Not an original headline, but keep reading. There is something about the death of young people that is incongruously fascinating. In sophomore or junior year, a kid from my high school got in a car accident on a narrow road just outside town. He and I got in a fight in 7th grade, during a PE football game. He was a pretty cool guy, though. Philip was his name. Anytime someone dies – be it celebrity or a person I knew or just someone I heard about – I have the same silly thought: what movies were they looking forward to that they’ll never get to see? It’s a projection of my own interests, sure, but the larger question is the same. People have hopes and dreams and goals. Even if they didn’t have anything so grand, what tiny things were they looking forward to? Maybe looking forward to seeing a friend who was coming into town, maybe a baseball game they were going to get tickets to. What if that very day, they’d decided to eat at their favorite restaurant that night? And then they’re dead.
This is a macabre entry, but it’s going somewhere. After 19 months in an apartment, I’ve moved home for a short time. Solitude is a precious commodity, so simply having to engage in continual conversations is a chore for me. Worse: my father is testing new phones at our house, so all week he’s been calling from his cell phone to see which phones are working. They aren’t all ringing at the same time, so he swaps them out, hoping a new outlet will solve the problems. The ringing comes in waves, along with his commentary and ever-changing hypothesis for success. It’s annoying.
In summer, the basement’s the coolest part of the house, so Dad and I camp out there, usually a baseball game on, and both of us on opposite sides clacking away on our computers. Mom punctuates with intermittent questions from upstairs. She yells something down, he yells something back. Stifled muffles all around, which they infer as a signal to yell louder. Dad is doing freelance investigations for insurance companies right now, and here is where the teenage death comes in. Since I was a kid, we’ve had these ethical, insurance claims dilemmas. He’d draw out diagrams for my brother and I, and we would discuss who is at fault.
We’ve been discussing the following incident: Two early-20’s college students and their professor are on their way back from some band-related school event. Driving back, they get a flat tire. They change the tire and keep going. A little while later, they get another flat tire. With no second spare tire, they spend a while patching the second flat and proceed. Two miles down the road, the patch gives way. They get off the highway and find a tire center. But it’s Sunday, and the tire place is closed. They call the local police and ask for help, but the police say there’s nothing they can do, and if the group hasn’t found a solution by morning to give them another call. They call a few tire companies, all of whom are closed on Sunday. They even speak to one guy, but he won’t come help them. It’s 6pm Sunday evening. They’ve got cell phones, so they’re calling people trying to figure something out. At 7pm, a car stops and offers to take them to Wal-Mart, 30 minutes back the way they came, to get a tire. The professor goes and the students stay, since there are valuables in the vehicle. So off he goes. Two hours go by and the professor isn’t back yet. The students are milling about on the roadside, and one of them, a foreign exchange student with no family in the country, gets out his trumpet and starts playing. He’s walking up and down the road, just passing the time. It’s 9pm and he’s wearing a black shirt, walking on the narrow side road playing his trumpet. In his statement, the other student noted that sometimes our trumpet player closes his eyes while he plays because he gets nervous. The sound of the trumpet probably blocked out everything else, including voices and approaching cars.
And it was in this way that a 23 yr. old foreign exchange student from the Czech Republic was hit and killed by an unassuming 20 yr old who was driving home from work.
Consider also the following pieces of information.
–The professor said that the closed tire center had some tires laying out. He counted four which would have fit his van. He thought about taking one and leaving his information so he could pay the owner later, but he thought it would be a bad example to set.
–The student said that the two of them got annoyed and hungry, and it was out of that frustration that the Czech student got out his trumpet in the first place. In photos of the exact location of the accident, a McDonalds can be seen in the background. It was less than a mile away.
–The 20 yr old driver said that he saw one person on the side of the road in a white shirt. Since the road was narrow, he moved away from that person, effectively accidentally swerving into the other student.
There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.”
Talking with Dad he said, “The whole thing is a series of unfortunate events.” True, though this seems far too dark for Lemony Snicket. It seems more like something out of “Final Destination.” That such events should unfold as they did, each seeming in a way to produce the next, building slowly to a crescendo, and then tragedy. And so many questions bubble to the surface. If the students were hungry, why not walk to the McDonald’s, or the gas station, the sign for which can also be seen in the pictures. They were two hours from home, but they waited in the same spot for three hours. They had cell phones, why weren’t they calling the teacher asking him where he was? What was the teacher doing that took him so long? Why did the students walk on the narrow road when the tire station had a large driveway right there?
This is a situation that seems built purely of variables. If just one thing had been different, the outcome could have been avoided. If the group had taken a different vehicle or made sure the van was in good condition, or not gone to the event at all. If they had decided to come back any day but Sunday. If they had stopped at the Wal-mart after the first flat tire to pick up a new tire. If they had all gone to Wal-Mart together after the second flat. If they had stopped the van someplace other than a narrow side road. If the students had gone to get something to eat. If the white shirted student had suggested that the trumpet player not walk in the middle of the road. If the trumpet player hadn’t closed his eyes. If the 20 yr old had taken a different road home from work. But of course, if any of these circumstances were altered, wouldn’t it just create a new series of potential accidents and mishaps?
They say that everything happens for a reason. I’ve never really liked that sentiment. It seems providentially saccharine and utterly simplistic. And anyway, how does that work here? Does tragedy have a purpose in mind when it occurs? Or does the purpose come out of the process of dealing with the tragedy? I guess the answer depends on whether you believe that God is malicious or loving. Be aware, as with most things of import, there is a right answer and a wrong one.
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “Something That Happened.” This cannot be “One of Those Things… ” This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance. Ohhhh… These strange things happen all the time.