Graduation days are here. One need not look at the calendar or savor the leafy trees to know this particular rite of spring is in full bloom. There is a distinct sound that surfaces during late afternoons, and it’s not a pleasant one. It’s the sound of doughnuts and I don’t mean the deep-fried kind. In my neighborhood, which sports a nice stretch of pretty-straight, black-top road, the sound of the peepers lately is over powered by the sound of cars and pickups screeching their way down the street and then doing whatever they do to “lay some rubber.” We get to see their handiwork the next morning in the ugly black smudges left behind. Being an old fogey, I think of the shortened life of some tires that cost somebody or somebody’s parents a lot of money. And being a mother I shudder with dread at the thought that there is probably a lot of alcohol being consumed these days while the young drivers celebrate their upcoming liberation from high school.
I agonized through four high-school graduations and thankfully my children all came through unscathed. This was during a time when the legal drinking age was 18, tough times to be parents of teen-agers. It was hard to make a point about drinking and driving to a bunch of kids who believed themselves immortal.
Having been in the newspaper business for almost 30 years, I’ve seen more than my share of crumpled cars, shattered glass and bloody sidewalks. I’ve been there when parents arrived on the scene of garish flashing lights accompanied by the harsh growl of extrication tools. I’ve seen the look of total disbelief on their faces. This couldn’t be happening to them.
I once attended the trial of a young man who was facing charges of vehicular homicide in the deaths of his two best friends. These had been good kids, best friends, popular among their peers. One night during graduation season they all got drunk and started racing up and down the highway. A turn was made too fast, the car hurled into a cement overpass and it was all over. Two boys were killed instantly; the driver and another passenger were barely scratched.
The boy on trial was like anybody’s kid. He showed up every day dressed in clothes that he might have worn to a job interview. He looked bewildered and so sad. My instinct was to go put my arm around him and say “There, there, everything’s going to be all right.” But of course, it wasn’t and never would be.
His family showed up every day and held each other up sobbing as they clustered into the seats close to the defendant’s table. They leaned forward in their seats as if it were a television program and they need only snap it off to make it all go away.
On the other side of the room the parents of the dead boys sat like gray stone statues. They looked like they had cried for years and didn’t have the strength to shed any more tears.
The witnesses, a bunch of kids who had grown up and gone to school together, told of the awful night, of being at a party and everybody was loaded. The boys, as they testified, sat rigid, staring straight ahead. The girls could barely keep from collapsing; all cried on the witness stand.
The jury was out longer than expected and I can imagine the pain they suffered as they decided on the kid’s future. I heard later that some of them cried as they deliberated. Neighbors milling outside the courthouse repeated the refrain over and over, “But he was such a good kid!”
And I’m sure they thought as I did, “It could have been my kid.”
That night behind the wheel when two boys died, he wasn’t a good kid, he was a dumb kid, a stupid kid and his life and many others were changed forever in the blink of an eye. He was found guilty and sentenced to a hefty sentence in jail. I think he’s still there.
Linda DuCharme is retired and a free-lance writer.