15. Eagles Circle

Boston, Massachusetts

Marvin Lafontaine opened his email account. He had a new message, from an old friend:

From: Nancy Lanza

Date: Mon, 18 Jan 1999 23:20:19

To: Marvin LaFontaine

Subject: Testing testing…

See? I was right here the whole time!!! All you had to do was click your mouse three times and say… (Is that analogy lost on you? I’m never sure if you get these references to American culture!)

Love,

Nancy

January 19, 1999

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

The Lanzas had been waiting for the internet to be connected at 36 Yogananda for months. Nancy knew it was finally working when she got her reply back; Marvin assured her that yes, they did get The Wizard of Oz where he grew up in France, so he got the reference… and it was just so good to hear from Nancy again. (They would go on to exchange emails regularly over the next eight months — from the Lanza family’s first winter in Newtown, through the start of their second year.)

Marvin, ever the scout leader, asked if there was a troop there for the boys to join.

Yes, Newtown did have a scout troop, Nancy said. She had signed Ryan up with them, and in fact, she had just attended their annual charity fundraiser, which provided her one of her earliest moments of culture shock; in Kingston, the event would have been a modest potluck at a parent’s house. But in Newtown, it was a catered banquet. “Fund raising doesn’t ever seem to be much of an issue,” she reported back. “I think that cash just drips off the trees down here!”

Still, they weren’t going to be with the scouts much longer; Ryan had decided not to “cross over” to the Boy Scouts that year. One more pinewood derby, and he was done. “I wish he would stick with it…but he is certainly old enough to make his own decision on this issue,” she wrote of her 10-year old. Ryan wanted to move on to karate, basketball, and debate, and she wanted to support him.

Adam dropped out of the scouts at the same time, still following in his older brother’s orbit. But a neighbor remembers seeing him at one of those last scout meetings, in Newtown. “Adam seemed to do the bare minimum as far as participation goes,” they recall. “He really didn’t take to a special interest and/or hobby. In my opinion it appeared as though Adam was forced to participate in the scouts by his family.”

* * *

Nancy wrote often about her plush new life, and she admitted that part of her had already grown accustomed to it: she recently had been planning a family vacation to Disney World, and was discussing a certain hotel with a girlfriend who had stayed there before. The friend told Nancy it was a nice place, but “I don’t see YOU staying there.” Nancy asked why not; the friend said, “Three words…NO ROOM SERVICE!” Nancy had to cop to this: “She knows me well!”

Meanwhile, life back in Kingston had carried on without the Lanzas. Marvin complained about a wedding he had to attend soon, and Nancy gave him some tips on how to enjoy the day: “Mix and mingle…keeping a sharp lookout for weaknesses…it’s great sport.” Once, she had attended a wedding where “the Bride’s side LOATHED the Groom’s side,” a situation that became a source of entertainment: “The drunker the families got, the more open hostilities became…and of course I went from one side to the other…fanning the flames. Too much fun for one day! The bonus is that you get to gossip all day and dance all night! Who could pass up a chance for that???” As for the families that she got so riled up, they never had a clue what she was up to. “I was incredibly discreet and they were far too self-absorbed to notice!”

February 5, 1999

Some friends from Kingston stayed at 36 Yogananda one weekend. They brought Nancy fresh gossip, and Adam and Ryan got to see some old faces. After the kids all went to bed, Nancy and her friends stayed up watching There’s Something About Mary, and giggled into the night.

When the guests woke the next morning and parted the blinds, they found that snow had fallen, blanketing the old colonial town in a layer of sparkling white. Nancy’s guests turned to her and gasped, “What is it about Connecticut… everything is just SO picture perfect!!”

Nancy only smiled, and said, “We pay extra for this!”

Shepaug Hydroelectric Power Station— Southbury, Connecticut

At the same time, four miles north along the Housatonic, where Shepaug Dam opens downstream into Lake Lillinonah, a flock of bald eagles was stirring from their nests. The birds wintered every year at a nature reserve there, on the grounds of the hydroelectric facility. This habitat on the Housatonic, like the lake itself, was a chance side-effect of a human civilization having been in need of 42,800 kilowatts more energy back in 1954, and deciding to build their hydroelectric dam at that spot on the river: since its construction, whenever the river froze over in the winter, making it impossible for the predator birds to feed on its fish — circumstances that would typically force them to fly further south for the season — the waters just downstream from the dam’s turbines would still be flowing.

There had been precious few sightings of the eagles at Shepaug Dam that year. It was always hit and miss: sometimes they soared and put on a show, and sometimes they hid in the trees. But it so happened that the waters of the Housatonic were running high that day; the workers at the dam decided it was prudent to open the flood gates, sending a curtain of churning, white water cascading down the slope of the dam — and dumping thousands of river herring into the lake.

Suddenly, a whole flock of birds took to the sky; so many, in fact, that the next day’s Newtown Bee would report that a new record had been set for sightings in the skies over Sandy Hook.

The eagles, circling, drifted over 36 Yogananda. Thousands of feet below, Nancy watched the majestic creatures from her porch, with her house guests. She counted ten birds, soaring back and forth over their snow-covered neighborhood for the better part of an hour. Then, a real treat: two of the bald eagles separated from the flock, and descended, down into the backyard of 36 Yogananda. The two birds landed on one of the bare branches of the trees facing the Lanza family’s backyard; they were not fifty feet from Nancy, who sat in awe, capturing the moment on the family video camera.

“My Place” Restaurant — Newtown, Connecticut

Nancy found her favorite spot in Newtown. “My Place” was a local institution, with an ambiance that visitors would often compare to Cheers; when Nancy set out to find a social hub in her new surroundings, it was one of her first stops: on Queen Street, one block over from Main Street, right between the flagpole and St. Rose of Lima church. She told Marvin she would have to take him to My Place sometime: “I go there with the boys for dinner on Wednesday or Thursday nights. When we have weekend company, we usually go there one night so that I get a break.”

As it turned out, the family that owned My Place were all Red Sox loyalists; season ticket-holder Nancy already had an “in,” and plenty of memories to share. She soon got to know the bar’s regulars, and some of them still remember her from this time, back when the family was new in town: the loving mom bringing her two boys in for breakfast, or coming in for “to go” salads, and then lingering in the bar with a glass of chardonnay, chatting about baseball, or politics, or her favorite vineyards.

“Americans have little regard for wine…80% of American households don’t even own a corkscrew!” Nancy once raved at Marvin. “It is criminal!”

Of course, Nancy was not one of those Americans; she even kept a spare corkscrew in her overnight bag. She wondered if she got her palette from her mother, whom she remembered would make her own vintage down in the cellar of the old colonial home on Depot Road. Nancy had never tasted that wine, she said, but it was “potent…I’m sure!!!”

March 2, 1999

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Just before midnight, Marvin got an email from Nancy. Their conversation had recently drifted into politics: President Clinton had been acquitted in his impeachment proceedings, defeating charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and it was clear he was going to stay in office until the end of his term. Marvin had apparently expressed what was a common sentiment at the time: Clinton only lied about adultery, so what did it matter?

Nancy was so mad, she said she had to take a few hours to calm down before she wrote her response, to get her “ranting and raving under control.” Her now-tempered reaction was nonetheless fiery: “ARE YOU SERIOUS???????”

She wanted to make two things clear: she did not like Bill Clinton, and she thought Marvin was wrong to dismiss what the president had done. It was a matter of principle; in her view, Clinton had violated his oath of office, and committed perjury — period. It didn’t matter why, or that it was about a personal matter, or how the Senate had voted on the impeachment. It was wrong.

This message stands out from all of the other correspondence between Nancy and Marvin: she sent it in the middle of the night, with uncharacteristically poor spelling at some points, and excessive punctuation in others. “I have to tell you that the ‘Everybody else is doing it’ mentality doesn’t cut it for me,” Nancy began: “He has opened the door for anyone with that ‘Everyone else does it’ attitude to commit perjury without a second thought. It underminds the entire justice system.” Clinton’s oath of office meant that he was “supposed to uphold the Constitution…not defile it,” and if lying under oath was now acceptable in America, Nancy believed, “We may as well turn over to the English System of Courts.”

Besides, it wasn’t the adultery itself that Nancy was offended by — “I could care less if he is unfaithful to his wife” — it was the lying, and the manipulating. “I have a problem with someone who puts his friends, wife, and daughter in that position without a thought to their feelings.” That applied to everyone — but it was far more serious when the person was in the Oval Office, and there were potentially lives at stake:

We entrust him to use good judgement…and he has worse jugement than a high school jock. He doesn’t take the responcibility seriously…he talks to senators about whether or not to deploy troups to Iraq…while getting a blow job! How would you feel if he was deciding on sending one of YOUR children into harms way…with so little concern!

“One more thing,” Nancy threw in, just before she clicked SEND: “…can you tell how upset this has made me? I will look forward to your rebuttal…”

* * *

The next morning, Nancy was feeling remorseful. She sent a follow-up to Marvin, in advance of the reply she had egged on the night before.

Sorry…just a slight aftershock. You are causing me to suffer from Politicaltosis….. a rare form of posttraumatic stress syndrome.

Carry on…..

Love,

Nancy.

Marvin assured her that it was okay. But Nancy just apologized more.

The glossy finish she had been trying so hard to put on her situation, almost in an instant, faded away: things were not perfect at 36 Yogananda, after all. She was under a lot of stress, in an unfamiliar place, and most of all, “I have been a bit lonely down here in between visits from friends.”

Early April, 1999

The approach of spring meant birthdays for both Ryan and Adam (theirs being only twelve days apart), and the recent move meant still another multiplying of the festivities that Nancy had to plan. “Ryan is having an ‘Old Friend’ party and a ‘New Friend’ party…Adam is having only a ‘New Friend’ party…but he has 26 new friends!!! They will both have a family party and a school party. That is a grand total of SEVEN parties…UGGGHHH!!!!”

Nancy said she had to get to work on the invitations soon. Marvin hazarded a guess: Peter wasn’t helping with the parties, right?

“Yes, you are correct,” Nancy replied. “Peter always comes to the parties, but doesn’t help with the planning. The planning is one of my strong points, so I handle that.” Of course, no one could accuse her husband of being lazy, and lately he’d been taking it to still-another level for General Electric. “Peter works incredible hours…he leaves at 5:00 to 5:30 in the morning and gets home usually around 10:00,” Nancy said. “Sometimes he comes home early…7:30…and sometimes later …12:00. Major workaholic, but, as you know, there are worse things.”

Still, the harder her husband worked to provide for the family, the more Nancy felt like she was running the house and raising their children almost by herself: “Peter usually likes to spend the weekends with the boys if he isn’t working. It is really the only time he sees them since they are often in bed by the time he gets home, and he leaves before we wake up.” Her resentment, at times, was unmistakable. “Peter has no house related chores…I take care of everything myself…so that frees him up for the fun stuff.”

* * *

Nancy talked about some of the steps she was taking to reduce the stress in her life. Her mother had recently visited from Kingston, and at one point Nancy sent Adam, Ryan and Peter out to show grandma the town — and to give Nancy some time to herself. “She is very good to them,” she wrote of Grandma Dorothy’s time with the Lanza boys.

Marvin asked Nancy if she was like her mother, which drew a laugh: “We are polar opposites.” She went on to say that she was actually “very different than anyone” in her family. It had always been that way. Sometimes, she said, the family would joke that she had been adopted, “or that there was some mix-up at the hospital.”

With the kids out of the house, Nancy decided had to take a “spa day” for herself at the fancy Noelle salon in Stamford — “much needed and well deserved!!!” — and having found herself calmed by the experience, she recommended to Marvin that he try and reduce the stress in his own life: “Stress can make you susceptible to many things…” She also wrote the she had recently begun seeing a masseuse who was a student of Reiki, “an ancient oriental practice of healing and spirituality.” She claimed that the Japanese therapy had been effective in improving her mood. “I am just SO healthy and relaxed you would hardly recognize me.”

Only one thing bothered her about the healthy-living lifestyle: how did her husband stay so driven without any of it? “Peter eats a TON of junk food, wouldn’t consider a glass of water, even as a last resort, doesn’t exercise, doesn’t get more than 5-6 hours of sleep a night, and has only used 3 sick days in the last 20 YEARS.”

For two of those sick days, she was careful to add, Peter had worked from home.

Rock Ridge Country Club — Newtown, Connecticut

Peter’s boss from GE took him out on the golf course one day, and invited Nancy to come along. When the boss saw Nancy’s swing, he said she was a natural; he suggested Peter stay home with the kids once in awhile, so Nancy could put in some time on the links, and develop her technique further. Nancy was flattered. “Golf is very enjoyable and very relaxing….as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, and you are with someone who is fun,” she wrote. But, she still didn’t know many people in Newtown, much less anyone that played. And it was no fun to go alone.

She had encountered the same problem years before, signing up for dance lessons; “I would want to take Ballroom…learn the Tango and all the great old dances,” she said. But Peter wouldn’t go along with it. He would just tell her she was welcome to go dancing by herself. “I tried that once, but the instructor took too much of an interest in my instruction, and I only got a couple of lessons in before I quit,” she told Marvin. “If I could find someone to go with I would try again, but it is not a thing that you can do on your own…even though the advertisements say that no partner is needed.”

* * *

One day, Nancy was listing off to Marvin the extravagant celebrations she was considering for New Year’s Eve. It was still months away, but this was not going to be just any holiday: the year 2000 was coming, and the symbolism of a new millennium was on everyone’s mind. “We tried to make reservations in one of the hotels overlooking Times Square FOUR YEARS AGO and all were booked!” she wrote one afternoon.

The Lanzas would instead choose between an assortment of other galas to attend, but Nancy knew of one she would definitely not be signing up for: “We have a friend in Chicago who has a jet that seats 14. He is going to be ‘Time-Zone Hopping’ to make it to several New years Eve parties. (England, Egypt, Australia…etc.)” Nancy wanted none of it.

Marvin said it actually sounded great.

Nancy replied: “ARE YOU INSANE??????” She dropped a reminder that the ultimate software glitch, Y2K, was still approaching, and was sure to bring technological cataclysm at midnight:

First Y2K will knock off the radars…the sky will be littered with small flights. […] Add to that all the chartered flights and the possibility of a complete air traffic control meltdown due to y2k…

I will be on the ground with my family…possibly in the $3,000 suite in NYC if we luck out…or at a small private party. I like my chances of living through the night at ground level. I can almost guarantee that there will be air disasters on that night, although I certainly hope I am wrong.

Marvin wrote back, and took the scenario further, speculating that the arrival of the year 2000 might be even more cataclysmic than the planes falling from the sky; he was, like so many others in western society at the close of the 20th century, imagining something closer to the apocalypse.

“So…you think the world will blow up on the BIG day, huh?” Nancy replied. “In that case, I will definitely stay on the ground… I would have no interest in rebuilding the world without my boys…you will have to find someone else to mastermind the reconstruction!”