The site of the mystery is near Frenchman’s Station, Nevada, and the date is sometime in November, 1975. But this is not the infamous Frenchman Flat near Yucca Flat, which is inside the Nevada Proving Grounds. That’s where above-ground nuclear tests were conducted in the 1950’s and 60’s, that spread radiation to any unfortunate souls downwind.
No, this Frenchman is different. It’s the former site of a hotel, restaurant, and gas station, that served weary and hungry people traveling through Nevada from 1899 to 1985. The U.S. Navy took it over in 1985 and soon after, Frenchman’s Station was demolished, with all traces of it scrubbed from the face of the sterile, desert earth, in a neat, military way.
U.S. Highway 50 has been dubbed the loneliest road in America. And it was on this ghostly road about 11 miles past Frenchman’s Station, and about 41 miles east of Fallon, that a nuclear bomb detonated within my family. This is where my grandmother died, on November 17, 1975.
She’d spent the day shopping in Fallon, then headed home, eastbound, on the usual 79 mile route back to Gabbs. She never made it. My aunt, who lived in Gabbs, notified the sheriff. Two days later a deputy found her overturned Ford Falcon hidden behind a berm along the highway, near Drumm Summit.
Dad never liked Fords after that. I gave him some space. He had wept hysterically at her funeral. It was the only time I’d ever seen him cry, and it scared the hell out of me. So as he walked the berm and examined the crash site, I took a stroll in the other direction, toward the skid marks. Let him make peace alone, with the place her ghost departed this cruel Earth.
We’d already been down to the impound yard in Fallon and checked out the crumpled Ford. I overheard the deputy at the sheriff’s station explain to my dad her manner of death. He said she’d had a massive heart attack while driving, and was dead before her car ever left the road. He said her heart had virtually exploded within her chest, causing her leg to reflexively stiffen and her foot to suddenly stomp down upon the gas pedal. Hence the skid marks, the deputy explained. He said those skid marks were from sudden acceleration.
Bullshit, I thought. When you’re driving at highway speeds and you stomp on the gas pedal, you don’t burn rubber. But my dad sucked the story right up. I dared say nothing.
I studied the skid marks. They were heavy and black, and began on the front side of a low rise in the highway. I wondered what she’d seen. What had she been trying to avoid? What had suddenly appeared on this “lonely” road? I glanced off in the distance at my dad, standing upon the berm, gazing down at the desert floor where the Ford had come to rest.
How long had she lived before her heart gave out? How long had she been slumped upside-down in the prison of that wreck, praying for a rescue that never came? How many freezing nights did she endure?
Could someone have caused this accident, then fled the scene, leaving her in extremis? Or maybe she had felt some chest pain, slowed down, and then her heart exploded and she stomped on the gas, like the deputy said. Where is the solution to this mystery? It’s with my grandmother, and she took it to her grave.
I remembered that wonderful desert home in Rosamond, where she and Grandpa had retired. Every summer my siblings and I spent two weeks with them. These little vacations were the highlights of our childhood. Their home was a blessed island of relief from the house of abuse my mother and stepfather kept. Grandma loved us and spoiled us with caring and kindness during those fleeting fortnights every summer. I believe she sensed things weren’t right at our house, and she wanted us to see how much different and better life could be.
She took care of my grandpa for the last five years of his life, after the stroke that left him mentally and physically disabled. When he died she moved back to Gabbs to live near her daughter.
She and Grandpa’s love-match had lasted 57 years. It set an example for me. I wanted a happy, enduring marriage like my grandma and grandpa had. I did not want anything like the example my mother and stepfather set.
I took my time and selected my partner carefully. And I’ve been living that happy kind of marriage for nearly 30 years now.
And so, 46 years since her history ended near Frenchman’s Station, I feel thankful for the inspiring example set by this grandmother of mine. There was no justice in the mysterious manner of her death. But if there is an afterlife where karma comes to fruition, then I can solve one mystery. I can see how things fit together.
At the end of her life she came face-to-face with pain, helplessness and fear, and knew them intimately. But after drawing her last breath, I hope she found what her grandchildren enjoyed every summer. A sweet, blessed island of relief.