When I was a kid you could buy and drink alcohol at 18 years old. “Newgate Prison” was the name of the bar we left before my life changed forever and two lives were lost. “Go ahead and drive” Kevin said, as he threw the keys to his ’76 Chevy Impala to Jeff, who was not a good driver sober, let alone after a few beers. “Don’t Punch-it. It’s fast and will get away from you” Kevin quipped, as he and his girlfriend hopped in the back leaving me riding shotgun to a destination none of us imagined.
The first stop was to drop off Kevin’s girlfriend, whose home was about a 15 mile drive. After arriving, Kevin walked her to her door, performed the obligatory teenage at-the-door-make-out-session, and sprinted back to the car hopping in the backseat again happy as a clam. With Jeff still in the driver’s seat we were off to continue our night of fun. Michael Jackson had just released ‘Beat It” and we were jammin to it as we came to a stop sign; the last stop sign my two dear friends would ever see and a poignant symbol of my life that would stop and be forever changed by what was around the next turn.
As soon as we crossed the intersection, and about 6 miles from home, Jeff “Punched it!” Within seconds we were at 70 MPH and rounding a corner in front of a church with loose gravel from its driveway spilling out into the street. “SLOW DOWN!” Kevin screamed, as I, now grabbing the dash, glanced toward Jeff who was ignoring the cries from behind him and seemed to be in an emotionless daze.
Just as the road bent left in front of the church we hit the gravel and almost immediately started sliding sideways down this narrow two-lane road at about 80 MPH. So true are some correlations between movie scenes of tragedies and real life, as everything catapulted into slow motion and disbelief at what was occurring. Trees sliding past my view one by one in half-time. The creek and overpass coming into view as the car started sliding the opposite way from the initial direction and straight for the wall built to stop people from driving into the creek.
It seemed like minutes passed, in what were only seconds, until my first lucid memory of seeing, with eyes shut, what I can only describe as a glowing spider web, and experiencing absolute silence and peace, except for a whir that I would learn was a slowly rotating wheel on an axle that was now where the hood should be. Never braking and ignoring all pleas, Jeff could not avoid the cement side wall of the creek overpass.
INHALE I thought, breathing in tiny shards of glass while opening my eyes to the aftermath of these moments that would forever haunt my life, restrict my movements and decisions, and cause me uncontrollable fear triggered by bridge crossings, heights and being a passenger in any vehicle I am not driving. Raising my head and opening my eyes – reality came quick. I looked left but couldn’t see Jeff as he was pushed to the right when the car hit the wall on his side knocking his upper body behind me, as I was thrust forward into the windshield and trapped by the dashboard that had been crushed inward.
Kevin was above and behind us in the now U-shaped and almost upside down vehicle, and was breathing his last breaths; a sound I will never forget. I then saw a flame, like a butane lighter on high, flickering in front of me in the area of the engine, and a panic shot through me, as I had been burned by gas and fire when I was 11 and thought the car would explode. With all my might I pushed out from between the dash and front passenger seat and managed to slide through the narrow opening of the passenger window.
Once free I screamed at Jeff and Kevin to get out, tried to open the door in futility and ran to the closest house whose occupants had heard the crash and quickly opened the door already having called 911. The ambulance and fire engine where there in just seconds it seemed and I was placed into the back, out of view of the wreckage, and taken to the hospital. I remember everything, and suffered only a broken ankle and very small cut on my head. Jeff was announced dead at the scene, and Kevin lingered a bit but died en route to the hospital.
These boys were my brothers; my closest friends since early childhood. Their loss is a scar that never heals and the moment leading up to their loss is a pivot point in my life that is unmatched in its impact. Adding to the trauma, lawyers for Jeff’s parents hounded me for a year after the accident trying to insinuate that I was driving, or had fault in this accident to which I was merely a passenger. Only after threatening to sue them for the trauma I suffered did they stop harassing me.
Anecdotally I did not sue anyone for anything. To a large extent being a passenger in a vehicle now, over 25 years later, only evokes the mildest of anxiety, but crossing over a high bridge, Flying, or peering out of buildings any taller than 10 stories gives me the shivers, whereas before my accident I was fearless on all levels and with all things. The crying in memory and anxieties are no more than semi-uncontrollable waves that overcome me, no matter the effort to avoid or distract. I have learned to ride them, knowing that the surf will settle and I’ll be ok, as has been proven in my life countless times.
I constantly and consistently try to push myself past my fears. Facing them head on, trying not to subconsciously grip too tight and plowing through until it goes away. I’m lucky I guess in that it does go away, but away is only a slow frightful smolder way beneath a surface of peace. And we carry on because the alternative sucks and life overall is pretty damn good. My wish is for intelligent fearlessness and joy for every one of you who have experienced something similar and who I call brothers.