I was woken up early by my dad, who came in slowly, quietly to my bedroom after trying to process the news he and my mother had received 45 minutes previously. The unthinkable. It was a bright, shiny Sunday morning, the sun just now coming through the curtain of my east window. I had been at a friend's house the night before playing music in our high school garage band. Had it not been for the band, and the fact that I was scheduled to work at the grocery store that Sunday morning, who's to say I wouldn't have been out at that party with them Saturday night?
Dad sat down on the edge of my bed, placed his hand on my shoulder, shaking it gently.
"Buddy... Buddy wake up." I rolled over quickly. Dad never woke me up in the mornings.
"I've got some really bad news to tell you..." His eyes visibly red, his voice weak and shaky.
"...You lost two friends last night."
Twenty years is an eternity, and also a blink of an eye. A community, a school, a group of friends, and two families; their life trajectories changed forever. Twenty years ago, two young men-idols of their school, friends to many, brothers and sons to the lucky ones-left a party well past Midnight and turned onto a highway directly into the path of the Mills County deputy police cruiser who was reportedly on his way to break up the underage gathering they were fleeing. They never felt a thing. Both gone instantly.
While time has healed, reflections on their impact to the friends and families that were shaken to their cores often come to my mind. My son is named after one of them. Even my choice of college was largely influenced by where I thought one of them may have attended. My life has been blessed by the bond of friendship with so many from my hometown, forged strong through those years following their loss; bonding, healing together. Many of us would talk late into the night about how fortunate we all were to have each other to lean on then, to come back to from our respective colleges and communities where we put down roots, started families, still feeling like that place would always be home. We would gather around music, telling old "war stories" of who did what & when. The tales grow taller with each passing year. Most recently, it was a gathering in Chicago for a Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field, a band whose early anthems served as a soundtrack and a healing mechanism for us collectively in our time of grief. A group of grown men who, while often left unspoken, still acknowledge an unbroken bond that can be traced directly to a hot July night in 1993, at an intersection on Highway 34 northwest of Emerson, when the sound of twisted metal pierced the quiet farmland sky.
I often think about where they would be now, what their lives would be like. Would this group of friends from my hometown that have stayed so close over the years have manifested differently? I don't think it would have been the same. So many of my friends from college didn't have the same connections or friendships once they left their hometown. I don't think I would've been much different. Sometimes you need that defining moment that truly brings you together. For some its a team accomplishment, or community traditions. Unfortunately, tragedy was ours. Granted, not everyone stayed close, and people have their own circumstances that take them elsewhere, coming back to town infrequently and unannounced. To each is own.
But if I've found any discernible good from that tragedy 20 years ago, and if the families of Andy Powles and Chris Mason need any further evidence of inherent good that as come from their premature loss, it's that the bonds of friendship that grew and strengthened from the healing process are still strong today; as strong as ever for some of us. And while we may not speak of it aloud when we gather together, we know its there, and their spirits are with us whenever we come together. We've done it all for each other in the aftermath; we won, lost, laughed, cried, fought, bled, grieved, healed...together. We are better men-husbands, fathers, professionals, leaders, friends, brothers, uncles-because of Andy and Chris.
So I reflect with a heavy heart, and also with peace and comfort today, the 20th anniversary of the loss of two of my best friends, giving love and strength to the families I still love and cherish. Their memories, their friendship, their sprits, live on through us everyday.