Hold cursor over photos to read captions.
recent TV drama about the death of a
boy thrown from a horse brought a flood of memories about the
death of my brother, Gary, in a car crash in 1957, and how we
surviving family members coped with that loss. I wrote after my
mother's death in 1993 that the great tragedy of my parents' lives had been Gary's death. After 42 years, no other
experience in my life brings more sadness. Nothing in my life
of 57 years has been more instructive; nothing has made me pay
more attention to life and death, concerns of the spirit, and
what matters and what doesn't.
Gary was 19 and working in Detroit at the
time, visiting our home in Western Pennsylvania for the Labor
Day weekend. Good or bad credit
auto loans were easy enough to obtain and a friend's parents
had bought a new Ford Fairlane that Saturday and the friend, Joe
Benkosky, Gary, and a third friend, Alan ("Buzz") Baldwin,
apparently decided to see what the new car could do in the early
hours of that Sunday morning. The car left the highway
and slammed into the C&I Railroad underpass abutment in Belsano,
less than a half mile from Buzz Baldwin's home, killing all three
I was four years younger, and like lots of
siblings with that range of separation, Gary and I were not close.
My perception was he was always picking on me, and it dawned on
me only a few years ago that it may well have been a classic case
of sibling rivalry. Gary had been the "baby" for four
years before I was born, and was just coming into self-awareness
when the big rival, in the form of me, arrived to divert his mother's
attention (our father paid almost no attention to us when young
and we were always being warned not to bother him). When I was
a year old, Gary got too close to a bonfire that ignited the felt
play cowboy chaps he was wearing, burning him severely and putting
him near death for months afterward, and leaving his legs badly
scarred for the rest of his life.
Earlier on the night he died, I had gone roller
skating in Ebensburg and mentioned to my girlfriend, Caryl, that
he was visiting from Detroit and we had had one of the few civil
conversations of our lives that day. I remember him telling me
how disc jockeys talked on Detroit radio
stations, and I felt good that he finally seemed to be accepting
me as a person rather than a pest.
Besides Gary being home for Labor Day weekend,
our aunt and uncle were visiting from Ohio, and they and their
young son were occupying our bedrooms. I was sleeping on the davenport
in the living room; the couch in the dining room was made up for
There was only one phone in the house, in
the living room, and it seemed to ring 10 times before I was roused
enough to answer it some time around 2 a.m. (I have hated prolonged
ringing of phones ever since). It was Liz Baldwin, Buzz's sister,
wanting to know if Gary was home. I checked the couch to find
it empty. Liz was vague about why she wanted to know, but it soon
became obvious the Baldwins had already been informed about the
accident. One victim's body was trapped in the mangled car and
so badly burned that the police had trouble identifying it, which
is why Liz asked me to check. I found out only in 1998 that the
police actually inquired at the home of at least one other young
man in the area to eliminate him as one of the possible victims
before checking with us.
Before I was off the phone with
Liz, it seemed, state troopers were out in front of our house,
calling up to Mom and Dad's bedroom. My memory, though not at
all clear, is that they broke the tragic news through the window
screens instead of meeting Mom and Dad at the door.
I knew from that point on that my parents
and I were in a state of shockthough I couldn't have defined
that, but part of it was total absence of appetitefrom then
until some indefinite time in the future. There was of course
no thought of going back to sleep. Shortly after dawn we observed
the neighbor boy, Sonny Thompson, leaving to put in a day's work
on setting up the carnival at the county fairgrounds; Cambria
County Fair always opens Labor Day.
Though I was in shock and feeling shocked,
I didn't feel any emotion that first day. I was amazed when Dad,
halfway through relating the news to his brother by phone in Altoona, broke down and couldn't
complete what he was saying. "Here, Reid," (he always
called me by my middle name, Reid), he said to me in tears, "you
finish it." And I did, cool as a cucumber and feeling guilty
for feeling so little.
A friend of my mother's urged her to take
a drink of something strong early that morning, and I remember
Mom's shocked reaction; she wouldn't think of doing such a thing.
Mother wouldn't have touched alcohol under any circumstance, but
especially in this situation she felt it would dishonor Gary.
And though I was just a silent witness to this exchange, I knew
exactly what she meant. The friend wanted to help Mom dull her
feelings, but Mom felt, and I did too, that our feelings were
all of Gary that we had left. If he were dead, how could we even
consider making our piddling lives less uncomfortable at that
prospect? To diminish our grief would diminish his now-lost life.
I have no idea where that "value"
came from, specifically, but it seemed to define our way of dealing
with the loss, for both of my parents and me. (My two older brothers
were already living at distant points so I was not a witness to
their reactions first-hand, though we've since discussed the matter
and I know they were also indelibly affected by the loss. Gary's
residence in Detroit, for example, was with our oldest brother,
so his loss was not only that of younger brother but of a member
of his new family, as well.)
Some families are ripped apart by the loss
of one member; ours was drawn together. Perhaps it was the totally
unexpected nature of the accident and the complete disengagement
of any of us in it, so there was no one to blame even subconsciously.
None of us doubted God in the face of the tragedy; even my agnostic
father seemed to accept the accident as the kind of event in which
God becomes more important, not less (within a decade he gave
up his agnosticism and got baptized). Mother and I became engrossed
in the study of theology to try to understand Gary's death in
God's perspective. My fifteenth year (the one from age 14 to 15)
had been rough; Mom and I were at odds all the time, fighting
with each other. I determined fairly soon after this event that
I would never cause her pain again. Friends were surprised that
my parents made no objection to my getting my driver's permit
a few months later, as many Pennsylvania 15-year-olds do, as Gary
had done. We had both been driving the farm tractor for years
before our 15th birthdays.
Though everything was different after the
accident, many things went on routinely. If I remember correctly,
Gary's funeral was the afternoon of Labor Day Monday at the EUB
church we'd attended in Belsano most of our lives (it was at the
funeral, especially during the choir's singing of "Nearer
My God to Thee," that I finally broke and shed sobbing tears).
Buzz and Joe both being members of the same Catholic church in
Twin Rocks, one funeral was held for both of them, the next morning,
which we attended (both churches were full; the accident obviously
shocked the whole Valley, and because Buzz Baldwin's father was
one of the first attempting to offer help at the accident scene,
totally unsuspecting that one of the victims was his son, it received
national news coverage).
My memory is not clear, but I believe I was
in school already on Wednesday (school was always suspended in
many Cambria County districts, including ours, on the Tuesday
after Labor Day, so children would have a day to attend the Fair).
The accident was the major local news story
in the Johnstown daily paper that Labor Day*, as it was in
the weekly Nanty Glo Journal the following Thursday. Both
stories included lurid photos of the totally demolished car, and
school pictures of the three victims.
Though people often feel violated by such
reporting on their loved ones, none of my family members felt
that way in the least. Our attitude was much the oppositeit's
tragic enough for a teenager to lose his life in an accident,
but it would be even more tragic for that loss to go unnoted.
This was the last opportunity Gary would ever have to make a ripple
on the river of life; we were grateful for any spreading of those
ripples. (It should be noted, however, that no reporters made
any intrusions into our lives or our grief in getting their stories.)
By the same token, every card, note, and personal
word was meaningful and appreciated, and we received them from
all over the country and people we hadn't heard from in many years,
or as in the case of Gary's employers and co-workers in Detroit,
people we hadn't even heard of before. My own feeling in dealing
with others in grief has often been ambiguous despite my personal
experience (thinking along the lines, "what right have I
to intrude at such a time?"), but my experience is that there
is comfort in the words of support from friends and well-wishers.
One of the unexpected "positives"
to come out of the loss was that many of Gary's friends, both
close and nominal ones, made a point of seeking me out over the
next several years, to tell me how they felt the loss, and offer
condolences. I couldn't attend a school football game, for example,
without having someone or several people make such an approach.
Gary's girlfriend, Nancy Wilson, who was two years older than
I and attended the same school, became my friend, and I spent
lots of time with her and several of her girlfriends. I don't
believe she ever recovered from the loss, and she died tragically
also, in her early twenties.