A Comin’ Through the Corn by
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Hendry girls, 1953, before

I-96 passed just south of East Lansing, a marvel of new concrete, devoid of traffic, a speed limit of 60, and a work still in progress when I was a kid in the mid-fifties.  Most of our travels were still on the regular two-lane roads, passing through the hearts of towns and cities, without rest stops or exit ramps.  They were not engineered for speed, and had other perils.  They rose, dipped, and curved with the landscape, creating terrifying passing situations, as the long line of cars stuck behind a truck took turns gunning the engine to overtake the slowpoke, and slotting back as soon as possible to avoid a head-on collision.  And once I rode shotgun in a low sports car with my father on a trip through northern Maryland, before the interstates connected to the Pennsylvania turnpike;  as evening fell, each hollow filled with fog, until we were navigating by the reflective lines on the side of the road. Unforgettable, not in a good way.

A woman was “looking at the corn” when she blew a stop sign and T-boned our car. 

But the interstate—you could cruise with mind-numbing monotony across the land, stopping at Howard Johnson’s (or whichever chain had the monopoly in your state) and hardly know anything about where you were. It became a challenge to travel on the “blue highways” (as per William Least Heat-Moon’s book) to experience the world beyond the off ramp.  I have often sought out those remote, less-travelled roads, particularly useful for seeing wildlife, human or otherwise.

But rewind a bit, back before the interstates.  In 1953, the summer after we moved from New York to St. Louis, we packed into the family car to drive to California.  My mom’s family lived in Palo Alto, and she needed a break from staying home with 3 children under 5 years old. We were on a rural (two-lane of course) highway somewhere in the Midwest, dad driving (of course). A woman was “looking at the corn” when she blew a stop sign and T-boned our car.  There were no seat belts or air bags then, and we were all flung from the car.  My dad found my mom unconscious, bleeding from her head and with a mangled leg, and he thought at first that his family was dead.  My older sister had a gash across her forehead, while the youngest sister and I were less obviously harmed.  I dimly recall being in a hospital crib, then the new reality of my mom on crutches with ace wraps on her ankle.  It was scarred and painful and never fully recovered.  The blow to the head must have affected her pituitary, as afterwards, she grew another inch and developed adult acne and headaches. The older sister wore bangs for a long time, and the younger one developed post-traumatic epilepsy, diagnosed years later.  Aftermath was tough.

When my mother drove with her three daughters from Michigan to visit family in California in 1965, we followed the AAA “Triptik” instructions in magic marker, following the interstate the whole way.

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    What a trauma your family suffered back in 1953. I guess much as I dislike the highways for their boredom, they are much safer and I should stop romanticizing travel back in the day.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Yes, “the accident” was a bit factor in our lives for quite a long time. Of course, highway accidents still happen even though the lethality is generally less due to engineering. I still love the little roads, in part because the interstates and other big freeways have siphoned off truck and other traffic.

  2. Dave Ventre says:

    That story took an unexpected and scary turn!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Really scary, Khati. (But very well told.) Glad everyone came out alive, if not entirely unscarred. But, as I noted, the interstates had their own specific perils — primarily higher speeds, probably lesser attentions and those damn toll booths. Self-drive cars can’t come soon enough for me!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I was impressed that more than one of our stories mentioned the perils of the old roads—along with the picturesque and more attractive funky qualities. And the more you travel in other countries, the more you appreciate modern traffic engineering.

  4. Marian says:

    How scary, Khati, especially with the lack of safety engineering of the roads and cars in the 1950s. The newest interstates are a lot better designed, ugly though they may be. I am relieved you all survived 1953.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    This was life-altering for you, Khati; a truly awful event! How fortunate that no one died. But you all must have been laid up for some time (particularly your mother). Though not at fault, your father probably felt a bit guilty too. Yes, highways may be boring, but they do seem safer. Yet when accidents happen, they can be even more deadly, as they happen at higher speeds.

    The same accident as you describe (though with seat belts and air bags) happened to my brother and sister-in-law just last August. They were coming home from a faculty dinner, going through an intersection on a suburban Cincinnati street when a tow-truck drove through his red light (he was looking at his cell phone) and T-boned my brother, hitting the passenger side (Annie was severely injured – broke her leg, pelvis, concussed her, she is a diabetic and messed up her internal insulin pump). Breaking glass cut my brother, who had a few other bumps and bruises, but was alright. My sister-in-law is very strong, and came through it with a lot of determination and great resolve. She had great care, is walking with a walker (maybe just a cane now). My brother and lots of friends were a big support for her. Distracted driving is a huge problem these days.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      So sorry to hear about your brother and sister in law—also glad they both survived, albeit with significant injury especially to Annie. Like her, my mom did have a prolonged recovery, and her entire life suffered from recurrent swelling in the injured ankle. Although my story happened on a pre-interstate rural highway, distracted driving is deadly whether it is from looking at the corn or the smartphone. Once again, thanks to Ralph Nader the consequences aren’t worse than they are. Safe travels!

  6. Joe Worth says:

    Very scary but touching story, Khati. The accident without seatbelts reminded me about my father’s accident. After moving to Arizona, my father was on a business trip back in Massachusetts. He was riding in the passenger seat as his friend and associate drove along Route 2 in Concord. A woman driving a station wagon with her four kids along ran a stoplight and t-boned my Dad and the driver on the driver’s side. My Dad’s friend was ejected from the car and flew a great distance before landing with severe injuries. He died in my Dad’s lap on the road. After, the state trooper said, “If he had been wearing a seatbelt, he’d still be alive.” Upon his return home, my Dad hired a mechanic who installed seatbelts in both our cars, which we were rigorously forced to wear. This was before Volvo’s had the first seatbelts!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      That is a terribly sad story about your dad and his friend—I can only imagine the trauma of him dying in your dad’s lap. Good on your dad for installing the seatbelts. When I took driver’s ed in high school (do they still have that?), we we had it drilled into us that we could not start the car until all seatbelts were fastened—and I still adhere to that!

  7. Khati, reading your story I was admiring your fine prose, but then gasping at the details of that very serious crash as a woman was “looking at the corn”.

    A memorable family memory indeed and your poor father fearing he had lost all – thankfully he hadn’t.

  8. Suzy says:

    Khati, this is quite a story! The first two paragraphs well-written and familiar, bringing me to thoughts of Howard Johnson’s fried clams, and then — wham, the horrific accident! You all could have been killed because of the foolish woman looking at the corn! Thankfully you are here to tell the tale.

    When seatbelts became standard on cars (1966?), my sisters and I were compulsive about using them, but my parents never did. Once we became the drivers, we would refuse to start the car unless they put their seatbelts on.

  9. Khati,
    I arrive to your story at the tail end of a line of caring readers, all stunned by the sudden impact of your story, and its lifelong consequences. I wish I had a platitude to wipe the blood from this wound, or a comparable that could smooth the jagged shards. I guess, in trying to relate and offer comfort, and be human in the face of it, I fit it in the context of grief, an invisible cut at the heart (we can’t grow new hearts).
    Jon

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