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Investigations

I Wish That We Could Both Be There

In 1974, a car hits a seven-year-old boy in central New Jersey. The boy dies. From 2013, a former friend starts to probe the causes, effects, statistics, and consequences.

Simon Lee, Where Sun and Moon Alternate Their Weathers (scenes from Where Is the Black Beast?, 2010), 2012. Courtesy the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, NY.

On a brilliantly sunny afternoon in February 1974, a seven-year-old boy we’ll call Eddie Kates was struck and killed by a car on Bordentown Avenue in central New Jersey. The driver, a 39-year-old housewife and mother named Filicetta Hickey, told police she heard a thump and then saw something flying through the air. She thought it might have been a kite.

It wasn’t her fault. You couldn’t blame her. Not really. They would anyway. For as long as she lived everyone in the neighborhood would blame her because you have to blame someone and you can’t blame a dead seven-year-old, even if he did run into the road without looking. You just can’t do it. If it weren’t she who hit him, it would have been someone else, so you couldn’t blame her, even if you really wanted to. And you couldn’t blame him. All you could do was try to learn why it happened and get past it and hope that 40 years later the ones who remembered it wouldn’t still be tearing themselves up over it and that the poor kid’s family could get some peace somehow. You could hope.

 

Feb. 1, 1974: 7:30 a.m.

It’s rush hour in suburban, middle-class News Jersey, and the whole neighborhood empties out onto Bordentown Avenue. The road teems with sedans and station wagons, family cars and two-doors. Most of the cars are a few years old, but not too old, because this isn’t a rich neighborhood but neither is it a ghetto. Working men live here. They head east on Bordentown toward the Amboys, where they can pick up Route 35 and then the Parkway or Route 287. They’re headed to factories and warehouses, to garages and steel mills. Some are on their way to tighten a leaking pipe or frame a new house, or to paint or panel a living room. A couple will put in transmissions today. They stop on the way to get a coffee and a hard roll, and it isn’t a glamorous life, but it’s good enough and when they come home at five o’clock their wife and kids will be waiting for them. And they’ll come home the same way they left—on Bordentown Avenue.

 

Bordentown Avenue crosses several towns in Middlesex County, starting in the tiny borough of South Amboy on the Raritan Bay. From there it changes from flat, straight, two-lane thoroughfare to winding racetrack to hilly straightaway, then back again as it traverses Sayreville, Old Bridge, and then Sayreville again, reaching almost into Spotswood before sacrificing for good its name and 40-miles-per-hour speed limit to clusters of bungalows and 7-Elevens.

The kids who grew up on Bordentown knew the road and practiced a vigorous respect for its power.

It is the hilly straightaway section of Bordentown that streaks through Parlin (population about 20,000) and marks the northern border of Madison Park, a subdivision of single-family, ranch-style homes mostly built in the 1950s.

A pizza place sits at the top of the hill in Bordentown on the Sayreville side. In the 1970s, it was the Hilltop Bar and Deli, one half of which was a second home to the town’s most dedicated drunks, the other a beloved destination for the neighborhood kids thanks to its rows upon rows of candies and snack cakes. For many of those kids, the deli was off limits on account of the road, although those with lenient parents or the ability to lie persuasively about why they reeked suddenly of Bubble Yum took their chances.

The kids who grew up on Bordentown knew the road and practiced a vigorous respect for its power. They crossed it like they would approach a stray dog that might be rabid—with dutiful caution. But the kids who lived in Madison Park-proper, where the streets were all quiet and named after Ivy League universities, and where the speed limit was a strictly enforced 25 miles per hour, had no experience crossing roads like Bordentown Avenue. It was a different world. Eddie Kates and his family lived—indeed, his parents still live—deep in Madison Park, almost as far away as you could get from Bordentown and still be in the neighborhood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 900 pedestrians under the age of 19 are killed by automobiles each year. That’s 900 too many, but it’s a huge improvement over the figure in the 1970s, when the rate of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 was 62 percent higher than it was in 2009. During the same period, the pedestrian death rate for children ages 12 and under dropped 90 percent. Indeed, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrian fatalities in children under age 14 dropped a not-unsubstantial 49 percent just between 1997 and 2007. Better still, the biggest reduction in that period—57 percent—was seen among the four- to seven-year-old age group. Experts believe the reason is primarily the same one to which we attribute rising rates of Type 2 diabetes in kids and childhood obesity: Kids just don’t play outside as much as they used to, and as a result aren’t exposed to as much traffic. And if they are outside, their so-called helicopter parents are chaperoning them to play dates and organized sports activities. Say what you will about the myriad anxieties of modern-day parents; they’re good at keeping their kids out of the road.

 

11:15 a.m.

The plan is simple and brilliant, at least to a pair of second-graders. Eddie Kates, pale, brown-haired, and exquisitely self-assured, explains it again to a red-haired, less self-assured classmate he has befriended: This morning, his mother gave him money for lunch. He opens a tiny white fist to reveal several shiny quarters inside. He would skip lunch today, and after school the two would stop by their homes and then meet up in the schoolyard and take what the neighborhood kids called “the path” up to the deli on Bordentown Avenue. There they’d use the lunch money to buy candy and then play at the house of the red-haired boy, who lives right across the street. The decision is not arrived at easily; it’s Friday, which means the school is serving pizza for lunch.

They make an odd pair. Eddie seems to have figured out by the second grade that his teachers are not only mere mortals, but mostly powerless ones at that, and overrated, too, and his biting retorts to their frequent admonitions over missing homework and uncovered textbooks elicit gasps from his classmates. He has the swagger of a cocksure teenager. In contrast, the red-haired boy’s freckled face is a picture of perpetual anxiety. He seems terrified of everything but agrees to the plan. The important thing is that both of them live close enough to Madison Park Elementary that they can walk home after the bell, check in with their mothers and then meet again at the school before heading up to the deli. They have plenty of time.

 

According to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 1969, 42 percent of all children and 87 percent of those living within a mile of school walked or bicycled there and back. In the most recent follow-up study, from 2001, only about 16 percent of all children were found to walk to school, and 37 percent of those who live within a mile of their schools are nonetheless driven. Baby boomers yip about how today’s kids lack independence and how the time they themselves spent walking to and from school was good for them. Some people agree.

In the mid-1990s, organizers of the Partnership for a Walkable America launched Walk to School Day in Chicago as a one-time event—modeled after similar initiatives in the United KIngdom—aimed at increasing awareness of the need for walkable communities. Since then, America’s interest in and commitment to walkable communities has grown significantly. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, almost 1,300 schools in all 50 states have received federal funds for “Safe Routes to School” activities such as conducting projects that aim to improve safety and accessibility and reduce traffic and air pollution around schools. Between 2005 and the end of September 2012, the Federal Safe Routes to School Program apportioned nearly $1.15 billion to states. October is now International Walk to School month. Of course, adult supervision is heavy, particularly with younger students. This is a radical change from how kids got to school in the 1970s, when the home-to-school commute was almost invariably adult-free.

 

2:50 p.m.

After stopping home and checking in with their mothers, Eddie and the red-haired boy meet at Madison Park Elementary. Kids dot the playground, riding bikes, climbing monkey bars. The teachers all are gone. The parking lot is empty. Eddie and the red-haired boy walk up the long, winding sidewalk that takes them off school grounds and up to the path. The ball field is on their left. On their right, another field, grassy and spotted with dandelions in the summer, is hard and bumpy now, the soil and grass a sad mix of brown and gray. Eddie wears a tan corduroy jacket with fake wool around the collar. It is unbuttoned. It’s warm for February, in the 40s.

 

Experts have long known that children under 10 years old are at particular risk when crossing busy roads. In the United States, children nine and younger have a pedestrian death rate 20 percent higher than that of children ages 10 to 14. A study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology in 1991 analyzed the development of pedestrian skills by children age five to 11 and found that although there were wide variables—e.g., some six-year-olds were better at it than some 11-year-olds—generally, children in the five-to-nine range are least able to successfully gauge and manage traffic risks and are most likely to run into the roadway without looking.

“They’re lacking inhibitory control,” Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie told me in an email. Dr. Guthrie is a child psychiatrist board-certified in pediatrics and neuro-developmental disabilities at Columbia Psychiatry in New York. “So basically, they’re not able to stop and delay and then proceed. They just go. They’re thinking about what’s on the other side of the street. The reason is both behavioral and neurological.

“The two [behavior and neurology] are totally related, and it has to do with what’s going on in brain development,” she wrote. “So basically the frontal cortex and specifically the prefrontal cortex of the brain is maturing from school-age years up into adolescence.” As this part of our brain develops, she explained, we get better at the “executive functions” it governs, such as making the decision on when to cross a busy road.

 

2:55 p.m.

Eddie and the red-haired boy cross over the high end of Princeton Road and head up the path. Eddie does most of the talking—about other kids, about teachers. They haven’t fully discovered girls yet, at least in any meaningful way that would permit articulation on the subject. Bordentown Avenue is about 10 feet away. The red-haired boy asks, “Have you ever crossed this road before?” They’re at the edge of the curb. Bordentown is now six inches away. In the lane closest to them, the cars are packed in a row, barely moving. In the far lane, going west, the cars whiz by. Eddie suddenly looks nervous. “Not without my sister.” He asks the red-haired boy if he is coming. “No,” is the reply. “I’m not allowed.” Eddie looks straight ahead and starts to run.

 

It’s not surprising that Eddie had made at least one successful crossing with a sister; she was his guide. Studies show that 60 to 70 percent of children killed and injured as pedestrians are male. Boys ages 14 and under have a pedestrian death rate 57 percent higher than that for girls. This was once thought to be primarily environmental or cultural, and still may be to some degree. The more probable reason: Girls’ brains develop faster.

“In terms of brain development and brain structure, boys’ and girls’ brains are very different,” said Ausim Azizi, M.D., Ph.D., and chairman of the neurology department at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.

“The back part of the brain in girls has a lot more connections that control the visual system and visual orientation and tells you where things are and what things are [and] is about 20 to 30 percent larger in girls than in boys,” Dr. Azizi told me. “So girls have a lot more integrative area in terms of where things are and how things go at a very early age.”

 

2:55 p.m.

Maura Fitzgerald, a 15-year-old sophomore at Cedar Ridge High School, mounts her new, white 10-speed, pedals down her driveway at 3090 Bordentown Ave. and makes a right onto the sidewalk. She’s headed to her friend Roxanne Massucci’s house on Brandeis Road. The oldest of four children and the only girl, Maura has lived on Bordentown Avenue all her life. She is an A and B student with many friends in the neighborhood. They avail themselves of the activities 1970s middle class suburban America offers its teenagers: Listening to music together, smoking cigarettes, going to dances and the movies, bowling and hanging out at the local pizza parlor. As she nears the path on her right, her bike’s chain pops off. It’s happened before and she knows how to fix it. Still on the sidewalk, she climbs off the bike, kneels down, and begins the dirty and tedious process of lifting and fitting the chain back onto the gear sprocket. She’ll have to wash the gear oil off her hands at Roxanne’s. As she works, she looks over her shoulder and sees two young boys walking up the path toward Bordentown Avenue. One has brown hair, the other red. They talk about whatever young boys talk about, she guesses, and goes back to her work.

 

Another possible explanation for why boys are more likely to be killed by automobiles than girls: Many more boys have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2010 that boys are more than twice as likely girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. And a 2008 study published by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that the median age of ADHD onset is seven—right in the wheelhouse of the age range during which boys tend to fall victim to traffic accidents. “Youngsters who meet criteria for an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder are at greater risk for impulsivity, and running out in traffic is an impulsive act,” said Dr. Guthrie.

Now it’s almost 40 years later and I have three children. As they each hit age seven, the thought has come: “This is how old Eddie was when he died.”

Though today three boys are diagnosed with ADHD for every one girl diagnosed, there is reason to suspect that boys would be at higher risk as pedestrians even if the rates were the same.

“More girls are [being] diagnosed with ADHD [than before], but girls who have ADHD do not have the disinhibited hyperactive type,” Guthrie said. Instead girls with ADHD tend to be classified in the inattentive subtype, which doesn’t include impulsiveness. So, Guthrie said, “If half of the people running out in traffic have ADHD, then you’re going to have a disproportionate number of males.”

 

2:59 p.m.

Filicetta Hickey turns onto Bordentown Avenue on her way home to her house on Bucknell Road in Madison Park. Her kids are almost certainly home from school already or just about home, and it’s her job to be there for them. Theirs is a typical suburban family—the husband and his job, the kids and their sports. Her daughter, Patty, is on the neighborhood softball team. Her husband, James, served in the Navy in Korea. She is a rather short, plump woman, with short, dark hair cut in the manner popular among the women in the neighborhood. If it isn’t all wrapped up in a towering beehive, it’s cut short, and not very styled. She is a simple and busy woman with no interest in towering beehives. Most of the kids in the neighborhood know her and her kids, as most of the families in the neighborhood know most other families. As she drives west, up the hill on Bordentown, the traffic going east is nearly stopped. Typical for this time of the day: Cars wait in a long line to get gas at the Getty station at the corner of Bordentown and Ernston Road. Damn gasoline shortage. The kids must be home by now. She should be there. She leans on the accelerator to get her 1970 Plymouth sedan up the hill. The car complies.

 

Middle-aged women are mostly an anomaly in the role of driver in cases involving pedestrian fatalities. The results of a study conducted in Derbyshire, England, and published in the Journal of Child Health Care in 2003 noted a “significantly lower proportion of female drivers” in road-traffic collisions and that “male drivers and drivers under the age of 40 years are more likely to be involved in [road-traffic collisions] with children as pedestrians.”

Not surprisingly, motorists with poor driving records are more likely to hit a child pedestrian. In 1997, Injury Prevention, an international peer-reviewed journal for health professionals, reported the results of a study that analyzed the driving records of 327 Californians who had been involved in an accident with a pedestrian under the age of 15. Of that number, 237, or 73 percent, had a record of moving violations, leading the journal to conclude that drivers who had collided with pedestrian minors “were more likely to have had a prior citation, more citations, more safety violations, a suspended or revoked license, or more negligent operator points than drivers who did not hit a child pedestrian in the study period.”

 

3:00 p.m.

Eddie almost makes it. He is about to touch the curb on the far side of the road when the Plymouth slams into his right side, crushing his ribs and obliterating his peritoneal cavity. The impact sends him cartwheeling through the air, like a bird blasted out of the blue afternoon sky and out of this world. He lands 75 feet away, his head crashing against the curb, and seven years of life and breath and memory and hopes and consciousness start a slow deadly drip onto Bordentown Avenue. Maura Fitzgerald lets her bike clatter to the ground, puts her hands to her head, and says over and over, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Eddie’s red-haired friend, still at the curb, stiffens, screams, and runs toward his home.

3:01 p.m.

Joe Kaptain, a 14-year-old Boy Scout and a cadet on the local first aid squad, is lounging in the dining room of his family’s home at 3080 Bordentown Ave. He’s lived there his entire life and the road is no mystery to him. He delivers newspapers to most of the homes on the street, and goes to the deli every day or every other day as many of the Bordentown kids do—to get milk, bread, a pack of smokes for the old man. He knows how to cross, where to cross, and where not to. He hears a commotion outside, people yelling, and dashes out the front door. A few houses up, he sees cars stopped and a small crowd of people standing around what appears to be small boy in the road. He rushes over. A woman, short and dark-haired, holds her head in her hands and cries, “I couldn’t see him! I couldn’t see him!” Joe kneels down and examines the boy’s head. The boy has a large skull fracture in his temple, blood on his face. Joe checks for a pulse; there is none. Police arrive, then the ambulance. The paramedics place the boy on a “scoop” stretcher, which is used to stabilize an injured person’s neck and spine. It is strictly for appearances: The boy is very dead.

 

The red-haired boy was me, and after that day, Eddie existed only in my memory. No one in my house ever talked about him. We didn’t go to the funeral. Eddie’s parents never talked to mine, as far as I knew. I went back to school the next Monday as if nothing had happened. Eddie had just vanished. A month later Terry Jacks’s maudlin dirge, “Seasons in the Sun,” about a young man who is approaching death in the prime of life and saying goodbye to loved ones, began a three-week run as the most popular song in America. Of course, it reminded me of him. I told this to a classmate during lunch one day, and he said it had the same effect on him. A lunch lady overheard and scolded us, telling us not to talk about it ever again. We never did.

Now it’s almost 40 years later and I have three children. As they each hit age seven, the thought has come: “This is how old Eddie was when he died,” and then the terrible wonder at how small seven years old really is, how fragile, and how much future a seven-year-old has— and how quickly and savagely that promise can vanish, the way Eddie vanished. And then, too, with each eighth birthday party, I’ve thought about how Eddie’s birthdays stopped at seven, and wondered how his parents weather that unspeakable hurt. Sometimes if I’m feeling brave, I try to imagine myself as they were that day, how it must have felt, but then I have to stop, because I have been lucky and I can stop. For me the anguish is voluntary. Not so for them.

There is no consoling the unlucky, and no gifts of power or status can make it otherwise. No less than Abraham Lincoln is said to have been so devastated by the death of his son Willie from typhoid fever in 1862 that for the rest of his life he suffered severe bouts of “melancholy,” which we know today as clinical depression. He wasn’t alone, even among presidents. “There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child,” Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said about the death of his son, Doud Dwight Eisenhower, who died at age three of scarlet fever. “Things never get back to the way they were.” It is no secret: In societies that value children, the death of one’s child is among the most debilitating losses one can experience.

He was a man who almost 40 years earlier had lost his son in a horrific accident. You could still hear what it had done to him.

“In the diagnostic manuals, the loss of a child is listed as a special kind of loss, a more difficult kind of loss, because it’s out of sync,” said Pauline Boss, Ph.D., who has written several books about grief and loss, most notably Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. “If an old grandfather or grandmother dies, they’ve lived a good life, they die at age 90, that’s sad but it’s not traumatic,” Boss said. “When a child dies, it’s out of synchrony. That makes it a traumatic loss and often leads to what is called complicated grief, and that is grief that goes on, and on and on.”

Eddie’s parents and I never met to speak about that day. I always wondered why. Didn’t they want to know what their son’s last words were, what he was doing during the final minutes and seconds of his life? Of course it would be painful for them, but wouldn’t knowing be worth the pain? Isn’t knowing always better? Mostly, yes.

“If there were some other circumstances going on that might cause them, for example, to feel responsible, then it is very difficult for them to look into it more deeply because they may find more evidence that they were responsible,” said Boss, who it must be noted has never worked with or met the Kates family and agreed to speak only about the general impact the death of a child can have upon a family.

“But more often, I find that people always think they’re responsible but most often they are not. Whenever there’s a trauma, whenever a person experiences a traumatic loss, we tend to think it’s our fault. And so we may hesitate about finding out more information because of that. And especially when I see people in therapy, I encourage them to look for more information, which usually leads to them blaming themselves less, actually.”

Ten years ago I found through acquaintances that Eddie’s parents were alive, still living in the same house in Madison Park; I had long since moved away. I sent them a letter offering to meet with them to talk about the day he died. There were many things I wanted to say to them. A friend whose son had been stillborn advised against it. “Too painful,” he warned. Even 30 years later? I sent it anyway.

I never got a response, and since I had mostly guessed at the street address, I figured the letter had been lost. I let it go. Life went on for another decade, but every few years I’d drop into a weeks-long funk thinking about Eddie and the kind of world we live in, where a seven-year-old kid can disappear like that, alive and running one moment and a split second later his insides crushed and useless, everything that matters gone dark in an instant.

Sometimes I’d think Eddie’s parents blamed me for his death. That would explain their silence. When I was in high school I once passed his sister in the hall. She was a year younger than me and pretty, and she glared at me in a way that I could only interpret as profound loathing. I immediately felt ashamed and never saw her again, which seems odd now, given that our high school wasn’t overly large. Maybe it was by design.

Last June, I decided again to contact Eddie’s parents, on the off chance that they were still alive. But this time I resolved to first learn everything that I could about that day, to know it and feel it from an adult’s perspective rather than from suspect memories born almost 40 years ago. I got the police report. I found Maura Fitzgerald and Joe Kaptain on Facebook and interviewed them about that day. Filicetta Hickey, I learned, had died in 2003. But I found that Eddie’s parents were in their 70s, still living in Madison Park. I wrote another letter and this time confirmed the address, sent it certified mail and included my cell phone number. I also told them that I intended to write about Eddie and asked for their cooperation.

The call came about a week later while I was at work. I saw the number on my phone, recognized the exchange as Madison Park’s, took a deep breath and answered. Eddie’s father identified himself and then: “I don’t want no stories written about this. My wife’s been cryin’ 40 years over this and I don’t want nothing written about it.”

“This.” “It.” He didn’t say Eddie’s name. Maybe he couldn’t.

“You won’t get any cooperation from me or any siblings. I mean it. If I find out you wrote anything about this, there will be trouble—legal trouble.” This was a hard man and an angry one used to being listened to and obeyed. He was also a man who almost 40 years earlier had lost his son in a horrific accident. You could still hear what it had done to him. You could hear it. Or maybe he had always sounded this way. There was no way for me to know. I didn’t know the man. But it was clear: There would be no meeting. No secrets shared, no revelations. No questions answered. There would be no hugs.

I wanted to reply in a kind way that although I wanted his cooperation, I didn’t need it to write the piece. I would write about Eddie with his input or without it, that it wasn’t only his story, it was mine too, because I was there, and it was Maura’s, too. Forty years later she had to warn me before we met that she might cry talking about that day, and then she did. It wasn’t only Eddie’s father’s story. It belonged to Eddie’s siblings, too, if they wanted to know it, and it was Eddie’s, and it belonged too to all the kids in the neighborhood who knew Eddie and probably liked him like I did and then saw that he wasn’t there one day, and wondered where he went and why no one ever talked about it. Yes, it was Eddie’s father’s story. But it wasn’t only his story. It was ours, too.

That’s what I wanted to say. But I am bad at talking and what came out was weak and faltering: “I was hoping for your cooperation.” He repeated there would be none, then he paused, and his voice changed, a kind of malevolent smugness replacing anger. “This is the second time you wrote to us, checked up on us. What’s the matter, you got some guilt over this?”

So there it was. If I were a better person I would have confessed: “Yes. Yes, I do.” But the surreal nature of the exchange and my temper spoke for me: “I’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. I didn’t tell him to run into the road.” And then it was over, me standing in the parking lot with my cell phone, he in the house where Eddie’s memory wasn’t occasional and inconvenient, but ever-present, and where an old mother lives and mourns still for a son 40 years gone, who by now might have given her grandchildren. An unspeakable hurt. I tried for a minute to imagine what he felt like when he hung up the phone, but then I stopped because I have been lucky and I can.