I was driving when my teammates were killed. For years I lived in fear that I would remember what actually happened.
I mean, I know what happened: An empty “piggy back” truck merged onto the highway and our car was hit as the winds across the Great Plains state of Kansas blew the empty trailer at us. We were on our way to the Wichita River Festival — four oarswomen, the coxswain and the coach. The women on the trailer side of the car died. I did not know until two years later that Beth had died at the hospital and not at the scene. Boni had died at the scene, but I really didn’t know that either. She was in the ambulance with me, and she was so pretty. She was pretty in the ambulance, too. How could anything be wrong with her? She just looked terrific. Boni always looked terrific. Blond hair and outstanding blue eyes and Southern charm to match. How could anyone not like her? How could anything this bad happen? It wasn’t happening. Everything was very cloudy. Maybe it was nightmare. After all, I think I just flunked my calculus exam.
I do remember being outside of the car and someone talking to me. I remember that I was wearing my Notre Dame baseball shirt. It did not say baseball. It was just that style with raglan sleeves. I had wanted one all semester, but money was tight. I finally got the shirt right before our trip. I remember that one of my gold hoop earrings (my only pair) had fallen out and was lying on my baseball shirt. I couldn’t pick it up; How could an earring be important in all of this mess? The jacket that I made and my sketchbook were left behind like that as well. Somebody thought they were Boni’s.
We were taking turns driving. Nobody would drive very long. We had just finished exams and everybody was exhausted from the semester. We wanted to be safe.
In the hospital, still very foggy, I listened but really didn’t hear. I asked the nurse what was a D-O-8? She didn’t know. She knew what a D-O-A was but had no intention of telling me.
In the hospital, the state police asked me if I was drinking. We were athletes, I said, on the way to a race, and it was 10 o’clock in the morning — no sir, I was not drinking. Well then, what happened? I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t remember.
In the hospital, still foggy, I called my dad at work. I called my dad and told the manager to make sure he was in his office when he took the call. My dad always seemed to be in complete control of any situation; he would know what to do. My dad didn’t know what to do. He picked up my mother, left my six siblings at home, and drove 1,038 miles from their home in Michigan to Kansas. My mom and dad came to get me and they also drove Mary Gumble to her parents’ home in Illinois. Mary had a broken leg. I don’t know why…or how…I don’t remember where she was sitting…in the backseat. (Mary survived the accident to graduate and have a family. She left her family behind when she died of cancer in 1997.)
When I got home, my friends came to see me. I tired of explaining and started telling people that the aluminum splint device covering part of my face was the result of a hockey accident. People in Michigan believed that.
It was a very tough summer. I was sued. And sued again. I didn’t understand it. Lawsuits could not bring back my friends. At one point, I had a train ticket. I was scheduled to be in court in South Bend. My parents couldn’t leave again, I was going to handle it myself. At the last minute the lawyers made deals and I was able to stay home. I worked all summer long in my dad’s lumber yard. He needed me and I needed him.
I did not hear anything from school. I understand that they had a memorial Mass on campus for Beth and Boni. I wondered why they didn’t invite me — it was probably better. I did my best crying in church, and I really didn’t need an audience.
It seemed so strange to me. I did not hear from school, but letters started pouring in from students. Many students I knew, but the surprise to me was all of the prayers and good wishes from people who I did not know or thought did not know me. I can honestly say that those letters started to make feel whole again.
There was one letter in particular that I remember, one that I could not get out my head. The letter was addressed to my parents. It was a copy of a sketch drawn and a poem written by Beth Storey. Beth’s parents said, “We are glad that you still have your Beth.” I struggled with that line for years and years. Many times over many years I tried to telephone Professor Storey, Beth’s father. It was usually around the anniversary of the accident and, since that is generally exam week, Professor Storey was difficult to locate. I never did reach him, and I was always too reticent to leave a message. He never even knew I tried. I have been to Beth’s grave site; I have a prayer book authored by Professor Storey next to my bed; I think of him and his family often. I used to see Beth’s sister on campus. I was sure that she thought I was the devil.
My parents took me to see Boni’s parents. They had contacted us. They wanted to hear everything they could about Boni and even about the accident. My parents were particularly drawn to this request as Boni’s parents were living in the same city where my sister, Bonnie, was buried. There was some sense of relief at this meeting, for all of us.
Sometimes, when I experience some of life’s ups or downs, I think about Beth and Boni. Did I rob them of this opportunity? Or are they just plain happier in heaven and it doesn’t matter what they missed here on earth? I know one thing for sure: the people who are left behind still miss them.
I have to tell you just one more thing: When I was in the hospital in Kansas, I got a telephone call from a friend of mine. He was a sophomore at ND. Chas talked to me for an hour about the Yankees. I thought he was nuts. Why would you talk about baseball, especially the Yankees (I was a Tigers fan) at a time like this? He did it because that was the only way he knew how to distract me from the deep pain that I was feeling, from the loss of my friends, from the damage, from the responsibility for something so awful. That friend stayed with me as Billy Martin left Detroit for New York, as “the Bird” Fidrych talked to the mound, as I mended and graduated. We have been married for 35 years and have four sons and two grandsons.