Thursday, September 1, 2011

yellowed newspaper clipping

This is a repost from 2007. I was completely enveloped by the story when I first heard it. Only after posting it did I realize that the woman I wrote about had the same maiden name as my mother. Dedicated to the memory of the two Patricias.

My neighbor Ron is someone I would have to describe as an Auto Rights Activist. He has personally saved more old cars from destruction than anyone I have known. Think of him as the antidote to a demolition derby, dragging home wrecks and restoring them to glistening beauty. Usually these cars represent a chapter of his youth, and lead to a story about life with his family in Lubbock, Texas. From the assemblage of veterans on the block, it appears that his family tended to favor Ford products.

For example, one time, Ron showed up with a totally sun baked 1950 Ford sedan. The body and chassis were remarkably intact, but the car simply looked like it had been parked on the sun. This one reminded him of his Grandfather, who had an almost identical car back in Texas in the early sixties. Ron recalled how his Grandmother referred to it as the "little gray Ford". Another time it was a green and white mid-fifties Ford sedan with factory air conditioning, but that one reposed in the driveway for only a short period of time.

Ron's mother Sue passed away recently from cancer. He went back to Lubbock to the little mid-century house he grew up in, only the second house of her adult life, and began the task of sorting through belongings that had been accumulating there since LBJ's first term. Clothes, shoes, books, photographs, papers, catalogues, magazines. Some recent, some not. In the cedar chest were the family papers. His Grandfather's Military Discharge papers were there, along with his Parent's Marriage License, almost every document pertaining to the lives of her four boys, and a yellowed newspaper clipping.

He carefully unfolded the clipping. It was dated September 30, 1957. The headline read "Four Killed on Area Roads". It was published on a Monday and told how four people, three adult women and one nine year old child, were killed the previous day in three separate crashes. There was a black and white photograph of a mangled 1955 Ford sedan. One could not tell the color but Ron knew instinctively that the car was light green. It had belonged to his Aunt Patsy.

Ron does not remember his Aunt Patsy, his father's second-youngest sister. He was only two years old when she died. She was only twenty-seven years old herself. He had grown up keenly aware of her absence. He heard his family talk about her over the years, especially his Grandmother and his Aunt Bobbie. There is a picture of him on his first birthday in her arms. He does not recall this photo being taken.

She has raven black hair, dimpled cheeks, and a big smile. She is a beautiful young woman. He has seen other pictures of her also, including one of her in her casket. Her son Donnie appears in a similar photograph. Ron recalls that he knew better than to ask his Grandmother about those photos. He knew almost nothing about the accident which claimed their lives. His Grandmother was unable to discuss it. According to Aunt Bobbie, Grandmother had to be heavily sedated to even get through the funeral.

From his Aunt Bobbie, he knew that Uncle Tommy, a baker in downtown Lubbock, had worked part of the day that Sunday. His mother had offered to help the young family buy a badly needed bigger house, so Patsy and the kids picked her up at her house in Cone, Northwest of Lubbock, and drove to the bakery downtown to get Tommy. They spent a long afternoon touring and looking at potential new homes.

When the day drew to a close, they dropped his mother off at about 8:30 pm and headed back to Lubbock on Highway 82. It was a busy two lane road and Patsy was driving. Tommy was in the right front, and nine year old Donnie was seated between them in front. In fifties highway etiquette, the eldest got first dibs on the front seat. They were nearing home when a car being driven by a twenty-one year old man from Fort Worth pulled out to pass and hit the green Ford sedan head on.

For the first time, Ron was holding an article which calmly reported a family tragedy. According to the newspaper, Aunt Patsy was thrown through the windshield. Both she and Donnie died at the scene. Tommy suffered broken ribs and other injuries. Their daughter Nancy, age four, and six year old Jack were both in the back seat. Also riding in the car were two of their neighbor's children who had come along for the Sunday drive. They all survived, as did the young man and his girlfriend in the other car. He suffered a broken leg in the crash. Neither car was equipped with seat belts. The newspaper reported that the victims were taken to three different area hospitals. It then went on to detail the other two accidents, duly noting that one of the victims was, in fact, a negro.

Aunt Bobbie offered more detail. She herself had stopped by the bakery that day. She was running errands with her own mother-in-law, Lucille. Lucille was a brassy woman who was often hired by local farmers to find water on their land with a divining rod. She was known to have a sixth sense. She waited in the car while Bobbie ran into the bakery. When Bobbie came back , Lucille cast her eyes on the green 1955 Ford sedan. "That's Patsy's car, isn't it" she asked. "Yes, it is, you've seen it before" Bobbie replied. Lucille said nothing more, but continued to eye it with a troubled expression as Bobbie pulled away.

Ron admitted to me that the green and white 1956 sedan he had purchased began to remind him too much of Aunt Patsy's car. Virtually identical in styling, he believed it was even the same color. That's why it remained in the fleet for such a short time.

Aunt Patsy and Donnie were laid to rest in the family plot next to her father. Her mother joined them there in 1984. Ron's own parents are a couple of rows away in the same cemetery. Uncle Tommy eventually remarried and moved out of state. Ron grew up with only a peripheral awareness of his cousins' existence. Fifty years have gone by. The babies are now middle aged. The smiling young adults are now old, and Patsy's brothers and sisters are joining her one by one. The passage of time does nothing to erase the tragedy of lives cut short on a Sunday night. The newspaper articles are clipped out and placed in the cedar chest where they yellow, but they are not thrown away.

It is all but impossible for us to understand such a loss in the context of its own time. To imagine an era where ladies wore single strands of white pearls and dainty hats, but then could be suddenly thrown through the windshields of pastel colored sedans is beyond our ability to comprehend. It bemoans the limitations of technology at a fixed point in time. And while it may seem to us to be primitive, it was the state of the art at the time. These were just the risks one assumed in daily living. Life changes in an instant, and this fact is as true today as it was in the late summer of 1957. Perhaps that is what makes the memories so precious.

On the nightstand next to Ron's bed, there is a framed photograph of a smiling young woman holding a one year old boy. She has raven black hair and dimples in her cheeks.