MOUND CITY, KS–A ribbon of blacktop called Highway 52 runs through the heart of this tiny eastern Kansas town. Not much distinguishes this road from countless others, except for the violent, head-on collision that, on the evening of April 24, claimed the lives of five people from the town of Mound City.
It is on the shoulder of this otherwise ordinary road that a makeshift shrine to the victims has been erected. With plastic flowers, stuffed animals, and hand-painted signs, the grieving townspeople of Mound City resolved to consecrate the death site in the most trite and hackneyed way possible.
"This is a truly tragic event," said Mound City resident Trudy Pierstorff. "It's painful enough to lose one person you know, but five, well, it boggles the mind. I'm going out to the site today to pay my respects and leave a few mylar balloons."
According to the Linn County Sheriff's Department, Jason Gullickson, 18, was heading north to nearby Pleasanton at a speed approaching 90 mph when he lost control of his 1992 Plymouth Sundance and collided with a Ford Taurus in the opposite lane driven by 42-year-old James Drabeck. Drabeck, his wife Alma, 40, and daughter Kelly, 13, died instantly. Gullickson and a passenger, Kimberly Femia, 17, died later of massive head injuries. A second passenger, 17-year-old Michael Allen, survived the crash but remains in critical condition at Methodist Medical Center in Pleasanton.
To cope with this incalculable loss of life, within hours of the accident, the citizens of Mound City responded with a spontaneous outpouring of crappy mementos. Despite the presence of such disturbing reminders of the crash as tire marks, headlight shards, and blood-stained pavement, Mound City residents have come here day after day, adding more tacky shit to the steadily growing pile.
"It's staggering to think we won't be seeing Jason and Kimberly anymore," said Mound City High School English teacher John Pentland, who laid two synthetic red roses with plastic baby's breath atop the ever-growing heap of embarrassing kitsch.
"I've been having nightmares every night since the accident," said Lynette Searcy, 38, sister of James Drabeck. "But somehow, I know that Jim, Alma, and Kelly are with God in Heaven now." Searcy then honored her deceased family members with a crocheted clown doll in a tiny Kansas City Chiefs T-shirt.
Passersby on Hwy. 52 also stopped to pay their respects. Off-duty sheriff's deputy Scott Tierney was moved by the tribute.
"I'm a family man like [James Drabeck], and it's sobering to think that everything can disappear like that in the wink of an eye," Tierney said. "He must have been quite a guy to warrant that purple horse piñata."
It is not just tasteless bric-a-brac that makes up the shrine: Ill-conceived signs and corny poems abound, as well. Friends of Gullickson felt the best way to tell the world how much they missed him was with the words "See You At The Crossroads" written in glow-in-the-dark green paint on a slab of cardboard. Bordering the sign was a collage of items representing Jason's favorite things, including a Mound City Mustangs logo, several Icehouse Beer labels, and a crudely cut out image of Jesus Christ.
"You and Jason were so great togeather [sic]," reads a poem to Femia from classmate Danielle Schoyer. "I liked having DECA and Choir with you / You were looking so forward to the senior class trip to Washington / I will throw a coin in the Potamac [sic] for you."
Though the remainder of the poem was illegible, its ink washed out by an overnight drizzle, it no doubt continued in this mawkish vein.
Allen, the lone survivor of the crash, has not been spared the tawdry tributes. Stuffed pandas, bouquets of carnations, and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin balloons adorn his hospital room, as well as a construction-paper placard bearing the proclamation "U R A Hero!!!" spelled in macaroni and glitter.
"I'm sure once Michael regains consciousness, he'll be glad so many people are pulling for him," said Andrea Allen, Michael's mother. "A few days ago, he was awake long enough to see the sign and ask, 'How was I a hero, Mom? I was in a car accident.' Then he slipped out of consciousness again. I'm sure the painkillers are clouding his reasoning."
As the people of Mound City try to rebuild their lives, psychologist and grief counselor Dr. Elizabeth Calloway said their makeshift shrine is a positive sign that they will weather this crisis.
"Mourning is part of the healing process, and people express their grief in many ways," Calloway said. "Leaving unorthodox tokens of their love for the deceased is sometimes the only way people can articulate their sorrow."
Continued Calloway: "I just wish these mourners would give their tributes a little more thought, because some of it is pretty cheesy. I mean, I don't question the depth of their grief, but there's got to be a better way to show it than with a beanbag frog."