Dead Man’s Curve isn’t so much a particular place as it is a description. Immortalized by the 1964 Jan & Dean hit of the same name, every town in America seems to lay claim to a Deadman’s Curve of their very own; a stretch of road where the locals have experienced such tragedy and grief that it earns the moniker out of fear and respect. It is a stretch of road the teenage boy quickly learns of shortly after he gets his license, and is strongly admonished by his parents to steer clear of, so to speak.
Even the sleepy little Ft. Lauderdale suburb of Coconut Creek, Florida has a Dead Man’s Curve.
In the case of Coconut Creek, it is part of Lyons Road, which extends south of Atlantic Boulevard, crosses under Florida’s Turnpike, and picks up 31st Avenue at McNab Road. Originally constructed to relieve traffic between North and Central Broward County by supplying an additional major north-south artery, to the locals, it is known simply as "The Extension." It later became more infamously known as Dead Man’s Curve, Coconut Creek.
The Extension is bordered on the west by Fern Forest, a local nature preserve, and on the east by a Florida's Turnpike service plaza. In truth, it is one of South Florida’s prettier thoroughfares; it’s four-lane divided highway gently curves this way and that under a lovely indigenous South Florida forest canopy, and with no traffic lights south of Atlantic all the way to McNab—a stretch of some three miles—it can also be quite an exhilarating drive for those who are fortunate enough to own a motorcycle or sports car.
However, the curves are deceptively sharp in places, and during the Florida rainy season—which lasts most of the summer—the beautiful trees become angry tiger traps, waiting to sink their jaws into the cars of unsuspecting motorists who take a curve on The Extension too fast, too soon after an afternoon shower. Speed limit signs don’t help. Guardrails don’t help. Most of the trees along The Extension bear the quixotic scars left them after having done battle with hapless motorists whose tires came unglued from the road.
The state of Florida has banned the practice of erecting roadside Descansos, or memorials, at the place along the roadside at which a motorist has lost their life; however, if asked—and with a donation to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles—the state will erect a small, white, round placard with a simple message in black: "Drive Safely." Although they occur with less frequency along The Extension than the trees, there are more here than on any road in Broward County—a grim reminder that this road richly deserves its nickname. One cannot help drive down The Extension, see the many "Drive Safely" placards, an not feel a twinge of sadness—however, small—for the person for whom the placard was erected.
It is sometimes more solemn than visiting a cemetery—for while a cemetery is a place of quiet solace where the dead are laid to rest, these little white markers stand silent vigil over a place where a life was ripped from the body it inhabited by the most violent forces imaginable; where among the blades of St. Augustine grass and the sheltering forest canopy, a town's sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, friends, and decent people departed this life and embarked on a wholly new journey into the next.
* * *
I myself used to travel The Extension daily to work and back. One day, a young man of eighteen became a tragic victim of The Extension; a student at my alma-mater, Coconut Creek High School, he was traveling north along The Extension when he lost control of his Camaro and struck a tree broadside. Those tasked to extract he and his girlfriend from the twisted wreckage of the Camaro unfortunately found the boy dead at the scene, and his girlfriend badly injured.
There are some tragedies that warrant the bending of the rules, at lease for a little while. It seemed as though all of Coconut Creek poured out their sympathy for the young man and his family. The memorial that was erected for the boy grew very large indeed, and was allowed to remain undisturbed for several weeks; he was obviously well loved in Coconut Creek, as evidenced by the large number of flowers, cards, stuffed toys, and other memorial paraphernalia left behind by those who grieved his loss. I myself stopped at the memorial and looked at the voluminous amount of cards and pictures, saddened by the fact that such a promising young life had been cut short so violently and tragically.
* * *
I was coming home in the very early morning hours after having put in a twenty-hour shift at work. I was very tired; I was tired to the point where I probably shouldn’t have been driving. My Pontiac Sunbird was practically on autopilot as I drove north on The Extension and crossed under Florida’s Turnpike. The little Sunbird sedately glided around the curves, each one I knew well.
Suddenly my full attention was brought to the road with almost an audible crack. Standing in my lane, silhouetted in the sodium light, was the very clear and distinct figure of a man. I knew instantly there wasn’t time for me to take action to avoid hitting him, but at that moment my reflexes had taken control. I jammed the brakes down hard and felt the ABS computer undulate the pedal under my foot. With the distance between the man and I rapidly closing, I closed my eyes and braced for impact.
But the impact never came.
I yanked the handbrake all the way up and flung the wheel hard to the left, and the Sunbird’s back swapped ends with the front. I came to rest some twenty yards north of the memorial; the white tire smoke turned eerily orange by the sodium light rapidly dissipating.
The man, still silhouetted, and still in my lane, stood some thirty yards away from the nose of the Sunbird.
Although I could not see his face, I knew he was looking right at me; I felt his eyeless gaze penetrate me. In the way he held himself, there was—a sadness, an infinite sadness. With consummate disbelief, I watched the man slowly turn and walk to the memorial—his memorial—pause to look at it for a moment, and then disappear into the trees beyond.
I sat there for many seconds, my heart pounding in my throat from the quart of adrenaline that had coursed into my system. It suddenly occurred to me that even at three in the morning there was a good chance that someone was going to come around that curve, and that I’d better get the Sunbird pointed the right way around and moving lest I risk acquiring a memorial of my own. I carefully drove the rest of the way home, badly shaken, and wide awake.
I still live in Coconut Creek and I still drive The Extension occasionally, though not nearly as frequently as I used to. However, I still think back often to that morning, and always I find myself wishing I knew more about the man who lost his life—along with many others—to The Extension. His memorial is gone now, just like the others. It somehow doesn't seem fair that the only traces of a young man’s tragic departure from this world should be marked simply with a new section of guardrail—and an epitaph on a little white placard; a placard whose advice will be summarily ignored, but will serve as a poignant warning to all the drivers who dare venture onto Dead Man’s Curve, Coconut Creek: Drive Safely.