Memory Lane

Defying danger and the forgetfulness of time, grieving families and friends are peppering Missouri's roadsides with shrines to loved ones killed in crashes

"Three crosses on the right side of the road. Two small ones flanking a bigger one. The small ones are clapped-together wood. The one in the middle is white birch with a picture on it, a tiny photograph of the 17-year-old boy who lost control of his car on this curve, one drunk night that was his last drunk night, and this is where his girlfriend and her girlfriends marked the spot ..."
-- Stephen King, "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French"

Holy shit! muttered the cop in the Shrewsbury patrol car, half-hidden along the eastbound bend of I-44 between the Elm Avenue and Laclede Station Road exits. He had his radar gun out, checking for speeders. The limit there was 65 mph, so a 70 was a possibility, depending on the make of car and how many he'd ticketed that day, but a vehicle doing 75 or more, hey, that was automatic pursuit. But what he saw that day, Oct. 9, 1995, a little after lunchtime, was the radar cop's wet dream and it freaked him, this souped-up six-cylinder 1991 Camaro flying down the interstate toward the city, doing better than 100 by the radar, weaving in and out of lanes like an errant bottle rocket.

Inside the Camaro, borrowed for the day's joyride, were four teens from West County. The two in the back were students at Marquette High School. They had skipped school and somehow hooked up with the two older guys in the front, whom they hardly knew but who had procured some interesting drugs, nitrous oxide and magic mushrooms. A hell of a one-two punch. The driver, 19-year-old Mohammed Ayyash, saw the patrol car and took it to the nth degree of speed. He was going to get away. The officer radioed in, but before he could even begin the chase, the Camaro veered up an embankment, hit some rocks and came back down on its hood. Three of the teens, including Ayyash, crawled out from the wreckage and ran away. The fourth, 15-year-old Zach Miller, lay dead.

In the aftermath of that accident, Ayyash, a laborer, pleaded guilty on all counts: involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, possession of a controlled substance, driving while suspended. He's now finishing up a seven-year sentence.

Miles from the West County cemetery where Zach Miller is buried is a small, inconspicuous cross erected on the limestone gradient along I-44 just west of the Shrewsbury Avenue overpass. A pass at 55 mph affords only a fleeting glance, though were you to scale the chain-link fence above the highway, near St. Michael's School, and walk down to it, you would see the epitaph, which reads: "Zach -- 15 and Taken Too Soon. We Miss You, Mom and Sis."

Zach's memorial is part of a growing national trend to commemorate traffic fatalities at the spots where they occurred. You've seen them, little roadside shrines with flowers, balloons, streamers, personal mementos and other details you can't quite make out as you fly past yearning for more rock, less talk. Some are slapped together and won't last long; others look as though they were done professionally. No authority sanctions them; they simply appear one day, a tribute, an homage, a testament to the deceased by friends and family. And whether you find them touching or distracting or downright disturbing, get used to them -- just as American society has gotten used to the 43,300 traffic deaths nationwide (1996 tally, down 10,000 from 1980) -- because they are and will continue to be in our faces, a poignant reminder of the preciousness of life.

What is it that prompts a grieving set of friends and family to imperil themselves by placing a memorial on a busy highway? Aren't laudatory funeral services and periodic visits to manicured cemetery plots enough? Apparently not.

In the case of the Millers, who had lost another son to a car crash two years before Zach's death, the motivation was plain and simple: "It was just out of loving care," says Zach's dad, Bob Miller, a retired police officer. "A way to remember."

"I'd seen them around and I didn't want to forget Zach -- I think of him every day still," says Rachel Doering, 28, Zach's sister. The cross on I-44 came about, she says, after she spoke to a friend whose dad had a manufacturing plant where they stamped metal. "She took the idea and ran with it," says Doering. "I was really surprised when I saw it -- I didn't expect anything that elaborate." In their choice of location, Rachel and her mom "tried to get it out of the way of the mowers." They return once a year to check on the cross and clean up around it. "We try to plant flowers," she says, "but it's so rocky. Once I found a poem someone had left under a rock, someone saying how they used to play on that hill as a kid and now there was sadness there. Kind of strange how people leave these touchstones."

But is the highway site more significant than her brother's actual resting place? "Originally it meant a lot to me," Doering says. "It was the last spot he was alive. When I first went there, I could still see the tire tracks and some debris from the crash. It was really important to me to walk that track and see what happened." While Zach Miller's machine-crafted marker is durable and somewhat official-looking, most of them have an ephemeral, folk-art quality about them. Just west of McKnight Road, on the fence separating the outer road from eastbound I-64, is a display with streamers, personal mementos and a small plaque that reads, "Dean Hartronft." Last summer in southeast Illinois, we saw a 6-foot rough-hewn wooden cross, bearing only these words: "Nine Toes." Another shrine, observed on Highway 94 near Busch Wildlife in St. Charles County: three crosses with hand-lettered words, "RIP We love you Jeff" (Gittemeier, 18, who died on June 29, 1998, after an accident at the site). Trenton, Mo., no name, merely ribbons and plastic flowers wrapped around the concrete column of a highway overpass, with a roughly drawn sign reading, "Please! Don't Drink & Drive." Look for a memorial for road-rage fatality Jennifer Hywari (August 1997) along I-64 in the Chesterfield Valley. Hywari's family and friends have also adopted that stretch of highway to maintain. There are scads more out there.

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