Mystery At Frenchman’s Station

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, in Nevada. “The Loneliest Road in America.”

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.

Categories: Family

24 replies »

  1. Seems your Grandmother was a lasting good influence. Perhaps that’s the best kind of “immortality” one can hope for. Beautiful tribute.

    Pretty familiar with the section of highway (and the old route, now 722), but usually either to Austin, or on to the north route into the Duckwater Reservation. I don’t know if you’re aware, but two below ground nuclear tests were conducted south of Frenchman Station.

    Yeah, skid marks at speed aren’t from acceleration. Sleep? It’s easy to imagine drifting off during a long straight, then overcorrecting out of the dirt and panic braking in such a place. But who really knows?

    Liked by 2 people

    • She really was a good influence, and just by example, as she never was the type to be preachy.

      I wasn’t aware of the underground tests. Seems Nevada has been nuked in quite a few places.

      Yes, you can easily drift off from highway hypnosis, during those long straight sections, so that’s a possibility.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I only knew my mom’s mother, but not really all that well. She was very “proper”. Might have nice to have had a grandmother like yours around. We weren’t much of a “Waltons” household.

        “Project Shoal” was in the Sand Springs Range, here:
        You can actually drive to Ground Zero, which is a sealed bore shaft. For some reason, I was thinking there was a second test there, but only the one in late 1963.
        Here’s a link to the DOE factsheet (pdf… replace the “[DOT]”):[DOT]gov/sites/prod/files/2020/04/f74/ShoalFactSheet.pdf

        I had a dammed near head on collision with some moron blind-passing a slow semi on SR-28 (winding 2-lane) this morning… made me think of this. Are there many wild horses on that part of 50? I probably saw a hundred of them in the Washoe Valley / Virginia City area last Sunday.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, every family is different, both in good ways and bad.

          Wow, that nuke was detonated about 5 miles from Highway 50. That’s pretty close. Amazing that there has been no radiation leakage from the site.

          I’m glad you survived the near-miss. Some people get impatient and take some dangerous gambles while driving.

          I don’t know if there are any wild horses around Highway 50. Or wild burros or mule deer. It’s been more than 30 years since I last drove that highway, and I don’t recall seeing anything like that. The vegetation is very sparse, so I’d be surprised if such large animals live around there, unless there’s a spring or oasis somewhere nearby.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Are there deer or other animals out there?

    On my recent return from Big Bend, the last couple of hours of my drive is down country highways just after sunset and I have to be constantly scanning the roadsides for deer and hogs that seem to like running out in front of cars at this time of day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Way to tug on my heart strings! “A sweet,blessed island of relief!”
    So glad she could be there for you and your siblings when you really needed it. What a great legacy of marriage that she and your Grandpa gave you. Glad yoi been able to find a happy marriage like theirs.
    Sorry about her death, does appear to have many questions surrounding it. Sad that the sheriff seemed quick to brush it off with an easy answer. Like an open and shut case and the quicker you shut it the better. Happens still today, leaving family members wondering!

    Liked by 1 person

    • She was a good person. The example she and my grandfather set allowed me to realize that long, happy marriages are possible.

      Maybe I can’t blame the sheriff, because it seems like a pretty difficult mystery to solve, with no living eyewitnesses. Or at least, none that we know of.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read the post twice as if I could find second hand answers when you are an expert at investigations and have close to first hand knowledge on this episode. I did enjoy the post even though the central action is sad.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I loved the bits about how wonderful your grandmother was. I’m glad you had someone to show you a loving way to live. I’m choosing to believe she passed quickly with little fear. Congratulations on 30 πŸ™ŒπŸ™Œ

    Liked by 1 person

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