There was a boy as handsome as a movie star who drove a midnight-blue sports car. He had been a few years ahead of me in grade school, a loner, so all the girls had crushes on him. A slight tendency toward truancy made him even more exotic. One night, by himself, he raced up Dalecarlia Parkway, came to Westmoreland Circle and plowed into it.
This was the first of the children I remember being sacrificed to car accidents, but there have been many more. The memory of him is just as vivid as it was 40 years ago, but so too is the memory of the peers I lost and, later, the children of my friends. These kids crossed the median, were slammed from behind, slid sideways off the road and then tumbled into a ditch, got a ride home with a reckless driver in an open Jeep.
As I stand here today, a survivor of great stupidity behind the wheel in my own youth, it's hard for me to think of these kids as reckless or contributory in any way to their own deaths, though, of course, some of them were. A guardian angel, prayers of parents or sheer luck kept many of us alive as teenagers. And today, like survivors of a plane crash, our being alive makes us wary, guilty, too, and obliged never to rest as long as our children are on the road, worried that our luck has run out and our children will suffer for it.
One summer afternoon 15 years ago a woman's voice on the other end of the telephone began to feebly explain who she was, the sister of a mother of one of my son's best friends. And once she had established her connection to me, the silence hung in the air. She was waiting, hoping, that the news had reached me, but it hadn't. And so she struggled only to provide the sparest details about the car crash that had taken the teenage boy, a passenger on a car ride home from a concert.
Even in the rawness of my own grief, I could think only of the mother, of the indescribable agony of her loss but mostly of its randomness. Any parent who hears the phone ring in the middle of the night stumbles to answer it knowing that this might be the moment she learns that she has lost the horrible lottery, that her treasure has been taken from her, that the rest of her days will be spent rearranging the photographs of her child on the fireplace mantel. These parents are left to watch forever the upward trajectory of the lives of their sons' and daughters' friends. They see the shadow of their child in line for his college diploma or in the bridesmaids flanked across the altar. They have to hesitate every time they are asked, "How many children do you have?"
No driver's education class, learner's permit or stern lecture can connect in a teenager's mind the freedom of driving a car to the consequences of crashing a car. A child can sit at a computer or hang out in an arcade and navigate a plane through airspace thick with enemy fire, can flawlessly steer a racecar through an imaginary Indy 500 without ever skidding, careening, crashing or exploding.
The same child cannot imagine the thud, the shock of impact, when the mail truck plows into daddy's car; the crazy squeal of tires on a slick highway when the brakes are applied too suddenly; the horror of turning too wide, then overcorrecting to see the tree looming toward the windshield. A child vibrant and alert cannot imagine that one day he will be heavy-lidded and so drugged with sleep on a lonely road at night, on a trip back to college after vacation, that he will never wake again.
When I was a teenager, we didn't flock to the death site in the bleak hours afterward or decorate it with mementos or flowers, pictures or teddy bears as kids do today. But even today on my daily routes I drive by accident scenes of the past, the unmarked spots where the earth took these kids in the bloom of youth and swallowed them whole.
The writer is editor of The Post's Food section.