Saving fates

He can't tell you exactly why, but Jamie Murdock has been compelled to commemorate makeshift roadside memorials.

Portrait

May 28, 2000|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Sun Staff

They're out there along the edges -- makeshift roadside memorials to the dead, erected by the people who miss them most. Adorned with flowers, bits of lace, baseball caps and teddy bears, they're the cairns of modern life. We note them in quick, passing glimpses as we commute through the Maryland landscape, busy, stressed, on schedule, trying to maintain speed.

Some are marked by plastic bouquets and photographs, toys and handwritten notes, names and affectionate nicknames, dates of birth, dates of death. Many bear wooden crosses burned silvery gray by years of rain, snow, wind and sun. Other crosses always look remarkably new, as if they are regularly rebuilt or replaced. Some are made of steel, some set in concrete. Some stand hard by farm fields, some by highway overpasses. Some seem to have become part of the scarred trees to which they were nailed years ago.

It's hard to tell when this tradition began -- the marking of the places of death on a public road. Jamie Murdock, an amateur photographer and itinerant collector of old bottles and deer antlers, had noticed the roadside memorials before, like the rest of us, out of the corner of his eye. But a year ago this month, he started paying more attention.

That's when three teen-age friends of his daughter and an elderly man were killed in a two-car collision on Glen Arm Road in central Baltimore County. It happened on May 21, 1999, the day before commencement at Loch Raven High School, and many students, including Murdock's daughter, attended three funerals over two days. Within 24 hours of the accident, there was a memorial on the telephone pole by the crash site. Jamie Murdock marveled at its sudden appearance, wondered how many others like it could be found in Maryland.

Since then, he has recorded with his camera more than 350 roadside memorials throughout central Maryland, the Eastern Shore, southern Maryland, as far west as Hagerstown, and even southern Pennsylvania. He's been to Bowie, Frederick and on the streets of Baltimore. He found some memorials on his own, and many with the help of his co-workers at Middle River Aircraft Systems. A friend who travels the state extensively, George Ritchie, alerted him to several sites.

Murdock has driven hundreds of miles to take his pictures, but he still can't explain how or why his curiosity turned into an obsession, and the obsession into a stack of color snapshots of memorials to people he never knew.

But as time has gone by, he's come to see his photographs as having a cumulative power.

"I decided to make this my personal campaign to promote safe driving," he says. "Driving is for real and should never be taken for granted. Death can be lurking around the next bend, the next intersection, on a rain-slick highway. It plays no favorites. Careful drivers can die just as easily as the neighborhood drunk."

Maybe one day, Murdock thinks, he might present his collection to the public -- as a poster, perhaps -- to make stunning testimony to the dangers of the road. Maybe he would do this on Memorial Day weekend, when many Americans race to the beaches in their cars and many others remember and honor the men, women and children they miss so much.

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