Thursday, April 28, 2005

Living and Dying along US Highway 421 (Warning: explicit descriptions of death)

There is a minimum ten year difference in age between me and my siblings, so they experienced their childhood, in many ways, in a different world than I did. They seem, in some ways, to have had a more innocent upbringing. I recently was sent a link to a videotape of my ex-brother-in-law’s sixth birthday party. In the flicker of these old films, I found really poignant images of a time long past. The children laughed, ate birthday cake, played drop the handkerchief and chased each other in circles.

Although I grew up 10 years later than my siblings, the setting was the same. We all lived within twenty to thirty feet or so of US Highway 421 in Delway, NC. At the time that we were becoming the people we are today, US 421 was the main highway from central and western North Carolina to Wilmington and the southern beaches. As a result, traffic was tremendously heavy, particularly in the summer months, as tourists headed down to their vacation homes and motel rooms.

In my family, we gather when we can with mom and while having dinner, we tell stories from our past. One thing we learned quite casually is that everyone in every generation of our family witnessed an accident involving a vehicle and a pedestrian, many times resulting in death of the pedestrian. One would think that something as gruesome as the death of an acquaintance would make enough of an impact that one would have shared it with the family. I guess it happened enough that we all learned to live with it as a routine part of Delway. These stories are far from routine.

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Mom and I just recently spoke about the death of Jack, a young boy whose family was close to our family in many ways, perhaps closer than any other family in our town. My brother played with the boys in that family, my sister with the girls. My father and their father enjoyed late-night games of poker with others from the community. Jack was around the same age as my brother. His family grew tobacco, so in the summer months, it was nothing to see the whole crowd of his family pass by on the highway in a pick-up truck, heading toward a field of tobacco somewhere nearby.

One summer day, the truck full of this family stopped on the highway just in front of our store to make a left-hand turn into the parking lot. The father was waiting for an eighteen wheeler carrying a load of petroleum to pass before making his turn. As the pick-up slowed, Jack’s older brother leapt from the bed of the truck into the path of the oncoming truck. Jack saw him jump and he jumped too. Howard, the older brother, just barely made it out of the path of the oncoming tanker, but Jack was not so lucky. He likely never knew what happened next as he released the side of the pick-up and bounded onto the hot pavement.

There was a screeching of rubber on the highway as the truck tried to stop, but Johnny was pulled under the wheels and his body was pushed along the highway under the weight of the truck. My mother heard people scream and rushed out onto the porch of the old store to see what had happened. She couldn’t find my brother and about that time, she heard someone say, "OH MY GOD, that poor little boy!" For a number of frantic moments, she didn’t know if the child underneath the truck was her own or someone else’s child.

My brother and sister were right there, exposed to the horror of it all, to the grief of the boy’s family, to the blood on the pavement and to the idea that someone you know well, someone your age, can be swept away in seconds.

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My time to witness carnage came in 1971, on Labor Day weekend, during the gas rationing of the Nixon administration. There was a long line of cars waiting to buy fuel, and I was working at 8 PM even though we were supposed to have closed at 7. Dad didn’t want to close when we had customers lined up at the door, so to speak.

Across the street, the Tews were being visited by one of the new wife’s brothers and his kids. All day long, the children had been running back and forth across the busy highway, buying junk-food and soft-drinks from my dad. He noticed their lack of attention when crossing the road and said to them very sarcastically, "Y’all be careful how you get run over out there."

I had just set the automatic switch on the gas pump when I stood up to see Jenna and Betty Mae standing on the edge of the highway on my side of the road with bags of potato chips and Sundrops in each hand. Their cousin, whose name I didn’t know, ran from across the street, right out in front of a car that was passing through at about 60 miles/hour. The car struck the boy. He flew up into the air, and landed on the hood of the car and slumped into a pile of human flesh.

In the next few seconds, I saw Jenna standing there looking as if she had seen what had happened, but had not yet understood what it meant. Suddenly, she flung down the potato chips and Sundrop that were in her hands and she began to scream. The car came to a stop within 30 or so feet and veered into our driveway, catching my attention and diverting my gaze away from Jenna. Her cousin fell from the hood of the car when it veered into our driveway and the boy was then lying prostrate in the middle of the highway with traffic coming from down the way.

Nearer to me, a man who had run over a child and killed her when he was a young man, had been standing inside the entrance of his car with the door open. He, too, was looking directly at the boy when he was hit, and he had an instantaneous nervous breakdown. He fell to the ground, sobbing.

One of the local teenagers who was visiting the Tews that day, ran out onto the highway and scooped up the body of the boy to prevent the oncoming traffic from hitting him again. He ran with him to the front porch of their home, where the body was stretched out on the porch.

My mother came out of the restaurant to find out what was happening and realized that there had been an accident. She ran inside to call for an ambulance to come from Harrells. When she picked up the phone, one of the local girls, a pre-teen was having a conversation on the party-line that we shared with her family. My mother interrupted her to tell her that we had to call an ambulance. The girl got testy and my mom had to threaten to whip her ass to get her to hang up the phone. The call was made. About fifteen minutes later, an ambulance arrived to take the boy to the hospital. Despite multiple compound fractures, he survived his ordeal though he would never be the same afterwards. Neither would any of us who were looking squarely at death when it tried to call.

Amazingly, the thing that sticks in my mind most clearly is the scene of the Sundrop bottle and the bag of potato chips that were thrown into the sand by the boys cousin. I can close my eyes to this day and see that green bottle and feel the cool night air of that evening.

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Several years later, my niece and nephew were children when the reigning town drunk drove his bicycle into the path of a vehicle. Mom said that my Aunt Peace called up and asked "Who just got killed down there in Delway"? Mom said she said "Nobody that I know of!," to which Peace replied "Well, I know someone did…I just heard it on my scanner!" Aunt Peace was known to have a fascination for accidents and fires and she kept a scanner so that she could witness as many of them as possible. We have joked that if you go through the archives of all accidents and fires at the local newspaper that somewhere in the photo, you will likely find my cousin in his pajamas from where Aunt Peace had dragged him out of bed to witness the latest horror.

When Mom looked out the window, she saw the flashing lights of all the police cars and ambulances at the crossing of the two roads that is Delway. Poor Charles, a man who made a comical drunk, finally had managed to drink himself to death. My niece and nephew were taken down to the corner with those who went to find out who the unlucky victim had been this time. Their time to see the horror of death on the highway had arrived.

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My mom took me with her to Clinton once when I was no older than 4 or 5 years old. We stopped by to see Aunt Peace. She talked mom into going to see the latest freak-show. A terrible accident had happened and a man had been killed, his brain ripped from his head. The car had been towed to a back alley in Clinton and the brain was right there, inside the car, on the floorboard of the back of the car. A very long line of people waited patiently for their chance to see the brain in the car. My cousin and I were along for the ride and the viewing, as usual. When I told this story recently at a family reunion, my mom said "Why don’t you tell everything you know!" Aunt Peace died many years ago and so mom had no one there to share the blame for exposing her child to the brain of a dead man. I guess she was feeling a little bit guilty.

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Throughout my life, we heard about the people we knew who had been killed or maimed right there in Delway or nearby on US 421. A man named Robert, who had survived a bullet lodged next to his spine was hit by a tanker one night. It left his boots 50 yards from where the body landed, right in the spot where Robert had been standing. In another incident, we saw the hair of a man who had been decapitated in an accident, stuck to the pavement on the following day. There is just nothing you can say to describe these events or the horror that they held.

How do you explain to people that your next-door neighbor's son was a one-legged man who was rumored to have willfully had himself run down by a car in order to collect insurance money? He was certainly missing a leg and the safety pins that held his pant leg up fascinated me as a young kid.

Funny, we never talked with each other much about this aspect of living along a busy highway. I happened to mention it to my therapist recently and he was shocked that I hadn’t ever thought to bring it up to him. I was equally amazed that on the telling of the stories, I choked up with emotions that had been long buried and which no doubt shaped and continue to shape part of my character. I know this. I look both ways before crossing a street.
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