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Why 4/20 is the absolute worst day of the year in Colorado

Why 4/20 is the absolute worst day of the year in Colorado

This Sunday thousands of ganja enthusiasts will gather in Denver's Civic Center for what has become an annual rite of spring, the embrace of cannabis culture at 4:20 on 4/20. But this weekend also marks the peculiar collision of several more somber anniversaries, commemorating some of the worst days this part of the country has ever seen. "April is the cruellest month," T.S. Eliot wrote in the opening line of The Waste Land, "breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire." And some of the memories of April 20th in Colorado aren't exactly blissful.

Journalists are admittedly anniversary-obsessed, using any "today in history" quirk as an excuse to get all retrospective and haul out the clip files. But even folks who aren't quite so calendar-conscious have to be scratching their heads at the convergence of bad juju this weekend.

This Sunday isn't just Easter as well as 4/20. It's also the hundredth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of this week's cover story and one of the darkest episodes in Colorado history, a shootout between striking coal miners and state troops that claimed nineteen lives -- most of them women and children. It was the deadliest labor conflict in American history, one that transformed the American labor movement.

Sunday also happens to be the fifteenth anniversary of the 1999 attack on Columbine High School by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that killed fifteen -- a dozen students and a teacher, followed by the suicides of the two gunmen -- and injured two dozen more. The tragedy transformed the way law enforcement agencies across the country respond to active shooter situations -- and it remains, unfortunately, as noted in my 2012 article "The Columbine Effect," the touchstone for this type of mass shooting, "the standard by which other horrors are measured, the archetype for Harris-and-Klebold wannabes."

And Saturday, April 19? In 1993, that was the date of the federal raid on the Waco compound of the Branch Davidians that killed 76 men, women and children. Two years later, the Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and injured close to 700 others.

At least one of these random eruptions of terror and government ineptitude is related to another. It's clear that Timothy McVeigh timed the blasting of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to coincide with the anniversary of Waco. There's evidence that Harris and Klebold had originally planned their attack for April 19, too -- not out of any particular allegiance to the Branch Davidians or McVeigh, but simply because it was the first school day after prom, and thus a good day for the apocalypse.

So why did Harris and Klebold pick April 20? Was it because that date also happens to be Hitler's birthday? It's an intriguing theory, given Harris's fascination with Nazism, but nothing in his journals indicates he was thinking along those lines. (Everybody has to be born sometime, and Hitler's birthday is shared by Harold Lloyd, Lionel Hampton, Ryan O'Neal, Jessica Lange, George Takei, and oh yes, Carmen Electra.) It appears more likely that the gunmen needed an extra day to get their gear and ammo assembled. That, at least, is the interpretation found in Jeff Kass's 2009 book Columbine: A True Story, now slightly updated and re-released.

There's a slew of speeches, symposia, readings and services scheduled around the Ludlow centenary, thanks largely to the work of the Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission.

The Columbine anniversary promises to be a more muted affair. Certainly more muted than the 4/20 events in Civic Center.

More from our News archive circa December 2012: "Columbine to Newtown: A tragic list of school shootings since 1999."