When the monsignor shows up at your door early on a Saturday morning along with an Army officer, bad news is sure to follow. So it was that my former mother-in-law learned of the accidental electrocution of her husband. He’d gotten up that morning, just like any morning, except that this was a weekend, and a busy weekend at that. He had been working at the nearby Air Force Base, preparing for an influx of visitors on Armed Forces Day. Whether he’d kissed his wife or any of his six children goodbye that early morning in the 1960’s is one detail of the story that I will never know.
What began as a typical day for this suburban Irish Catholic family turned into a tragedy with generations-long repurcussions. For nearly 20 years, these people were my in-laws, the family of my now ex-husband. I never met the man who would have been my father-in-law. He was killed when my ex-husband was 15, the second oldest of his family, but now the de facto male head of household.
My would-have-been father-in-law was working on something electrical, and had shut off the asociated circuit breaker, as was the accustomed practice. His colleague and best friend showed up at the Base shortly thereafter, and noticed that the circuit breaker for this necessary equipment required for the day’s activities was in the “off” position. He turned it on, instantly electrocuting his best friend, widowing his wife, and leaving six children from 6 months to 17 years of age without a father.
As you’d expect, my mother-in-law was overwhelmed by the loss. The older kids in the family did their best to step up and take care of the younger ones. With the help of friends, parish members, and extended family, she learned to drive, and to take on the role of both mother and father. This was just a few years before my ex-husband, tired of waiting for his draft notice from the Army, enlisted in the Marines and headed to Vietnam. Until then, he was living at home, working full time after graduating high school, and looking after his younger siblings while his older sister was in college.
His father’s best friend, the man whose simple action of throwing a circuit breaker devastated so many lives. This fine family man attempted suicide on more than one occasion, an act that would have left his own five children fatherless, another woman widowed. Even that prospect was not enough to quell his desire to extinguish his anguish and his life. In the end, he lived on to the terminus of his natural life, no doubt a broken man, unable to face or comfort the widow and family left to mourn the loss that he had precipitated.
How could this have been prevented? Follow along below for the rest of the story.