When I was a teenager living on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, I attended H. E. McCracken High School in Bluffon, South Carolina. In the early 1980s, no one waited to be a senior to take part in Senior Skip Day. We all eagerly honored our graduating class each year by skipping school right along with them on the traditionally declared skip day, piling into cars and crossing the nearby state line into Savannah, Georgia to join the throngs of people who converge on the city every year to attend the nation’s second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade and celebration. We flooded River Street, carefully descending the old stone steps and navigating the cobblestone streets to admire the river that was turned shamrock green back in those days to commemorate the occasion. We stood along the streets cheering the parade, decked out in green beads, wearing green “Kiss me, I’m Irish” or “Patrick was a saint. I ain’t” t-shirts, green eyeshadow and glittery antennae four leaf clover headbands. Green beer flowed more swiftly than the Savannah River on those streets, but a few of us stopped at a taste or two just to say we’d partaken in such novel revelry. Then we’d go home at our regular weekday times as if no parents were ever the wiser.
It was all fun and games until the wreck.
Highway 46 was the two-lane highway that led to Savannah. It was paved with narrow lanes and curves that required careful attention; there wasn’t much margin for error on that highway back then.
I’d been home for a while that afternoon when the house phone rang. I was in the den when my mother answered, and as a preacher’s kid, I knew all the meanings of the tones when my mother summoned my father from his study- from the joyful news of babies just born to the heartache of disease and dying to the crisis mode of Dad dropping everything and leaving in a hurry to go be present with someone.
Whenever Dad went to go be present with someone in a crisis, it was hard to resume any focus until we knew things were better. This time, they weren’t. We learned that a student from our school had been driving home drunk from Savannah and had swerved across the center line, killing a father in our community. The students in that car all survived the wreck; one was the son of one of our church families, and his parents were in shock and disbelief at the scene.
Since that dreadful day, there hasn’t been a St. Patrick’s Day when I haven’t remembered the impact of the choices that we make and the effects that they have on others. On this St. Patrick’s Day, I journey not to a senior skip day, not to a place of celebration or parade festivities, not to a place where I dwell on luck and leprechauns and rainbows, but instead back in time as I remember those who lost a precious family member forty years ago and think of all that was taken from them.
Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!