This is my favorite picture of my first real band, The Jody Grind.
It was taken when we played a Valentine’s Dance at the Georgia Retardation Center — one of the most positive gigs a band could ever be lucky enough to play.
This is one of the last pictures of this particular band ever taken. Our second record came out two months later. That same week, while driving north back home overnight after a weekend of Florida shows, a southbound drunk driver named Christopher Lavender crossed over the highway and the grass median at the crest of a hill and hit our van with his camper exactly head-on in the right-hand lane and killed our bass player, Robert Hayes, our new drummer Rob Clayton, and our dear friend Tim Ruttenber aka “Deacon Lunchbox” who had been opening our shows with his poetry.
They all died a terrible lonely painful wrenching death in a crushed white cargo van in the pitch-black dark on Highway 65 at mile-marker 127 near Greenville, Alabama at 5AM Easter Sunday morning April 19th, 1992.
I wasn’t in the van that night. Bill and I rode back with our manager in his rental car the next day. We drove right over the actual pavement where they died and never even knew it. I was reading James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” in the back seat. I’ve still never finished that book.
The only survivor of the crash was the drunk driver, who got a punitive slap on the wrist about six months later. I was there in the court for his sentencing. He was walking with a cane, but he was walking.
Bill and I went to Alabama a week after the funerals to try to salvage things from the accident site and the wrecked van. I also just needed to see it — to see everything I could see.
The highway crew had simply swept all the crash detritus down the ravine into the blackberry bushes and pine trees on the side of the road — broken glass, twisted fenders, black rubber floor mats, torn flannel shirts, styrofoam coffee cups, a broken Drivin’ and Cryin’ CD. One of my white socks was hanging on a tree branch.
Then we went to the junkyard to see the van. It was in the middle of nowhere. It was a boiling hot day and the nice man driving us there was talking about how his wife made and sold hand-tooled leather purses. He also told us that our friend Rob Clayton, who had been driving the van that night, was found with his hand in front of his face — like he had seen the oncoming vehicle at the very last second.
The junkyard was vast and treeless. There was sort of a shack near one end and that’s where the van was. It wasn’t our usual tour van — our Snickers-brown Ford XLT van had been in the shop, and the garage had given us a shitty loaner to make our shows in Florida that weekend. It was a van that one of the mechanics used for motocross and the 4x4 orange shag carpet remnant in the back was soaked with oil and gasoline. There were no back seats — it was a true cargo van. On the way down for our shows, we had taken turns riding on the metal folding chairs in the back that would tip over every time we went around a curve.
The van was about half the length it had been that last time I saw it — at load-out in Pensacola in front of Sluggo’s after our show. It was a snub-nose type van where you are pretty much riding on top of the engine, so there’s really nothing in front of you except windshield and fenders — nothing to stop a truck with a camper top going 60 miles an hour coming straight at you over the the crest of a hill in your lane where you can’t see it until you see it and then it’s over.
The wrecked van started behind the front seats. They just weren’t there anymore.
Some dear friends had gone down immediately after the wreck to get our gear out of the wreckage for us — guitars, amps, Robert’s upright bass, drums — but it still looked like a macabre explosion inside.
We saw surreal things. Deacon’s little blue beer cooler, looking normal. Ditto, his Stanley coffee thermos. Huge puddles of thick black dried blood in the shag carpet. Chips of leg bone and gobs of muscle and fat all shiny and melting crushed into the steering column that dangled out of the open front of the van. Deacon’s army surplus bombshell. Our CDs. Our t-shirts. Deacon’s cassette tapes. Deacon’s sleeping bag filled with what looked like dried blood and vomit. Ants were having a field day all over everything.
Rob Clayton’s mom had asked us to try to find his ruby earring that he always wore in one ear. Also a braided silver ring. Neither was on his body in the morgue.
Do you know the feeling of watching yourself do something? That’s how I found the silver ring in the puddle of dried blood between the two front seats and pried it out with my fingernails. But there was no way anyone was ever gonna find a little red earring in that mess. I tried.
Some junkyard workers had been in the shade at the shack just watching us go through the van and finally came over looking all sheepish. We thought they were just being respectful, knowing that people had died in the heap — but then they said they came to apologize because they had found the beer in the little cooler and had drank it. Bill and I told them that Deacon would’ve wanted it that way. Then they held up a cracked cassette case — Deacon on the cover with his biker beard and big belly, holding a chainsaw over his head and wearing a giant white bra — and asked “who was this guy?”
God, where to begin?