Virtue & Mischief: Round the Bend, Part 2


In my last installment, “Round the Bend, Part 1,” I discussed briefly my daughter Abby’s initial attempts at driving an automobile. Like most of us, she took a little while to grow accustomed to the feel of the car—how suddenly (or not) it brakes, the amount of give in the steering wheel, the idiosyncratic touch of the accelerator. She demonstrated understandable ignorance of a few elementary rules of the road and needed a primer on various important dashboard buttons and indicator lights. But all in all, her driving savvy and ability impressed me. What pleased me most was her healthy respect for the power of a car, her cautious approach, her appreciation for what can go wrong. Whatever happens, I’m pretty confident she’ll never take stupid chances on purpose.

Abby’s circumspection is, I think, innate. Occasional external appearances notwithstanding, she’s shy and careful by nature. With regard to her driving, this side of her personality manifests in a range of situations. She tends to drive 55 miles per hour when she’s permitted to go 60. She turns on the turn blinker a quarter mile in advance. She stands at a stop sign for several seconds, looking feverishly in both directions, before advancing. I am beyond grateful for this, for I know all too well the devastation that result from a moment of impulsivity exercised behind the wheel of a car.

A couple of months ago the family and I drove to West Lafayette, IN to see my extended family. As we drove into town on Schuyler Avenue I slowed down to point out an enormous cemetery the roadway bisected. I nodded to left and to my right to indicate to the three amigos I wanted them to take a look.

“Kids, do you see this graveyard? I’ve been to three burials here, and all occurred within a couple of days of each other. I was 17 years old.”

Abby managed a sober whistle. Luke and Daniel were silent.

“What happened, dad?” Abby asked. “Were they friends of yours?”

“Yes. It was the weekend before my senior year in high school, and we had an away football game. I remember it was a little unusual, because the game was on Saturday night instead of Friday night, and the game was held before classes even started. Anyway, we won the game and afterward a bunch of classmates and I went to a local pizza place to celebrate. I was sitting at a table with my buddies, Jamie and Bob, just talking and hanging out. It was probably around 11:30 or so when another friend, a guy named Steve, walked over and asked us if we wanted to take a ride in his new car. I looked at Bob who looked at Jamie who looked back at me. I could tell we were all kind of tired and ambivalent about going, so I said, ‘No, Steve, thanks but we’re going back to my house to watch Saturday Night Live.’ He understood, told us good night, and we left to go to my house. Bob and Jamie hung around until the show was over, probably between 1:00 and 1:30 in the morning, and I went to bed.”

“So….that’s it? I don’t get it. Are you telling me Bob and Jamie had an accident? I thought you said there were three friends whose funeral you went to.”

“No, that’s not it. The next day was Sunday, and after church I had to work my shift at a local clothing store. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon when Jamie and Bob came by to talk to me. They looked like a pair of ghosts. My recollection is that Jamie did almost all the talking. ‘Did you hear what happened last night?’ Jamie asked me. I told him I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘Steve got Ricky, Jim, and Mark to go with him in his new Camaro after we said no. He took it out on North River Road, apparently going upwards of 100 mph and couldn’t handle the curve by Wabash Hospital.’ I remember Jamie started crying at this point and pretty much sputtered the rest of the way. Bob was crying, too, and I was in shock at what I thought I was going to hear next. ‘They hit a telephone pole and splintered it, hit a tree and splintered it, flew in the air and tumbled end-over-end who knows how many times. The car was in a bunch of pieces.’ At this point, Abby, I was in tears myself. ‘Steve, Ricky, and Jim were killed immediately. Mark’s alive, but his left arm was sheared off.’”

I looked in the mirror to study Abby’s and the boys’ faces. We were well past the cemetery by now.

“Abby, there’s a lot more to this story and I might share it with you some day. But let me tell you and the boys something. It’s been just about 40 years since that accident happened, and I still think about it all the time. I wonder where Steve and Ricky and Jim would be, what sorts of things they might have done. I feel for their parents who received a phone call that night which no doubt ripped their hearts straight out of their chests. I remember going to those funerals and burials and being as confused and hurt as any 17 year old could be, probably. So, please. When you get in an automobile, whether you’re driving or your riding with a friend, remember a single second’s worth of impulsivity can cause decades worth of pain and sorrow.”

She looked at me through the mirror and nodded silently.

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By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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