Words to live by

We are so used to seeing them, they kind of get glossed over unless there is an underlying story to tell, or an overlying tragic aspect that makes it a newsroom “must do.”

I have dealt with many over the years. Chris Towns is one. He died May 11, 2013, while on a mercy mission of sort. Chris, who lived in Montegut, was at a lounge and a young woman there got stranded because someone wasn’t a gentleman. Chris, a man who was beloved by many people, was driving toward Houma in the wee hours on this mission when a golf cart appeared in his path, operated by a drunken teen. He swerved to avoid it and ran off the road, striking a tree, and now he is a memory.

Anyone passing Bayou Blue Road at Prospect Street can’t help but see the memorial of crosses and stuffed toys that marks the spot of a June 24, 1996, tragedy, even to this day.

Becky and Rufus Whatley and their children, 13-year-old Alison Burroughs, Summer Burroughs, 9, and 17-month-old Brittany Whatley, were returning from a trip to Disney World when their van was T-boned by an 18-wheeler. Back then, only a stop sign guarded the intersection. Today there is a traffic light, which is perhaps even more fitting a memorial than the bears and toys perpetually kept up by Becky’s mother, Mary Whitney, though nowhere near as visibly moving and poignant.

On May 29, 2008, 15-year-old Devin Pearson was killed when his friend over-corrected his Ford F-250 on La. Highway 307 in rural Kraemer. The truck flipped and slammed into a tree.

These are among the wrecks I personally remember, having interviewed loved ones and visiting the scenes of the wrecks. But the short rides to the graveyard continue, each a tragedy in its own right, each almost totally preventable, and each leaving me with a renewed understanding of how short life is, and how a split-second event can make the difference between someone coming home again as usual or coming home in a box or urn.

At the scene of the Bayou Blue wreck, I remember the children’s games and toys inside the wrecked van, or scattered on the asphalt. Although I did not go to the scene of the Towns wreck, I did have long conversations with his widow, Laura, about the pain and the loss, which were, for me, life-changing. Devin Pearson’s parents and friends provided gripping reminders of how precious life is, and the peculiar nature of a tragedy that robs us of the young and promising.

Seatbelts were worn in some cases. They were not worn in others, but the lesson for me has been whether a law exists or not I am wearing mine. If you don’t wear yours, you’re a jerk.

I don’t care so much what your choice might mean to you, but I do care about its potential effect on the people who love you, and on the deputy or state trooper who will have to climb up the tree to rescue your body parts from becoming part of somebody’s nest or meal.

I was reminded of all this because Col. Mike Edmonson, the boss of all state troopers in Louisiana, sent a letter with similar recollections to all the newspapers in the state. You can read the whole letter in this issue.

He mentions that from Nov. 19 to just last week his troopers worked a total of 41 fatal wrecks that yielded 52 bodies.

“These fatal crash victims are not statistics,” the Colonel’s letter states. “They are not mere numbers. They were, until their untimely and tragic death, living, breathing people.”

And that got me to thinking about all the ones that I recall from close contact, the names, the places.

He recalls a few of the ones that have affected him in his long career of public service. That got me to thinking about the ones that I know of through years of telling you about them. Col. Edmonson’s message is far more eloquent than mine, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to send a similar message to you, because if you are reading this we are connected. And if any of my words or Col. Edmonson’s ring true to you, then please remember them when you get behind the wheel. I shall do so as well.