New Year’s Day was forever changed for me 40 years ago.
I realize that accidents happen and people die; and now, there are terrorist attacks where even more people die, but on Jan. 1, 1978, it hit home to my young mind. It was the day that Reymie Barnett died.
It was tragic – as all young deaths are – because she was only 16 years old; a junior at Sherman High School. Factually, it was a one car accident where one of the three occupants died-the driver-Reymie. Secretly, she was my inspiration; she was the spark that has glowed these four decades; she was that first human connection outside my parents, siblings and family. No, that’s not right; she was so much more………..She was……………..there are not words.
There wasn’t a love interest component; I didn’t know her that long or that much. There simply wasn’t the time for that to occur from the time we met until that fateful day. Perhaps, it would have developed, but that is not the point. The story is much deeper………..and it’s because of Reymie Barnett.
It was a snowy, windy, wintery NYE night. The roads were icy and dangerous. I was leaving a friend’s place just after midnight – the first day of my graduation year – and worried all the way home on US 82 East that I would go off the road. I remember thinking, “If they are going too fast, someone can easily fly off the road especially with these curves; and be hurt or even killed.” I took it slow and got home about 12:30 a.m. Not too long after that, my fear came true……………..
It was probably late September – three months before – that I went to my locker at SHS. It was like any other day: put books in..…get books out…….go to class. I felt someone come to the locker next to mine. “She” – you just know if you allow yourself the sensation – was doing the same thing as I; getting ready for the next class. She didn’t have any obligation to speak to me; or even to look over at me. She could have just gotten her books and moved on without any acknowledgement; and she would have been normal; justified even. But she didn’t take the quick or easy way; she turned to me.
Jack Pierce remembers that NYE night, too. He lived – and still does – just south of the curve where the accident happened. He notes that over time Reymie’s accident hasn’t been the only one in that location, but it’s one of the most memorable.
“We were having a NYE party with the church at our house and our pastor left about 12:30 p.m. He quickly returned to tell us that ‘there was a terrible accident on the corner’ down by the highway,” recalled Pierce. “I got my coat and went up there. It was obvious that she was going too fast for that curve especially with the ice.”
Pierce remembered that there were two girls sitting on the grass huddled together. He speculated they were in shock. The car had flipped several times, but was upright at the end. The two girls had been thrown from the vehicle, but the driver – Reymie – was still in the car. She was unresponsive.
“They were in a hurry to get back to a party at the high school,” recalled Pierce as he learned the story. “The driver lost control; slid and hit the embankment. The car rolled at least once. It was all so fast.”
The car was at least 25 yards from the roadway; and Reymie was pronounced dead at the scene. Pierce stayed until the ambulance and authorities got there. It was a gruesome and tragic accident at a dangerous point in the road. (Just this fall, TxDOT finally completed the new highway along that section; what was the highway for all those years is now the service road.)
Reymie said ‘Hi” and I was shocked that someone was actually talking to me. Sure, we all have ‘friends’ and mostly acquaintances, but to get a ‘connection’ to another is rare. At that point in life, I hadn’t had one; certainly not one I recognized, but there it was. Yes, she was just saying “Hi” to another person –no real mystery there – but I knew it was something else, too – something special. I tried to say it back, but it came out too low. I coughed and tried again. She smiled; and said something else and was gone.
I had a ‘normal’ New Year’s Day; I didn’t find out about the accident until the next day in the newspaper. What?! A girl died; a SHS student……………..oh, NO! Reymie, NO! What is happening?! No………No……No!
We didn’t see each other every day; certainly not every class change, but we started to talk briefly when we did. I learned simple things such as her name and that she was in the High-Steppers. She was a junior and she had a brother in my class. I was an introvert and probably talked less than she did. I didn’t have much experience with interpersonal relationships even as a senior in high school. Reymie didn’t care; she was just being herself; sharing her life with another because it was the right thing to do. She reached out to another when not many others had.
I was crushed; I just sat there for the longest time. I didn’t know her that well; I didn’t know her family. I barely knew her brother. I couldn’t run to them and tell them how sorry I was. I couldn’t run to anyone; I hadn’t told anyone – not even my parents – about Reymie. She was a small slice of my life and at the time, I didn’t realize how important she was to me. I muddled through that week; I read the obituary. I went on with my senior year; graduated and went on to college. Reymie slowly faded from memory.
As time continued in Life, I was reminded of her in various situations. I caught myself making a special effort to speak to others even when it went against my introverted self. I began to see that spark in others and felt it growing in me as well. One day – years later – it all came together; it all pointed to my brief time with Reymie. I began seeing her in my life in small ways; I began seeing her in others. I began seeing life differently; and I knew – I know – it was all because that young girl took the time to care about another person all those years ago.
I realized the importance of connecting with people; I had been doing it, but not realizing it had a template – a beginning – in Reymie. She made it real in my life by simply being herself; being that incredible example of humanity for me…………and others, I’m sure.
Reading that obituary that week, I made a vow to visit her grave someday. Perhaps it was an over-reaction to the emotions flowing, but I never forgot that promise. She was of Native American heritage and was buried in central Oklahoma—I never knew the exact reasons why, but I’m sure this is what the family wanted. It would be a journey; not a simple trip across town if I were to fulfill that promise. I kept the location and never forgot that secret promise. It would be my only way to pay respects to the person who had a most enduring impact on my life.
Years past—decades even, but I didn’t forget the promise. As the 20th, 25th, 30th and 35th anniversary came and went, I would think about that promise; and renew my vow. Now, the 40th anniversary is here.
It was a hot July afternoon last summer when I drove into an Indian church’s cemetery. It didn’t take long to find the grave—even after almost 40 years. It was non-descript; no tombstone, just a marker, but it showed the final resting place of the one who first made a human connection with me. I stood there and silently paid my respects to Reymie Ann Barnett. I didn’t stay long; I just basked in her glory for a few moments. I listened for the birds and other sounds of nature in the idyllic scene.
I shed a few tears as I wondered if I had done right by her in my own life during all these years. I vowed to continue her example to the best of my ability. I still marveled at the impact she had in that short period of time; I marveled at how it followed me in life; and how it impacted my outlook; my attitude.
We don’t know who is what to us; we mostly don’t catch it as it happens. I know I have done this even with my experience with Reymie. But her actions and caring attitude remind me that we are all strangers on a journey; and if we can be anything in the world, we should be kind……………to one another……… to our neighbors……and to ourselves.
I’m sure if I tried to explain all of this to Reymie, she would just pass it off as something extemporaneous. She was much more for the living of it than the analyzing of it; that much I DO know about Reymie Barnett.
And that is what has been the most special part of the experience for me………………………Rest Well Young One!