'This is what happened': Book details stories in effort to deter drunk driving

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2010

There are some places where Justin is still alive.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Jim Wisher holds a portrait of his grandson, Justin Nelson, in Wisher's home in Ninilchik. The youngster was killed by a drunk driver in 2001.

The 12-year-old is frying raisin pancakes in his grandfather's kitchen, tossing eggshells on the counter and splattering the batter.

Justin is riding his BMX bicycle, popping wheelies and attempting a handstand on the front pegs.

Justin is tilting up his smiling face, still insulated with a layer of baby fat, and saying, "Hey, Pappy, I've got a great idea!"

Justin Nelson is still alive in his grandfather's memories, even nine years to the day after the car crash that split the 12-year-old in half, killing him instantly on Aug. 31, 2001.

"What's surprising is that it should get easier as time goes on. But it's not," Justin's grandfather, Jim Wisher, said on the anniversary of Justin's death.

Wisher, 62, spent part of Tuesday showing a couple of guests his Ninilchik home, pointing out places he and his grandson laughed and played the summer before Justin died.

The back yard conjured up games of croquet; the tree house a long night of mosquito torment; the guest bedroom a mess with dirty laundry.

"It's still very sharp," Wisher said of the pain. "It's razor's-edge cutting."

Justin spent his final day in his mother's North Carolina office. It was a "take your kid to work day" deal.

He ate ice cream cake at an office birthday party and got it all over himself, Julie Fuller, Justin's mom, remembers.

"It was melting and it made a big mess. He was so sorry, and I was like, Justin, it's not a big deal. We'll just clean it up," Fuller said.

On the drive home, mother and son discussed young romance. Justin, embarking on middle school, had received some love letters and wanted mom's advice. They stopped at a gas station and, for some reason, Fuller decided to take an alternate route home. Maybe she just wanted more time to chat with her son.

A few minutes later, a drunk driver slammed into their brand new Ford Escape and ended Justin's life.

Fuller was severely injured in the crash, suffering a bruised lung and bruised spinal cord.

She was in so much pain at Justin's funeral that she couldn't even give anyone a hug.

"This is what happened to me. This is how my son was taken from me. This couldn't be any more real," Fuller said.

Justin's story is just one of the all too real stories in a book recently published by Alaska's Forget Me Not Foundation. Royal and Nancy Bidwell, who founded Forget Me Not, published "Soul Shaking Grief: A Victim's Memorial" to advance the organization's goal of preventing drunk driving by making sure people remember the pain and suffering it causes.

"We're hoping to make a difference, hoping to make an impact," Nancy Bidwell said. "Drunk driving is so senseless. It's 100-percent preventable. If we stop just one person it will be worth it. That's why we started this."

Bidwell lost her own daughter in 1983 to a drunk driving accident.

The foundation printed 5,000 copies of the book statewide and about 1,000 are available for free at several locations on the Kenai Peninsula. Some locations include River City Books and the Soldotna library. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District also received several copies. Those interested in getting the book can contact the Bidwells at 978-7809 or stopdui@forgetmenotmission.com.

Aside from personal stories, the book is rife with startling statistics like the 5,888 DUI incidents in 2008, including 1,841 repeat offenders, according to the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles.

Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol Sgt. Eugene Fowler said there is value in this kind of book.

"Maybe some of the stories can really hit home, and I think that's the biggest thing," Fowler said. "People can personalize something that happens out on the road and then they may think twice about (drinking and driving) in the future."

Fuller can't bring herself to read it yet, not this time of year, not when the anniversary of her first-born's death stings.

"Every year it opens up the wounds for me," she said of the anniversary.

But Fuller wants others to read the book so they might be able to understand the consequences of drinking and driving.

"This is what happens. It could ruin somebody's life. I know because it did. It ruined my life," Fuller said.

Wisher also hopes people heed the book's message.

"We have an opportunity to choose. A lot of people say they have been lucky with drinking and driving in the past, and, when it comes to not getting hurt, luck plays a big part in it," Wisher said. "But luck only takes us so far, and when luck runs out who are they going to take with them?"

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Wisher stared at his grandson's small, white bicycle. He washes it and puts air in its tires every year.

The bicycle sat in the garage in front of Wisher's motorcycle, and the grandfather couldn't help but think that, if Justin were still alive, the 21-year-old might be riding a Harley-Davidson instead of a BMX.

Wisher cried as he gazed at the symbol of lost potential.

He composed himself and told a story about making wooden swords for Justin. Swords that grandpa worked hard on but Justin, like most young boys, insisted on using for battling his little brother.

"I just try to focus on the positive," Wisher said. "I try to listen for the laughter."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.

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