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The day in April that a wife will never forget

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000

Stephen Goeser was an ordinary enough man. He was a driver for United Cab in Tampa. He was married twice and had a couple of kids. In his pictures he had thick brown hair, a graying mustache, and the start of a middle-age man's belly.

Yet in a tragic sense, he was ahead of his time.

Long before anybody started talking about the danger -- and it's a national issue now -- he was killed by flying road debris.

Just before lunchtime on April 6, 1994, a 20-pound piece of a discarded brake drum from a semitrailer truck crashed through his windshield as he drove his cab south on Interstate 275 near Lois Avenue. It was never determined where the flying brake drum came from.

The autopsy said that nearly every bone in Goeser's skull and face was broken. He was 44.

He had been married to his second wife, Shirley, just five days. A neighbor in their apartment complex who was a notary married them on April Fool's Day in their kitchen before they all left for work. Then came the moment, less than a week later, when another cabbie showed up at Shirley's job and pulled her solemnly into his car to drive her to the emergency room.

"I don't remember the day I woke up and remember not crying. There will never be a last day (for that)," she said when we met at a pizza parlor in Britton Plaza, near the store where she works as a saleswoman. She is pale and slight with small hands. Her ring finger bears the symbols of her five days of married happiness -- her small diamond engagement ring, her wedding band, his wedding band and her late mother's wedding band.

Before we met, Shirley wrote me a letter. She wrote after the Times published the story of what we thought then was the first case like this in Tampa -- the maiming of Silvia Hernandez. Last September, as Hernandez drove on I-275 to take her son to school, a 10-pound, 4-foot piece of metal crashed through her windshield. She now is in a nursing home, with little chance of recovery. The story produced several leads for lawyers representing Hernandez's family.

There never were any leads in Stephen Goeser's death. According to his wife, after the cab company published an ad looking for witnesses, a Mr. Martin called the company. But nobody could talk to him just then, and he never left a number and never called back.

Never. What a word. This was Shirley's ritual for the longest time: "Waiting for him to walk through the door. Having to think that so many times a day. And to think for the 28th time that day, he's never coming through that door again. And then, to comprehend that word, never."

There was nobody to blame, nobody to sue, nobody to forgive. And, as she said in her carefully written letter on lined yellow paper, "there is no support group, no Mothers Against Road Debris."

There was just the empty space Stephen Goeser had filled in her life since the first time he sat down across from her at the bar she tended in north Tampa and asked to be served.

They were drinkers, she admits, and when he died, she went the way you would expect. Down, down, down. For four years, she went that way, and then her last stalwart, her mother, died. Shirley Goeser had nowhere to go but the hospital to dry out.

Her face is closely lined from hard living, but her hair is pulled back in a perfectly wound french braid that dangles down her back. She tells me that Stephen's death has left her incapable of being shocked by anything. That is a kind of strength. And she is, as they say in AA, clean and sober. It's been two years. She loves her husband still, but if he had lived, she says, she might be the one gone -- killed by her own alcoholism.

She sits with her hands folded behind a cup of coffee. I can see all those rings on her finger. There is meaning in Stephen's death. She has found it in being sober. "You can't always assume that bad things will come from bad things," she says, "although sometimes you've got to look pretty hard."

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