End of the World—A road and a night that shouldn’t have been

(1964, age 16)

No, this isn’t about the end of planet Earth. This is about a place in Ohio. There is a road about thirty miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio which should never have been made. If you drive on it, you are lulled by it; it’s straight and flat and goes innocently along through farmland. Then it comes to a dried out river bed, which is lower than the main road by about fifty feet. Driving down the road, as you approach the river bed, the road just disappears from view. It goes over the edge of the embankment and drops out of sight - very steeply - down to the bottom of the river bed. That’s why everyone called it The End of the World, though to be true to the analogy of the ancient sailors afraid of falling off the flat Earth, it should have been called The Edge of the World. I never thought the name was quite right, but the road was mostly used by high school students, so they had a reason to confuse their analogy.

In 1961 the road was marked with danger signs. “Dip Ahead” didn’t begin to do justice to the precipice drivers faced. “Slow” and speed limit signs were ineffective, because after all this was a straight flat road which seemed to go on without reason for caution. That is, until the road disappeared and the unfortunate driver had to do a panic stop to keep from being airborne. Now for some of us, being airborne in a car was too much fun to pass up. We intentionally got the car to the right speed and drove over the edge so that the car would leave the ground. Most any car would do, by the way, with the exception of the car I usually drove at the time. My Volkswagen “beetle” had the engine in the rear of the car, unlike almost every other car of the day. So the weight in a VW was in the back. “Making the jump” required a car with the engine in the front so the front of the car would go down while the car was in mid-air. That’s the only way the car would land on its tires on the downslope into the bottom of the river bed. For me, that meant borrowing my parents’ 1957 Mercury.

By 1963, the road was closed. There was too much risk involved in leaving it legally open to traffic. So the signs were posted ROAD CLOSED and the Highway Department figured well that was that. But they never closed the road. Once in a great while it was used by the farmers in the area, who knew to slow down to about five miles an hour when approaching the dropoff. For the high school students in the area, closing the road but leaving it open was the best thing that could happen. Now we could make the jump without worrying about other traffic. Late one evening in 1964, I had my parents’ ’57 Mercury and some extra time. I picked up a friend, Jack. With nothing better to do, we decided to make a jump. It was dark, and as we drove out through the farmland, we could see no other headlights. The stars were the only other lights we could see. The road was ours.

As we approached the dropoff, I carefully sped up for the best “flight.” I knew we were approaching the dropoff by the ROAD CLOSED signs we raced by. Suddenly the beams from my headlights disappeared. We were only a few feet from the edge. As the pavement curved sharply down, my headlights shone into nothingness. Then we were airborne. What a thrill! The hood of the car started to dip down, and what we saw made everyone freeze in panic. Another car was coming up the hill, very fast, with the intention of making the jump in the opposite direction - a sort of rocket launch into the air after barreling up from the river bed at full speed. We were on a head-on collison path, one car racing up at the exact instant that my car was falling in midair.

I turned the steering wheel to the right, more out of instinct than due to any consideration of the approaching car. All I saw were bright headlights - high beams - shining directly into my face and giving no hint of the intention of the driver. I turned the wheel to the right from instinct and hoped the other driver would do the same. But of course, turning the steering wheel did nothing at all, as my car’s wheels were in the air. Time slowed to a crawl, as the hood of the car continued to drop and the oncoming headlights blinded us. Suddenly, the tires on the Mercury touched the pavement, but they were now in the “hard right” direction. Neither of us could reconstruct what happened in the next few seconds. Everything seemed to be going every which way. Sticks and rocks and branches flashed through the narrow beam of our headlights. Our next recollection was when the Mercury finally stopped at the bottom of the river bed, nowhere near the road, but at least upright. The car engine had stalled in my panic maneuver. The night was silent. I believe we wondered if we had made it - if we were still alive or not. In the still night air, we sat motionless. I looked at Jack in the right front passenger’s seat to see if he was okay. Jack was staring straight ahead, white as a ghost. Nobody moved. Nobody said a thing as the dust filtered away into the dark sky, obscuring the stars overhead.

Slowly the night sounds returned: the chirp of a cricket; a distant katydid. In a few minutes, the night seemed to have recovered, as if nothing had happened. Something had happened. Jack and I did a lot of growing up in those few moments.

Like many teenagers, we felt that we would live forever. The future seemed bright and certain. But facing our own mortality in those few seconds made us rethink that assumption. We sat for several minutes, alone in the night, with no trace of the other car, nor any interest in ever making the jump again. We were lucky, that time. We learned a lesson in responsibility without having to pay the ultimate price.

Some say that the dropoff on that rural highway was misnamed, that it should be called “The Edge of the World.” But for two teenagers who almost traded everything for an untimely mid-air head-on collision one night in 1964, “The End of the World” almost proved to be a better name after all.