As long as I'm writing about high school reminiscences, I remembered a few days ago that a sad anniversary came and went this past April. I don't remember the exact date, and I'm not even entirely sure it was in April and not May, but I'm fairly certain on that score. Anyway, it's been twenty years since Dustin Jae Fleming died.
That name very likely means nothing at all to those reading this. Dustin would have graduated in the Allegany Central School Class of 1988, one year ahead of me. Instead he was killed in a car crash two months before he would have "entered the real world". I don't remember all of the particulars, but he was out with some friends at night, and the car was going a bit too fast on a two-lane road that runs along the Allegany River in Olean, NY. I seem to recall that the car hit one tree, "became airborne" in the horrible parlance of accident reports, and then came to rest against a second tree, upside down. I don't remember if alcohol was involved, nor do I remember if Dustin was thrown from the car or crushed to death. Maybe I never knew those things at all.
Dustin was the musician of the class of '88. His big thing was the guitar; he was our school's "kid with his own rock band", and from all reports, he was actually a pretty good guitar player. I only heard him play once, in a "concert" that took place in the parking lot behind the school during homecoming week. I remember thinking he was OK, although I found it hard to judge him because he did a string of songs I don't particularly care for: "Twist and Shout", "Talk Dirty to Me". (Of all 80s hair bands, Poison was surely the worst.)
Dustin was extremely popular, virtually beloved by everybody. I genuinely don't recall anyone else in high school, and possibly college either, who was as beloved as he was. I didn't know him personally at all, but I will admit that I was rather in awe of his ability to be friends with anyone with a pulse. It was really pretty uncanny: Dustin Fleming was the kid to whom cliques not only didn't matter, they didn't even exist in his mind, from what I could see. In the space of sixty seconds walking down the hall, he'd joke with the school quarterback and the science brain in rapid succession, and flirt with three different girls while doing it. I was completely baffled by him. His girlfriend that year was a very beautiful exchange student from somewhere in Scandinavia.
On the last day he was alive, Dustin was present at a meeting I attended. The Social Studies department was making arrangements for the next year's senior class - my class – to participate in some kind of Civics program that involved weekly treks to the county seat. (I think it was a mock legislature or something of that nature.) Dustin was there was one of that year's participants. I doubt I'd remember this at all if he hadn't died that night, but he casually sat on the radiator against the windows, leaning back against a cinderblock pillar. He was wearing a long-sleeve white t-shirt with some band logo on it. (Or maybe it wasn't a band.) He didn't say much during that meeting; he just nodded and laughed occasionally.
The next morning, I was getting ready for school myself. We had the living room teevee tuned to the Today Show; at that time the Today Show would break away for about six minutes at the bottom of each hour so local stations could do weather and run down any big local news stories. (Maybe they still do this; I haven't watched the Today Show in years.) The guy on Channel 2 from Buffalo came on and said that the day would be warm and springlike, that someone in Buffalo had been arrested for something or other, that something else had happened someplace else, and that a fatal accident in the "town of Olean" had claimed a teenager. He gave a few details of the accident, and then the words: "Seventeen-year-old Dustin Fleming was killed." I remember exclaiming "What?!", just as my mother came out from her bedroom where she'd had the same station on and asked if I knew a Dustin Fleming.
That whole day was the most surreal day of my entire grade school career, and my grade school career spanned six schools. People everywhere were openly sobbing, or randomly breaking down at odd moments. I remember that they brought in grief counselors – or, I think they did. Basically the entire school shut down for the day; I don't think a single lesson got taught in a single classroom in any grade. Our principal, who had only been in that position for less than a year after many years teaching biology, looked when I saw him like he was about to throw up. (It frankly wouldn't surprise me if he did.) At every class I attended, every teacher basically said: Talk about him, or anything you want. If you need to go down to the auditorium (where the counselors were), go ahead. Do what you need to do. I was sitting in my history class reading when I glanced up to see my teacher go out into the hall, and when I shifted forward to see where he'd gone, I saw him tightly embracing a female student, who then turned around. It was Dustin's younger sister. (I don't remember her name.) How on Earth she came to school that day, I never understood until the day Little Quinn died and I went into The Store because I had to see the people I knew.
For me, the day after Dustin's death was a quiet day that I spent more as an observer than as a participant. I hadn't known him at all, as I noted to the one member of the senior class that I felt comfortable mentioning him to. That was a girl I quite liked at the time (the poor girl I'd inadvertently gotten in trouble a year before in trig class), although for some reason I never worked up the guts to ask her out. I asked her how she was doing, and she replied, "I'm awful."
"I never knew him," I replied.
"He was a great guy," she said.
"He must have been," I said. And then I walked away.
Dustin's funeral was a few days after that, during the next week, if I remember rightly. I didn't go, but at the time I did a lot of bike riding around town, and on more than a few occasions I rode to the St. Bonaventure cemetery to see his grave. It was covered with flowers and notes and prayer beads; the stone – graven with his name, his dates, and a picture of an electric guitar – arrived a month or so later. There was only one time when I was there that someone else came by. I didn't even hear her coming until she started crying, and then I glanced over. It was his other younger sister. I think she was maybe ten or eleven at the time. I didn't have the faintest idea what to say, and by that time I'd learned that when one has no idea what to say it's best to say nothing at all, so that's what I did. I quietly turned and left so Dustin's little sister could pay respects in private. (I don't remember if he had any siblings other than the two younger sisters.)
So why am I thinking about Dustin Jae Fleming now? Probably because of that number: twenty years. He's been gone three more years than he lived. Twenty years is a weird stretch of time; Dustin's death isn't one of those events that feels like it was twenty years ago, and I have to actually work the sum in my head (2008 – 1988 = yup, twenty years) to realize that's how long it's been. I remember fewer and fewer names from high school as the time passes from those days to these, but Dustin Fleming's is a name I'm not likely to forget. And I'm one who didn't know him. I imagine those who did think of him often and wonder what might have been had he not perished in that car.
Anyway, I just figured that Dustin deserved a blog post.
UPDATE, 17 June 2010:
For those coming here via the link I put on the Facebook page remembering Dustin's life, welcome. As I noted over there, and as can be seen by the date above, I wrote this back in 2008, before I joined Facebook and started reconnecting with a lot of folks from Allegany. While a lot of old high school friends stay connected after graduation, my own life took a different course, and since graduation in 1989, I've had very little contact with folks from ACS. The reconnections, "virtual" as they may be, have been wonderful and I've found myself thrilled and amazed to see what has become of so many people whose names I couldn't remember when I wrote this post, but whose pictures I can now see again on Facebook and elsewhere.
I've never been one to engage in "regrets"; my view is that we make mistakes so we can grow and learn, and that every thing I've done wrong was an opportunity to get something right somewhere down the line. But dammit, I sure wish I'd have taken time to get to know Dustin.