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Markers on the Highway

By September 4, 2015 2 Comments

When finally we came to the place on the highway where he was killed, I realized neither of us knew exactly where it was–specifically, under which overpass.  I had deliberately avoided the stretch of road in previous trips up and back to Wisconsin, but this time I decided it was time that I passed the spot where, just a couple of months ago, it happened. 

Being told of my brother-in-law’s death was the kind of experience one wishes never to have, and, once experienced, more boldly wishes never to repeat. It was a call. Cell phone. We’d just come out of an out-in-the-country nursery, a car full of plants, on a sunny spring day. We were ambling down country roads on the way home, no more than a mile from a tiny once-upon-a-time town named Alvord, Iowa.

“Is this James Schaap?”

The caller gave me his name, claimed to be the hospital chaplain at Mauston, Wisconsin.

“I am very sad to report that there’s been a terrible accident,” he said. No preliminaries. “Your sister’s health is not in any danger, but your brother-in-law didn’t make it. He died.”

That’s all I remember. Hard-edged, no formalities. Firm yet considerate. All business, but not at all thoughtless. Merciful even in its economy. 

It would have been out of place for him to ask about the weather, wouldn’t it? He had only one reason to talk to me, so he went at it with considerate immediacy. No one can dress awful news in niceties. 

When the conversation ended, we happened to be at Alvord, the little town my brother-in-law often listed as his hometown. I turned in and we drove through just a few minutes after being told Larry was killed in a horrible accident.

Sometime later I learned that the rescue squad had taken him to a  town called Lyndon Station, the closest village along the interstate, where there was a good flat place for a helicopter. But the helicopter never came because the love of my sister’s life was killed right there on the highway, killed instantly, at some spot we were just then passing. 

It happened in highway construction. The man who hit them was ticketed for inattentive driving. They were hit very, very hard from the rear, and it happened, I remember from news photos, somewhere beneath an underpass.

There are three along I-90/94 just south of Lyndon Station. That it could have been any of three somehow diluted the sadness and horror. 

Which is not to say I won’t remember the place. I will never forget those three overpasses every time I’m there on an otherwise featureless stretch of slowly rolling hills on Interstate 90/94.

We were on our way back to Iowa. Early that morning I’d visited my parents’ grave at an obscure cemetery a mile north of Oostburg, Wisconsin. They’re all there–all the grandparents too, just about all my kin. I always stop there, but it’s not like I have to make a visit. I want to. I wouldn’t call it a pleasure, nor do I feel it an obligation. It’s just a visit I want to make. 

R. T. Wright says–and everyone knows–that what happens when we die, what happens in the now once we’ve shucked this mortal coil, is total mystery because no one has been there and back, despite claims aplenty, even bestsellers.

Christians believe–as I do–in the resurrection of the body, but that my great-grandparents will peel themselves from the earth beneath that tipsy stone is as much fancy as any other view of death. We flat don’t know.

I don’t know that anything of my brother-in-law abides at the underpass where he was delivered from this life. I honestly don’t think so. Nor do my parents await the second coming from muddy seats given them in the terra firma at Hartman Cemetery, a place named, almost certainly, for my own great-great grandparents. The people we knew and loved are certainly not there at a spot on the highway or a graveyard little more than a mile from the western shore of Lake Michigan.

But something abides, doesn’t it? Something startles the memory. Something won’t let us forget. Highways all over the nation wear crosses in unusual places, some of them unmistakably ornamented. You see them everywhere. They celebrate lives most of us don’t know but loved ones won’t ever forget.

Something abides there, something is very much alive as long as we are.

I don’t know where the accident happened exactly, under which underpass of the three just south of Lyndon Station, Wisconsin; but to me and all of Larry’s family that stretch of ordinary interstate will never be anything but the place where Larry died. In that tragic sense, he’ll always be there.

That it’s unforgettable is, I think, an immense blessing, a blessing for which I’m thankful this overcast Iowa morning.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This helped me understand something for the first time. Thank you.

  • Diana says:

    Thank you. My mark on the highway was an ICU bed in a cubicle surrounded by clergy and staff and loved ones. Maybe those touched by your words will share their own places. I hope so.

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