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Teen’s tragedy leaves legacy

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Georgia: on her mind

By The Staff

I was 16 years old when Carl Johnson died on this ribbon of a road that winds between the river and a limestone cliff. He was not much older. We never spoke a word to each other. At least, I have no memory of his voice. But his black eyes looked out on the world through long, angel lashes and all the girls agreed that he was beautiful. If you favored delicate-boned, olive skinned boys, that is, which I didn’t, preferring taller, sturdier types. Still, he glided through the hallways of the school, thin and lithe, nearly elegant in crisp oxford cloth and khaki, anticipating life, getting ready, like I was, until one day he wasn’t.

For 10 years, 20 years, now almost 50, I slow as I enter the curve on the river road where he crashed into the wall of rock.

“This is where Carl Johnson died,” I say as I always do, as if this were an important historical fact.    

It is not, I suppose. Although he was never late for geometry class, he didn’t live long enough to do much but be a boy. He did, however, comb his shining black hair neatly to the left. Or maybe he brushed it upward into a flattop, a trendy style that year. What I do remember is that his hair sparkled in the light and that it was always as perfect as a picture in a magazine.

And so if I could — were it left up to me — I’d plant one of those fancy iron markers at this turn in the highway, the kind that has words so tiny and dense you can’t read them as you whiz by in your car, but it lets you know in no uncertain terms that you’re passing a significant place.

“HERE,” it would say, “halfway between the once thriving villages of Monterey and Gratz at a bend in the lower Kentucky River so beautiful Paul Sawyier might have paused one morning in the nineteen-oughts to paint its green blue water wide and deep as it rushes to merge with the Ohio 30 miles downstream, HERE beside the broad river bottom where cattle graze on burial mounds hallowed by the Adena peoples, HERE where ice and time shoved a limestone hill a hundred feet straight up from the ground and then rolled out a long valley to rest beside it — HERE the immortality of Georgia’s childhood hit the ditch on a June evening so sweet you could taste it.”

After half a century, though, only weeds push their way through the stone to mark the spot. The river flows on past the mounds built by the Indians before there were Indians, in a hurry to reach its destination, an ocean or maybe a polar cap.

And so I slow as I enter the curve on the river road where he crashed into the wall of rock. 

“This is where Carl Johnson died,” I say as I always do, as if this were an important historical fact.

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(Note from the author: This essay is written in memory of all Kentucky teenagers who have died in vehicular accidents and it is dedicated to those who grieve for them, especially their young peers.)