Derek Gentile: Prom season a sad reminder of friends lost to drunken driving


PITTSFIELD — We live in a world where, when there is a fun or good thing to celebrate, society insists that we do so by imbibing substances or liquids that muddle our thinking.

So be it. To quote a famous New England coach/philosopher, "It is what it is."

I attended an event in Sheffield on Thursday sponsored by Students Against Destructive Decisions. Sheffield emergency personnel crashed a car into a concrete barrier to show students at Mount Everett Regional School the potentially devastating effects of impaired driving.

I hope it works on some level. It's prom season, and as journalists for a local newspaper, we prepare for fatal accidents to proliferate. That includes very young people dying or being badly injured.

I have an especially hard time this time of year. Two of my childhood friends were killed in a drunk driving accident just before graduation.

Danny Zajac was a guy from my neighborhood. His parents knew my parents and my sisters and I knew his brother and sisters.

He was a good guy: Funny and very smart and like all the Zajac kids, very well-mannered. Impossible not to like.

I had a closer connection with Dave Denault. Again, our folks knew his folks and we all knew his sister Susan.

But Denault and I played on the soccer team at Hoosac Valley. We were both fullbacks, and we both talked a lot bout the game during the fall. This was an era, the '70s, when Hoosac didn't have a lot of skilled players, but had good athletes who learned to play the game almost on the fly.

With David, I remember exactly my last words to him, other than, "Hey man," in the hallways. Win or lose, we would congratulate each other on a good game. I remember that brisk fall-turning-to-winter afternoon. I patted his shoulder and said, "Good game, man." He smiled and clapped me on the shoulder.

A couple months later, he and Danny were dead.

I honestly don't remember the details. It was a Friday night. They were driving home from a bar. That was enough.

My family lived on Liberty Street at the time, right next to McBride's Funeral Home, where both would be waked a few days later. As many of my friends filed into the funeral home, I sat up in my attic, watching. I couldn't go. I couldn't bear to see those young men in caskets.

I also couldn't bear to see the parents and children of either kid. I consider that a big faux pas now. I never apologized to them, so I'm apologizing now.

If it's any consolation (and I doubt it is), that event informed my decisions for many years after. When I moved to Great Barrington a few years later, I admit, things got a little out of hand, in part because I was living with a woman at the time who was a little out of hand herself.

But, as you can see, the memory of these two friends never left my mind. And if there's one thing I'd tell young people who think they might drink and drive and pull it off, it's that this whole adventure is a deadly crapshoot.

You may get through years of drinking and driving, but I've never known it not to catch up with one. Never. So be careful. I don't want to put anyone's name in the paper.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions