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Beautiful Dreamers: An Epitaph

I can’t say we were close friends. Rather, they were friends of one of my closest friends. I had met Jeff and Ann Fairbanks at a few parties and reunions, and found them to be unpretentious, interesting people. More than anything, what I knew about them was what might be called their situation.

It was a sweet one. The life this young couple had built here came as close as anything I’ve seen to what might be called “the California dream.” Now that, I know, is a hoary cliche. Typically, the people who invoke it either are running for political office or have some forlorn piece of desert property to peddle. Yet, if the phrase has any honest meaning, surely Jeff and Ann Fairbanks provided the living definition.

Jeff was a native of Simi Valley. Ann came from Mexico, via Ventura, New York City and Utah. They settled here to raise a family in the sunshine of the Central Coast. Their three daughters thrived in good public schools. They bought a good house. They earned good jobs: Jeff was the editor of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune; Ann was a star reporter and an instructor at Cal Poly, and recently she had gone part time to free herself more for her daughters.

Yes, it was the whole package, the California dream in a nutshell, right down to the Volvo station wagon.

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They were driving the Volvo last Saturday afternoon, when it happened.

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The Fairbanks family had gone to Fresno for Thanksgiving. Their oldest daughter, Courtney, was competing in the state cross-country championships. The 15-year-old ran the best race of her young life, and then boarded the team bus for home. Her family went ahead in the car.

The head-on occurred on California 46, a few miles west of where the two-lane from Fresno merges with the two-lane from Bakersfield. It is a notorious piece of road. It is where, 40 years ago, James Dean died in his Porsche racer. It is where, with far less notice, some 14 people have died so far this year, a typical harvest for “Blood Alley.” The road is too narrow for the traffic it carries, the traffic it carries too reckless and impatient for the road.

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No one knows for certain what caused the accident. A 30-foot recreational vehicle driven by a Visalia man inexplicably drifted into oncoming traffic. Perhaps he was drowsy from a full day of fishing. In any case, the station wagon hit the RV, a pickup truck rammed the station wagon, and all three vehicles erupted in flames.

Jeff, Ann and 12-year-old Siena were killed, along with the drivers of the other two vehicles. Later, a sheriff’s official would surmise that the dead “probably never knew what hit them.” Eight-year-old Galen Fairbanks was pulled to safety by a passerby named Daniel Lopez, a La Canada teen-ager who managed to extract the little girl just seconds before the car exploded. Courtney passed the site a bit later in the team bus, but she did not recognize the burnt-out wreckage for what it was.

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On Monday the mood of the Telegram-Tribune newsroom was funereal. An old-timer I’d worked with at the paper more than 20 years ago showed me around. His eyes were red and he didn’t have much to say. Here was Ann’s desk, he said, pointing to one decorated with the 8-year-old’s self-portrait, a stick figure girl with yellow hair. There was Jeff’s office, the darkened one with the blinds dropped.

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The newspaper itself was laid out almost as a memorial service. There were testimonials to members of the Fairbanks family, as well as what could be learned about the other victims. Jeff was remembered for how “wildly excited” he’d become at his daughters’ littlest triumphs. Ann was recalled for her reportorial compassion. One of her last assignments had been to cover a funeral for seven family members killed in a wreck near Bakersfield. The theme of the eulogy had been a common one: Why?

Later that afternoon, I drove out to the wreck site with Jim Hayes, the old friend that Jeff, Ann and I had in common. Along the way, we counted the makeshift roadside shrines that mark the spots where others have died on a road that the great state of California just can’t see fit to widen to a full four lanes.

“What does it all mean?” Jim said, not expecting an answer.

He didn’t get one. I kept to myself a thought about dreams, and about the value in recognizing when they’ve been fulfilled. Because it can all go away so fast. Given the circumstances, the point seemed too trite to mention, and not at all worth what it had cost.

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