By Michael Brandt
I’m driving west on Highway 14, about a mile past Black Earth. As the posted speed limit is 55, I’m doing my customary 63 mph. On a long, easy curve to the right, I encounter the first of several signs announcing a school entrance, then specifying the required reduction in speed. I slowly apply the brake and roll by at exactly the prescribed limit. An estimated 14,000 vehicles per day cross this intersection. Right now though, it is a few minutes before midnight. There is no one in the single story, ’60s-era building, no cars in the barely adequate parking lot. No other highway traffic is to be seen. I am alone with the school, the darkness and an empty stretch of road. Still, I slow down as if a state trooper was riding my tail.
For nearly seven years I have deliberately slowed at this point along the familiar route between Madison and our home in Arena. I do so regardless of the hour, the day of the week, the direction I’m traveling or the speed of vehicles in front of or behind me. I do it during the school year but also during the summer months. The act, which began as a conscious ritual, is today an ingrained habit. Yet a habit the repetition of which persistently reinforces its intent.
On an otherwise lovely spring morning in 2012, a young woman described as “remarkably effervescent, full of positive things” passed this same way. Having graduated UW-Platteville the week before, she was completing the final week of her student teacher role at Wisconsin Heights. During her short tenure there, she had become beloved among her art students, members of the girl’s track team she helped to coach, faculty and school administrators. She was known for being freethinking and unconventional as well as optimistic. The enthusiasm for life that she exulted was taken by those around her to be wholly genuine.
About 7:30 a.m., as she sat waiting to turn onto the school entrance road, she was struck from behind by a distracted semi driver. The impact pushed her Saturn into the opposite lane, directly into the path of an oncoming van. In an instant, her light was extinguished.
I did not know the victim nor was I witness to her death. Why then, am I struck by this incident, and why has it so oddly affected my behavior? The most immediate answer is that long ago, I fell in love with a young woman destined to become a superlative teacher. She, too, was full of positive things. Her sense of fun could incite a classroom of 10 year olds or lift a darkened heart. Her kindness was instinctive, her energy irresistible. I’ve since been privileged to observe the career of that woman who is now my wife and to witness the breadth and depth of her influence upon countless lives. I can comprehend the full measure of goodness that would have been lost to the world had that career been similarly cut short. I brake at a certain place on the highway to reaffirm that understanding.
Another motive is not so easily related. The worst that death can do is to render a life anonymous. Yet, with the fewest of exceptions, anonymity has been writ as the coda to humans’ existence. Stone monuments carved throughout history and found all around the world, attest to our fear of it.
In life, we can resist anonymity in many ways – through friends, family; through achievement or benevolence; perhaps especially through folly or acts of infamy. The choice to live in a rural township has no doubt been one element of my own resistance. In a small community one is more apt to consider the entirety of another’s story and more willing to imagine being wholly considered. Both the contributions of a single life and the shock of a single death are more profoundly absorbed than seemed to be true in the urban environment of my youth. The smaller circle defies anonymity, even in death. Names and deeds linger. I brake at a certain place on the highway because I have learned to see the void of a missing member; one whose irreplaceable loss calls for remembrance.
Tomorrow is a school day. A new generation of young people will go about the business of discovery and suffering appropriate to their moment in time. It is likely that few are aware of what happened seven years ago at a spot on the pavement they will drive over on their way to class. It is unlikely that any will reflect upon the event or recall the name of the woman killed — Katie Binning. Eventually, this school will be replaced or abandoned. Likewise, this road. The unfortunate young teacher and all who knew or knew of her will have vanished into anonymity. Or perhaps …
Perhaps one day in a remote century, some curious being with sensory apparatus far beyond anything we can now imagine will be engaged in a survey of the region once referred to by its inhabitants as Driftless. Something anomalous in the landscape will reveal the remains of a sizeable structure adjacent to a travel corridor of significance. From among the myriad echoes emanating from the site, one in particular will resonate. It will capture the observer’s attention and demand closer inspection. And in some way, a human being whose short life ended abruptly will be resurrected. Her name will again be spoken and the fact of her presence on this earth once again acknowledged.
As I turn up the road to my own temporary structure, reflecting upon my own temporary presence, I wonder if an echo of me will ever be discovered in the distant future. And if so, will it whisper of the human who once lived upon this hill, or the one who for some short span of time paused routinely near the location of an ancient tragedy.
Michael Brandt’s musings have appeared sporadically across a spectrum of Midwestern news and special interest publications. He is privileged to share a ridge top in Arena with his wife, Janet, and their large hound Thule.