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Sweet 16

I remember my 16th birthday.  My mother went with me to Dothan to get my driver’s license.  I had to parallel park, though there were very few parallel parking spots in Dothan and none in my hometown of Cottonwood.  I passed the driver’s test without any problem, which was not a surprise since I had been driving on the farm and at the peanut mill since I was 11 years old.

That evening, amid a heavy downpour, my mother walked into my bedroom and asked me if I was going to Dothan that evening to visit my friends.   I still think of that moment as one of the greatest testaments of her faith in me.   I had not been trained to only drive in nice weather.  She nudged me out of the nest on one of the worst weather days of the year.

This past weekend, a 16-year-old girl who lives less than 25 miles from my house was having a party.  It was her Sweet 16th party, well attended by her friends.  It was held in a dance studio in Dadeville, Alabama.   The town’s population is 3,000.   

I know something about small towns.  Donalsonville, Georgia was my hometown for over 45 years.   Population of 3,000.  It was a great community that was perfect for raising our children and growing a business.   It was also the home of one of Georgia’s largest mass murders, the infamous Alday murders.  All the victims were members of the same farming family.  It was shocking and rocked the community to its core.   

Unfortunately, Dadeville will always remember the Sweet 16 party as the location of one of Alabama’s largest mass murders.  Four people were killed and at last count, 28 people were injured.  The assailant or assailants are still not known at this time.

The murders in Seminole County in 1973 and the murders in Dadeville in 2023 are the same and yet so very different.  They occurred in small towns fifty years apart.  They tore the fabric of their close-knit communities and proved that horrific crimes do not occur only in major cities.  

Yet, the Alday murders were so unusual that they remained in the state and nation’s memory for years.  Such crimes rarely happened during the 70s and when they did, they were not likely to happen in small towns.

Fifty years later, such crimes happen every day.  In 2023, there has been more than one mass murder every day.  They happen in schools, in churches, at parks, and even at Sweet 16 birthday parties.  They happen in crime-ridden cities, but tragically they still happen in small, rural towns.

A half century later, I still feel the pain of the Alday family and the community where they lived.  I am certain that the families of the killed and injured in Dadeville will suffer the same fate.  Their pain will never quite go away.

What is the answer?  Less guns?  More strict licensing and permitting laws?  Some call for arming the teachers in schools.  I often think about how many pistols are in the purses of ladies in church on Sunday morning.  Less than are in trucks and cars in the parking lot, but more than most would imagine.

I do not know the answer.  I only know that “thoughts and prayers” are not working.  Gun violence has now replaced automobile crashes and drugs as the biggest killer of children in America.  Not adults, but children.  

I drove on a rain-soaked road the night of my 16th birthday to visit friends 15 miles away.  As a young driver, it was not a night without danger or risk.  Fifty years later, I would be more likely to be killed by an assault rifle.  Something is not right.  

I have lived long enough to have experienced two mass murders within 25 miles of my house.  I now have grandchildren the age of those being killed every day.  Something is not right.

I have more than a dozen guns in my house, so do not call me a liberal opponent of gun rights.  On the other side, we must face the truth of this epidemic of gun violence in our country.  Open your minds to solutions, modest as they may be.  We cannot continue down this path.  Something is not right.  Something has to give.


Dan Ponder can be reached at

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