Manitoba·Point of View

Father's letter gives grim, personal warning about dangerous driving

In a letter to his son, Bruce Benson reveals his "nightmare of reality" — that his best friend "is dead because of me."

Father reveals his 'nightmare of reality': his best friend 'is dead because of me'

Father reads letter to son warning of dangerous driving

CBC News Manitoba

2 years ago
5:15
Bruce Benson took four days to pen a letter to his teenage children, sharing a part of his past that still haunts him. 5:15

NOTE: This was originally published Dec. 2, 2018.


My dear son,

I wrote this for your brother when he got his learner's permit to drive. It is equally applicable to you. I will give it to your sister when she also learns to drive.

Please read it carefully.

Dear son,

Yesterday I took you to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and you received your limited learner's permit to drive a car. You can now operate a motor vehicle under supervision.

Watching you as you drove us home, I knew I would have to sit down and write this. I have thought of writing it often since you were born, though I wasn't looking forward to it.

Driving comes with a great responsibility, one that some teenagers do not take seriously.

I know, because I was one of those who did not give it a second thought until it was too late. 

We were drinking beer, not many, since we had very little money, and decided to go party somewhere else.

I remember there were nine people in the car, including three children. Driving down a gravel road, I was swerving from side to side, just for kicks. Then I stopped swerving and sped up, going for speed instead. 

Sitting beside me was my friend Kurt, and beside him, Arthur. They had argued over who would sit by the window, and Arthur had won.

We were 16 years old. It was dark and raining. I couldn't see the road ahead, and was driving too fast. We hit a bump and flew into the air. 

We hit a bump and flew into the air. When we came down I was out of control.- Bruce Benson

When we came down I was out of control of the car. We hit the ditch and the car flipped over completely, coming to rest with the windshield facing the road we had been on, right side up.

Worried about an explosion, I shoved open my door, opened the door behind me and started pulling people out. Kurt was on the other side of the vehicle doing the same, and I quickly saw all the people in the back seat were not seriously injured. But there was a lot of moaning and crying.

"I'll go call an ambulance," I said, and raced off to a farm house I could see down the road. 

I ran like my life depended on it. Feels funny to put it like that, because maybe someone's life did depend on it, and I wasn't fast enough.

Lungs burning, but adrenaline pumping insanely, I bounded up the steps and burst into the house. The farmer had a startled expression on his face. 

"There's been an accident a quarter mile down the road," I said, pointing. "Call an ambulance."

Then I was out the door and running back.

"Is everybody all right?" I asked Kurt.

"Arthur's hurt," he said.

"Where is he?"

"Over there," said Kurt. Then, as I headed to where he pointed, "You probably don't want to go there."

What? How bad is he hurt?

 

I found him lying on his left side, like he was sleeping. In fact, it sounded like he was snoring.

He had been thrown out the window. He might have been asleep, but the snoring seemed more ominous the closer I came — more like a gasping for breath, a raw, hoarse wrenching of the chest trying to draw air into the lungs.

I put my fingers in his mouth to make sure he wasn't choking on his tongue. He wasn't. But the rasping continued.

I tried to examine his injuries, but it was dark, so I felt around. His arms and legs and body seemed fine, but when I felt his head, warm blood flowed from where his left ear had been.

I held his head in my lap. I put pressure on his ear, trying to stop the bleeding … and waited for the ambulance. 

I remember looking up at the dark night sky … praying for Arthur.- Bruce Benson

I remember looking up at the dark night sky, rain pelting my face, praying for Arthur. Praying for the 16-year-old boy who was gasping for breath in my arms, and who, at the very least, had lost an ear because of my stupidity. My utter stupidity.

The shame and remorse threatened to consume me, but my newfound, too-late-found sense of responsibility would not let that happen. 

The ambulance came and the paramedics were directed to where we were by the others. Arthur was quickly and professionally loaded up and taken away.

Back at the hospital it was pandemonium, as nine people needed to be treated for various injuries.

I had a cut on my head and was covered in blood. A nurse tried to wash it off, but I wouldn't let her.

"Look after Arthur first," I said, like an idiot.

I looked down at my hands, covered in his blood.

"The blood is scaring the children," she said, and I could see she was right, so I let her wash me up. 

Arthur's parents came in and were told their son had been transferred to the city hospital. I went up to them and said "He'll be okay, he's a tough guy." How stupid. They just looked at me. I don't think the mother even heard me. She had a horrified look on her face that I will never forget.

Bruce Benson took four days to pen a letter to his teenage children, sharing a part of his past that still haunts him. (Submitted by Bruce Benson/Graphic treatment: Jamie Hopkins/CBC)

I had sat at their dinner table, had sleepovers and been to birthday parties at their house, and now I was responsible for the condition of their son. Had they known I would do this to Arthur, I'm sure I would never have been allowed near the house. 

It's been over 30 years, but I think I walked home from the hospital. I'm not sure how that happened. 

I remember stopping at the steps of a church and praying for God to take me instead of Arthur. And even as I prayed, I knew I didn't really want that, didn't really mean it. I wanted to live. The shame of that particular moment has never left me, though it all occurred within my own head. I have never told anyone, until now. 

Arthur hung on for a while, I'm not sure now just how long. The next day I was walking somewhere, and a good friend picked me up, concerned about me. Stories fly quickly in small towns, and he knew all about the accident.

"But he's going to be okay, isn't he?" he asked me.

"Well, I know he's lost an ear."

He was silent for a moment.

"Yeah, but that's not so bad." 

I was sleeping in my bed when my mother woke me, crying, to tell me Arthur was dead. I rolled over and went back to sleep. There was peace in sleep.

When I woke up, my mother was in the kitchen. I told her maybe I should leave town. She said I couldn't just run away from my problems. Strangely, I immediately agreed with her, and decided to go to the pool hall, a favourite hangout for kids my age. She said she thought it may be a little early for that, but I went.

One guy called me a murderer right to my face … I did have to admit, Arthur was dead because of me.- Bruce Benson

 

A lot of people were angry with me. For months I would go places and someone might yell out Arthur's name. One guy called me a murderer right to my face. That hurt, but I did have to admit, Arthur was dead because of me.

For years I would dream that Arthur was alive, that he had been living in a nearby town and was fine, having a great life. Every time though, I woke to the nightmare of reality.

Arthur was dead. He was not coming back. 

Slowly, over the years, I thought about it less and less. The dreams became less frequent, as did the thoughts of Arthur.

To this day if I hear his name, I'm back in that field holding his head as he gasps for breath.-Bruce Benson

But to this day if I hear his name, I'm back in that field holding his head as he gasps for breath, cold rain falling as I wait anxiously for an ambulance.

If I read about a teenager killed in an accident, I'm back at the steps of the church, lying to God and myself. Or in the hospital, looking at my bloodstained hands. 

I asked no mercy from the courts. In fact, I was downright surly to the judge. He commented on it.

"At least you're not looking for sympathy."

Sympathy? I deserved whatever they gave me, and I knew it. It wasn't much. I was charged with dangerous driving and they took my licence for a year. I can't remember if I was fined. Not a lot, if anything.

I vaguely remember going to see Arthur's mother, to ask forgiveness. Being a good Christian woman, she forgave me. At least that's what I remember. I hope that memory is true. There was a lot of crying.

I think his father gave me a ride home. He was equally inexplicably kind. 

Sixteen years after Arthur died, you were born. It was only after being a parent myself, holding you in my arms, that I realized the true enormity of what I had done. And what it must have taken for his parents to forgive me.

I thought of Arthur being held in his own father's arms. What hopes and dreams might he have had for the newborn boy with his whole life in front of him? 

Then I looked at you. Would the sins of the father be visited upon the son? Having taken a son from one family, would mine be taken away from me?

I have known since your birth that I would have to tell you about Arthur, for two reasons. I don't want you to die in a senseless car accident, and I don't want you to cause one, bringing terrible grief to another family and having to live with the consequences.

So please, my son, don't be as stupid as me. Drive responsibly, with all that entails, and don't get in a car with someone who doesn't. 

Please, remember Arthur.

 

Dad.

Editor's note: On Saturday, Dec. 1, the Winnipeg Police Service launched the 2018 Festive Season Checkstop program, to enforce impaired driving legislation.

 

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruce Benson is a father of three grown children. Benson was 16 in 1978, when he lost control of a vehicle he was driving and flipped it upside down. His best friend Arthur, also 16, was killed as a result of the crash. Benson hopes by telling his story, he will prevent someone else from making the same fatal mistake that he made.

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