On March 31, 1978, four teenagers climbed into a red Pontiac Trans Am and sped away onto a wide but curvy mountain road (frequented by each of us from time to time for any number of reasons, some virtuous and some not) overlooking our small town.
But on this night, so much like any other night, things went terribly wrong. The car left the road, killing all three passengers and leaving the driver with a life that must include enough “woulda, coulda, shouldas” to fill a thousand.
Thirty-two years later, some of us have reminisced on Facebook about that night and the days that followed. These reminiscences have been both introspective to relive and fascinating to share, and have made me think about two things that I believe are worth passing on to anyone who wants to read them.
First, we spend our lives in tribes. Aprill pointed this out as we were reading the accounts. “This happened to our tribe,” she said, “and even though some of the tribe has dispersed, this is a tribal event that shaped each of us in similar ways.” In generations past, tribes never changed – or rarely so. One would live in his or her tribe for a lifetime, passed down from the generation before, and passed on to the generation after. Today, that is almost lost. Many of us live in a number of tribes throughout our lives. Communications alone has changed the meaning and essence of the tribe. Each of us can know what is happening at this moment in almost any part of the world, making us all part of one tribe in a sense.
Second, it underscores a life lesson that is worth hearing and learning when you’re young, and being reminded of as you get older. Every decision matters. Many decisions are small and their impacts aren’t felt beyond the moment. But some decisions are only disguised as small. They are really enormous decisions with impacts that can be minimal or, if played out wrong, monumental. Gargantuan. Catastrophic. Epic.
This was the latter – not just one, but a series of seemingly small decisions made by four young people, yet having heavy, far-reaching consequences – some of which may have yet to be played out even today.
What follows is not my writing, but a collection of the writings of a number of members of my high school tribe. To guard privacy, there is no attribution to any writer. All last names have been deleted for privacy, but I’ve included first names to keep the account grounded. These were (and are) real people with real lives. As you read it, you get a unique snapshot of a moment in time, a look into the life of a tribe, and how a series of decisions played out can change lives in an instant and for decades to follow.
March 31, 1978.
(Original Facebook post) Thinking about my classmates Connie, Lisa and Johnny who lost their lives in a car accident 32 years ago today. I wonder what they would have grown up to be.
I remember that accident like it was yesterday. So tragic.
I love Jackson Browne but can’t listen to Running on Empty because it was so popular at the time and hearing it now brings all those memories rushing back.
Billy Joel’s Only The Good Die Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s That Smell always bring back the memories of that horrible weekend. Wasn’t that around the time of the big Interact spring trip to Gatlinburg?
Some really great people lost their lives that night.
That was a sad day..I remember it well..I miss them so much!!
I don’t remember if it was Interact trip weekend, but I do remember I was spending the night with Pam and we were riding around when we heard the news.
I was riding around with Dennis, Derrell and Robert that night….very surreal being in a similar red Trans Am as word got out about the accident.
Wow…that made cold chills on me…I can’t believe it’s been that long ago. Tragic loss.
Thank you for remembering the exact date. Yes, Interact was on their spring trip. Beth called me that night to tell me the horrible news.
What a tragedy that 3 young people with SO MUCH potential lost their lives! Most of us probably have a story on how that night played out in our own lives. Here is mine. My cousin Rhonda and I were out that night. Rhonda was dating a guy with the last name (withheld). Johnny had asked me out for that night. As soon as we heard the news we went home (no cell phones then to keep in touch with parents). My mother was standing at the door hysterical, watching and hoping it wasn’t us.
Rhett called me early the next morning to tell me the horrible news. I knew something was wrong when he called early on a Saturday morning. That was the first time that someone that I knew had died. It was a very hard thing to deal with. I often think about them too, wondering what type of great lawyer Lisa would have been.
I first heard it on the radio the next morning, my mom then came in to my room and told me what happened. After the initial shock – I broke down and cried. Connie and Lisa were in my Economics class and remember they left class early for a Tennis match that afternoon.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I had English class with Ron and he had begged me to go because Connie couldn’t go by herself and I had made plans to go to party at Terry’s house. Terry and I spoke to Ron and Johnny a few minutes before 7:00 that night in McDonald’s parking lot. They were on their way to the bowling alley to get Lisa and Connie. I will never forget that morning when we found out. It was such a sad day and yes, Angie, every time I hear Running on Empty by Jackson Browne, I think of that day and those people.
Sadly missed…but not forgotten! I will never forget that tragic night of the car accident.
Jeff, you called me that Saturday morning and told me. It was a beautiful Saturday morning that was totally sad. I ran into Connie’s Mom a couple of years ago and I talked to her about how kind Connie was and she appreciated it so much and told me thanks for remembering. During this Easter week we must remember that through Christ there is hope for eternal life.
My heart still breaks when I think about that night. I’m sure they would love to see how much they are still loved and missed.
Yes Mitch, I remember making that call. Jim you’re right. It was a golf match and not tennis. As soon as I heard about it Saturday Morning my mind immediately thought of the last time I saw Lisa and Connie and I just broke down. Every year at this time, I think of them and how sad that day was. I miss them alot.
Wow. I have a copy of that paper in my annual, but I haven’t looked at it in years. I didn’t know Lisa other than to see her. Connie was my rock and I sat by her in every class we had if I could. She would let me “copy,” you see. That year we were in Mr Wooten’s biology class together and we sat side by side. His room was in a circular pattern if anyone remembers, with a few seats in the center of the circle. Connie sat beside me on the left hand side. The next Monday, Wooten ask me to move over into Connie’s chair because the room looked a little empty as he put it. I shook my head and said “no, I don’t want to” and he insisted, so I got up and moved down one but I exchanged the chairs. We sat on the end of the circle by the door. There was no one he replaced in my chair and I thought it was stupid to just move me but he did.
I knew their sister but not Jimbo or Johnny…or Ron. I mean I knew of them but actually knew their sister. We partied together and after school was over she lived out on Sparta highway for a time.
I did know Mike, Lisa’s little brother I wonder what ever became of him?
Mrs Durham was so sweet. Still is. She was a volunteer at the library awhile back. Brad loved talking with her. Well she was fully composed and it was our homeroom. So first class of the day. She started to hand out the test we had taken Friday and the third name she called out was Connie’s, and she fell apart and ran out the classroom. Some of the girls went out to be with her. Then Rhett reminded me of when the same thing happened in her own family in Nashville in that van wreck. So sad.
Last time I saw Mike was a year ago. I went to dinner with him, his wife and kids in Murfreesboro.
I’m glad to know he got straightened out. We were pretty wild back then. Does he live there? Is he on here? Man, so much time has passed since then. Connie was always so bright eyed. She lived not far from me – just across the bypass. Yep they would be happy to know we still think of them. I never knew Connie to get into much and it’s like she was just becoming and experimenting with life at that time. It boggles the mind to think of the what ifs in life, and the should’ves. Now I wonder what became of Kim? Life is so fast and so short for us all and for some the flowers never bloom.
I pause and pray. I did not know them but I did see the impact of their death on so many of my high school friends. I remember tears on the way up the mountain and kisses out of the window from many passengers. May God Bless each of you. Let us remember to keep their parents in prayer tonight.
Lori and I were riding around and just happened to go out highway 8 and saw all the lights and traffic. I parked and walked down toward the sight and met my parents walking back toward town. My mother was glad to see me…
Wow. 32 years. I was on the Interact trip. It was the second trip of the year – to the annual Tennessee Rotary Convention – to perform the skit we’d won with a couple of weeks before at the Interact convention. The leaders kept the news from us until late Saturday afternoon – unheard of in this day of cell phones, but at the time, very doable. After we did the performance, they took us into a back room at the hotel and told us in a group. It is a very strange memory to think about 40 of us being together and hearing the news at the same moment. I still think about it from time to time, and know that it was a defining moment of my high school years.
Micah, Wayne and I were at the (name withheld)’s house that night spending the night with Mike. We had been out around the neighborhood, throwing water balloons and just up to some innocent mischief when a cop car drove up to the (name withheld)’s house. Of course we thought it was about us, but had no idea of the real reason until I followed the policeman into the house, and, man, he didn’t waste 2 seconds in telling them what happened. Of course, and reasonably so, all hell broke loose. I ran outside, found the guys and immediately we walked to my house and stayed. It was a very surreal night, needless to say. It was weird. Nobody knew what to say. But it got busy with the phone ringing off the wall and people stopping by. It was a sad, sad time that I, and those who knew them will never forget.
Kim married Campbell who joined the navy. I haven’t seen Campbell in several years now, but the last I heard they were living in North Carolina.
What happened to Ron? I didn’t know him very well, but Ron was in my home room in 9th grade and I always liked being in class with him. Ron had a dark sense of humor and would say things that were extremely funny but also inappropriate at the same time. I’ll never forget the year following the accident when Ron had already been found guilty of vehicular homicide (in one of the speediest trials in Warren County History), and was scheduled to begin serving his sentence upon graduation. They assembled all of the Seniors in the Auditorium to hear the recruiting spiels from all branches of the military. The Marines had just rolled out the delayed entry program and the recruiter was finishing explaining that you could join, collect several thousand dollars in bonuses and benefits, but not have to ship out for basic training until the end of the school year. When he asked if we had any questions, Ron spoke up and said “Yes, where do I sign up?” You could have heard a pin drop.
Three really bright and unique people had their time on earth cut short that night. It’s pretty obvious from the comments that they and the accident made a lasting impression on all of us or we wouldn’t be able to recall the events of the night, much like people remember what they were doing when Elvis or JFK died.
I was at the bowling alley with Brent, Kim and Brian. We had just stepped outside the front door of the bowling alley and someone came by saying have you heard about the wreck Connie, Lisa, Johnny, and Ron were just in ? We said “no” and the person proceeded to tell us they knew Connie and Lisa were dead, and the rest of the sad news continued on into that night and the next day. I grew up knowing Connie and going to church with her at Central. Lisa and I were closer when we were in elementary school. When I was around Ron he was always very nice to me. I did not know Johnny very well. Anyway, as stated before we lost 3 wonderful people in high school 32 years ago…that we will never forget.
Oh, my… I think that was a defining moment for us all.