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The Accident At Sanborn Corners
.... AND OTHER MINNESOTA SHORT STORIES
By J. L. LARSON
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 J. L. Larson
All rights reserved.
The Accident at Sanborn Corners
The fateful mishap occurred precisely at 11:00 P.M on a warm, humid Sunday night on July 12th, 1970. The location was at a benign looking intersection in the surrounding flat farmland of southwestern Minnesota. The news of the serious car accident was naturally sad, but to the locals in the area, not surprising. This had not been the first time such a horrible collision had occurred at that junction. Accidents from fender benders to more serious disasters had been if not common then certainly repetitive in the prior years and even decades before that night.
By anyone who lived in that part of the state, the setting was simply referred to as Sanborn Corners. It was a crossing of two major highways out on the relatively flat farmland so prevalent in that part of the state. Long-term residents maintained a sense of foreboding about that intersection given that corner's deadly history. With so many mishaps and tragic accidents, horror stories of death and destruction kept that scene notorious.
To the common traveler coming upon that crossroads on a sunny, clear day for the first time, there would be little hint of anything ominous ahead. A driver would certainly not feel threatened. He'd more apt to be yawning as he passed through the junction with his eyes tiredly roving over the repetitive cornfields and farms. Prior to Sanborn Corners, the flashing lights would catch his attention no matter which direction he was approaching, but it would seem an excessive warning for just a forthcoming stoplight. Nonetheless, at least some uninformed drivers would become mindful that something wasn't as innocent as it appeared if there was such a blatant cautionary light so far in advance of the intersection. Most drivers would slow down with that kind of warning.
However, as that driver came closer to the junction on that bright day, the dramatic warning still didn't make sense. It seemed excessive given that on such a clear day he could readily see in all directions of any oncoming or perpendicular traffic. Sure there were some slightly rolling hills, some pesky farm buildings and those seemingly whimsical locations of groves of trees momentarily blocking his view, but otherwise it was just another place in America where two major highways happened to intersect.
What was typical of that unaware motorist would be that reducing his speed would only make him more intent in watching the upcoming stoplight. If it was green, he would hope it would remain that color long enough for him to slip through the intersection without too much loss of speed. Within five hundred feet of the junction and the traffic light was still green, his probable choice would be to maintain his speed and blow through the crossroads even if the light turned yellow. There would of course be no decision if the traffic light turned yellow prior to five hundred feet. Though disappointed, he would unconsciously accept defeat and decelerate until stopped.
Sitting there waiting to proceed on green, he'd observe the worn looking structures on each corner. He'd glance at his fuel gauge deciding whether to fill his tank at the gasoline station on the corner before continuing his journey. He'd glance at the small café with three cars parked outside. He'd see a sign that read, "Get Gas Here" not knowing if it referred to the gasoline station or the café. His mouth would salivate for a moment, but he'd look at his watch and shake his head. The small restaurant with the gravel parking lot didn't look that inviting. He resolved that he wasn't that hungry anyway.
If he truly was not from the area, the driver might pan the scene and unconsciously thank his lucky stars he didn't have to live or work anywhere near such a remote and monotonous part of the country. Moving his head slowly from side to side to stretch his neck muscles, he'd anxiously begin moving slightly forward in anticipation of the light momentarily turning green. When the inevitable change to green finally occurred, he'd accelerate through the crossing slightly bothered by the delay and hardly glancing either way for any cross traffic. There'd be no reason. He could see forever left or right on such a clear, sunlit day. Within half a minute he'd have his car back to ten miles an hour over the speed limit. Sanborn Corners would be in his rear view mirror and his mind would abruptly lose any memory of the isolated intersection he'd just crossed.
On the other hand, if that same unaware driver made it through the junction on a green or yellow light, his speeding car would hardly have given him time to observe any of the few small businesses he'd just passed. Filling his tank or stopping by the café would not even have been considered. In fact, he'd hardly have time to spark that quick, sardonic thought regarding those luckless local people having to live or work in that area. He more likely would have sailed through the intersection with but a glance at his watch as he calculated the time and distance to his next destination.
In either case that uninformed driver on such a beautiful, sun-filled day would never know he'd just driven through a junction that had earned a long history as a nasty and bloody death trap. Even if he'd heard something about the tragic legacy of Sanborn Corners, he would find the story hard to believe if he even paid notice to the intersection while driving through it.
The real curiosity was how those drivers who lived in southwestern Minnesota and knew the bloody background of that intersection could become a statistic. Again, it was the bland landscape. After many, many trips through Sanborn Corners during good weather conditions, it could become quite easy for citizens of that part of the state to get lulled into believing the dangerous crossing no longer warranted its dreadful reputation.
Unfortunately, whether oblivious or familiar, either motorist could well become prime candidates for misadventures at Sanborn Corners when conditions were not so ideal. That first unacquainted driver would have no reason to think the evening haze or those snowflakes bouncing against his windshield could be intruding his vision that severely. Sure, the intermittent groves of trees as well as the upcoming farm and business buildings were there, but they didn't seem to impede his ability to see other approaching traffic. In fact, seeing that green light ahead he might be confident enough to increase his speed so he wouldn't be inconvenienced if the light suddenly changed to yellow.
As for the driver more familiar with the infamy of Sanborn Corners and facing poorer weather, he could still easily take his safety for granted. That evening's haze or those similar bothersome snowflakes splattering against his windshield could well be dismissed as an unimportant nuisance. He might no longer even take real notice to those flashing lights warning of the upcoming stoplight.
It would be these types of drivers moving along in less than favorable weather conditions when Sanborn Corners and its menacing history might abruptly show its teeth ... like a python lying patiently waiting for its next meal to scurry by unknowingly and inattentively within inches of the snake's piercing bite. Certainly during serious inclement weather, any thoroughfare can be hazardous and drivers generally will drive with more caution. However, this particular intersection could never hold onto the cautious respect it deserved whether a driver knew of its dire background or not. It was just too isolated ... too routine ... and therefore too easy to forget past horrors that occurred on that crossing.
And, that was the rub. When the weather was good during the daytime hours, there were hardly any mishaps reported of any consequence. However, when meteorological conditions deteriorated at all, especially after the sun went down, this crossing could become deceptively dangerous. Unfortunately, even when the weather seemed favorable, there were still an astonishing number of horrific car accidents at Sanborn Corners.
With these known factors the question can logically be asked why more wasn't done to limit so many ghastly and tragic accidents. After all, the tarnished reputation of this junction had history going back to the invention of the automobile. But, it wasn't as if the state patrol and the state highway department were oblivious just because the intersection was located in such remote and unexciting farm country. Many attempts at reducing the carnage had been put in place over the years ... too often as a result of yet another horrifying car accident. But, the controls were rudimentary ... as if no one truly believed Sanborn Corners should be that problematic or lethal. It was most often considered that the last accident at that junction was a fluke and there would be little reason to believe something so unfortunate could happen again.
Geographically, it was just two federal highways meeting at a point in southwestern Minnesota twenty-one miles south of Redwood Falls, eight miles west of Springfield, seven miles east of Lamberton, and two miles north of the village of Sanborn. The north and south running highway was Federal Hwy. #71. It started at International Falls on the very northern tip of Minnesota and ended at New Orleans close to the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. The east and west roadway was Federal Hwy. #14. This highway ran across the United States through Minnesota and South Dakota before disappearing into the western plains of Montana. Easterly, Hwy. #14 ran through Wisconsin and disappeared into other Federal highway systems once it reached Chicago, Illinois. Both major highways just happened to cross on that seemingly innocent, non-descript tract of land in the middle of the gently sloping Minnesota farmland.
So why did Sanborn Corners continue to have so many cursed stories added to its lore? When conversations broke out about the dangers of Sanborn Corners ... which was often in that part of the state ... most agreed the remote countryside lulled most drivers into thinking they were safe going at high speed on either of the highways. The terrain was also falsely reassuring. Traveling day or night, the driver would feel he could see for miles in any direction. And, while there were patrol cars, drivers had some confidence they could spot a highway patrol soon enough to slow in plenty of time to prevent a speeding ticket. These factors could easily seduce most drivers into thinking they could travel fast and with impunity.
Exploring the background of Sanborn Corners, it was interesting how the very development of automobile transportation interrelated so consistently with the record of injury and death at Sanborn Corners. Going back to the decades of the 1910's and 1920's, speeding cars on the country roads raced virtually unchecked. During this time span automobile engines improved and were built with faster capabilities. Ghastly accidents were of course not limited to Sanborn Corners during that era. People learned rather quickly as they witnessed or read of daily death reports. Horrific damage could be the result of two or more speeding cars smashing into one another at a high rate of speed ... and that destruction would be not limited to the machines but to the drivers and passengers as well.
With the continuing advent of automobile travel during those two decades, even the slower life of the rural folks would find the slaughter at a place like Sanborn Corners especially shocking ... like a first time soldier seeing injury and death in his initial action in war. They weren't used to seeing life snuffed out by an invention that didn't exist the previous generation. But like today, that gruesome picture of destruction and mutilation would gradually fade as motorists moved on down the road away from the scene of death.
In the early days at Sanborn Corners before the two highways were paved, there were no stop signs at that intersection. As the numbers of Model T Fords increased, the lack of a stop sign at that crossing began to take its toll with an increasing number of traffic mishaps. It was decided in the early 1920's that a stop sign should finally be placed on at least one of the highways. Hwy. #14 was chosen to be the roadway required to stop. Cars on Hwy. #71 were not obliged to stop. To show their disdain, too often travelers on Hwy. #14 simply ignored their stop sign.
More deaths had to occur before stop signs were placed on all four corners. Of course, there was still the problem of drivers, including local folk, taking the signs seriously. The remoteness still begged the question of the need. The accidents continued in surprising numbers despite these warning signs.
As the 1920's grew to a close, most people living in that region took more heed as they approached Sanborn Corners ... and soberly if that was possible. Younger drivers, however, displayed little restraint. They often barreled through the intersection oblivious to potential death or injury Out-of-state drivers not familiar with the dangerous idiosyncrasies of this junction might slow slightly but generally sailed through the intersection. To them the four-way stop on such a flat, out-of-the-way intersection was ridiculous ... at least those were the words communicated by the survivors of various accidents at that junction.
As time rolled on, there were more meetings and discussions about the continuing and increasing numbers of staggering accidents at Sanborn Corners. It was often discussed through the 1930's, 40's and 50's that automobiles were not mechanically ready to handle the high speed so many motorists were expecting of their cars. Braking systems were not sophisticated enough to halt a speeding car as promptly as a wayward driver would depend or expect. Seat belts were considered an inconvenience if they were even available. Windshields shattered more easily. Some vehicles were open air. On impact many victims had their final seconds of life be an airborne experience. Some continued their flight as angels ... some did not!
After World War II, more and more studies were carried out nationally to further evaluate the causes of severe accidents and the particular brutality of collisions at such places as Sanborn Corners. Besides driving too fast, there were factors that were only beginning to become understood and respected. Inexperience at the wheel ... fatigue while driving ... the impact of alcohol when driving a vehicle ... and even road rage ... all were becoming more acknowledged as problems. Still, these issues didn't carry the importance for too many years until more emphasis was placed on these factors in public safety messages and driver's education.
Unfortunately what militated against these obvious reasons for car tragedies was how speed and drink were so much a part of American culture. It was manly to own a fast machine ... in fact, the faster the better. As for alcohol, with generations of Americans convinced that booze was absolutely necessary to encourage a good time, drunk driving was just an accepted risk. In the decades immediately after World War II a fatal mixture of speed and alcohol just never reached a point in society as important enough to limit. In fact, drinking and driving was usually more the subject of humor dating back to the first time a drunk got behind the wheel of a Model T. Driving while intoxicated might have been frowned upon, but it was accepted as a part of everyday life.
For too long the many accidents at Sanborn Corners did not incur the disgust and maddening anguish towards alcohol and excessive speed that would be more clearly heard by the public years later. Then it was just an attitude of poor fortune for the drivers and vehicles involved. The belief was that as long as the driver was conscious he should be able to control his driving enough to prevent an accident. If that same driver became unconscious from drink while driving, apparently that peril was not discussed earnestly.
When falling asleep at the wheel did become a more serious topic, whether induced by alcohol or exhaustion, Sanborn Corners often was used as a perplexing example. The early state highway department continuously expressed frustration over this fatigue issue. Studies were initiated to examine why this intersection could be so sinister. It was found with the roadways from all four sides being as straight as an arrow, the result could literally be hypnotic, especially at night. Highways on this type of landscape not only invited speed, speed, and more speed, but could as well become mesmerizing. The rhythmic sound of the car engine, the spellbinding stare against the setting sun, the melodic droplets of rain or snow against a windshield, or the mellow, sleep-inducing sounds of popular late night music on radio shows like Hobb's House broadcast across the state on WCCO-AM were all brought to the public's attention and awareness.
Excerpted from The Accident At Sanborn Corners by J. L. LARSON. Copyright © 2013 J. L. Larson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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