A long time ago when my youngest son was around 14 years old, a tragedy happened in our community. A girl, too young to have a driver’s license, borrowed her parents’ car keys for a joy ride. She picked up four friends who slipped out of their homes and sped away into an Alabama summer night. Wild and free, the yearning of a teenaged heart and the fear in every parent’s.
The drive ended on a stretch of blacktop where the road just seems to fall away. I imagine they were looking for that feeling, the one you get at the top of the rollercoaster just before you drop into the abyss, but they never made it. The car left the road at the crest of the hill and smashed through the trees on the side slope. Two little girls were killed. One of them was my son’s classmate.
There was an outpouring of community grief, especially at the school. Soon a little memorial appeared on the shoulder where the car left the road. Flowers. Photos. Little handmade crosses. A place where classmates gathered to cry and leave notes to their friend on colorful scraps of paper.
A few days after I drove my son past the crash site.
And then I said a hard thing.
“It’s nice that the girls are still crying and you’ll have made this for your classmate. The emotions are all fresh and raw and it seems like she will never be forgotten. But the truth is, all this stuff will be gone in six months. In a few years you’ll have a hard time remembering what she looked like, and not long after that you won’t remember her at all unless someone mentions her name. You will never totally forget, but you won’t really remember, either.”
It was a blunt and maybe too soon, but I tried to teach my sons the hard truths of life early — what was coming as they grew into men. In this instance about how life goes on after tragedy, transcending the moment.
I knew this from experience.
I think she was a couple of years younger than me. Shoulder-length auburn hair and skin covered with freckles. What I call “country-girl pretty.” Jeans and t-shirt pretty. Long, lanky, athletic. A girl you would pick first on a cool October Friday night when a scratch game of coed touch football broke out on the church lawn. Or ask to the Spring dance if you had the courage.
She liked good music. What’s called “classic rock” today was the soundtrack of our lives then. When most of the girls were Bee Gees and Barry Manilow, she was Zeplin and Skynyrd. I thought that was cool.
She liked a group called Foghat. Especially a song not heard today because it wasn’t a big hit. But it got some airtime in ’78, and I remember some of the lyrics:
Wind tearin’ through the backstreet, I hear the rhythm of my heartbeat
Rain blowin’ in my face, I’m tired of being in the wrong place
Turn up the radio higher and higher, rock and roll music set my ears on fire
When I was stone blue, rock and roll sure helped me through
She died one rainy Friday night when a drunk swerved across the center line and hit her car head-on. Her friend in the passenger seat survived, but it was touch and go for a while. Some called it a miracle.
I heard the news, but I had been away at college for a while. I wasn’t there for the memorials and the grieving. It was sad, but I was detached from it, and after a while most of my memories just faded away.
The song lived on. Whenever I have heard it over the years it brings back those scant memories. I think of the lyrical irony. In my mind’s eye I see her tearing down that rainy highway, heart beating wild and free. Foghat in the 8-track, volume cranked-up higher and higher.
Mostly I think about her being in the wrong place.
My memory is stone blue, and I wonder if it is so neglected and faded that the details are no longer accurate. So much time has passed.
When the song ends life goes on, transcending the moment. I never totally forget, but I don’t really remember, either.