The Night the Lights Went Out
I can’t pinpoint the specific date, but I was likely about 12 years old. The bus had dropped off high school students in front of Les Brown’s Hardware store. The sky was dark and threatened rain. There was a visitor at our house having a business discussion with my dad, as I hovered nearby.
Suddenly the lights went out and unlike countless other times, today, like the clouds forming above, seemed ominous. Shortly after, news arrived that there had been a terrible car accident near Pt Burwell. Power would be out for some time. We were soon to learn that one of the occupants of the car was our teenaged neighbour, Don Horton.
Don had recently purchased his first car, a 1958 Oldsmobile and had followed the bus home from Tillsonburg. Anxious to show it off to his friends, he asked his mother if he could take a buddy for a spin. His sister Ruth Anne, a couple of years younger, begged to tag along.
Mother Ruth, was a devoted matriarch to six children. Diminutive in stature, she spent a career in caregiving, sharing a kind soul and loving heart. She was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and ruled with an iron fist. After much cajoling, she proclaimed it ok take a short drive, insisting he be home for dinner. Despite sister Ruth Anne’s pleading, Ruth was not persuaded to let her join the boys.
Don was an amicable young man, with a ready grin and a sparkle in his eye. Average height – maybe 5’7 or 5’8 – he was third eldest of the six Horton children. Apprenticing under father Art’s tutelage, he was learning the plumbing and heating business. Excited to share his new ride, he offered his buddy the opportunity to take the wheel of his pride and joy.
Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, life altering car accidents were not uncommon. Seatbelts were not yet mandatory and often were not even included in a vehicle. Drinking and driving was accepted as “normal” behaviour. It was not unusual to get some pals together with a case of beer and go “crop touring” – driving around back roads drinking on a Saturday afternoon. Barracudas, Camaros, Mustangs, Trans Ams , all with powerful engines were the norm. Testosterone fueled competitions saw who could spin their tires the longest and the furthest. Accidents were simply part of the equation.
Tobacco harvest at the time attracted many transient workers from Quebec, Northern Ontario and South Carolina to work in the fields. Workers often spent a good part of their wages getting relief from the hard physical labour, letting off steam at the local hotels. Some never made it home after late night drunken rides back to the farms where they were employed.
The “Tunnel Road”, a 2 lane cement culvert built as a railway trestle on a sharp curve on a gravel road, claimed many victims in those days. There was paint all over the inside walls, as a historical reminder of the many tragic events that unfolded in the dark confines of the interior.
Roduck’s garage, across the street from our house, was littered with the wreckage of many vehicles that were stained with blood and carried the stench of death.
Though there was no alcohol involved in this particular accident, it was nonetheless horrific. Excessive speed and failing to navigate a curve was rumoured to be the cause. The aftermath had far reaching repercussions on the Horton family. Don’s friend lost control and crashed directly into a large maple tree. While the driver escaped relatively unscathed, Don was ejected from the vehicle and sustained life-threatening injuries. Paramedics worked feverishly to save his life as he was rushed to Tillsonburg hospital, 20 miles to the north.
In the blink of an eye the lives of the entire Horton family were to be changed forever.
An Impossible Decision
Fortunately, Dr Larry Leatherdale lived close by and rushed to attend the scene. Rough around the edges, Dr Leatherdale was a big man, a no-nonsense physician and pulled no punches. The prognosis was dire. Don needed a blood transfusion to live through the night.
The Horton’s were a devout Jehovah’s Witness family. Ruth and Art were both very active in the church and held in high esteem by the congregation. The decision to accept a life saving transfusion was complicated by the doctrine of the church.
Jehovah teaches that it is the will of the Creator to determine the outcome of life or death events. There should be no medical intervention and no debate would be had. The church was against blood transfusions under any circumstances and the family was told there would be no exceptions. Art, torn emotionally, agonized over the possibility of losing his son, while doctors were telling him it didn’t have to be this way. He had to make a quick decision. Would he allow his son to have a life saving transfusion, or follow the church doctrine and perhaps watch him die? An impossible decision!
Weighing the risk of defying his church, he would not allow his son to parish and committed to the transfusion.
After a year in hospital and many months at home regaining mobility, Don slowly regained his ability to participate in day to day activities. He went on to live a happy and productive life, though with physical impairments, walking with a noticeable limp. Eventually he took over his dad’s business, married and had a lovely family. One of the kindest and gentlest men you may ever meet.
A lovely human-interest story right? Boy has horrific accident, recovers after a long battle, has a beautiful family and lives happily after. Not so fast. The church was not done with the Horton family!
I remember Art Horton as a family man, kind and generous to a fault. Standing about 5’10, he had dark hair with a touch of grey, broad shoulders and a ready smile. He had built a plumbing and heating business from the ground up and was active and respected in the church. A man of impeccable character.
The Jehovah’s Witness church expects nothing less than fealty to the Creator and deals harshly with those that don’t follow blindly. Don survived, but Art would have to be dealt with. Despite his reputation and service to the church and community, exile was necessary. No one could be seen to defy Jehovah’s teachings. Other family members must be kept in line. A message must be sent.
Family members were pressured by the church to make an example of their father and husband for disobeying Jehovah’s teachings. The outcome of Don’s injuries were Jehovah’s responsibility. Only HE could decide whether Don lived or died. No one had the authority to challenge HIS teachings. Art Horton had defied the church and the doctrine it espoused.
Clients with ties to the church abandoned him. Wife Ruth and some of the children remained committed to the Church, while Art and those that supported him were ostracized and pushed out of the congregation.
A Family Divided
The family was physically living together, but an emotional and religious wall developed between them. Art became increasingly sullen and reclusive, turning to alcohol to combat the loneliness and depression. Once held in high esteem by his congregation, he was now a pariah in his own church community. By saving his son, he was now shunned by those he loved most.
The Horton’s remained forever divided by the cult like teachings of the church. As adults, the children went their separate ways. Ruth and two of the siblings remained devoted members of the church. Frustrated by the church’s unwavering cult like doctrine, others moved away and began lives far from the unrelenting pain of a divided family. Art developed medical issues and passed away a few years later in 1987, the stress and emotional damage too much to overcome. He was only 63.
Only many years later did I reconnect with Ruth Anne. She has her mothers build, engaging personality and kind heart. But she also has a mind of her own and would not be controlled by a religion she did not trust or respect. She would never forgive the church/cult for tearing her family apart.
Ruth Anne recently co-authored a fascinating book entitled “Murder in The Fourth – A Case of Mindslaughter”, exploring her early life growing up in Vienna as a Jehovah’s Witness and the mysterious disappearance and murder of a local Jehovah’s teenage girl from Aylmer, named Georgia Jackson. She examines Jehovah’s Witness cult like teachings and how the church completely controls every aspect of it’s follower’s lives. Ruth Anne is a true “insider” and I highly recommend the read.
The Final Chapter
My mother and Ruth Horton remained dear friends, even as poor health and physical challenges dogged them both in their later years. As a result, they both spent their final days in nursing homes many miles apart, in different provinces.
The friends continued to communicate through letters and periodic phone calls, carefully arranged through Ruth Anne and I. They looked forward to hearing from each other, until failing health ended the ability to converse. Mom passed away on her 91st birthday in 2015. Ruth was 97 when she passed in 2018. A remarkable friendship developed over decades.
Ruth remained committed to the church and sadly never completely reconciled with all of her family before passing.
I can’t imagine ever having anyone attempt to force make me choose between saving my child or saving my family.
The lights turned out that night, but in many ways they never came back on for the Horton family.