At the Scene of a Sudden Death, a Sense of Peace

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASurprisingly, the clerk behind the window at the local police station doesn’t find my request strange. I am looking for the scene of a very old car accident, I tell her. I do not have an address, just an old police report with a brief description of a farmhouse a few miles east of Whitewater on nearby state Highway 59. The farmhouse is described as having two large trees on the front lawn, down the highway a mile or so from Howard’s Road.

I am looking for the roadside spot where my father died in a 1975 car accident. Earlier, I had said goodbye to some friends at a lake resort west of Madison, Wis. But instead of returning home to the Chicago area as planned, I decided to detour to Fort Atkinson, the small town where my father was taken after the accident. The town itself reminds me more of a place to watch a softball game or eat blackberry ice cream on a hot summer evening. It doesn’t look like a place to die, which is what my father did here at the age of 47. The clerk gives me general directions and wishes me luck. Soon corn and dairy farms surround me on this late August day, driving south for another 20 minutes. Eventually my route turns into a county road of loose asphalt. After a short distance, I see the sign for Highway 59. This is it. This must be the stretch of road where the accident occurred. I am now retracing the last minutes of my father’s life, taking in the view he would likely have seen in those final, unsuspecting minutes. Unlike today, it was early winter then and a clear, cold December day.

It doesn’t take long before I notice the sign for Howard’s Road and past it several houses. As I continue the drive only one house seems to fit the description of the accident report. I pull off to the side of the road near an old farmhouse. The report said the car ended up 99 to 150 feet off the road, on the front lawn next to the trees. A barn sat at the end of a gravel driveway. Nearby a slope in the road to the east made oncoming traffic difficult to see. Reportedly the accident was caused by another car veering into the oncoming lane as it came over the hill. As I survey the scene every detail seems to fit.

Yes, this is definitely the place. I am standing in front of the spot where decades ago my father’s life ended. I turn off the engine, get out of the car and walk over to the edge of the front lawn. What I notice mostly now is the stillness. The warm afternoon sun and the lilt of the nearby prairie grass write their own song on this place. It’s a pensive song, as if just for my benefit time is slowing down by a measure.

If this were a Hollywood movie, I suppose I would ring the doorbell for a touching moment with the elderly couple that still lives here. They would tell me all about what really happened that day. I would tell them all about the man who died on their front lawn. But the old farmhouse looks empty of life. Instead, glancing around, I notice a tattered old wooden sign across the road for a frozen custard stand in nearby Whitewater. It is set back in the trees and looks ancient. Was it here in 1975? Did my father see this sign just before he died?

I was overflowing with life then. Growing up, I always loved our trips to Wisconsin. The place recalls childhood memories of lakeside cottages, Dad’s break-of-dawn fishing expeditions, and tranquil afternoons sunbathing from offshore diving rafts. My first trip here was in 1962 when I spent two weeks at a YMCA summer camp near Lake Geneva. During my college years, my parents once rented a lake house for the entire summer. I took girls there for the day, or buddies who wanted to drive the motorboat at high speed, then cruise the nightlife of the local clubs in Lake Geneva.

For years I thought about finding this place. Yet it takes only a few minutes now before I decide it is time to go. I walk back to my car and start the engine. As the slight afternoon breeze wafts in through the open windows, in front of the car a solitary yellow butterfly flutters briefly before flying away. Only now do I notice the nearby field is alive with butterflies, fluttering above the tops of the grass like gentle dancers on a rural stage. The late summer sun has just begun to take on the light of fall, and it tints the landscape with a softness that wouldn’t have been here only a few weeks ago. Life is not standing still.

In the depth of winter Albert Camus once wrote of discovering “the invincible summer” within. At one time my father’s sudden death felt like a winter storm that would never abate. But now at this obscure Wisconsin roadside I find myself looking back at the past with a sense of peace I did not know as a younger man.

The best memories of my youth always had the feel of an endless summer day, of blue skies and children playing and 1958 Buicks and fathers mowing lawns, mothers packing lunchboxes and everywhere the smell of the Southern California air. Summer heals me. This, now, is my invincible summer.

I begin the drive now back toward Whitewater and eventually home, my voice clear and my heart light.


 [Originally published in The Oregonian, July 10, 2010.]



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