USA TODAY travel reporter Gary Stoller lives in Newtown, Conn., and was one of the first journalists on the scene after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday morning. Here's his personal account of life in Newtown.
NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Stepping gingerly around makeshift memorials across the street from the Aurora, Colo., movie theater where a month before 12 people were murdered and 58 wounded, I mentioned to my daughter how awful it was that such a lively community might forever have a killing-fields reputation.
One disturbed person armed to the teeth with evil intent had shattered and tainted a city in the Denver suburbs in July.
I drove back to our Aurora hotel where family gathered for a wedding, thinking how lucky my two children - Kristin, then 19, and Ben, 18 - were to grow up in Newtown, where violent crime usually meant teenage mischief-makers bashing mailboxes late at night.
How wrong I was.
Four months after our family trip to Aurora, my family and all of Newtown feel the deep and wrenching pain suffered in that Colorado city as we watch hearse after hearse travel through our streets.
Signs of Christmas in Newtown are everywhere, including beautiful Victorian homes bedecked with wreaths and the town's tall Christmas tree sparkling alongside a pond in the historic Ram's Pasture in the middle of town.
Christmas is only four days away, but Newtown residents are living minute to minute, day to day, too numb to think that far ahead. Cheery decorations in place before the shooting pull your heart and spirits in one direction, while the events of the past week and our town's profound grief throw you back into a sober reality. Thousands of residents will come together tonight for a vigil to honor the victims.
People are skipping long-ago-planned Christmas parties, and others are surely behind on holiday shopping - events and things that held weight just a week ago but seem trivial today.
Yet few in this scenic southwestern Connecticut town straight out of a Hallmark card or a Norman Rockwell painting are going to abandon a holiday with so much meaning: the birth of Jesus, a season of hope, a chance to live anew.
My family - and we presume most local families - will find a way to celebrate the holiday. We'll attend Christmas Eve service at Christ the King Lutheran Church, a congregation - like others throughout Newtown - scarred by the massacre. The church is decorated for this normally joyous season on the Christian calendar. This past Sunday, the pastor relayed a story of a family who lost a child in the shooting. They had contacted him, seeking comfort and assurance that their baptized child would go to heaven. The pastor broke down in tears; this man of God who was comforting others then cried on the congregation's collective shoulder.
It seems that most everyone in this town of 27,000 knew someone either directly or indirectly traumatized last Friday. A friend of mine drove a Sandy Hook school bus and had transported children who would die in the shooting. I'd met the mother of the shooter, though I didn't even know she had children. We're all processing the contacts, the anguish, the shattered lives in our own ways.
For those fortunate to have not lost a loved one, Christmas will carry extra meaning and be shrouded in unexpected emotion: tears, tight hugs and distant stares. Friends and family will huddle closer. One never knows when a moment of levity will give way to a shoulder-shaking bout of grief.
Something felt right here
My wife, Terry, and I vividly remember our first Christmas season in Newtown 16 years ago (1996). At a farm minutes from our house, we cut down a Christmas tree after trudging through the snow on a sunny, blue-sky day with 4-year-old Kristin and 2-year-old Ben.
Looking for a safe, affordable place to live with highly rated public schools, we had left behind a rental home and lofty real estate prices in New York's Westchester County several months ago and stumbled into a town we had never heard of.
We were looking for a new start with two preschool children, and something felt right about this "new town" we meandered into after finding houses too pricey in nearby Wilton and Weston.
"We were charmed by the Newtown General Store and the giant flagpole in the center of town," Terry recalls. "We went into a local coffee shop and asked the teen behind the counter if she liked living in Newtown, and she said she loved it. We were so impressed, because most kids would say, 'I can't wait to move out of a small town.'"
That still holds true in 2012. Ben, a University of Connecticut freshman, regularly wears a Newtown baseball hat in tribute - even inside the house - and says he "loved growing up in this town."
Kristin, a Penn State junior who rushed home after the shooting, tells us not to ever sell our home, because she always wants to come back to visit Newtown. She says she may even start a family here.
We moved into our home in 1996 on a very quiet cul de sac - part of a 1990s Newtown real estate boom - feeling quite lucky to be in a nearly 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home on 2 acres with beautiful woods surrounding.
We appreciated turkeys crossing our driveway and foxes with brilliant tails, and we anguished over the deer that chomped on our plants.
Almost immediately after the moving truck left, neighbors rang our bell, welcoming us with home-baked treats. A Newcomer's Club opened its arms to all new families, offering social gatherings, game nights, beer tastings and a softball team.
We were surprised by everyone's kindness and generosity. The town's corny "Newtown is Nicer" slogan didn't seem so corny, and we soon vacationed with new friends and spent Thanksgiving every year with others.
We became enamored with our town where elitism doesn't have its place and CEOs and blue-collar workers mingle at parties. It seems that everyone in town volunteers to work with kids or for noble causes.
We loved Newtown's special charm, including the giant flagpole at an intersection in the middle of the town's two main streets. Sticking with tradition, the town refuses to remove or put a traffic light on the flagpole. Daily traffic congestion is the small price we pay.
We loved the Labor Day parade, one of New England's longest, where lawn chairs are set up for miles and marchers throw candy to children.
Then and now, we love the movies in Edmond Town Hall where a generous benefactor left a big sum of money a long time ago to ensure inexpensive movies for residents. Entry to a movie cost $1 in 1996; today it's $2.
We love the musicals and concerts at all the schools, and how the teachers - and Sabrina Post's performing arts studio - help turn talented students into professional actors, actresses, singers and musicians.
We love rooting for the high school sports teams, including the girls' basketball team that, for the first time last year, won the state championship.
We love the pizza, the victorious gatherings of sports team's celebrating victories at My Place restaurant and the sudsy mind of owner Mark Tambascio, who taught Newtown to drink microbrews or Belgian beer instead of Budweiser.
The serene becomes surreal
Among other things, we are hooked on tiny downtown Sandy Hook with its scenic, babbling river and, downstream, a waterfall that our young children liked to gaze at or scale stones into.
Sandy Hook is also home to Treadwell Park where my kids and others jumped off diving boards into the town pool, my daughter scored her first travel soccer goal and my son drilled a long double to right center.
It was too surreal last Friday to be standing in the parking lot when state police gave initial reports after the shooting that "several" people had been killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School, then quickly whisked away without any further information.
The only safety concerns I ever had in the school were injuries on Ben's basketball team in the gym and the baseball field adjacent to the school.
Sandy Hook's firehouse, where children and staff ran for shelter last week to escape the shooter, was always a joyous place. It holds an annual summertime lobster-bake where families congregate and young children climb aboard firetrucks.
With the recent unspeakable events in mind, I realize I'm blessed to have seen my children grow up. I'm thankful that I met so many wonderful Newtown and Sandy Hook children while spending countless hours coaching them - often three seasons per year - on the baseball diamond from age 6 until they became 19-year-old adults.
Newtown is not just about family and friends. It's also about strangers.
A few months ago, I left my wallet at a fitness club. Near midnight, my doorbell rang, and a stranger handed it back to me. Several years before, my son left an expensive baseball glove on the field, and a few days later it still was there.
My wife ordered more than $10 worth of food for a large group at a donut shop before realizing she didn't have her wallet. A stranger behind her said, "Don't worry, I'll pay for it." And she did.
A close friend, Chris DeAngelis, brought misdelivered mail to the correct address, and the next day banana bread sat on his front porch as a thank-you gesture. This week, DeAngelis' lawn maintenance contractor rang his doorbell and gave him a huge tray of Christmas cookies.
DeAngelis' wife, Laurie, says their family moved to Newtown many years ago, because it was "Mayberry." Maybe it's no longer Mayberry in the eyes of the world, but, once the world's periscope moves away, we'll still be Newtown.
Many in Newtown and Sandy Hook express thanks to people all over the world for their deep concern and generosity, and hope that what happened here will lead to political and social change - and peace.
After all, isn't that what this season's supposed to be about? Peace on Earth?