SAN DIEGO -- Nurtured more by television violence than adventure novels, it is unlikely that at the age of 11, Omar, David and Joshua, fifth-grade classmates and the best of friends, saw themselves as the Three Musketeers.
But on a bright summer day, astride their own bikes and with the price of a Big Mac in their jeans pockets, the possibilities for high adventure seemed promising.
At 11, pals still are more important than girls, and 'wheels' mean bicycles, not cars. It is an age when McDonald's, with its bright golden arches atop the red sign, delivers all it promises to a boy.
A lad of 11 can believe absolutely the familiar red sign's assurance that folks all over the world have ingested, as of this date, 45 billion McDonald's hamburgers.
Skepticism, perhaps cynicism, will come later. Soon enough, a young man's fancy will turn to girls and his taste to, not fast-food burgers. But 11 is a special time for a boy, a time when he is learning quickly how to become a man. Somewhere around that age, boys fortunate enough to bask in the love of their families are full of themselves, believing absolutely in their invincibility.
Such boys were Omar Hernandez, David Flores and Joshua Coleman, proud owners of strong names, as they pedaled hell-for-leather around their neighborhood Wednesday before reaching the familiar playground fronting McDonald's in this dusty community one mile from the Mexican border.
There, a berserk executioner firing alternately a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a pistol during 67 minutes of hell, murdered in cold blood 21 people before he was himself slain by a police sniper.
The press dubbed it the worst massacre by a gunman in U.S. history, and so it was. But quick appellations are too easy, they just nick the surface.
Left out was the fact that the promising lives of Omar and David were snuffed out before they ever mastered the smaller and larger mysteries of life.
As for Joshua, though grievously wounded, he will recover and go on to the sixth grade. There he will be steeped in lessons of citizenship designed to preclude societal breakdowns, such as the one that wounded 18 others besides himself and irrevocably scarred, physically or emotionally, the survivors and all who love them and the dead. ---
Etna Huberty is among the emotionally scarred. She remembers the last words she said to her husband, Jim, 41, a former undertaker who had just lost his job as a security guard, a man known for his abiding interest in weaponry.
Before he left their modest apartment, easy walking distance from the homes of Omar and David, she asked, 'Honey, where're you going?'
'I'm going to hunt humans,' replied James Oliver Huberty.
The loner, in a few minutes, would achieve everlasting infamy beneath the familiar golden arches only a block away.
Mrs. Huberty was to say later she had not known what her husband had meant. But, little more than an hour after he had uttered it, Huberty had done what he had promised his wife he would do.
And she had been widowed in the flash of a second by a bullet squeezed off by a sharpshooting policeman perched on the roof of the post office adjacent to McDonald's. It was the only decent shot fired on that tragic afternoon.
While Omar and David lay dead near him on the asphalt of the restaurant parking lot, Joshua summoned the courage he knew he would need to convince the assassin he already was dead.
It was a lifesaving tactic any bright 11-year-old boy could have learned from the television screen, but one that required the iron will of a courageous man to implement.
'I just stayed down,' Joshua recalled from his bed in the hospital where he was undergoing treatment to remove shotgun pellets from his chest, back and shoulders. 'I was just wondering whether he was going to shoot me dead. If I ran, I was afraid he might shoot me again.'
It was left to Debbie Coleman, Joshua's mother, to tell him Omar and David were dead.
'There was hurt in his eyes,' Mrs. Coleman said. 'He had a feeling they might be dead. Josh and Omar grew up together. They were like brothers.'
On Wednesdays, it was the custom of Miguel Victoria, 74, a retired trucker, and his wife, Alicia, 70, to drive across the border from their home in Tijuana to visit their loving daughter-in-law, widowed when their son was decapitated by a propellor in an airport accident.
After visiting with her and two small grandaughters, they washed a load of clothes at a laundromat in San Ysidro and stopped at McDonald's to pick up some burgers for their son, Ricardo, who lives in Tijuana.
When his parents were two hours late, Ricardo, who knew of the massacre from newscasts, jumped into his car drove hard toward San Ysidro.
Police stopped him near the restaurant but he spotted his parents' car in the parking lot.
'There was a greenish van parked next to it,' said Ricardo, who believes it was the one owned by the killer who snuffed out his parents. ---
What manner of man could do such a thing?
The wife of the killer said she once had saved his life by prying his fingers from a revolver he had raised to his head to commit suicide.
Etna Huberty, who now says she regrets saving her husband, portrays him as a man who, beset with economic problems, beat her and their two daughters, and heard voices -- yet refused counseling.
Police said that, with the killer dead, they may never determine his motive.
They say that when Huberty burst into the restaurant carrying the three weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, he ordered everyone to lie on the floor.
'Then he proceeded to start systematically shooting people, walking up and down the aisles and shooting the victims,' said Homicide Lt. Paul Ybarrondo.
After a 10-minute frenzy of firing and carnage inside the restaurant, Huberty blasted away at police who had arrived in just minutes.
When it was finally over an hour later, police found a portable radio Huberty had carried to monitor news coverage of his mass execution. ---
Mrs. Huberty said that on Wednesday morning her husband had taken her and their daughter, Zelia, 14, to the zoo.
'He was quiet,' she said. 'He looked at the animals. There were no arguments.' She said that before Huberty left their apartment in the afternoon he said, 'I want to kiss you goodbye.' After mentioning 'hunting humans,' he left.
Mrs. Huberty said she then dropped off her other daughter, Cassandra, 10, at a neighbor's and she and Zelia left to do some errands, stopping ironically at a Burger King restaurant at nearby Imperial Beach.
It was then, she said, a feeling of foreboding came over her and Zelia.
'I got sick,' Mrs. Huberty said. 'I threw up. Zelia said, 'Mommy, I keep seeing McDonald's. I see ambulances. Something is wrong.'
At a friend's house, they learned of the massacre and the identity of the killer.
'I feel so very, very sorry for what happened -- for those who were killed, injured and those left behind,' Mrs. Huberty said. ---
Jackie Wright Reyes, 18, dropped out of high school pregnant and soon gave birth to the light of her life, a baby she named Carlos. Mother and son died in a hail of gunfire, but not before Jackie tried to shield with her young body her infant and Aurora Pena, her 5-year-old niece who will survive her wounds.
Neva Denise Caine, manager of McDonald's, deeply in love at 22 with Dr. Andrew Caine, the chiropractor she married a month ago, died in the carnage.
'They were a beautiful couple,' a neighbor recalled. 'She was loving, warm, kind, gracious. They had a bright future ahead of them. It's insanity that interrupted two people's lives.' ---
His friends called Lawrence Herman Versilius, 62, 'Gus.'
Gus, a trucker who took his daily coffee break at McDonald's, was ready to retire. He had been discussing the dream trip to Spain with his wife, Isobel, and there were plans for his retirement party.
'It's shocking,' said his daughter, Carol Butcher, 38, of Oxnard, Calif. 'I still can't believe it happened to our father.'
Blythe Herrera, 31, and her son, Mateo, 11, were killed but Ronald, the man she married after a high school courtship, somehow survived despite his efforts to shield his son with his own body.
Jose Rubin Lozano, 19, and Gloria Lopez-Gonzales, 24, friends and neighbors, joined by Michelle Carncross, wife of a U.S. Navy man, left the Mexican seaside village of Puerta Nuevo, on a shopping trip, stopping at the restaurant for a snack.
Mrs. Carncross, of Spring Valley, Calif., had been visiting friends in Mexico. All three died horribly.
For Elsa Borboa Fierro, 19, born in Tijuana, the job at McDonald's was her first and last.
Although a high school honors graduate, Elsa had found it difficult to land a job. She dreamed of studying computer programming at San Diego State University but her parents lacked the money to send her there.
She was a skillful seamstress who loved romantic Spanish songs. Her dream of college and her dreams for life were shattered in a blast of gunfire.
Victor Maxmilliano Rivera, 25, went to McDonald's because it was his daughters' favorite place to eat. Huberty shot him dead, wounded his wife and and one of his two daughters. Myreya, 4, somehow escaped injury. ---
Dr. Tom S. Neuman, the medical officer who first examined the death scene, said, 'It was like they had just stopped in time. All these bodies were lying around. Heads were slumped on the table. The old man walking out the door was lying on the floor, doughnuts beside him. The two kids were dead by their bikes. The infant was dead in the arms of the people. There were two burned hamburgers on the grill.'
At that moment, 550 miles to the north in San Francisco, Walter Mondale knew for certain that in a couple of hours he would become the Democratic Party's candidate for president of the United States.
A couple of hours later, from the podium, Mondale could see, scattered among the signs touting his candidacy, banners urging the scuttling of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, a piece of immigration-control legislation that is much on the minds of people in communities like San Ysidro.
Americans reading press accounts and watching television coverage of the massacre no doubt noted the preponderance of Hispanic names among the lists of victims.
They also might be struck by the fact the usual afternoon scene at San Ysidro's McDonald's, before the massacre, was a contemporary version of a Norman Rockwell painting, as American as apple pie.
Or as American as tamales.
To be sure, there are many illegal aliens who swarm across the border into San Ysidro, a community afflicted with dope and gangs but which also can boast of a preponderance of hard-working and demonstrably brave Americans with Hispanic names. ---
The killer who inflicted tragedy on San Ysidro was a product of mainstream America gone awry.
Huberty was raised in the farmlands of central Ohio, which if it were pushed a little south could pass as the buckle on the Bible Belt.
The only son of a respected family in the farming community of Mount Eaton, Ohio, Huberty, at about 6 feet, saw himself as a candidate for high school basketball but failed to make the team.
The Hubertys were members of the United Methodist Church and some classmates once saw young Jim as a candidate for the ministry. The Hubertys, they say, were 'Bible-toters.'
Huberty met and married Etna, a San Francisco native who would become a substitute teacher in an elementary school and, later, a part-time assistant in a housing complex for the elderly.
He went on to work, albeit unsuccessfully, in America's industrial heartland, first as an embalmer, then as a welder who lost his job in a recession.
Police said Huberty was a man who could not get along with his neighbors but had no major record. In Massillon, Ohio, his neighbors made hundreds of complaints about his dogs and recalled him as a loner who spent a lot of time shooting in the woods and at his woodpile.
Without work in the nation's recession-racked industrial heartland, this increasingly angry man finally landed last year on the American side of the Mexican border, where he was fired from a job as a security guard for reasons undisclosed but which now might seem eminently perspicacious.
Although he never had military service, Huberty, who wore camouflage clothing and counted himself a 'survivalist,' boasted that he had 'killed thousands' when he stalked into the fast-food restaurant.
The autopsy ruled out alcohol as the drug that triggered the massacre. After considerable testing, investigators already have ruled out most other drugs.
His wife said Huberty was registered as a Republican in Ohio but in recent years had blamed both capitalism and government for his troubles.
She scoffed at reports he was a Communist.
'If anything,' she said, 'he was a Nazi.'
Those would have been meaningless labels to Omar and David, the two kids he left lying dead by their bikes.
Omar was the fourth and last child of Adelina Hernandez, who used to joke lovingly that he was an 'accident.'
On June 14, Omar had posed proudly for a photograph with his mother at graduation ceremonies at Sunset Elementary School.
They stood below a banner that said 'Farewell Sunset.'
Omar Hernandez, at the age of 11, was on his way to middle school and the rest of his life. But first there was summer vacation, a time for fun with David and Joshua.
On Wednesday, Mrs. Hernandez gave Omar permission to go to David's house.
She learned of the killings from a neighbor who phoned if ask if she knew of the carnage at McDonald's.
Adelina Hernandez, her heart pounding from sheer terror, rushed to the scene.
'I saw a lot of people,' she said. 'Finally, I saw my son. I knew my son had fallen because I recognized his clothes.'
David's father, Guillermo, was in Los Angeles when he recognized his son's bike while watching a news account of the massacre on television.
He saw the bike on the pavement in front of a fast-food restaurant that has become as much a symbol of America in the late 20th Century as apple pie and ice cream.
The shattered McDonald's wasn't the happy, joyful place Omar, David and Joshua had seen throughout their short lives in television commercials.
Instead, it was a picture that has become all too familiar to TV watchers of all ages: a scene of carnage wrought by an angry man, a man driven by the demons of failure and despair into senseless violence.
And once again, those who paid the price were the innocent -- both young and old -- in the wrong place at absolutely the wrong time.