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Colo. Survivors Try To Move Forward

April 25, 1999

LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) _ Weeks, maybe months from now, little moments will remind them of what two misfit boys armed with very adult weapons stole from them.

A Kansas farmer won’t harvest wheat with his grandson for the first summer in 12 years. A best friend won’t be buying a fishing boat with his buddy.

Empty chairs in Bible study. Lighter grocery sacks and smaller laundry piles. Unfinished plays and shuttered piano keyboards.

Remove one person from the fabric of this world and it leaves a gap. Remove 15, and the void is enormous. But it is in the discovery of the little absences _ the small holes _ that heartbreak awaits the friends and families of the victims of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

For Columbine football coach Andy Lowry, it might be next August when it’s time to hand lineman Matt Kechter his extra-large uniform.

For Kechter’s kid brother, it might be this week, when he steps off the school bus and finds nobody there to shoot hoops in the driveway.

``Matt always waited by the mailbox for his little brother to come home from school,″ said Greg Barnes, a sophomore basketball player. ``He was the most innocent person I knew.″

For the parents of Steven Curnow, there will be a hollowness on May 19, when the latest installment of the ``Star Wars″ saga is to open in movie theaters with inescapable hype.

Curnow, 14, wanted to become a Navy top gun and pilot his own F16. But in a recliner armed with a remote control, he was transported to ``Star War’s″ mythical world ``a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.″

They could hear their son rewinding the trilogy’s videos and precisely mimicking the characters’ dialogue.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: ``Use the force, Luke.″

Darth Vader: ``I find your lack of faith ... disturbing.″

For Michelle Oetter, it will come on May 1. She had looked forward to wearing her new silver drop earrings and matching twisty necklace to the prom at Ponderosa High School.

In her dreams she danced with her boyfriend, John Tomlin. ``He treated me like I was queen of the world,″ she blurted through tears.

Instead, somebody will return his rented tux _ black with a white vest and silver trim to match her jewelry _ while his remains return to his native Wisconsin.

Even those whose lives were spared are confronted with what they lost.

When Richard Castaldo awoke in Swedish Medical Center and was strong enough to speak, he asked his father to bring him his Led Zeppelin CDs to intensive care.

The 17-year old can nod his head as Robert Plant wails on ``Whole Lotta Love.″ But he can’t tap his foot or jam on an air guitar.

Castaldo is paralyzed from the shoulders down. He was eating lunch outside when he was cut down where he sat by a burst of semiautomatic weapons fire. Five bullets ripped through his chest and back, fragmenting two vertebrae between his shoulder blades.

``Everything north of that works,″ said trauma surgeon William Pfeifer.

Castaldo asked his father who was killed at Columbine. He cried as the names of his classmates were recited.

He couldn’t lift his hand to wipe his tears.

Some try to force the issue, rather than wait to discover what’s been stolen. Three days after Cassie Bernall’s murder, 40 teen-agers from her bible study group at the West Bowles Community Church boarded the same bus that she rode for years.

Their destination: Cassie’s bedroom.

It looked as if she was expected home at any minute: Clothes scattered on the floor. Sparkly blue nail polish and a worn emory board. A love poem taped to the wall. A teacher’s note: ``I cannot see how you missed the purpose of the assignment so completely.″

Bernall was executed in the library after she told one of the gunmen that she believed in God. On her backpack hung a bracelet engraved with the question, ``What would Jesus Do?″

Her father climbed to the roof above her room Tuesday night to hold a vigil with high-powered binoculars trained on the library where his missing daughter lay slain.

``Death is not our friend,″ pastor David McPherson told the youths. ``But it is our companion.″

This summer, Claude Rohrbough’s companion will be gone.

Since he was 3, freshman Danny Rohrbough had helped his grandfather harvest hard red winter wheat every July on 720 acres near Colby, Kan.

Other kids played with Tonka toys. But Danny would ride in the cab of the real McCoy, a diesel combine, perched nearly two stories above the amber waves of grain. Its giant blades can devour a man.

``Of course, he wanted to drive,″ Claude Rohrbough said. ``It wasn’t until last year that we allowed him to operate it.″

By 15, Danny was a quick study.

He learned to judge when the wheat was ready. First you snap the dry, hard head from the stalk. Then you carefully chew the pebbly kernels, feeling how they break.

He learned the right height to cut the wheat stalks, never exceeding 4 mph, and how to pivot the mechanized beast at the end of the row, trailing a golden wake of stalks and stubble.

He might have been the only kid at Columbine High who knew these things.

For that week, he was a world away from Nintendo, booming stereos and playing roller hockey in baggy shorts.

Danny was shot holding an exit door open so others could flee. He died on the sidewalk a few steps from safety.

Claude Rohrbough paused for what seemed to be an eternity.

``We’ll miss his help,″ Danny’s grandfather said, finally. ``We’ll have to find a way to do it without him.″

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