I met Jim Conrad in September, 1960 at Skateland Skating Rink in Jacksonville, Florida. Skating was my passion and my friends and I spent most of our time at the rink, mostly weekends. I had graduated from high school and was working as a medical secretary at Prudential Insurance. One night this guy skated up to me and said he wanted me to introduce him to my friend, Peggy. I skated over to Peggy and told her this guy wanted to meet her and she said she wasn’t interested. So I skated back over and told him and he skated off. A little later during the Florida Reel, the whistle blew and there he was again. We skated for a minute and he noticed my engagement ring and we talked until the whistle blew and he moved on.
The next week we met again and we sat and talked for a while. He told me he was from Salem, Ohio, in the Navy and was stationed at Cecil Field and had just gotten back from a med cruise. We kept seeing each other at the skating rink and after about 3 weeks, one night he asked if he could take me home and I said yes. I had decided that I was attracted to him in a way I could not explain. It was the first time I had doubted my engagement. On the way home, we went the long way home and we stopped at a red light and he kissed me. I had never been kissed like that and it was like all the bells went off. We must have kissed a thousand times that night trying to catch every red light we could. It was then that I determined that I was not in love with my fiancé and that I would have to break the engagement. In the meantime, Jim got transferred to Key West, Florida and we began a long distance romance. We decided to get married and we met with some resistance from my family, but in the end, everything worked out. Jim’ s parents came down from Ohio for the wedding and I remember how scary it was to meet them. In November, 1960, Jim and I were married and we began a lifelong adventure, starting in Key West, Florida.
We left on the honeymoon to Key West right after the wedding and this was also where we would be living. We have a good chuckle about it now because it took us 3 days to get there because every time the sun would get in our eyes, we would get a motel room. When we first arrived in Key West, we got a little apartment in town. We had an upstairs apartment with a pullout bed in the living room and a bathroom so small it was hard to sit down and close the door. The biggest room was the kitchen/dining area with jalousied windows on all sides. It was a very pleasant room. The thing we liked most about the apartment was the balcony. For entertainment we would sit on the balcony and guess what kind of car would come around the corner next. There was a little store across the street and we would get ice cream at night when we were sitting on the balcony. We sat there sometimes for hours just talking.
We applied for Navy housing and after about 3 months it came through. We moved into a 2 bedroom duplex, which was an old Quonset hut divided into 2 apartments. The Quonset huts were old and roach infested. It was a daily battle between us and the roaches, but in the end we won. We made a lot of friends on base and had a lot of fun. About that same time, I became sick with a UTI and the doctor told me that I was pregnant. We was surprised to say the least, as this was not anything we had talked about. The next six months were miserable for me. I was nauseated all the time and the mere smell of food would set it off. I often wondered why they called it morning sickness because I was sick it seemed 24 hours a day. Time passed and I grew bigger each day, the morning sickness went away at about 8 months, but the heat was still oppressive. Finally one day my water broke and Jim rushed me to the hospital. He was so afraid the baby would come in the car and we would not make it to the hospital in time. 28 hours later, our first child was born. It was a case of hurry up and wait.
Deborah Marie Conrad was born on July 30, 1961 in Key West, Florida at the U.S. Naval Hospital to 2 people who were barely through being babies themselves. Jim and I were barely 18 when we fell madly in love and got married. What is so ironic about this is that my plans had never included having children. Having grown up with 4 brothers and 3 sisters almost all of whom were younger than me, I had my fill of taking care of, diapering and feeding children and had no intentions of ever having any of my own. Unfortunately, caring for ones siblings does not prepare you for caring for your own child that you will be responsible for 24/7, 7 days a week. I loved all of my siblings but I did not hold total responsibility for them, and sometimes I resented having been thrust into the caretaker responsibility. There is a lot more to raising children than changing a diaper or feeding them.
We made some wonderful friends in Key West, people from all over the country. They were all Navy people and all had their own stories. The one thing we all had in common was… poverty. We were all in the same boat. At the end of the month everyone would be out of food and money and we would all take what was in our cupboards and make what we could and then put it on the community table and have a feast. We also would cram as many people into a car that would fit and go to the drive in movie because it was a dollar a carload. I hate to admit it, but sometimes people even got in the trunk. Not a good idea. We also played a lot of cards, canasta , pinochle, 500 and euchre. We usually had 2 tables of 4 and we would start playing around 8 in the evening, we would put all the children to bed, and we would play all night. When you are young, nothing is impossible.
We remained in Key West until 1962, at which time Jim’s tour in the Navy was to be complete. Unfortunately his tour was extended because of the Cuban crisis in 1962. Debbie and I returned to Jacksonville, Florida and I got an apartment and then Jim was discharged after a few months and we settled into civilian life. Jim got a job at General Foods in Jacksonville, and I got a job as a secretary. We bought a cute little house and settled into life. Mama kept Debbie while we worked and she loved being with Grandma and Grandpa, but she was always happy to see us when we picked her up. Grandma would take her shopping and she would take her hand and say “Hurry up Grandma, I have to show you something.” She became very close to Grandma and Grandpa Glisson.
When Debbie was about 4, Jim decided he wanted to return to Ohio where he was raised and he went to Ohio ahead of Debbie and me to get a job. His brother lived in Columbus so he stayed with his brother. We stayed behind to sell the house and tie up loose ends. The house was sold and we stayed with my parents while Jim arranged for an apartment in Columbus. Debbie and I left Jacksonville in 1965 and took the train to Ohio. I was terrified to be on my own with this precious little child who was depending on me to take care of her. I had never traveled any further north than my hometown in Statesboro, Georgia. Thank goodness she was too young to know how scared and afraid I was, she just trusted me to take care of her. Unbeknownst to me, I was pregnant with our second child at the time. Needless to say, I barfed all the way to Ohio. Had it not been for the kindness of a young sailor in our car, I don’t know how I would have managed. He took care of Debbie and watched her for me and she had no idea what was going on. She loved the train ride, me… not so much. I always said if I had to return to Florida, I would walk before taking the train. That’s how bad it was.
The trip lasted an eternity and it seemed that the train stopped at every little podunk town between Florida, and Ohio. It took several days and we pulled into Columbus, Ohio late in the evening and I did not know where to go or what to do. I looked out into the mass of people and finally saw Jim’s face and it was like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. Debbie was happy to see Daddy and so was I. We got our bags and made our way to the car and started to our new home, pulling over several times so I could barf.
The next few weeks were a blur to me as I continued to be ill. I was finally able to see a doctor and he advised that I was pregnant. It seemed to me that pregnancy always occurred at the most inopportune times when you were the least prepared and were financially unsound. Of course it has often been said that if you waited until you could afford children, you would never have them.
After being in Columbus for 2 months, Jim decided he wanted to return to Salem, Ohio, where he had grown up. We stayed with a childhood friend for a couple of weeks and then rented a house across from the park. Jim found a job at Electric Furnace as an overhead crane operator. Meanwhile, I continued to be sick with the baby due in March, 1966. I was so homesick for my family that I thought I would never be happy in this place. The first winter I thought I would freeze to death. This southern blood was so thin and so were my clothes. We were not up to this kind of cold. Through Jim’s work, we made friends and also reconnected with some of Jim’s friends from childhood. Debbie and I began learning our way around town and learned the best places to shop. We were shopping one day in November and we looked out the window and it was snowing. Neither of us had ever seen snow and it was so exciting for both of us. We were holding hands and dancing around and the other shoppers thought we were nuts. After you live up north for a while, you learn to dislike the snow and cold. It took a while for me but after falling on my backside so many times out in the snow, I began to have a dislike for it. And, don’t get me started about driving in it. I could write a book about my driving experiences and mishaps in the snow. But, not Debbie, she loved it. Snow is beautiful until the world wakes up and starts moving around in it and it becomes gray slush.
Salem, Ohio is a very nice little town that I grew to love so much and made so many dear friends. James Frederic Conrad, Jr., was born March 19, 1966, and Debbie was completely taken with him. She loved being his big sister and helped me out so much. Pretty soon, Debbie started kindergarten and she was a really smart child. She did well and continued to prosper and grow. The years pass quickly and on September 5, 1968, Michael Andrew Conrad, was born. He was welcomed by his sister and brother and life continued for our little family. I got a job in a law firm in Salem and continued working there until we were transferred in 1978. The children grew and soon Debbie was a teenager, with all the little troubles that come with that. She went to her first dance with her boyfriend, Jim, and looked so beautiful in her dress. She had her heart broken several times and she broke several hearts herself and managed to survive it all.
She was not a perfect child and I remember there were times when we did not get along. One such memory I have was standing in the kitchen with her having an argument about something I would not let her do, and she looked me straight in the eye and said “I hate your guts.” In a flash my hand was out and as I heard the crack of my hand meet her face, I was suddenly in my Mama’s kitchen and we were having the same argument. I looked Mama straight in the eye and I said, “I hate your guts” and in a flash, Mama’s hand was out and as her hand met my face, I saw the hurt in her eyes. I stormed into my room and cried and waited for Mama to come in and tell me she was sorry for slapping me and so I could tell her I did not hate her. Mama never came into my room and I never told her I didn’t hate her and I cried myself to sleep. We never ever talked about it and the next day and ever day until I reached adulthood, we acted as if nothing had happened. I was able to express to Mama later how much I loved and respected her.
Debbie stormed into her room and slammed the door and I could hear her crying. I waited for a while and composed myself and decided I could not just leave it the way Mama and I had left it. So I knocked on her door and went in. She was laying on her bed sobbing and I knelt down beside her and stroked her hair and told her how sorry I was that I had slapped her face. She put her arms around me and said she didn’t really hate me that she had just been angry. We talked for a while and then hugged and kissed and then said goodnight. Unlike the night I cried myself to sleep, this night I was able to sleep really well.
In 1976, we bought a nice house in the country and the children loved it. Jim had changed jobs and had entered the retail business with Fisher Big Wheel. It meant changing schools and communities but everyone did fine. The kids were involved in so many activities, the boys in baseball and football and Debbie in gymnastics, piano and dance. Debbie also volunteered as a candy stripper at the Salem Hospital. She decided she wanted to go into radiology when she graduated so she attended the Vocational School to become an X-ray technician. She really loved it and made many friends. Her best friend was Jeannine Render and they were so close and spent a lot of time together, sleepovers, movies and other activities. Debbie was a junior in high school and went to the junior senior prom with her boyfriend, Donnie. She was so beautiful and really nervous but after Donnie came to pick her up, she was more relaxed and they had a wonderful time. I told her about the first prom I went to and how I was so nervous I had to leave the dance floor and rush to the ladies room and barf. That seemed to make her more at ease. She thought it was funny.
Debbie loved animals and she had a German shepherd who she named Sugar. Sugar got her name because she ate a whole pan of brownies when we left her at home by herself. I thought chocolate was bad for dogs, but other than a lot of pooping, she seemed to have no ill effects from it. Sugar loved being outside and she would come home with rabbits and one day, much to our dismay, she had an encounter with a skunk. That was one battle she did not win and we didn’t discover it until she came into the house. It took a lot of tomato juice to eliminate the smell and we had to keep her tied outside for a few days. That was when we decided she would have to be put on a leash chain so she could not leave the yard. She always slept in Debbie’s room and Debbie really missed her. Soon the smell dissipated and she was allowed back in the house.
On Monday, May 27, 1978, it was the Memorial Day holiday and we attended a picnic with friends and we all had a wonderful time. Swimming, playing ball and eating lots of good food and visiting with good friends. We came home so tired and got everything ready for school and work the next day. Tuesday, May 28, 1978, the actual Memorial Day, was just like any other day. The boys got ready for school and caught the bus. Debbie got ready for school and she looked so cute. She was wearing a pink tee shirt and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and pink tennis shoes. She caught her bus and Jim and I went our respective ways to our jobs. I had lunch with a couple of friends, Bonnie Clark and Dorothy Hendricks, at a local restaurant. We were sitting there eating and all of a sudden the most horrible feeling came over me and I thought I was going to cry. They asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t explain the feelings I was overcome with.
We finished lunch and I went back to the office and everyone was still out. After a few minutes, the phone rang and it was someone asking for Mrs. Conrad. I answered this is she. The woman said you need to go to the hospital, your daughter has been in an accident. I asked if Debbie was okay and they replied that they didn’t have any details I just needed to go to the hospital. I couldn’t understand how she could be in an accident because she was suppose to be in school. I jumped into my car all the while praying that everything would be ok and that maybe she had a broken arm or leg. Meanwhile, Jim had also been called but it took him longer to get there because he was in another town. I got to the hospital and went into the ER and told the nurse who I was and everyone in the ER froze and looked at me. I could tell by the way they looked at me that everything was not okay. She put her arm around me and said come with me and led me into a room and asked me to have a seat.
In a few minutes the door opened and a man who I knew to be the county coroner stepped in and sat down. He started talking to me about my daughter and that she had red hair. My heart soared because I knew they had made mistake because my daughter had dark brown hair. I said that’s not my daughter. My daughter does not have red hair. As quickly as my heart soared, it plummeted to earth when he said your daughter has dark brown hair and was wearing a pink tee shirt and jeans. I thought my heart was going to explode and then he said I am very sorry to have to tell you this, but your daughter died in an automobile accident this morning. At that moment, time stood still and the sound that came out of my mouth was a sound that came from the depths of my soul and in that moment, I wanted to die. I have never felt such devastation as I did that day and I pray to God I never feel that way again. They kept trying to sedate me and I kept refusing. I wanted to be able to know what I was doing and what was going on. Jim arrived at that time and he knew as soon as he saw me that Debbie was gone. He was devastated but he kept his composure somewhat because I had definitely lost mine. I managed to call my office and spoke to my friend, Karen Elsner, and told her and within minutes, she was by my side. Meanwhile, other friends and family arrived and identification was made and then there was nothing left to do but go home and the funeral director would come out to our house so we could make the arrangements. We got into our car and drove home in silence and we looked at each other and said what are we suppose to do now?
We also learned that Debbie’s best friend, Jeannine, had died in the crash. We had totally forgotten that Debbie’s class was having a hands-on day at the hospital. They were suppose to go on a bus but some of them went in cars. Jeannine has just gotten her drivers license a couple of weeks before and her parents let her drive to school that day and unbeknownst to us, Debbie was allowed to ride with her. We had signed a permission slip but not for riding in a car. They were coming into town on a narrow, paved 2 lanned country road with low shoulders. Due to her inexperience, Jeannine kept going off the side of the road and according to the people in the car behind them, did this several times. The last time she over corrected and lost control of the car and went into the on-coming lane and hit a semi-truck head on. Needless to say, we were told that both girls died on impact. I later learned from the accident report that Debbie took her last breath in the arms of an Ohio State Trooper. I was actually relieved to read this because I knew then that she had not been alone when she died and I thank that person for holding her in his arms her last minutes on this earth.
The news spread throughout the community and a kind neighbor went to the school to pick the boys up to make sure they didn’t hear about the accident from someone else. The neighbor brought them home and we sat them down and told them what had happened. They really did not grasp the situation and I don’t think they knew what to do either. Jimmy was 10 and Mike was 8. They were bewildered. The next few days were a blur and the task of calling our families and telling them was very difficult. My mother was told and she collapsed. She had taken care of Debbie in the early years and every summer after she was 8, Debbie flew to Florida to spend the Summers with Aunt Gloria and Uncle Carl and Grandma and Grandpa Glisson. They were very close and corresponded regularly.
Now it’s time to make funeral arrangements. It is very ironic that the week before, Jim had gone to St. Petersburg with his mother and father to his grandfather’s funeral. He came home and said that Grampy had been cremated and they had a memorial service and how touching it was. Debbie piped up and said ” when I die, I want to be cremated too.” We certainly had never expected to be the ones to fulfill her wishes. She was suppose to bury us. She was suppose to grow up, graduate, go to college, marry, have children and live a happy productive life.
Family arrived and friends stopped by and my sister, Gloria and my sister-in-law, Sandy took over. Jim and I were both on auto-pilot and the days were just a blur. They did so much to help us get through everything. On a previous visit we had been reminiscing and I had told them that when I was a child and did not feel well, Mama would always give me an orange crush soft drink and how it always made me feel better. They went into town one day to shop and when they can back they had brought me a six pack of orange crush to help me feel better. I was quite touched by that one act of love and kindness.
Debbie’s memorial service was held in the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Salem and it was a very touching ceremony. All of her school friends were there and they were quite affected by both deaths. Debbie’s favorite Christian song was sung, What a Friend We have In Jesus, and when I hear that song now, it brings tears to my eyes. After the service we go back home and family and friends stop by and we have so much food we could feed an army. Then slowly everyone starts leaving and my family from Florida had come up and stayed in our motor home and it was time for them to leave and it was hard to say goodbye. Jim’s family also started leaving and pretty soon, the only ones there besides me, Jim and the boys, was my sister, Gloria. Her flight didn’t leave until the next day and it was very comforting to have her stay for another day. We make plans to dispose of the extra food and clean up and the next day, my sister departed. Her presence had been the one stabilizing force for me during this ordeal. The boys went back to school and Jim and I found we were alone for the first time since the accident. We both wandered aimlessly about, not really knowing what to do. We just went through the motions and the days passed and finally, we both decided it was best for both of us to return to our jobs. It had been 3 weeks. It was hard at first because every time someone would come into my office, they would be so kind and I would end up crying and having to leave the room. Luckily for me, my boss, Mr. Kendall, was a very kind man and he was very supportive during this time. As the days and months passed, I was able to control my emotions better and life just continued. People stopped dropping by and everything appeared to return to normal. I had to do a lot of pretending just so I wouldn’t make others uncomfortable.
I had often heard that there are stages of grief you go through and I can attest to that fact. Disbelief was the first one I experienced, I just couldn’t believe this had happened to us. When asked “why me”, the minister asked “why not you, are you someone special?” Well, yes, I thought I was. Things like this didn’t happen to us, only other people. Then came denial. I use to lay in bed at night and pretend that Debbie was on a date and I was waiting to hear her come in the door, and, of course, she never did. But, the time would pass and I would fall asleep and then morning would come and reality would sink in. Then I became angry, angry at her and angry at God for taking my child and angry because I knew deep in my heart she was not coming back. After that…. acceptance… that moment when you realize that it is what it is, you can’t change it and no matter how much you cry or lament your loss, she is now in the hands of God.
It took me a long time to get to acceptance but I realized I had when one night I had a dream. I dreamed it was snowing and Debbie and I were walking down the street arm-in-arm and the snowflakes were big and fluffy and the only sound was the crunching of snow beneath our feet. We were talking and we stopped and I turned and said to her, “Debbie, when are you coming home?” And she gently took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, I am never coming home. I am in my new home and I am very happy where I am.” With that said, we continued walking arm-in-arm not talking, the only sound being the snow crunching beneath our feet. Then, I woke up and for the first time in a long time, I was at peace. I have so wanted to have that dream again, but never have, but I believe that is when I came to terms with the tragedy of her death.
It has been 37 years since Debbie died and there has not been a single day that she hasn’t crossed my mind in some way or another, a song, a smell, a name, all of these things are reminders of a part of my life that was such a long time ago. There is a song that Kenny Chesney sings that sums it all up for me, Who You’d Be Today, and I often wonder that very thing. In my mind’s eye, she will remain forever young. The pain has dulled somewhat, but her memory still burns bright and will stay with me always till we meet again.