Disclaimer – As you read this story, let your imagination run free, and If some of you see descriptions that remind you of familiar places and events, that’s okay. However, characters and events in the story bear no relation to real people (dead or alive) and events.
Tragedy in a Small Southern Town
It was unusual to see Bobby Wilson sitting without Betty Jo Morris by his side during church service that Sunday night in July. The two had been sweethearts since childhood and both had graduated from high school in May – and they nearly always attended Sunday night services together. Both of their families and friends expected that the couple would announce their engagement any day now, that is if Betty Jo didn’t decide to go to College in the fall. The service was longer than normal for Sunday night. That’s because it was the last night of the annual five-day revival at the Baptist Church in this small town, and revival preachers are long-winded by nature. Some remember that Bobby seemed to be in a hurry to get out of church after the service, but he was stopped briefly by Steve Manson on the church porch. Steve laughed as he said something to Bobby who appeared not to respond, but walked away. Bobby’ red convertible, which his parents had given him for graduation, was seen kicking up gravel as it left the church parking. The time was 9:30 PM.
A few minutes later, Bobby’s car was headed west on Hwy 157 when it met and veered sharply into a commercial truck trailer. The truck driver said he had just checked his watch and that the time was 9:35 PM. Bobby was barely breathing when he was pulled from the mangled heap of metal that had been his car. Everyone at the scene, including the truck driver and a state trooper, agreed that Bobby had mumbled some words before he died twenty minutes later. Some said that Bobby had been delirious and that what he mumbled was incoherent. Others insisted that Bobby said several distinct words. The next day the front-page headline of the McCone Tribune Newspaper read (in large bold letters), “Wreck victim said the following cryptic words moments before he died at the scene: him-book-fifty-back-not-mine.” The article ended with the conclusion: “It is almost certain that the meaning of his final words died with Bobby Wilson.”Bobby had always been hardy with no health problems, and he was not known to drink alcohol or take drugs. Still, the family had an autopsy performed, and it showed no alcohol or drugs in his system and nothing remarkable about his wellbeing. In other words, he was completely normal, at least physically. The weather was clear with a full moon the night of the wreck and there had been no precipitation for the last three days. The truck driver remembered that the car’s headlights had blinded him momentarily and he surmised that they were on high beam. The driver said he couldn’t remember anything else remarkable until he felt the jolt of the collision. The car’s tire marks on the pavement showed that it had turned sharply and gone under the left side of the trailer about half way between the front and rear axles The truck and trailer’s tire marks showed that the driver had braked hard as the trapped car was drug down the highway. The collision had occurred at the top of a hill with a medium-to-steep grade and no curves. The state trooper who investigated the collision estimated that the truck was traveling about 55 mph and that Bobby’s car was traveling somewhere near 80 mph. Bobby’s father who was a mechanic had gone over the car thoroughly before buying it, and it had passed a state safety inspection two weeks before the wreck.
Based on what was known after the first week, it appeared unlikely that the wreck was caused by a mechanical failure of Bobby’s car or by factors related to his physical condition. It seemed equally unlikely that the weather and road conditions that night had contributed to the wreck. Bobby’s family would not consider the possibility that Bobby had deliberately driven his car into the truck trailer, but it was apparent that had to be considered. Betty Jo Morris’s parents said that she was so distraught that she had eaten almost nothing since the wreck and had refused to talk to them. She was inconsolable and had secluded herself in her room. After a week Betty Jo came out of her room and told her parents she needed to talk about the recent relationship between her and Bobby.
She said that the relationship had not been cordial during the last two weeks before Bobby’ death. The two had disagreed on whether to announce their engagement and whether Betty Jo would go to college in the fall. Bobby wanted to announce their engagement, and Betty Jo was leaning toward going to college and wanted to hold off on the engagement. She hadn’t told Bobby at first that her father had agreed to send her to college under the condition that the engagement be postponed. She had told him that Thursday night and he was furious. She said he became more upset when she told him she had chosen a college that was almost 500 miles away.Betty Jo remembered that Bobby had yelled, “you’re choosing college over me and shutting me out of your life.”
“No”, she replied – “I’m only asking you to hold off on the engagement for a while.”
He said, “if you go that far away, then I’ll start dating other girls.”
She said, “now you’re making me choose between you and college.”
He said, “it’s only fair, and BTW, I’ve been seeing Kim Austin and I think I like her.”
Her parents knew how much that must have hurt Betty Jo because she and Kim were best friends.
Betty Jo said, “that was just more than I could stand, and I told Bobby to leave.”
Betty Joe went on to tell her parents that Bobby had called her Friday and Saturday to ask to come by her house, but that she had refused both times. He had called Sunday morning to ask her to go to church with him that night. She had refused but had reluctantly agreed he could come by after church – if it wasn’t later than 10:00 PM. What Betty Jo told her parents clarified why she wasn’t with Bobby at church that Sunday night. It might also explain why he left the church in a hurry and why he was driving out of town so fast. But it didn’t explain why Bobby’s car had swerved into the side of the truck trailer. Yet hardly anyone who knew Bobby was conceding that Bobby had meant to take his life. Not even after learning what Betty Jo had told her parents about hers and Bobby’s recent disagreements, which had apparently upended their relationship. And there was the question, why was Bobby in such a hurry after church that night if suicide was his purpose? And, why did he wait to steer his car left until it was beside the truck trailer, instead of steering directly into the path of the truck? And what had Steve Mason said to Bobby that night after church?
Another week of agonizing and grieving by the families of Bobby and Better Jo, and nothing had been added to what was known about the wreck after the first weel. Some friends of Bobby and Betty Jo had come around to the sobering realization that Bobby might well have committed suicide. A tragic act, that had left his long-time sweetheart broken hearted, believing that she was partly to blame for his death. Then something was discovered at the Baptist Church that raised more questions about Bobby’s state of mind at the time of the wreck. A church volunteer made the discovery while helping clean the interior of the church and brought it to the attention of the church pastor.
To understand the significance of the discovery, we must go back in time to that Sunday night church service that had ended just five minutes before Bobby Wilson was killed.It was the final night of the church’s annual revival which had begun four nights earlier. The visiting revival preacher was Pastor Samuel Jones, the son of a Primitive Baptist preacher. He was 35 years old and had been preaching since he was 14 years old. He had graduated from Milton Baptist University in McCone and from The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Atlanta.For four nights, Pastor Jones had preached fire-and-brimstone sermons that had brought scores of sinners down the aisle to the altar to shake the preacher’s hand and to receive the blessings of the church and their savior. But Pastor Jones was not finished with his soul-cleansing mission, and that Sunday night he preached a soul-stirring sermon that would have made Elmer Gantry and Billy Graham sit up and take notice The pastor’s face was dripping sweat when he finished his sermon and announced that he was opening the doors of the church to new members and the doors of heaven to would-be Christian converts.
The pastor motioned to the pianist who started play and the congregation started singing:
“Are you washed in the blood,
In the soul cleansing blood of the lamb?
Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow,
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”
A few sinners came forward, and after greeting them at the altar, Pastor Jones motioned to the pianist who starting playing again and everybody joined in to sing:
“Just as I am without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me.”
After two stanzas of this old revival standard, no one had come forward, and Pastor Jones motioned to the pianist to stop playing, after which he gave his final admonishment to the hold-out sinners in the congregation:
He said, “I know there’s still some of you here tonight who have the conviction of the Lord on your hearts and you are resisting with all your sinful might. I beg you not to turn down this opportunity; it could be your very last chance to receive the gift of salvation from your savior.” Then Pastor Jones said something which astonished even some who had heard all his sermons during the revival:
“I say to anyone here tonight who is still a sinner: I dare you to leave this church tonight without coming forward to receive the salvation of your Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t take the chance of dying without salvation. I dare you.”
A hush came over the congregation as everybody waited to see if anyone would come forward. No one did, and after several moments, Pastor Jones gave the benediction and dismissed the congregation.
What the church volunteer had discovered and reported to the church pastor two weeks after that Sunday night church service was a piece of paper with a hand-written note that read:
“Pastor Jones: I TAKE YOUR DARE – Bobby Wilson.”
The piece of paper was inserted like a book mark between two pages of a church hymn The pastor opened the book and read the note without removing it from the book. He recalled the closing remarks of the revival preacher the last night of the revival and assumed that the note was in response to the dare by Pastor Jones. He called the state trooper who was investigating the wreck, and the trooper met him in the pastor’s office that afternoon.
The trooper studied the note for a while before he noticed that it was inserted in the hymn book between pages 49 and 50. He then unfolded a copy of the article that he’d cut from the front page of the McCone Tribune Newspaper the day after the wreck. He read out-loud the words from that article that some at the scene said Bobby Wilson said before he died: “him-book-fifty-back-not-mine”
The trooper pointed to the note and asked: “Is this the place in the book where the note was found?“
The pastor said, “yes ,the volunteer told me she had not moved the note and neither did I.”
The trooper slammed the book closed, held it above his head and shouted, “hymn book, page fifty.”
The pastor was so excited that he cried out, “yes.”
The trooper asked, “do you know where the volunteer found the book?”
The pastor said, “I don’t recall that she mentioned where she found it.”
He thought for a while and said, “I remember now that the volunteers had worked from the front to the back of the church and they were almost finished when the note was discovered.”
The trooper jumped up and exclaimed, ‘”hymn-book-page 50 in back of church.”
“The Pastor said: “yes, yes.”
The trooper said, “Pastor, we don’t know that Bobby Wilson wrote this note, do we?”
The pastor said, “no, we don’t.”
The trooper said, “let’s talk to the people who can help us find out.”
A meeting in the pastor’s office the next day included, besides the pastor and the state trooper, the parents of Bobby Wilson and Betty Jo Morris and her parents. The pastor and the trooper had just started going over what they had learned the day before when another person walked into the office. It was Steve Manson the boy who had spoken to Bobby Wilson that Sunday night after service He came right out and said that he wrote the note and that he told Bobby Wilson that night on the church porch what he’d done.
The trooper said, “That explains the last two words that Bobby said that night.”
The Pastor jumped in, “Bobby was saying the words on the note are not his”.
“The trooper said to Steve, “Why did you do it?”
Steve said. “to get back at Bobby because I found out he was secretly seeing my girl-friend.”
The trooper said, “do you realize what harm and confusion you caused by writing the note?”
Steve said, “Yes, I do” and “I’m sorry for what I’ve done.” He begged the Wilson and Morris family members to forgive him. They all told him they would pray for him and try to forgive him. Everyone in the meeting agreed that they should reveal to the public what they had just learned, because it showed that what Bobby had said before was not related to the cause of the accident. The trooper said he would call the newspaper.
The next day the front-page headline of the McCone Tribune Newspaper read, “Final words of wreck victim explained.” The article went on to summarize everything that was known about the wreck. It ended with the comment, “The state trooper who is investigating the wreck told us that nothing new has been learned to help explain why Blobby Wilson’s car veer sharply into a truck trailer that Sunday night four weeks ago?”
However, it now seemed less likely that Bobby Wilson had deliberately taken his life. That brought some solace to the Wilson and Morris families and especially to Betty Jo.
A week latter there was another crash at the same location and approximate time of the earlier wreck. This one involved one car. The driver was alone, and his car veered sharply to the left, tumbled off the highway and came to stop 150 feet from where it had first started swerving. The man was driven in the town’s medical emergency vehicle to The McCone Trauma Center. He was diagnosed with a moderate-to-severe concussion and treated for multiple cuts and abrasions. The next day, the man seemed lucid enough, but he had no memory of the wreck. The last thing he recalled was a blinking yellow traffic light at an otherwise dark intersection
The state trooper who investigated the first wreck was called in to investigate the second. He said he believed that both wrecks were caused by the same factors, and it was his job to discover those causes. Two days after the second wreck, the trooper spent several hours at the scene of the wrecks. Late that afternoon he told some curious on-lookers that he had a theory that he planned to test that night around 9:30. At 8:30 the trooper stationed a flagman on Hwy 157 a quarter mile from the scene of the two wrecks – in each direction. By 9:00 crowds of people had walked up the hill curious to see what the trooper was up to. It was 9:25 when the trooper drove down the hill toward town for a few a few hundred feet, turned around and started driving slowly back up the hill. The onlookers stood motionless, some holding their breaths, as the car crept closer and closer to the top of the hill. Suddenly the car swerved to the left and skidded off the highway before the trooper could brake it to a stop
The trooper emerged from his car noticeably shaken. He told onlookers what caused him to suddenly steer his car to the left. He told them he had seen what appeared to be a huge commercial truck bearing down on him. He reached through the front window of his car and switched on his spotlight and directed the beam to illuminate what he had actually seen – a billboard advertisement showing a picture of a truck.
The state trooper said, “That;s was what I expected to see, but it looked so real in my car’s headlights that I instinctively steered to avoid a collision.”
One onlooker said to the trooper, “why did you steer left when it is seems natural to steer right when meeting another vehicle”.
The trooper said, ”look at the picture and notice you can only see the right side of the truck, which gives the appearance that the truck is moving to your right.”
The other said, “yes sir, you are correct.”
The trooper said, “that’s all I have to say tonight, but I’ll explain everything in my final report to the governor.”
The mystery of the wreck that killed Bobby Wilson was finally revealed, and the investigating state trooper declared the wreck an accident and closed the case. He did the same for the second wreck; The man in that wreck got well but has not recovered the memory of his accident. The company that sponsored the truck advertisement took it down, and the company that owned the billboard demolished it. Each of the companies gave Betty Jo Morris $25,000 to help her go to college where she is studying nursing. The Wilson and Morris families forgave the boy that wrote the infamous note that he left in a church hymn book.
I visited Bobby Wilson’s little town last spring and drove by the Baptist Church where Bobby and Betty Jo used to regularly attend Sunday night services. I also found the street that the town Council had renamed Bobby Wilson Drive. As I drove west on Hwy 157 out of town, I stopped at the scene of the two accidents and got out of my car. As I looked in the direction of where the offending billboard had been that fateful Sunday night, I got a pleasant surprise. Standing where the billboard had been was shapely dogwood tree with shiny green leaves and lovely pick blossoms. I thought to myself, all is well in heaven and this small southern town.
5 thoughts on “Tragedy in a Small Southern Town”
Thank you Peggy – glad you think so. The story is set in my home town of Toomsboro, Georgia, but only someone familiar with the town would recognize.
This is a very poignant story! Thanks for writing it. Sometimes its hard to figure out the “why” of a tragedy.
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‘m glad you liked it, Joy – the accidents described happened just outside of Toomsboro, but only someone familiar with the town would recognize that. Highway 57, which I refer to as Hwy 157, runs from Wrightsville to Macon and passes through Toomsboro at its intersection with Hwy Hwy 112 – where there’s a blinking traffic light..
Quite a story with an unusual ending.
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You are a talented writer. Are you drawn back home to your childhood? Strange how those long ago memories rise up from time to time when we feel melancholy. I was born in a little house on the main street of Toomsboro. Dr. Weir was the delivery physician. I attended the school seven years. Sad that my home town did not progress.