Every April this specific memory finds its way into my mind. I don’t consciously think about it — it’s simply a part of me. This period of time had a lasting and profound impact on my life.
I wrote this piece four or five years ago, but it’s just as relevant today. Being a parent allows me to view life — both my past and present — through a different lens.
The names of the deceased have been left untouched. This piece is my way of paying homage to them. The names of the living have been altered to protect their identities.
It was the fifth or sixth inning on April 20th, 2006. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was warm, unseasonably warm, especially for upstate New York. The sun glared down on us as we took the field again, but something was wrong – something had changed – and it didn’t involve the game we were playing.
It was like a great vacuum had swept in and sucked all of the air and all of the noise out of West Winfield, New York. Hushed whispers and tears had overtaken the jovialities that typically pervaded sports bleachers.
When we made our first out in the field, no one clapped. The same with our second. My football coach had shown up, which was odd – I’d never seen him at a baseball game before. He was an old-school, hard-nosed Marine, and father to three daughters, which made him all the more intimidating. He was off to the side of our dugout, consoling a group of girls on the softball team. I had never seen Coach Wright act that tenderly, that gingerly before.
“What the hell’s going on, Coach?” Johnny Spicer – our pitcher – asked him, after we had made our third out and jogged off the field.
Coach Wright smiled and grimaced at the same time, then nodded at the field as if to say, “You’ve got a game to play.”
By this point in time, all of my teammates and I were so far distracted and disturbed that the umpire had to call us up to bat. My baseball coach, Coach Kay, did his best to corral us and keep us focused, but it was a hell of a task, given the circumstances – whatever they happened to be.
The rest of the game was a blur. Johnny blew the game and nearly blew up on the umpire, Coach Kay, and the grave, silent crowd, who still hadn’t uttered a word.
By the time it was all said and done, we lost by five or six runs, at least. If you asked anyone who was there, no one could tell you the final score. No one on our side, anyway.
Before I knew what was happening, we were all seated in the dugout. Coach Wright had come in. He stood next to Coach Kay.
“There was a terrible accident today,” Coach Kay said. I’ll never forget the way he said it, the way his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. His words were soft, but they tore us all to shreds in an instant.
“Three of your classmates were killed in an automobile accident,” Coach Wright chimed in, the steadier of the two.
“Who, Coach?” Johnny Spicer asked. The words hung in the air for a lifetime.
“Lynda Light, Ben Stickles, and Jessica Dupres.” When my coach’s voice wavered ever so slightly, I knew it broke him, too.
Silence choked everyone. Peanuts and sunflower seeds clattered on the dugout floor.
It hit me fast and all at once: Ben, Lynda, and Jess would never graduate high school, despite being seniors. Ben and Lynda would never marry, despite being soulmates. Jess would never pursue her studies, despite being a scholarship recipient.
A couple of hours later, when I learned that they were thrill-riding and trying to get air off Saxon Hill – a local hotspot, not even a mile from my house – I knew I would never view things the same way.
The next day, I rode my bike to the scene of the crash. As I coasted down the hill, my stomach turned upside down. A skid mark – ten feet long, at least – was burned into the asphalt, much like the memory of my baseball game and my coaches’ words. When I finally came to a halt near the tree, which overlooked the pond, I lost it. I was alone, but I felt so much, so many emotions, all at once.
I wept as I looked at the flowers, wreaths, and pictures, which were already in place. I ran my fingers along the shards of glass that were embedded in the tree, which was otherwise smooth. All of the bark had been ripped off from the impact of the vehicle.
I envisioned the car, screaming like hell as it smashed into the trunk of the giant maple tree. I imagined three teenagers – my high school classmates – thrown through glass. I didn’t want to, but I saw two of their lifeless bodies splash into the pond and the third who came to rest under the shade of the tree.
I remembered a time in the huddle when I leaned against Ben.
“I can’t take him, man,” I told him, talking about the big defensive end across from me. I was a sophomore, a scrawny tight end.
“I’ve got you,” he said. After the play call, he said, “Cross block.”
I knew that when I saw him flash in front of me, the other kid had it coming to him. Ben was a battering ram – a force to be reckoned with.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, how long I paid my respects – said my goodbyes. It wasn’t closure, not exactly. But then, I realized, nothing’s ever perfect.
A leaf floated into the pond.
I couldn’t believe they were gone.
On my ride home, I paid closer attention to how blue the sky was, how quiet things were: how simple and pleasant and beautiful the rolling green hills happened to be.
They still are.
Writing is one of the greatest joys of my life, and I’m so happy I found it (or it found me) back in high school. Journaling my thoughts and memories allowed me to get through some tough times like this one. I don’t journal all that frequently anymore — most of my time spent writing is devoted to drafting fictional stories — but I think this event made me pause and contemplate my life.
In a way, it served as my gateway into the world of writing. The following year, 2007, I wrote my first short story.
Do you have any major life events that impacted your writing life? When did you begin writing? What inspired you to write in the first place?
It would be wonderful to hear from you.
Thank you so much for being here to read my work. If you’re new and were hoping to receive some fiction (promise, I write fiction 99% of the time!), here’s “As Certain as Spring,” a story from last April.
Oh, and if you missed Fifties by the Fire this past weekend, check out some excellent stories here.
Take care and have a great week! I’ll see you next Monday.
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The sense of dread was palpable to the reader as you (and we) had to wait until the game was completed. This kind of experience really does change your outlook on life. Nice tribute to your friends who never had the chance to become adults.
:-( So sad these things happen and the effect on those who live on. You did a great job of telling the story.