Summer Teen Tragedy

Lupins by Kim Manley Ort

High School ends in June, and then Summer comes with all its promises.

A&W drive in restaurant

A&W drive in restaurant 1970s

In 1977 I’d just finished my sophomore year at Tantramar Regional High School in New Brunswick, and had a boyfriend who miraculously had a car.

We went on several dates that year with other couples to movies, to the mall, and to the drive-in A@W where they delivered burgers and fries and sundaes to the side of your car on a tray that hooked onto the open window edge.

This boyfriend took me out on Graduation night at the end of June to the Grad dance and then to all the parties that were happening all night long up at the beach and in the nearby woods.

beach bonfires

The night of Grad there were multiple bonfires along the beach (photo from https://muse.theodysseyonline.com/author/ashleighmcclure)

There were huge bonfires along the beach at Murray Corner; endless beer, and drugs available; crazy antics; fist fights; sex in rustic cabins; and driving around in cars all night to rendezvous, rev engines, and race.

It was the 1970s and we were living in a rural area and driving was a pastime that many of the teens in the area were involved in. There was a lot of reckless driving and speeding. Several kids during my High School years were involved in serious accidents.

The worst and most memorable for me, happened that summer. A boy I’d known for 5 years, who sat near me on the bus and joked with me all the time – a boy with a happy heart, bright sparkling eyes, pink cheeks and white blond hair was killed in a head-on collision.

It happened one night when my boyfriend and another couple arranged for us to have a lobster boil at a nearby beach. They built up a big open fire in the sand and set a giant pot of saltwater on it to boil. The live lobsters were from the nearby fishermens’ wharves and were waiting pitifully on ice in a cooler for their last hurrah – a fast drop into the boiling water. There was another cooler loaded with beer.

It was a gorgeous Summer evening with a warm breeze coming in off the water. We laughed, walked ankle deep in the ocean, ate and drank, and joked around. We were young and happy and feeling the wonderful, expansive, exquisite joy of being alive that comes so rarely in life. A time when kisses were blissful and being close to another person felt liberating and there were no responsibilities.

New Brunswick lobster boats and wharf

Lobster boats lined up at a wharf in New Brunswick.  (photo http://2.bp.blogspot.com)

We were basking in our happiness when a car pulled up to the parking lot and called us over. The driver leaned out of his window and in a hushed voice told us what had happened.

A friends of ours had just died in a head-on collision just minutes from where we partied. 6 kids were in the car and were all killed in one swift, brutal moment.

The news hit me like a heavy fist in the chest – I couldn’t breathe – I couldn’t comprehend how something so unbelievable could ever happen on a night like this. To kids our age. To a friend I sat with on the bus. A boy who was out for fun, just like us, on a warm Summer night. It could have been us.

They had been joy riding along a country road, swooping down a hill, when they smashed into an oncoming car. The police called in a local woman, an off duty nurse, to join them at the scene. The nurse arrived ready to help, but not ready to discover that one of the teens in the car was her son. The tragedy was too much – too horrible to comprehend.

We became robotic upon hearing the news.

We cleaned up our fire and garbage in silence and got into my boyfriend’s car for a slow and intense ride home. I know I was in shock when I walked into the kitchen to find my parents at the table, surprised to see me home so early. I told them the news and they seemed indifferent, to the point of being uncaring. It was incomprehensible to me that they responded so calmly and with such a bland response. I burst into hysterical tears and remember being told to calm down and go to my room – “these things happen” they said with a shrug.

These things happen.

Unfortunately its true, but no comfort when they happen to people close to you and you are young and unprepared for the shock and certainty of death. Unprepared for the reality that life can be beautiful and cruelly cut short in an instant.

I don’t know the details of how the cars crashed. Who, if anyone, was at fault. I don’t even remember if the other driver survived or had passengers in the oncoming car.

In my mind I imagined the scene – the carefree feeling in the car packed with six kids out for a night of fun: the windows wide open to the warm evening air; the feeling of freedom that comes at that age when you’re away from adults out in a car on the road; the joy of speed that teens seem to love.

teens in backseat Bruce Davidson Magnum Photos

Image Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

I’d been in cars like that – kids laughing and joking, maybe a couple in the back kissing – a bottle of cheap booze being passed around for a swig. The defiant freedom of being a kid with a car.

I was terrified many times by show-off boys careening around roads at high speed.

One time the kid speeding his Dad’s giant Cadillac down the Trans Canada Highway, set it on cruise control and hiked his legs up over the steering wheel to guide the car –  I screamed hysterically in the middle front seat, to stop and let me out – the other boys in the car laughing even harder at my terror (they were drunk from shooting beers down their throats before going out on the road and no one was wearing a seat belt).

Returning to school in September was hard. The boy’s former girlfriend was still inconsolable – breaking into tears at all times of the day, unable to focus on anything. I remember that sappy song Last Kiss grating on my nerves every time I heard it on the radio – its whining refrain angering me with its stupid words.

The shock of that terrible accident has never left me, as I’m sure its never left his closest friends, and his loving and emotionally destroyed family.

It seems to happen every year- a group of kids out for a joy ride never thinking about the consequences, killed in a mindless accident. Its always a shock, and always a tragedy.

 

Note:  there are numerous websites dedicated to statistics for teen car accidents. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides statistics based on American road collisions and goes back to 1975. Its worth noting that the numbers have significantly reduced since they peaked in the 1970s.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) also provides statistics and current information on youth and impaired driving in Canada. (Interestingly enough New Brunswick receives a D- from MADD.)