Don’t Overrun Your Headlights

By Scott Longman

We don’t know exactly what happened because all six people involved had been dead for decades before authorities finally discovered what was left of them, but the forensics pretty well tell the tale. 

It’s at a place called Foss Lake, near Sayre, Oklahoma. In 1970, a 16-year-old boy named Jimmy Williams went out for a ride along with Leah Johnson and Thomas Rios, three friends out to have a good time. They were cruising in one of the pinnacle hotrod cars of their era, a 1969 Camaro, which Jimmy bought just six days before. 

Given where the vehicle came to rest, and given the then-existing roadway (since changed), what happened to a virtual certainty is that he was driving along, came over a rise—so his headlights were lighting up the sky and not the road on which they traveled —and by the time Isaac Newton talked to his suspension, all he had in front of him was a black expanse of water and nowhere near enough time or space to save it. The car was found 50 feet into the lake from the bottom of the ramp. All three people aboard died, never even getting a door open.  

Nobody had the slightest idea what had happened to them. Huge searches, rumors of going south of the border, other theories. From the perspective of their families and the community, they simply disappeared. Jimmy’s parents died young, never knowing.

A whopping 43 years after the fact, a police department underwater team was doing some training with its sonar gear and discovered the car by accident. It had been there all that time, even though it was in only about 12 feet of silty, opaque water, below every one of the untold thousands of boats that had launched from that ramp across four-plus decades.     

That, to state the obvious, is sheer horror. But—hard to believe—let’s layer in something even worse. This sounds impossible, but it’s true: right next to them was another car wreck full of skeletons. Reach-out-and-touch close. Just like them.  Also a Chevy, a 1952 model year.  Also with three passengers. They’d done exactly what Jimmy Williams had done, but a year earlier.  It had been piloted by a man named John Porter, and he had two friends with him, Cleburn Hammock and Nora Duncan. Similarly, none of them got a door open, either.

Back to Jimmy Williams: Since it typically takes some short time until an immersed electrical system goes out, and Jimmy had his lights on when they went in, it’s entirely possible that he and his passengers actually saw the other car next to them in their final instants. Stephen King couldn’t come up with this. Two side-by-side cars, both Chevys, both with three dead people.

And they had both overdriven their headlights.

That idea, of course, can also be read metaphorically: “overrunning your headlights” is a common way of saying “acting beyond your abilities.” Or, as the legendary Inspector Harry Callahan once observed: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” 

For all of us going to do epic shit, that’s some awfully good advice to keep in mind. It might just keep us from ending up at the bottom of our own personal Foss Lake.