County Road 149

 

Janie heard Uncle Steve’s car pull up in the driveway before her mom did and called out to her, “they’re here!”  Janie ran to the door just off of the kitchen, her mom a few steps behind.  The November morning had been cold, but it was warming up now and might reach the 50 degrees the newspaper promised.  Later in the afternoon, though, when Janie would be heading back, it could be chilly again.

Mother and daughter cut across the hard-packed dirt backyard toward Uncle Steve’s 1949 Studebaker.  He waved at his sister-in-law, Betty, and smiled at his niece. In the front seat with Uncle Steve were his nephew, Babe, and his daughter, Cynthia.  Betty went to the passenger side window to give Cynthia, who had just turned three, a big hug.  Steve’s hands flickered in the air.  Babe looked at Betty and said “He says we’ll be back around 3:30.”  Betty smiled at Steve and nodded “ok.”

Uncle Steve met his wife, Dorothy, at theColoradoSchoolfor the Deaf and Blind.  When Steve was three, he had contracted meningitis when the family lived outside of Walsenburg. The illness left him deaf and blind in his right eye.  Before long, his folks moved Steve, Eli, and the two girls, Millie and Mary, toColorado Springs.  When he was a teenager at the D & B, Steve got a crush on a pretty, deaf girl from the country.  Then they fell in love and got married.  Dorothy had to work at the Meadow Gold Dairy store on this particular Saturday, though, or she would have made the trip with her husband to get the girls.

When Uncle Steve was at the D&B, all his siblings learned the sign language alphabet along with him.  When Betty married Eli, she tried to learn it, too, but if Steve or Dorothy signed too fast, she had to ask for help in understanding or for them to repeat what they said.

Janie got in the front seat of Uncle Steve’s car and Cynthia climbed in her lap.  Babe was scrunched in the middle between his Uncle and the two girls.  Betty waved as Uncle Steve pulled his car around and headed back out the drive way toCascade Avenue.

Uncle Steve’s two older daughters were out at their grandparent’s house on this Saturday afternoon.  They had gone out late on Thursday afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, to spend a couple of days with them.  Marilyn and Suzanne were the cutest little girls – blonde curls falling over their shoulders, blue eyes, perpetual bright smiles.  Marilyn was in first grade at Lincoln Elementary, where Janie was in fifth grade.  Suzanne was four years old.

Janie loved playing with them, and she would love the ride back from Matheson with the two older girls with them.  She was glad that Babe wanted to come along, too, because the 50 mile drive seemed like an eternity for a girl just three weeks away from her 11th birthday.  And since Uncle Steve was deaf there would have only been conversation with Cynthia. Even though Janie loved playing with the younger girls, 50 miles with a three-year old could get old pretty quick.

It was just a little after 12:00 when Uncle Steve had the car headed east on Highway 24 to Matheson, a small town in the middle of  the eastern plains of Colorado.  Babe  flipped through the Highlights for Children magazine that he had brought along.  He liked the Word Search games and his third grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary always let him do those when he finished his lessons.  He and Janie would race to see who could find each word first.  He held the magazine in his lap and Cynthia and Janie were pointing at pictures, the younger one pretending to read the words.

—–

Betty checked the kitchen clock and then slid the birthday cake in the oven. Her daughter Deb turned two today, and they would have cake later when Janie got back.

—–

It always seems that the wind is blowing out here, Uncle Steve thought to himself, his eyes sweeping over the brown prairie at the grasses waving in the wind.  He was so busy surveying the prairie that he almost missed the turn off to the dirt road that led to his father-in-law’s farm.

“Whoa,” Janie and Babe squealed as the car slowed suddenly and made the turn north, past the Post Office, on the county road.  They laughed as they tumbled into each other, the Highlights magazine sliding off of Babe’s lap and onto the floorboard.  Janie squeezed Cynthia to keep her from tumbling off the seat, too.

They giggled again as the car bumped over the railroad tracks that paralleled Highway 24.  They watched the prairie, excited that they were only about five minutes from getting the girls.

Marilyn, the oldest of the three girls, saw the dust cloud behind their father’s car first, even before she saw his black car emerge from the little dip in the dirt road, as he speeded up the road to her Grandpa’s house.  She called out to her grandparents and her other sister, Suzanne, that their dad was almost there.  Their grandmother grabbed the little suitcase with their clothes and their dolls and set it on the front porch.

—–

Betty checked the clock and saw that it was almost 1:30.  They’d just be getting there, she thought, and then calculated in her head that Steve would stay to talk for a few minutes and then get back on the road. She figured they would pull in to her driveway around 3:30.  Maybe a little before.  As she was taking the cake out of the oven, her oldest son, Steve, came into the kitchen.

“I thought you were staying downtown to see the movie.”

“Ahh Jimmy never showed up.  I stood outside of the theatre all the way through the first movie.  He never showed.”  Steve’s two youngest siblings, Phil and Deb, were playing at the kitchen table.  “Can I drive the car in the driveway?”

“I guess so,” his mom said.  “But when Janie gets back, we’ll have dinner and then birthday cake.”

—–

Grandpa Lamm called the five kids over to the car as his wife hugged their son-in-law at the driver side door.  The children all scrambled to get in the car.  Marilyn and Cynthia climbed into the front seat. Cynthia sat between her dad and her older sister, who had her arm around her while they played with the hand-made rag dolls their grandma had given them during the visit.  Cynthia was too tiny to even see over the dashboard, and Marilyn was just barely tall enough to see out of the passenger side window.  Marilyn was sure her baby sister – tucked under left arm and snuggling against her — would be asleep not long after they got on the highway into town.

Janie jumped into the back and slid over behind Uncle Steve.  Babe boosted Suzanne into the car. Janie tugged her over close as Babe climbed in and shut the rear door.  They all waved to Grandma and Grandpa Lamm as Steve backed up, swung the Studebaker around, and headed back to County Road 149.

Uncle Steve checked his watch, 1:45, and knew he’d make it back toColorado Springsaround 3:15. He accelerated south down the straight county road toward Matheson.

In the back seat, Babe flipped through the Highlights magazine.  Janie and Suzanne were laughing and giggling as they pulled at the golden yarn pony-tails of the handmade doll in the calico dress.  Little farm-girl rag dolls.

Babe looked out of his passenger side window when he heard the train’s warning horn blow. A flicker of sunlight flashed off the silver and maroon front of the east-bound Rock IslandRocket.  He looked over at his Uncle whose eyes were fixed straight ahead of him down the dirt road.  Babe glanced back at the speeding train which was just passing the grain elevator.

“Train!” Babe yelled as he lunged to tap his Uncle’s shoulder.  The four girls looked up at the sound of their cousin’s voice. Janie shot a glance at Babe across the back seat and saw only the flash of silver light.

—–

A little after 3:15, Betty had finished frosting the cake.

Her son, Steve, was still outside driving his parents’ 1951 Buick.  At 13, he was just a few years from getting his license and his parents let him practice driving the car up and down the driveway, maybe pulling out onCascade Avenueto turn around before heading back down the gravel driveway.

Betty checked the clock again.  They should be pulling into the driveway any time now.

Steve reached the end of the driveway just as a different black car was trying to pull in.  Steve put the car in reverse, stretched his right arm out on the back of the front seat, and began creeping down the driveway in reverse.  He’d glance at the car following him, making sure they were noticing how well he was driving, and then direct his eyes back to the rear-view mirror or check over his right shoulder.

When he got to the side of the house, he put the car in park and rolled down his window, his expression was between a cocky smirk and a confident smile.  He hoped the people in the car were as impressed with his driving skills as he was.  He didn’t know who was in the car, probably some friends of his parents, and they didn’t look happy at all.

An older woman in the back seat rolled down her window.

“Steve, Janie is dead.”

Steve staggered out of the car stuck somewhere between disorientation and disbelief.  “What?”

“Where is your mother?  Janie was killed.”

Steve headed into the kitchen where Betty was finishing up with the cake.  His sister, Deb, and his younger brother, Phil, were playing around at the kitchen table.

“Mom, some lady’s outside.  She said Janie’s dead.”

Betty spun from the kitchen sink.  “Oh no, not my Janie!”  Deb and Phil recoiled at the shrill sound of their mother’s voice.  Eli, who had been watching TV in the living room, ran to the kitchen at the sound of his wife’s scream.  She stood trembling, crying, and stared in shock and disbelief at Steve who delivered the news that shaped the course of my family.

.  Four days later, on a grey and overcast Wednesday morning, six coffins were arranged in a row at theEvergreenCemeteryjust south of downtownColorado Springs.  Five of the coffins were of the size that signaled something terrible happened – five coffins, each small enough to only hold a child, lined up for interment.

Family members sat with friends behind them on cold, hard metal folding chairs as the Lutheran minister laid the children to rest with words that would never soothe the hearts of the mothers or the minds of the fathers who had lost their children.

 

 

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