(Author’s note: The name of the town mentioned in this article has been changed to protect its identity.)
Awakened by the phone, I managed a gruff “hello,” wondering who could be calling me at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning.
Hearing Bob’s voice surprised me. He was the manager of the radio station where I did the weekend newscasts from noon to six. Since he seldom called me at home, I figured one of the other DJs had called in sick and he needed me to come in early.
“Did you know a college student named John Burly?” Bob asked.
Still groggy, I had to think for a moment. “John Burly . . . yes, I know him. We had a couple of classes together.”
“There was an accident last night,” Bob continued. “He and four others in the same car were killed.”
It took a moment to sink in …
John wasn’t what I would call a friend. But still, at nineteen-years-old, the idea of someone our age actually dying seemed as distant as gray hair and grandkids.
As a sudden silence replaced our conversation, I realized I should say something. But reciting a litany of grief-laden exclamations seemed contrived and insincere.
Finally, Bob spoke. “I need you to come in as soon as you can. Out of the six people in the car, there was one survivor, and I’m sending a reporter to the hospital to interview her. The police are supposed to issue a report this afternoon, and I’d like you to write the copy and broadcast hourly updates on the story.”
In our little mid-western town of thirty-thousand, this was big news
Five young people were dead. All were local kids, and all came from prominent, well-known families. How could five of the town’s young elite die so suddenly, so tragically?
Before the day was over, the fine citizens of Pleasantville would be asking hundreds of questions — and demanding answers.
The next day, the front page of the town’s local newspaper was dedicated to the story
Here’s a partial excerpt:
“Investigating officers said the 1968 Pontiac was southbound on the Bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad. The car broke through a guard-rail, skidded down the curbing for a distance, then struck a retaining wall. Officers theorized that the car struck nose-first in the westbound lane of U.S. highway 55 about 30 feet down, bounced, and overturned. The vehicle landed on the edge of the eastbound lane, near the bottom of the hill. Five of the students were pinned in the vehicle. Miss “Smith” said she recalled seeing car lights coming up the hill as their car approached the bridge. She said the next thing she recalls is they were going off the hill. Their car may have been forced off the precarious roadway by an unknown vehicle.”
Over the next few weeks, an exhaustive search was made for the “other” car — the one that had forced the kids off the road and snuffed out five promising lives. The car was gray. Or dark blue. Or maybe black. No one was sure, but the police presumed the vehicle to be a dark color.
Private citizens and local organizations offered rewards for information leading to the arrest of the driver, who had not only failed to yield the right of way — he’d sped away in a panic, refusing to stop and help the victims.
Cardboard signs were tacked on telephone poles and street signs: “Find the Killer.” It was only three words, but everyone knew exactly what it meant.
Find the killer became a mantra for vengeance, retaliation and revenge — a reminder that without a perpetrator, without a guilty party, there would never be justice for the town. And no closure for the families.
The girl I was dating didn’t know the victims, but she took the loss personally
“I hope that bastard driving the other car is haunted every day of his life for what he did. I hope he burns in hell for eternity.”
It wasn’t like her. She was thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate. I assumed she would express her grief by offering condolences to the families. But she — like most of the good people of the town — was outraged.
Filled with hate, they could think of nothing but revenge.
A year passed. The “killer” was still at large
No one came forward with an eyewitness account. No one offered additional clues. Forensics revisited the crash scene several times, hoping to find something they’d overlooked in previous examinations.
They found nothing.
Slowly, the town moved on. But the hatred lingered.
In restaurants, stores, and on the street, it wasn’t unusual to hear the story referred to with a single question: “They never caught that guy who killed those five kids, did they?”
No, they never caught the guy.
Two years after the accident, I met Diane — the crash survivor who had managed to crawl out of the car
She had spoken with police at the crash scene. She’d reportedly seen the lights coming at them just before their car left the road to slam into the pavement some thirty feet below.
Introduced by a mutual acquaintance, our meeting was by sheer happenstance. I found Diane to be bright, witty, and outgoing, and we quickly became friends. Over the months that followed, we talked about relationships, politics, music, and sex — everything but the accident. I took her lead; since she never brought it up, I was careful not to mention it.
But there were plenty of unspoken reminders
Her hands and lower arms were covered in scars from broken glass — the windshield, I supposed. And although her body was completely healed, those scars were obvious reminders of what she’d been through — and how lucky she’d been to survive.
One night, we were sitting on the couch in her apartment, having another one of our impromptu gab sessions. It was late. We’d been drinking, talking about quitting our jobs and taking a year off to backpack across France. The conversation — and the drinking — had continued for several hours. I was tired, ready to go home.
Picking up my empty wine glass, I started for the kitchen. Suddenly, Diane stared at me, as if silently asking me not to leave. Without warning, she blurted it out: “I need to tell you something.”
I thought she was being facetiously melodramatic — setting me up for a joke
She wasn’t. And as the tears came and her voice broke, I sat back on the couch, not knowing what to expect.
Finally regaining her composure, she said, “You’ve never asked me about the scars. I know you see them. Everyone sees them.”
“From the windshield?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. My hands and arms were cut by the . . .”
She stopped, dropping her head. Despite the growing anguish on her face, she managed to speak. “You have to swear you’ll never repeat any of what I’m going to tell you. You have to keep it a secret . . . forever.”
I didn’t like where this was going
Diane was as strong a woman as I’d ever met. I’d never seen her lose control — and it was making me very uncomfortable.
I tried to break the building tension. “Forever is a long time.”
She blew out a breath. “Okay, then fifty years. Swear to me that you’ll keep this a secret for fifty years. Can you do that?”
Fifty years? I’ll be an old fart by then. I almost said it. But I could see the desperation in her face, and regardless of what was upsetting her, Diane deserved more than my sarcasm.
She tried again, and this time, her words were edged with irritation. “I want you to say it . . . promise me you’ll keep it a secret for fifty years from the day it happened.”
I was done joking around. “Okay, I promise.”
Had I known what she was about to reveal, I’m not sure I would have agreed
I’ve often wondered if I’d have been better off not knowing — if I’d just gotten up and left before she could tell me. But it’s just conjecture. Because I didn’t leave. I stayed. I listened.
And for fifty years, I’ve kept my promise — and her secret.
In writing this, I’ve had a lot of second thoughts about disclosing what I know. After all, it happened so long ago. Why open an old and forgotten wound? What possible purpose could it serve — especially now?
My decision came down to one simple question:
What difference does the truth make?
Diane sat back on the couch and wiped her eyes
“The scars are from the broken beer bottles. The back floorboard was full of empties. We’d tossed them there as we drank them. They exploded all over me when we crashed.”
“You were drinking?”
“But the driver, he was okay to drive, right?” I asked.
She tilted the wine glass to her mouth, emptying it. Finally, she said, “He’d had as much as any of us.”
“But he was able to avoid a head-on collision with the other car,” I argued. “If he hadn’t turned in time, you might have been killed as well.”
“You don’t understand,” she whispered.
She was right. I didn’t understand.
And while a part of me wanted to stop her — to ask her to reconsider what she was saying — I said nothing. Because sometimes, that’s all a friend can do.
“It will make more sense if I start from the beginning,” she said.
She told me about buying a case of beer for the six of them to share, and how they’d gone to a secluded park to drink. And when it was time to leave, they’d been in a hurry, because one of the girls had a curfew and it was an hour past any point of negotiating with her parents.
The driver had approached the curve at the top of the elevated roadway much too fast. As he tried to negotiate the turn, he’d made no effort to slow down. Breaking through the guardrail, the car had left the pavement and become airborne, plunging headlong onto the highway thirty feet below.
Firemen and paramedics were the first to arrive
After determining the identity of the crash victims as children of the town’s most prominent, the first responders made a quick decision.
“The other car,” one of the paramedics began, “the one that forced you off the road, did you see what color it was?”
“They kept asking me that, over and over again,” Diane said. “I was in shock, bleeding all over the place, and they still kept asking me . . .”
“The other car,” the paramedic repeated, “the one that forced you off the road, you saw the headlights, didn’t you? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
With constant prompting from the first responders, the idea of another car slowly began making its way through the confusion, shock, and pain that was pushing Diane to the brink of hysteria.
Diane excused herself, wanting to repair her tear-streaked make-up. Rejoining me on the couch, she continued.
“As they put me into the ambulance, I began to wonder. Was there another car? Had I really seen headlights coming straight at us? Maybe I’d forgotten. Maybe I was trying to block it out.
“I decided to say nothing more about it. If someone asked, I would tell them I couldn’t remember. Five of my friends were dead. And whether or not there was another car involved just didn’t seem to be important. It certainly wasn’t going to bring my friends back.”
In their minds, the first responders were trying to help
They saw their efforts to create an imaginary scapegoat — another car — as a charitable gesture. An act of mercy. Surely at the time, it seemed harmless, with no anticipated consequences. And the families of the deceased would be spared the humiliation of knowing their offspring had killed themselves in a drunken joy-ride.
Over the weeks that followed, there was never any thought about the story being false. It had been printed in the newspaper, for god’s sake. Everyone knew a newspaper printed only the truth. The account was unassailable — as real as it gets — to everyone who lived in that little town.
Accordingly, people formed opinions, expressed emotion, and joined in solidarity against an unknown assailant. And in the process, it made them hate. It made them want revenge. It made them want to punish someone who didn’t exist — for a crime that was never committed.
Were the well-intentioned first responders wrong to invent a perpetrator?
I can’t sanction the lie. And yet, I can’t blame them, at least not in the same way I would blame a thief or a scam artist. From their perspective, it was a benevolent and sympathetic act — a way to protect the innocent parents from years of accusation, finger-pointing, and outright humiliation.
Even in hindsight, it’s difficult to see how such a charitable white lie would quickly turn the small community of Pleasantville into a town without pity.
Over the last fifty years, there have been countless times when I wanted to tell others — to use the story of what happened on that dark night in 1970 as an example of unfounded convictions, runaway emotions, and unsubstantiated belief.
Especially when otherwise responsible, sensible people began spouting the rhetoric of hate and violence.
It’s hard to stop believing something you’ve been told was true
Realizing you’ve been living your life based on a falsehood is unnerving. It shakes your confidence in what’s real and what isn’t. And it plants a disturbing seed of doubt that forces you to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there are other things you’ve been told — perhaps all of your life — that are also untrue.
Media news broadcasts are filled with partisan commentary and biased editorializing. Social media has become the weapon of choice when the desired result is to inflame emotions and motivate mob-mentality.
Distortions, exaggerations, and fabrications . . .
In these sad situations, belief often creates certainty — but not truth
So the next time the world starts screaming, “Tell us what to think,” step back and make sure your voice isn’t counted among the gullible majority.
© 2020, Roger A. Reid. All Rights Reserved.
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How Loosening The Ties To My Past Gave Me New Purpose and Direction
Too many unanswered questions forced me to take a hard look at myself
Second Guessing My Decisions Kept Me From Moving Forward
Until I discovered the value in turning pages and not looking back.
Find more tips & strategies for personal and career success in Better Mondays
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is the founder|host of Success Point 360 Podcast and author of Better Mondays: The New Rules for Creating Financial Success and Personal Freedom (While Working for the Man) and A certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business, Roger offers tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.