There Had Been an Accident

Sitting in Grade 7 math class that Monday morning was weird. The room was eerie and silent and the air weighed too much so we almost couldn’t breathe. You didn’t want to move around in your desk for fear of breaking the silence.

Most of us were still in shock and couldn’t believe the news that was circulating like wildfire in the hallways before morning classes. There had been an accident on the weekend. Curtis was in our small class of fourteen students.

Curtis and Allan, Curtis’ older brother who already had his driver’s license, had gone 4-wheel driving in an old relic of a jeep 25 miles into the foothills west of our small, southern-Alberta town. It was the end of May, when high water run-off filled the creeks and the hills were still green, long before the hot summer months when the creeks would become mud bogs and the landscape would become brown, dusty and barren. The boys went up on Sunday afternoon to mess around on a rancher’s land and then up in the forestry reserve. No one is supposed to be up there, driving around in the forestry reserve, but town kids did it all the time.

By the time I heard the news, there were different versions, some more elaborate or dramatic, some with made up details to fill in the unknown parts; all of them retaining the tragic ending. It was hard to know what was factual and what was purely fiction.

What was known was that Allan had tried to drive the jeep up onto a creek bank. In those days, no one wore seat belts or maybe the old jeep didn’t have seat belts. It had a short wheel base, metallic grey in colour with the letters JEEP stamped across the tail gate. The jeep was army surplus from World War II and just about every farmer had one kicking around the homestead. They were useful for running parts to the field or a thermos of coffee and a bucketful of sandwiches to the men running the combines during the busy harvest season. In the summer months, the roof came off so only the windshield stood up above the hood of the truck. It could seat two people up front and you could pack quite a few kids in the box behind the seats having them sit on the edge of the box or down behind the front seats. It wasn’t unusual to have a kid fall off the back of the truck if the driver stopped too quickly. No matter; you’d dust yourself off, hop back on and away you’d go because bruises and knocks were just a fact of life in a farming and ranching community.

That short wheel-base was a problem and it was pretty easy to flip a jeep. Take a corner too fast or try to climb up a hill that is too steep and over it would go. Usually if you tipped the jeep, you could just scramble out. You just had to have the good sense to jump up on the top of the side of the jeep and then jump off. Usually it was like a slow motion movie, the jeep just sort of started going over and you knew you needed to bail out. You could usually push the jeep back upright if you had enough people to rock it enough so it would flip back over, right side up. If you were stuck, a farmer or rancher might come along and pull you out. No one carried winches on the jeep.

Curtis didn’t jump out of the jeep that Sunday afternoon, maybe he got caught in the seat or maybe the jeep flipped too fast. The jeep rolled over, back down the bank with Curtis caught underneath it, pinned down under the jeep, face down, in just a few inches of creek water. Allan tried to get Curtis out from under that jeep, pushing and pulling, trying to lift that jeep up, but he was on his own. It just wasn’t possible even with the panic, fear and the adrenaline coursing through his body. He tried in vain to lift up the truck on his own, trying to rescue Curtis.

At some point, Allan must have known it was futile. Realizing that he had to get help, Allen left Curtis in that creek, pinned under the jeep, in the ice cold run-off water. Allan knew Curtis was already dead. Did a rancher called the search and rescue service? Did Allan? No one knew that detail. The police came, though, because they would need to investigate the accident.

I never heard the details of the recovery; it was called a recovery since Curtis was already dead and couldn’t have been rescued. His parents suffered terribly in their grief because it wasn’t the natural order of things. Your child shouldn’t die before you. Maybe Curtis was knocked unconscious when the jeep flipped and I really want to believe that’s what happened. It sickens me to think that he would have known he was drowning; that he was going to die. Allan blamed himself for rolling the jeep, but accidents happen. It’s just that people don’t die in our town, young people anyway.

*****

Mrs. Forbes, our math teacher didn’t teach anything that morning in class. She just asked us to work on exercises in the math textbook but no one was concentrating on math. Mrs. Forbes sat at her desk looking grim. Her jaw was set as she concentrated very hard on the papers on her desk. She looked like she was trying hard not to cry. Mrs. Forbes was a good teacher, conscientious, and caring; she liked teaching and enjoyed her students. She liked Curtis too, even though he could be a scoundrel and mischievous: hogging the spotlight by being the class clown. She appreciated his spunk.

I sat there quietly at my wooden desk, the kind of desk with the chair attached to it at the side, the one Mrs. Forbes had assigned to me at the beginning of the year, with a growing awareness of the hard seat. I was uncomfortable sitting there and I wasn’t really working on my math exercises. I suppose like everyone else, I was thinking about Curtis. I was sad for his family, yet, I was conflicted because I had other emotions, too, and some of them were very inappropriate given the circumstances.

*****

Most of the kids that I started school with in kindergarten, I would also graduate with from high school. It was a mixed blessing, as my mom would say. Everyone shared a common history and a short hand for saying things to each other; the local language. If you grew up in this town, you took quite a bit for granted and things didn’t change very much. There was consistency and people liked it that way.

People looked out for one another and their kids. You didn’t have to worry about your kid getting kidnaped, that’s for sure. If your child got hurt, some adult would patch them up and bring them home. Of course, people would also remember every bone-headed thing you ever did. They wouldn’t let you forget it, either. Rarely did someone move away because you just didn’t pick up and leave that easily.

I was the third generation of my family to grow up in that town. We were not high up on the social strata, but we weren’t on the bottom either. Grandpa, my Mom’s dad, garnered a great deal of respect. He was a hard worker and people liked a strong work ethic. The community knew everything about my family and my extended family, the good and the bad. They knew my uncle and his family who worked our farm, my Dad who came from the city and didn’t work our farm, the family members who were alcoholics or prescription drug addicts although everyone pretended they just came down with the flu periodically.

Time and again, I would have to explain to someone that I belonged to the Hoffman clan: “Yes, my name is Cathy McCann but I’m a Hoffman. You know Bill Hoffman? I’m Shirley’s daughter.” The light would go on and I was claimed as one of their own in the community, unlike my dad, who would be a perennial outsider. Curtis was actually a distant relative of mine on the Stunkel side, my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. In a small town, it wasn’t unusual to be related by blood or marriage to just about everyone.

****

Curtis and Jay, a friend of Curtis’, had teased me since the third grade. Today, it would be called bullying. I tolerated it usually, but sometimes it would make me cry. I wouldn’t cry in front of them. I’d put on a look of nonchalance and do my best to ignore their taunts. It was a kind of perverse attention since I was mostly ignored in school by the in-crowd. Curtis and Jay definitely belonged to the in-crowd. Most of the in-crowd kids in our school didn’t like anyone to stand out from the crowd, so they would find ways to put you in your place. I always got top grades, as did my few close friends. We bonded over academics. If you were a brain that was reason enough to be bullied.

At noon hour, I would sit at my desk and eat my lunch while reading a book. Most of the other kids would go outside to play, but I preferred to read during lunch. Curtis and Jay would also be in the class room with me, probably because of a detention because they wouldn’t have stayed inside by choice. When we were alone, when the teacher stepped out of the room for a moment, they would call me names. “Fatty, fatty, two by four.” “Four eyes.” The names were biting and cruel. I couldn’t say anything to them that would make the taunting stop. I didn’t know how to defend myself.

*****

Curtis was the first kid of my class to pass away. Someone has to be first, don’t they? As I sat in my desk, I was angry at him for dying. I had so much I wanted to say to him. Tell him how he made me feel when, he called me names. The bullying hung over me like a cloud and it made me shy and self-conscious. I didn’t stand up for myself before and I couldn’t do it now. You couldn’t speak ill of the dead, that was rude. I’m pretty sure the fact that Curtis would bully and pick on kids in his class was not going to be mentioned at his funeral. I couldn’t tell people that I was relieved he was gone and that maybe the tormenting would end for good now. Right now, it just seemed petty and small to be glad he was gone.

*****

They had a service for Curtis at the funeral home in town. Curtis’ family did not attend church regularly so they didn’t have a church service. The afternoon service was packed and lots of people stood in the back of the chapel. Grace, a friend of mine, went to the funeral and told me it was a closed casket service. Maybe with everything that happened to him in the jeep roll-over, he was too battered for an open casket.

My parents and Curtis’ family were not close. Mom and dad didn’t socialize with them so we didn’t go to Curtis’ funeral. Curtis’ family didn’t farm. They owned the hardware store in town and we were farmers and so we belonged in a different part of the community’s social strata.

The eulogy was nice, Grace said. What else would it be? You always say nice things at a funeral. He played football, enjoyed the outdoors, loved his family, but sadly his life was cut too short. The eulogy was probably short too, because how much could you say about a 13 year old boy?

*****

I wonder what Curtis would have been like as an adult. What if he had survived that accident and graduated high school with me. He might have gone to college or trade school to earn a ticket becoming a welder or a carpenter. Maybe he would be married now with kids of his own. He would no doubt take his kids out four wheel driving. At any rate, he would still be a pain in the ass.