There was a picture in a book that ignited my imagination when I was barely school-age, and it stuck with me for years. It was a picture of a young boy lying on his back in a huge field. There were some flowers here and there around him. But he was alone in this vast area that the book called a “prairie.”
There was nary a prairie near my 908 Howard Street house in old South Baton Rouge. There were the makings of the interstate highway nearby. There were some pecan trees to the south of my house. Mr. Man King had some cars he was repairing, and there was not much else around there. Mr. O’Connor had a couple of flower beds in his yard. But, I wasn’t allowed in his yard, so even the semblance of prairie was dashed.
The little boy in the picture looked so peaceful, looking up at the big, wide, blue sky. It looked like the most gorgeous place on earth. I must have read the little book 50 times. (Other than the Bible and my school books, it was the only other permanent book in my house for a few years). I repeatedly studied his face and continued to imagine what was going on in his head.
Last week, I saw a photograph in this newspaper that broke my heart, and it too made me wonder what a little boy was thinking. I’ve looked repeatedly at the photo, and each time my heart goes out to the boy. The photo accompanies this column.
In the photograph, Becky Davis Anderson greets officers who have come to her husband’s funeral. Sheriff’s Lt. Shawn Anderson was shot and killed several days earlier while attempting to arrest a rape suspect. The alleged shooter was also shot and later died.
Standing behind his mother, 11-year-old Breland Thomas Anderson has his hands in his pockets and stares at his dad in the coffin. How much pain is this kid dealing with? Baton Rouge has been swimming in a pool of emotions for nearly year. When it seems we are on the way out, tragedy pulls us back into the deep end.
We’ve had unrest after a man was killed by police last July, and we await a U.S. Justice Department decision about whether charges will be filed. Not long after that shooting, six law enforcement officers were shot. Three of them died.
Then there was the historic flooding that inundated a large swath of East Baton Rouge and a few surrounding parishes. Add to that, some nefarious construction contractors and scam artists who have crushed the hopes of flood victims trying to rebuild their lives. This has been a bad season. This photo by my friend Bill Feig is both simple and fantastic. I have seen photos like this before. I have been in situations as a reporter where the emotion in settings like this squeezes the breath out of you.
But studying Breland Anderson looking at his dad peels away whatever protection you have around your emotions. For many boys, their dad is a hero. He may be larger than life to them. I wonder how Breland and his dad connected. Did they play catch? Did they fish and hunt together? Had they made plans for the summer?
Take another look at that photo. Breland is just standing there while everything is going on in front of him. He seems lost in the moment. Is he wondering what his mom and his sister’s lives will be like going forward? Is he angry? Is he sad? Just what is he feeling?
My feelings about this have nothing to do with the political arguments weighing the importance of the survivors of slain law enforcement officers versus those who have lost their loved ones in questionable situations involving those in law enforcement.
And, I’m aware that Breland’s life is no different from that of the thousands of children who lose a parent.
But it’s this photograph that gets me today. It speaks more loudly to me after the pain of senseless killings than any video. It’s raw, and it’s tough to see.
As with that little boy in my favorite book, I want to know what’s up with Breland.
I think it’s best that the photo did not show his face because it keeps us guessing. But I still want to know. I think many of us want to know.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at email@example.com.