**** A note to my dear readers: The next two posts are fairly graphic in nature. It’s not my desire to shock or titillate, but simply to bear witness to these events. If you know me personally, and were along for this fateful event in September 1984, then please proceed cautiously, aware that the events described here might be triggering to your own grief.****
My first memory of that night was looking down, and seeing feet. My own – but they were in the wrong place. I looked up, slowly trying to sort out how I had gone from sitting on the hay wagon, to standing up, alone in the middle of the road. Unease gripped my stomach. I couldn’t recall standing up & jumping down from the wagon. What was going on?
Sound began to register in the background – screams and discordant cries which quickly rushed from somewhere behind and then around me. As I looked ahead, a fog seemed to dissipate as figures rushed by. Chaos crashed into my senses: I was surrounded by people running without direction, only to create groups clinging together like buoys bobbing in a churning ocean. The sight made the hair on my arms stand up, as a primitive instinct warning of danger registered. The brassy taste of fear settled into my mouth. Something was terribly wrong. My mind struggled to make sense of the jarring images and unfamiliar sounds of raw terror. I took a tentative step forward, and then another, cautiously moving toward to the first tractor and hay wagon that was supposed to be leading the hayride. I was startled to see it had stopped.
And then I saw him. A figure, crumpled beneath the tractor. The placement of the body bothered me – it was like a ragdoll flung beneath one of the front tires. Cautiously, I knelt beside him. I recognized my childhood friend, Barry. He was face down, unnaturally still. I reached forward and shook his shoulder. “Barry.” When there was no response, I tried again, louder, more insistent. “Barry, get up.”
Horror dawned, breaking through the puerile defenses of childhood. Barry was gone – dead. He was 15 years old. My age. My mind wanted to reject the idea as abhorrent; it was impossible. But I couldn’t deny the cold reality before me. A second instinct grabbed me: Run. I stumbled away, backward along the ground, and righted myself on unsteady legs. Adrenaline began to pump through my system, and I took a few quick steps away from him.
Just as I was about to flee, I felt a strong hand grip my arm. I looked up to see another friend. He was older than I, and calmness radiated from him. I pointed toward the first wagon, trying to formulate a word. All that came out of my mouth was a raspy, choking sound: “Barry…” I could go no further.
The young man looked deeply into my eyes and nodded. “Yes.” I shook my head, willing him to not say it aloud. “Barry’s dead,” he said quietly.
Full blown panic took over. My mind shut down; I hardly recognized my own voice as gulping cries escaped. Run, my body urged again. But I was now in his firm grasp. He gripped both arms, and gave me a gentle shake. “Calm down,” he said. “Just stay calm.”
It was enough to break through both the panic and the urge to escape. I reached down inside, and pushed an internal button. The panic disappeared; the adrenaline became a source of energy and focus. I took a deep breath and exhaled, slowly willing the fear and horror away. A precarious calm took over.
I’m OK, I thought. Long pause. “I’m OK,” I said aloud. He nodded and let me go. It would take years for me to find that button again, and figure out how to turn it back on. But for the moment, it was what I needed to move forward, and face the rest of the evening’s fallout. At the time, I had no way of knowing it was going to get worse, much worse.