Driving Home a Point

Each month in the Premium edition (only), I run a Tagline Challenge, where I include an extra story without my usual “tagline” and let readers suggest how they think the story should end. This month the Challenge was indeed a challenge.

I introduced it last week by noting that I sometimes use the taglines as a forum to express disgust or outrage about a story, or at least note an opinion or irony — my tags aren’t always meant to be humorous. I noted that this month’s Tagline Challenge story is a platform for just such outrage. Exactly 99 entries came in — plus one disagreement, from Michael in Connecticut:

I never thought I’d be writing this sort of thing but there’s a line out there, and I fear you’ve crossed it with the, shall we say, appropriateness of [the story of] three dead young people in a stupid car collision (not really an ‘accident,’ was it?). I buried a son a few years ago following a much less explicable car accident. Let me suggest that you’ve not buried a child nor do you know intimately anyone who has. Otherwise I think you’d have given that story a pass entirely.

My “Harsh” Reply First: Please don’t ever assume you know what my experience is; I’ve seen far more tragedy up close than anyone should ever have to see. Have you ever had to do CPR on a 7-year-old child? I have — and he didn’t make it. (He was not, however, my child.)

My other, more empathetic response is: I’m very sorry you had to go through that, Michael, and I’m sorry the story brought your memory to the fore. (Though I know you probably think about your son just about every day.)

I do believe, however, it is vitally important to tell these sorts of stories, even though I’m quite sure you’re not the only reader, even on the Premium distribution, who has lost a child.

People need to know about the pain their actions cause not just to themselves, but to the people that are left behind, and the families of the victims they take with them. If a touch of humor helps people talk about it, fine. Because you know that many, many parents who get True used the story as an opportunity to bring up the subject of being responsible drivers to their teens, and you know most of those teens think the kid’s excuse is beyond lame. If that helps them slow down and be more careful with their friends’ lives, then I did my job very well!

So enough intro, here’s the story:

Driven

Joseph S. Fitzgerald, 16, of Omaha, Neb., had his driver’s license for three days and was driving his Toyota Solara with four teen friends when “everyone” decided they should imitate a commercial for the car. In the commercial, the speeding car jumps over a bridge. Instead, Fitzgerald, who investigators say was driving “at least” 90 mph, went out of control when the car got airborne and crashed into a tree. Brian Brooks, 14, Bryan Riggs, 15, and KJ Robinson, 17, were killed. Fitzgerald and Tony Wakefield, 15, were injured. Fitzgerald says he’s “upset” about his friends’ deaths, but he shouldn’t be to blame. “It’s not really my fault,” he says. “Anybody can drive off the road and hit a tree.” He has been charged with three counts of felony motor-vehicle homicide, but as a juvenile the harshest sentence he can receive is juvenile detention until his 19th birthday. (Omaha World-Herald) …

Readers Respond with their Tagline Suggestions

As noted, there were 99 entries — readers rising to the challenge of producing an ending for this tragic story and, as expected, most were “ironic” or “angry.” But a few adventurous souls even went for humor.

The most common entries had to do with “If someone told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?” — and suggestions that the case would surely show up in my other publication, the True Stella Awards (which features ridiculous-but-true lawsuits). They were all disqualified for “obviousness.” The best of the rest fell into several broad categories:

  • The “ironic” entries include Deb in New Zealand: “…Which will be a small birthday party.” Rich in Virginia: “…Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on a juvenile. Maybe the judge could offer him the choice of rotating house arrest at the Brooks, Riggs and Robinson residences instead?” Craig in Minnesota: “…With ‘Jackass’ canceled, idiots now have to look to commercials for inspiration.” Mark in Queensland, Australia: “…One friend killed for each day you were licensed: one hell of a driving record.” And Clark in Arkansas: “…Tony Wakefield is extremely glad Joe didn’t have that license for FOUR days.”
  • The “angry” entries start with Liam in Massachusetts: “…As opposed to his friends, who received ‘life’ sentences.” Andy in California: “…More fitting: juvenile detention until his three friends celebrate their 19th birthdays.” Marcus in Texas: “…Yeah, anybody can drive off the road and hit a tree, but it takes a really special moron to be talked into doing it.” Mark in Washington: “…In today’s society, the harshest sentence is, ‘It REALLY IS your fault.'” Ethan in Utah: “…American-style consistency: Adult privilege, adult decision, juvenile punishment.”
  • There were two alliterations. From Loreina in California: “…Peabrained pubescent potentially politically proficient, primarily predicted by prolific parallels to presidential practices and paltry penalties produced.” And Dave in Japan: “…Dumb driver denies deaths, purports peer pressure persuaded proceeding, shakes stiff sentence.”
  • In the “darkly humorous” category, Clifton in Arizona offers “…You know what? He’s right. Any idiot COULD do what he did.” Sadie in California: “…If ‘anybody’ can drive off the road and hit a tree, why can’t ‘anybody’ be tried as an adult?” Paul in California paraphrases a line by a comedian (though a Google search attributes it to so many different people I don’t know who said it first): “…He later said, ‘I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like the friends in my car.'” Barry in Virginia: “…Caution: objects in mirror may be more stupid than they appear.”

I choose winners by selecting the one that’s most like what I would write. This month that’s Ruth in Pennsylvania: “…What to do after he turns 19? Well, he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.”

But Henry in Connecticut adds more discussion:

I don’t have a tagline to submit for the Challenge, but I do have a mini-rant. When I saw the statements ‘It’s not really my fault’ and ‘anybody can drive off the road and hit a tree’, it made me wonder: wouldn’t if be interesting to try to devise an additional component to a driver’s test? Various situations like the one above would be described. Three or four possible logical statements would then be made about the scenarios, such as ‘A) He is not responsible. Anyone can drive off the road and hit a tree. B) He is responsible. He shouldn’t have driven that fast. C) He is not responsible until the possibility of a mechanical fault in the car is eliminated. D) He is responsible. Fully and completely. No questions, no excuses.’ If they fail the bank of questions they don’t even bother taking the rest of the test until they get some counseling.

Reexamining the idea that we can’t teach people how to think logically might help society in all kinds of ways, from understanding the sham arguments of politicians to deciphering the silly claims made by advertisers to helping to curb poor drivers. And, I guess, that’s an underlying principal behind this publication, huh?

Yep. You hit it right on the head, Henry.

I look forward to the Comments on this one. They’re open below.

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10 Comments on “Driving Home a Point

  1. ‘Have you ever had to do CPR on a 7-year-old child? I have — and he didn’t make it.’

    Yes, I have. I did ambulance work in the inner city on the South side of Chicago for several years. I have been witness to every possible manner of mayhem to which a human body can be subjected. I have saved my own children’s lives on several occasions. My one-year-old was choking on a chunk of popsicle. I cleared him and had him back in his high chair while my wife was still in hysterics — the kid was no worse for wear one minute after the incident and I didn’t miss any of the TV show I was watching. (The kid had the decency to choke during a commercial.)

    I think EMS, police and fire professionals not only become much more highly aware of what can and does happen, but we become much more matter-of-fact about it than the general public. This can be off-putting to those who have a sensitive incident in their lives, [but] I believe that you handled the issue correctly by dealing with the tragedy from an uninvolved spectator’s perspective. That is how the vast majority of readers would see the article, and you are writing for the majority of your readers.

    This sometimes means that a minority will perceive insensitivity because of their unique situation or personal circumstances. Most of us have not experienced such a tragedy and it is irrational to expect that the whole world walk about on eggshells in deference to their loss. This is real life. Tragedies happen, but not to everyone. Sometimes stepping back and examining what has happened may prevent such a tragedy from happening to someone else.

    Which, to be sure, is a large part of the point of reporting such stories. -rc

    Reply
  2. You handled your response with sensitivity and the only way you could. I may not always agree with what you write but I defended your right to write it. It’s those who have never been in a situation of trying to save someone’s life, and failing, who can’t possibly understand the trauma associated with it, you as a peace officer, myself in Vietnam.

    Actually, it wasn’t my police experience that did it, since I was merely an on-call search and rescue deputy. (Though, now that I think of it, I was a police cadet in my teens, and did see some traumatic things during my formative years….) My main experience came from ambulance work, like Craig in the previous comment. Ambulance work really concentrates experience: for every 5 police cars, there’s about one fire rescue truck. For every 5 fire rescue trucks, there’s about one ambulance. I made that statistic up, but it’s probably pretty darn close; the bottom line is, ambulance personnel cover a very large area. -rc

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  3. Almost all of have, and all of us will, face some sort of crisis in our life. I think in our PC world, too many people are looking for reasons to get pissed off at someone. Whether it’s a kid that got killed or you have some affliction, people seem to wear it on their sleeve as some sort of badge. And so if someone dares to ‘cross the line’ and make a comment or a joke about it, Watch Out!

    Personally I’m sick and tired of it. I’m 48 and balding, my mom died when I was 15, my dad died of cancer, a cousin died of leukemia when she was 4 and I was 11, and I’m fat. I have never used those things to seek sympathy [and] I get quite irritated when people do. My sister even forgot one time when she was talking to me and said ‘my mom died when I was 17 and…’. She wore mom’s death like some sort of badge and used the sympathy angle so often she forgot she was talking to her brother.

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  4. Michael is obviously hurting, and saw your tagline challenge as an opportunity to vent — which means he hasn’t been venting enough. His comments lead me to believe he’s given his own personal story of loss a pass entirely, instead of actively working through his grief.

    I also cannot imagine how he could assume you’ve never experienced tragedy yourself. I find your work reflects not only your wit (humor and intelligence), but a deep compassion and respect for human life and the quality thereof as well. I think you were being extremely cautious and considerate by prefacing the tagline challenge with your comments.

    However, I also think that the world is too full of tragedy to cry all the time. Even in the most tragic of events, I personally need some comic relief. We’re all going to die someday, and even if it’s of old age in our sleep it will still be a tragedy to the loved ones left behind. My Dad, for example, was at my Mom’s home under hospice care the last eleven days of his life. He had cancer. I had flown in from Germany to California to be with them.

    I watched as he slowly deteriorated. He slipped into a coma the last five days of his life. I helped Mom change his diaper, and watched his body twist and writhe with pain although he was in a coma. I am the one who found him dead just five minutes after the last time I saw him still alive. I was shocked and devastated.

    I had to break the horrible news to my Mom and Sister, who were in the other room. We cried — wailed — endlessly, but somehow Sis and I joked about things like how we could put the ‘fun’ back into ‘funeral’. It sounds sick to an outsider, but you just need that comic relief!

    On the other hand, if you never talk to anyone about your experience, the subject becomes taboo, not to mention the joking about it. And you weren’t even doing that, Randy. So don’t even worry for a minute that you might have possibly crossed any lines. And please continue what you’re doing in the way only you can do it. Hopefully Michael will find someone he can talk to about his pain instead of inflicting it on others.

    Reply
  5. I don’t take coffee breaks, stop during the day for small-talk or to surf, and I usually eat on the run. But each week when ‘THIS is TRUE’ appears in my in-box, I take the time to get a cup of coffee, sit down for a few minutes, and read it. And although some of the stories reinforce how generally twisted our world is, and what depths of stupidity, rudeness, insensitivity, and/or evil people seem ready, willing, and able to unleash on their friends, family, pets and strangers, you orchestrate an excellent overall balance of stories profiling bad behavior versus good, stupid versus smart, callousness versus caring, all while passing everything through your filters of fairness, objectivity and justice.

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  6. I do sympathize with the one reader who objected; any parent who has to bury a child lives with it daily the rest of their life.

    I have never had any children, so have never had to address the issue on that level. However, I remember the stress my maternal Grandmother (94 years old at the time) went through a little over a year ago when she buried her youngest child — and only son. True, he was 68, so she recognized her loss wasn’t the same sort of experience parents losing a kid go through, but it was rough enough.

    Like you, I have been through the experience of “losing” a child in the sense my First Aid/CPR failed to save one (on more than one occasion) when I was a security patrol officer many years ago. I didn’t know any of those children, yet they come to mind now and then, and the sense of powerlessness comes back, at least for a little while. And Yessir, it ain’t easy, I agree.

    You do a fine job and perform an outstanding public service.

    Reply
  7. “I remember the stress my maternal Grandmother (94 years old at the time) went through a little over a year ago when she buried her youngest child — and only son. True, he was 68, so she recognized her loss wasn’t the same sort of experience parents losing a kid go through, but it was rough enough.”

    My response to reading the above from another of your readers is this: You don’t measure grief by the age of the child. The greatest sorrow of my life was the death of my third daughter, stillborn at five months gestation. She’ll always be the daughter we never got to raise, even for a few days. Our other three wonderful daughters are a sometimes reminder of the pain of never knowing what Abigail would have been like to know and love.

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  8. I like community service for “children” who are responsible for the death of other people due to the stupidity of the child driver. They need to go to surrounding schools and explain what they had done, with an admission of guilt. Also there should be photographs of the accident to drive home the severity of their actions. The driver needs to explain his faulty reasoning for his actions and the lifelong feelings he will have for causing the deaths of his friends.

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  9. I have long thought that it makes little sense to allow mentally and physically immature persons access to automobiles. At the same time I also believe it is hypocritical to pretend we can (successfully) restrict those same person’s access to alcohol (or other drugs). Why not switch the ages of these respective privileges? It’s a lot easier to keep the kids out of the car than out of the liquor cabinet.

    I’m not advocating teen drinking. Really, I’m not. But a drunk teenager without a car alarms me much less than a sober teenager with one. Since we all know that teens drink anyway, often in combination with driving, I’d much rather take away the keys. Let them drink what they want, so long as the most dangerous thing they can operate afterward is a bicycle or the footmobile.

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  10. On Fun Directors and the cathartic uses of the common Party Balloon.

    Echoing Liz in Germany:

    When my mother died, Our small family gathered at her house and spent the night laughing and crying. I later realised that we were actually celebrating Mum’s life and the warmth, love and humour that she brought into ours.

    When my sister and I were placed in charge of the funeral arrangements we were almost lost as to what to do. Then we remembered Mum and her little ways (everyone has them!) and the grim task became a whole lot less grim.

    Arranging Mother Dearest’s funeral became a constant celebration in itself – and although there were plenty of tears, there were many joyful moments remembering Mum’s ways. The way she always sounded when you answered the phone, “It’s only me…” The episode with the ferret. Everything was fair game – and that turned the whole thing into a fun game of sorts. Or as fun as a funeral could get!

    So naturally, the Funeral Director became known as the “Fun Director” and, as we planned outrageous rites, decorations and events for the funeral – all of which Mum would have hated enormously – the Fun Director joined in with some suggestions that had us screaming with laughter.

    All in all, it was a magnificent catharsis. Only after the funeral did we find out that we could have had the balloons after all.

    The effects from Mum’s funeral still loom large in my life, after two years without her. I will be getting married in January ’08 and since Mother Dearest cannot attend, I have insisted that we absolutely must have balloons at the wedding. With balloons, it will almost be as if Mum is there, although I know that she is watching over us.

    So yes, Virginia, there can be comedy in tragedy, laughter in tears and fun everywhere. When I see people that, to quote (badly), ‘sit in the corner gnawing again and again the old gristle of their tragic lives, and deriving no nourishment whatsoever therefrom,’ I truly pity them.

    I do not pity them for their loss, although I feel for them because of it. I pity them because their loss has seemed to become their crutch, in some cases their whole reason for being “like they are.”

    So, darling readers, take a little well-meaning advice. Loss is tragic. It is meant to be tragic. But the hurt from your loss be nowhere near as great had you treasured your lost one less. So celebrate the life, the life that could have been but never was, the times of sadness shared, the times of joyfull companionship. You will never experience them again but if you do not remember, then they are truly lost.

    Reply

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