’t dramatic enough to get the on-scene attention of the heavy hitters from New York. Maybe if the shooter had doubled the dead, maybe if he had made a run for it, maybe if he had holed up in his apartment after the shooting with hostages, maybe CNN would have sent Anderson Cooper to us then. Anderson Cooper would have stared through the screen with his sorrowful eyes and told us, for the hundredth time, that he can’t imagine the grief people are experiencing here. Maybe Anderson Cooper would have held the survivor’s hands and said, “I want to thank you for your bravery.” And the nation would have wept with us. As it was, we had kids covering the story, kids dreaming of one day becoming Anderson Cooper and traveling, all expenses paid, to sites of horrific tragedies all over the world.

“If Anderson Cooper were here,” I said, “this would be a lot more fun. We would be on national TV.”

“Dad,” Anne said, “that’s so messed up.”

I put my arm around the kid and puffed my cheeks and let out a long exhale and, because there was no use denying it, I said, “Yep.”

 

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Mike Magnuson

Mike Magnuson is the author of two novels, The Right Man for the Job and The Fire Gospels; two memoirs, Lummox: The Evolution of a Man and Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180; and book of cycling humor, Bike Tribes: A Field Guide to North American Cyclists. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Esquire, Gentleman’s Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Men’s Health, Backpacker, Popular Mechanics, and other publications, and he has written many features for Bicycling magazine. He lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he is finishing a novel about the 1944 Tour of Flanders. He also teaches prose writing in Pacific University’s Brief-Residency MFA Program in Forest Grove, Oregon.

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