In New Mexico, we’ve developed our own way of testing the “six degrees of separation” theory. Any person can be connected to any other person on Earth through a chain of no more than five acquaintances, so the theory goes. Some call this an urban myth. Scientists have not proven the theory, despite decades of trying.
But in the Land of Enchantment, we’re succeeding where geniuses have failed. We’re proving the theory just by turning drunk drivers loose onto our highways.
“Before I moved here,” says Vanessa Cogdill, “I was warned that a drunk driver would hurt me, a loved one, or a friend. Turns out, it was me.”
Vanessa was on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle when a 15-year-old drunk ran a stop sign. Vanessa flew over her boyfriend, over the kid’s car, and landed on a sidewalk across the street. The drunk wasn’t scratched. “Everyone OK?” he asked. Vanessa’s boyfriend screamed to call an ambulance. The kid was too inebriated to dial 911 on a cell phone.
“I died that day,” she tells me, tears leaking. “I would like to be the happy, carefree person I once was. That Vanessa is dead.”
Vanessa laid motionless on that sidewalk with stage four head trauma and a shattered arm. She spent three days in a coma. Rebuilding her arm required two plates, six screws, three pins and 21 staples. She still can’t brush her hair behind her ear or straighten a collar. People mock her scars. Dancing and kickboxing are history. She remains too emotionally traumatized to ride a mountain bike. For reasons she can’t understand, old friends shun her.
Vanessa teaches at James Monroe Middle School in Paradise Hills. She’s shared her experience with classes. “I’m glad that drunk driver didn’t kill you,” a student told her. “Then you wouldn’t be our teacher.”
Vanessa is one of 10 victims chosen by Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Daimler-Chrysler for a national touring exhibition called “After the Crash” (www.afterthecrash.org). After the sirens die, the phone calls stop, the stitches removed and the graves closed, the tragedy of drunk driving continues. Just ask Vanessa.
Or ask the Garcia family of Las Vegas, N.M. They lost their son, Dathan, a young rodeo star, when he unknowingly got into a truck with a drunk driver. Like Vanessa, they’re included in this exhibition. Of the 10 selected victims, two come from New Mexico. Quite an honor for our little state.
I mention I’m meeting Larry Maestas. Vanessa says, “I know him. He’s a great guy.”
Maestas stood more than 6 feet tall at age 18. Now he barely reaches my shoulder. He’s lived the past 25 years in a wheelchair. His friend was giving him a ride home after a picnic. They’d been drinking. Maestas remembers talking about the Beatles, then seeing a roadside reflector fold under the bumper, then the car flipping end over end.
Maestas sailed through the air “like a rag doll.” He landed more than a hundred feet away. He lay face down in the dirt through the night. Doctors fighting to save Maestas restarted his heart three times. His friend died under the stars.
Maestas can’t use his hands or legs. He depends upon his sister and her family to get through each day. Yet, at every chance, he tells his story to young people in the hope that someone listens.
He knew Esther Martinez, the Tewa storyteller who was killed this month by a drunk driver. “She taught our class in college. I went up and spoke with her because she touched me with her spirit and enthusiasm,” he says. “Another part of me was crushed when I heard the news.”
Maestas talks about being at Coronado Mall, his chair reclined to take pressure off his lower back, while his sister went into a store. “Hey, man! I have to shake your hand!” The voice belonged to a teenager, about the same age as Maestas the last time he walked. He had heard Maestas addressing a court-ordered DWI class. “Because of your story,” he tells Maestas, “I came to my senses and quit drinking.”
After meeting these two remarkable people, I’m stopped in traffic on Paseo del Norte, waiting to get onto I-25. A sign on the shoulder says: “Don’t drink and drive. In memory of Billy Powell.” I don’t know who Billy Powell was. But he had family and friends who erected that sign. They, in turn, each have their own acquaintances and loved ones, as does the drunk driver who killed Billy Powell and the next drunk driver swerving across the center line into oncoming traffic. From there, it’s not very far to you and me.