Friday, January 11, 2013

I had a lot of help...

“Help is on the way! Hang on, stay with me!
You’ve been through the hardest part already… Just lie still!
Help is on the way!
I looked up to see the pickup truck climbing towards the sky, nose to the ground, buoyed upon a billowing dust cloud, spinning madly. She flew out ejected at the top of its arc and impacted the steep winding country road directly in my path.
Standing on the brakes I skidded off the pavement, her truck cartwheeling past and blasting through the woods before slamming to a halt in a graveyard upside-down.

It seemed to happen in silence, which can’t be true.  I probably had Led Zeppelin cranked to the max and just can’t remember it.  This was well into my “Robert Plant wannabe” phase during college, and though I was never a hippie or a druggie I certainly looked the part.
I bailed, tossed keys on my roof and ran to render aid.
She’d rag-dolled to a stop on her back, perpendicular to the road. Alive but unconscious.  I saw in a glance she had multiple compound fractures in all her limbs, with her skull exposed through a gash on her forehead. I assumed she had neck and spinal damage as well. She was bleeding into her lungs, which alarmed me no end, and blew out crimson with every labored breath.
As I moved around uphill to her right side, the memory of my favorite teacher in junior high and high school – my wrestling coach and sometimes science and economics teacher – sprang to mind. And thank God for that.
I knelt down, gently braced her neck with my left hand, reached across with my right arm to pin her down, planted my forehead to the road in her expanding pool of blood, and spoke gently into her ear.
“Hang on, stay with me. If you can hear me, I want you to just hold still. I’m here, I’m with you. You’ve been through the hardest part already, just lie still because help is on the way!”
Coach was by far my favorite out of the many fine, intelligent, patient, and enduring souls I burdened throughout my scholastic career. A big, beefy, white Midwesterner, he had a near-permanently jovial expression welded to his features which only rarely and fleetingly gave way to a (and I’m sorry to characterize it this way, but it’s true) comical scowl.
He had (“still has” actually) a sharp and expansive mind, a razor wit, a truly intrinsic good nature, and could quote with equal ease wisdom from the Bible or Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”.
He impacted my life in many ways – more than I can easily relate, and probably more than I even know, but three I can recall with ease:
  1. He didn’t freak out and call the police when as my 7th grade science project I brought to school a home-made rim-fire 22 pistol I'd cobbled together out of random non-firearm parts lying around the house. Granted, he was certainly influenced by the times we lived in, which didn’t demand SWAT teams answer such infractions as is now the norm, but since he was such a natural stoic I actually don’t think I rattled his cage at all. In fact he almost gave me an “A”, but marked it down to “B” because my documentation was not as good as it should have been, surprising nobody.
  2. He told us how to prevent a person from drowning you when you’re busy trying to rescue them from drowning.
  3. He taught me wrestling for many years, making it reflexive to use my head as an extra appendage to brace myself with. Oddly enough, this has turned out to be far more of an important life skill than knowing algebra.
She wore gym shorts and a T-shirt, no pockets, no ID.

She was blonde, probably in her twenties and was probably normally quite pretty.  But nobody is pretty in that shape.
I had her pinned to the asphalt and was poised to restrain her should she regain consciousness, because I knew she would NOT BE PLEASED when she did.  I feared when she awoke delirious and in agony she would thrash about and injure herself further, so I held on tight in dreaded anticipation and kept up the litany of reassurances.
“You’ve had a wreck, and you’re alive, and you’re going to be OK. You’re going to be ok, but you’re injured, and when you wake up I need you to HOLD STILL. I’ve got you. Help is on the way. Can you hear me?”

I had recently been reading “Shocktrauma” by Jon Franklin, about the building of the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, Maryland, the first “shock trauma” hospital in America, so the mnemonic for first-responder care – ABC for “Airway, Breathing, Circulation” – was fresh in my mind. It was immediately apparent that I had to address these in reverse order… although broken bone was visible in various places all over her body, there were no arterial gushers so there wasn’t much I needed to do about circulation.  She was already breathing – ragged bloody breathing but breathing nonetheless, so that left making sure her airway stayed open.
Very quickly on I made two simple and possibly life-threatening mistakes.
My girlfriend, who had been driving behind me but who had been delayed by a red light, pulled up and understandably assumed I’d hit a jogger. Looking up momentarily, I made Mistake #1 – I yelled for her to go back to the fire station we had previously passed a couple of miles back, forgetting that there was another much closer fire station at the top of this very hill.  As she pulled a tight U-turn and sped off, I realized that I’d just made Mistake #2 – I’d skipped a step – I had not checked the pickup to see if there was anyone else trapped inside. Now that I was holding the woman’s neck steady, I dared not let go, and I could not twist far enough around to even see the truck behind me. 
Not that there was much to see… it had impacted on all six sides and smashed down in heavy bracken.  And the sun was setting.
The old lady driving the next car to come along naturally rolled down her window and asked if we needed help. Thank God, I thought, and begged her to race to the fire station up the hill and send an ambulance. I didn’t ask her to check the truck, figuring when help arrived, they could. Head down, I resumed my monolog, and feared what would happen when she awoke. 
That didn’t take long.
“Help is on the way. I need you to hold still. I hate to ask this of you but I need to know if you can wake up. Hello? You’re going to be OK. Hey! Was there anyone in the truck with you?  I need you to wake up but hold still!”
She didn’t listen.
She wanted to get up, and roll over, and fight, and knock the leaves off the trees through the power of her voice alone, but as gently as possible I held her in place and kept trying to calm her while the sun disappeared and the twilight deepened.
“Help is on the way! I know it hurts, but you’ve been through the hardest part already, it gets better from here, just lie still because help is on the way! Hang on, stay with me. You need to HOLD STILL or you’re going to hurt worse! An ambulance is on its way!”
It felt better to say that, now that I actually knew it was true.  Help was on the way. 
What the HELL was taking them so long???
I passed the time silently mocking, belittling, and reprimanding myself. Every part of my body was starting to ache – knees and head against pavement, I was lying on my left arm, with my left hand under her neck. My right shoulder had started throbbing from the effort of keeping her still.

To stay on track I kept mentally comparing our situations. “You think your knees hurt?” I said to myself, “Not as bad as hers do…” remembering her bone showing through, “Stop complaining!” I told myself, “This isn’t about ME!”... whatever was necessary to discourage my natural tendency to fidget like crazy. 

I imagined that had this happened in high school, my wrestling teammates would have teased me unmercifully –

So, you’re saying you kept this girl pinned to the road, but you claim it was for HER sake and you weren’t enjoying yourself?


And she was just wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt?

“I was trying to keep her alive!” I replied, “She’d been chewed up by the wreck! Believe me, there was no cheap thrill involved, and I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a thing! That’s gross!”

My old team laughed in my head, “Hey man, this is YOUR imaginary conversation…

“Stay with me… I’m holding you down so you don’t hurt yourself.  Please keep still… Please, I need you to hold still.  Help is on the way.”
I kept reminding myself that “time flies when you’re having fun”, which must be why it seemed to take foreve- What the HELL is taking them so long???  The sun had not yet set when she’d wrecked, and by this time it was long down and the light was so dim it was getting difficult to see.
A police car screeched up behind me. I’m glad he saw us or things would have suddenly been far worse.  He hadn’t used his siren, and with my face buried in her hair I hadn’t seen his reflected lights. But when his door opened, I could hear his police radio and knew help had finally arrived.
As the cop ran towards us I yelled for him to check the truck for others. 
“What truck? Where?”  He couldn’t see the truck from the road.
Looking up, I yelled “Over in the graveyard!”  I pointed with my foot. “That way!”
He saw my face. “Are you OK!?” he demanded.
“I wasn’t in the wreck, this is all her blood!”
A big, beefy, black Midwesterner, he had a near-permanently jovial expression welded to his features which only rarely and fleetingly gave way to a (and I’m sorry to characterize it this way, but it’s true) truly terrifying scowl.  He also had one of those huge wonderful cop flashlights, the “why do I even bother carrying a nightstick?” type, and quickly determined that there had been nobody else in the truck.
Thank God.
He asked me who she was, and of course I didn’t know. She had no ID on her, and the cop couldn’t find any in the truck, although it being upside down initially made it difficult to be certain. He was going to run her license plates until he discovered the front one was a rainbow-airbrushed meaningless vanity sign, and the rear legal plate had been torn from the wreck along with part of the bumper. Although it was “certainly out there somewhere”, he couldn’t find it.
He knelt in the road next to us, and we spent the next eternity alternately trying to encourage her to wake up and stay with us, or to calm down and quit fighting, as she swayed back and forth between oblivion and overwhelming pain.  At some point the cop covered her with his jacket. We couldn’t get her to tell us her name. She tried, but her voice was so slurred we couldn’t understand what she said.
“At least she’s trying to tell us – that’s a very good sign,” the cop said. “A very good sign.”
Occasionally he would bark into the microphone at his shoulder to get an update on where the hell the ambulance was, getting angrier each time.  He finally stood and walked away lest his shouting into the radio further alarm the woman. He also turned on his high beams.
Strangely, horribly, the policeman and I had enough time for a friendly conversation.  In fact, way too much time, we both agreed.  He generally spent a good portion of every day, when not out answering calls, at the fire station playing cards with the firemen.  He knew of the local band I occasionally played with, but had never seen me on stage.  He was a Democrat. He was surprised I was a conservative, was mildly amazed I could put together a complete sentence, and was somewhat astonished I didn’t smell of pot.  At some point I laughed and admitted that given how I looked, I could hardly blame him for assuming otherwise.
“I have an egg-shaped head, so I’d look even dumber with short hair.”  I assumed from the expression on his face he doubted this.  “Kinda like a cartoon character that you know is an idiot just from the way it’s drawn,” I said.
“Is there a story behind that T-shirt?” he asked.
Since our wrestling match didn’t seem to be in danger of ending anytime soon, I launched into the tale.
“It all started with me being very, very stupid…”
Several years earlier, a dear friend and I were indeed behaving very, very stupidly. We were racing down a Colorado ski slope that we’d never been on before, and we were both just good enough skiers to be dangerous.  It was snowing lightly and the slope looked like a beautiful, long, smooth, mogul-less run, perfect for bombing straight downhill at warp speed.
This was an optical illusion. 
In fact, about three quarters of the way down there was a blind headwall where another run crossed ours. It was effectively a very unofficial, completely unplanned, and highly dangerous ski jump.
You can probably guess what happened next. It is a fun story, and I love to tell it, but I’m going to skip right over it only to say that A) the jump established my personal records for both relative-altitude and distance in unassisted vehicle-less airborne flight (which I never care to best), and B) I listened very carefully to the ski patrol as they loaded me onto that embarrassingly obvious red stretcher-toboggan thing to take me off the mountain, and to the paramedics in the ambulance, hoping to learn a thing or two.  When I got out of the hospital my buddy and I bought ourselves commemorative T-shirts, emblazoned with a winged skier.

I still have mine, though it is now way too fragile with age to attempt removing the blood stains.

My ski accident memorial T-shirt, in a picture taken years before the main events of this story.
That's my pet flying squirrel looking out to say "Hi!"
“In fact,” I told the cop, “I flew a LOT further than she did, but I also had a much softer landing.”
“Easier takeoff too, sounds like.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I replied.
About a year and a half earlier, while I was at my parents’ home in Texas for a long fall weekend, my best friend showed up unannounced one night with two girls on his arm. All three of them were blood-splattered and shaking. They wanted to know if they could use our bathrooms to clean up.  It is always amazing how polite people can be when they think they’re imposing and are completely in shock.  We had bathrooms a’plenty, so while the girls were in another part of the house scrubbing down, I asked the obvious question.
“A guy got mowed down right in front of us as we were leaving the Fair,” he said. That would be the State Fair of Texas. “Old man drove straight through the crowd. The guy ahead of us… thrown maybe thirty, forty feet.”
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“He was…” he paused while indicating the girls in the other room, “but they brought him back while I kept the crowd from killing the driver."
My best friend is a very, very big man. 
"The guy was out and not breathing, choked on blood I think," he continued. "They couldn't get a pulse either, or hear his heartbeat... Someone said 'traumatic arrest'..."
"That tends to be notoriously permanent..." I interrupted.
"...But they cleared a lot of clotting blood from his throat, and somehow got him going again.”
The girls' own recollections were a bit more fragmented, but while huddled around drinks they told basically the same story, just with additional detail and considerably more emotion.
Eventually my girlfriend returned to the scene, beating the ambulance by a good measure. The cop and I brought her up to speed because, as I’ve mentioned, we had plenty of time.
It was full-on deep dark night when the ambulance finally arrived. I felt compelled to remain civil. The cop, however, did not.  We quickly found out their delay truly wasn’t their fault – a train had blocked their path. 
They didn’t have to say anything further. This was coal country, and the tracks ran straight through the center of town. Insanely long coal trains heading towards Chicago brought cross-town traffic to a standstill on a many-times-per-day basis, and exactly this kind of situation with the ambulances (and fire crews, and police) was a regular fear. Most of the EMTs went to work on the girl, while I reassured the others that I was fine – that all the blood on me was hers.
After watching the ambulance pull away, the policeman and I profusely over-thanked each other, both of us laughing slightly and ruefully from souring adrenaline. He strongly suggested that I get a haircut, but was nice enough to make it clear this wasn’t exactly a “cop telling the hippie to cut his hair” situation. 
Generally speaking, I’m fine in a crisis. If I’m going to fall apart, it won’t happen until after the crisis is resolved.  This was one of those times.  Once home, I started shaking and second-guessing everything I had done.  I didn’t know squat about first aid, and knew that reading “Shocktrauma” hardly constituted EMT training. Had I done the right things? Did I miss anything crucial? I knew I wasn’t a competent first-responder, so had I screwed up? Was she going to live?
We decided to go to the hospital, because I couldn’t sit still until I knew if the woman was going to be OK.  We arrived at the ER and in my typical arrogant fashion I strode through the big double sliding glass doors like I owned the place. That didn’t last long though, because in an instant all talking ceased and everyone including the staff behind the counter stopped what they were doing to stare at me in horror.
I wasn’t expecting that reaction. This was not how I preferred to command a room. For a moment time stood still. “Oh!” I said, realizing what the problem was, “This is not my blood! I’m fine!” 
Time started up again, a nurse demanded “Whose blood is it???” and right on cue a scream from deep within the ER pierced the air.

“Hers,” I said.  

She had a powerful scream. I’d even go so far as to say it was a “healthy” scream except that I knew otherwise.
They grabbed her attending physician and had me go over in detail the particulars of the accident.  I relayed what I’d seen and what I’d done, although at that point I still didn’t know what had caused the wreck, or who she was. 
When we were done, I went to wash up in the rest room attached to the waiting area because my arms were starting to itch badly from the drying blood.  As I walked through, I had to pass between four generations of a family and the hospital television they were watching.  Please keep in mind that at this point I was so wound up that I probably barely qualified as sane, but I was still polite and friendly.  After saying “excuse me” for having to cross their view, I stopped and said “How are y’all doing this evening?” in a bright, cheerful voice.
From great-grandma down to the little children, excepting only the baby, they looked appalled. Someone managed to weakly say “We’re doing fine. You?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said, and indicating my arms I continued “Don’t worry, this isn’t my blood,” as if that made everything all right.  “What’re y’all up to this evening? Everything OK?”
“Just waiting on Grampa’s dialysis treatment. He should be down soon.”
“Oh that’s good,” I said, “I hope he’s doing well, and it sure is nice to see so many generations here to support him.”

I continued in this fashion for awhile. 
At some point I finally noticed the little voice in the back of my head, yelling “Hey Moron! You’re out of control! Leave these poor people alone! You’re frightening them! Listen to yourself! Go wash up!” So while I know it is hard to believe, I actually did cut what I was saying short, and excused myself to the rest room.
I stepped inside, flipped on the light, and caught my reflection in the mirror.
Yeah, I was probably going to need a haircut. That was the least of my concerns.
I was covered – COATED – in blood.
I’d knelt in it, put my face in it, and with every exhale she’d blown drops of it onto me.
I was a slaughterhouse janitor.
I was a slasher flick extra.
I was a pathologically polite zombie.
It was a long while before I could stop laughing.
“Yes, the law is an ass,” my father said, “but most of it exists for a reason.”
“Break the form,” he said. “It wasn’t made with your particulars in mind, so you can’t expect it to fit your situation.”
“Sometimes, like a good defense attorney, you have to test the system.” He meant by opposing it. “So even if you lose when you’re in the right, you’ll know you did the correct thing.  Test the system.”
Thanks, Dad. I miss you.
I went back to the hospital the next morning to see if she had made it through the night, find out who she was, etc.
I didn’t want thanks, I wasn’t looking for praise, I hadn’t done anything heroic – I’d just been there at the right time, and did what I could. And none of what I did was through my own wisdom, not at all – what little I knew, I’d been taught. I'd had lots of help.
Sometime in the night there had been a shift change, and the hospital staff on duty didn’t know me, didn’t know any particulars about the case from the night before, and refused to look up any details because I wasn’t family and it was a privacy issue. 
“Fine, don’t tell me her name!  Can you tell me if she’s alive?  I just want to know if I did the right things!”
There was a different policeman on duty behind the ER admissions desk who spoke up. “Don’t worry, son,” he said. “There are ‘Good Samaritan’ laws in this state – you won’t get sued.”
My girlfriend saw the look on my face change, grabbed my arm, and forcibly pulled me out of there before I did something very, very stupid indeed.
I graduated soon thereafter, and moved back to Texas.  Less than a month later I witnessed a disturbingly similar wreck on the Dallas North Tollway – similar in the sense of “cartwheeling car tumbling down the highway” – but in that second case I was not the first person to reach the vehicle, and – Thank God – the driver was not badly hurt. 

But for years afterwards whenever I passed that spot on the Tollway, the memory of the earlier accident would come to mind. 

And that’s where the story stopped for the longest time.  Life went on.


Ten years later, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I suddenly, urgently, had to know if the woman had lived.  I knew the trail had long grown cold, and that my chances were slim of learning anything, but after hardly thinking of the wreck in years I couldn’t get it off my mind.
I located and called the fire station at the top of that hill, and asked if they remembered the policeman who had played cards there every day a decade ago.
They knew him!  He had since retired and was running a barbecue joint in a nearby town. 
I called him. He remembered the night! He even still sounded a little bit angry about the train! 
He said the accident investigators determined, as best they could, that she'd been going downhill at high speed when she likely swerved to miss a deer (someone had come forward to say that they’d nearly hit a deer standing in that road right before the accident), and gotten her right wheels caught in the ditch.  That ditch came to a sudden concrete halt at the culvert under the cemetery’s driveway, the impact with which threw her truck into the air with impressive torque.
But she lived!  He was certain of it! 
“I don’t always remember the ones who live,” he said. “I always remember the ones who don’t – but I do recall this accident because it was so strange and it took the ambulance so damn long to get there.”
She lived!!!

I thanked him again for his help.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “but I can’t remember her name. I’d honestly tell you if I did.”
"That‘s quite OK,” I told him.  

I didn’t really need to know.


(Note: This is an updated version of an article I have on my own blog
Since I get basically no traffic over there, Keln was gracious enough to let me repost it here.)


  1. That was simply beautiful, Hunter. You are a word virtuoso...and I love words. Do you mind if I visit your blog?

  2. Of course you can visit my blog! But please be forewarned - there's not much there. I only had a little over a dozen posts before I accepted Keln's offer to post here at Nuking Politics.


  3. I look forward to it. I am having a hard time equating you with "atomic monkey action squad", though. It just doesn't seem to there a story behind it?

  4. It fits. There not much of a story behind it, per se, but believe me - it fits.