Saturday, April 30, 2005
Friday, April 29, 2005
Although most folks never consider it, we all walk with death. Death is constantly lying dormant within us, waiting for the one misstep, or the one stroke of foul luck so that it can blossom and snatch us irrevokably from this world into the next, or whatever it is that death has in store for us.
All of our stories end the same way. In our death. We are all captives here on earth, and nobody gets out of here alive.
The only thing that is certain, is that, inevitably, we all will die, and the most probable fact surrounding that occurrence is that we do not have any idea how much time left. I can postulate, however that, most likely, we all have a little less time than we would like to think.
I have never seen a dried fish that didn't have a look of absolute surprise on its dessicated face. Death loves to host surprise parties for each of us.
By now, many of you are probably thinking, "What the hell do I want to read this depressing, miserable post for??", you think it's about death, and, at least to some degree, you are right.. it is. But it is also about life. I am going to talk about death, right enough... and not in antiseptic, euphemistic terms, either... I plan on sharing with you a number of personal experiences that I have had with, and around, death, and relate to you how these experiences have affected me.
Through examining death, I would like to try to encourage you, the reader, to ultimately examine something that is infinitely more important. Life. With this goal in mind, I think you will agree that it would be oversimplistic to call this a depressing post about death... for I will discuss how the subject of death can be a life-affirming subject, or at least how it can lead us to discover what a rare gift we have, simply being alive, and how each and every moment should be savoured, enjoyed, and experienced... in the end, this is a post about mindful living, because our time here is finite, and our time here is passing, right now, and we cannot reclaim a single second of it, so we have to learn to live it the first time through. If you are squeamish, or prone to depression, or have no interest in this subject, maybe you should think about moving on and finding something more to your taste.
However, If you like to have your mind stirred up, and if you enjoy turning concepts over in your mind and examining things as they are.... (as opposed to how we would like them to be),.. read on, but, as befits a subject of such gravity, be that subject either life or death, this post will be a rather long one. It is difficult to discuss this subject without taking the time to think about it and compose one's thoughts, and even more difficult to articulate those thoughts without taking perhaps a little more time and effort than one might when discussing other subjects.
It seems to me that for most of us, at least, death remains a far-off possibility that we never seriously consider until the moment that we are confronted with it. Well, I am here to tell you that in the grand scheme of things, it isn't all that far off. In fact, I believe that, if you should wait until death arrives before you even start thinking about it, and determining how you will choose to let it affect the way you choose to live your life, it may be too late, and cause for a great deal of (admittedly short-lived ((excuse the pun)) regret on your part. At least, from my point of view, it has seemed so to the majority of people who I have seen die, and who have been able to communicate to me their final throughts and feelings at that time. If only one person in all of the world were to read this and make some small change that made them appreciate the life that they had even a tiny bit more.... than I have done all that I have set out to do here. I don't have all of the answers... in fact, I don't have any answers. But, maybe some of my questions will give rise to some thought... who knows?
In our secret fantasies, in our dreams, and in our stories, we are always the star of our own show, and, as such, we always survive the harrowing adventure. We are not capable of truthfully and realistically contemplating our own non-survival. If we consider being in a plane crash, a robbery, a fire, or a natural disaster, in our thoughts, we always make it through, we continue on and are able to somehow struggle and fight to eventually conquer whatever situation is thrown in our path. This being said, it isn't so difficult to understand why we never actually contemplate our own mortality, unless it is shoved in our face. Non-survival is not a viable option for any of us, so why consider it at all?? If we are dead, the fat lady has sung, the curtain comes down, game over, goodnight.... thank you for playing. Goodbye.
But what happens when we are forced to consider death as an inevitability? It is you know (inevitable). For every single one of us. No matter what. It doesn't matter what plans we have, who loves us, or whether we are good or bad people. It makes no difference what religion we subscribe to, what color we are, or how influential or infamous we are. Nothing makes a difference. Death is an equal-opportunity employer (perhaps the only honest-to-goodness one in existence!). The foregone conclusion is that our time is limited, and the time that each of us has left available to us grows shorter and shorter with every breath that we take. Both of us have less time to live right now than we did at the beginning of this sentence. That is our reality.
Does this mean that since our demise is unavoidable and inescapable that we should just curl up into a ball and wait for death to finally claim us?? I don't think so... but I will discuss this later on.
I said earlier that many of us never contemplate our mortality, and I asked what happens when we are forced to contemplate our mortality. Well, I cannot answer for how this may affect anybody else, but I will share how it has affected me, and, to some degree, how it has shaped my life.
I have had many intimate confrontations with death, and with near death, in my lifetime, of others in the first case, and of others and myself in the latter.
The first time I ever came into contact with a death, and by this I mean specifically a human death, was when I was approximately five years old. At the time, we were living in dependent housing on the U.S. Naval Air Station in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. My brother's father, (my step-dad), was a sailor, and he was stationed there at the time. It was either 1963 or 1964, and my grandmother's sister, Emma, who we all called "Mrs. Popsy" (don't ask.. I have no idea) was visiting our house. We were sitting at the kitchen table, having our breakfast when Mrs. Popsy collapsed and fell out of her chair to the floor. My mom, understandably, became very upset, and began to cry, hysterically. Being only five years of age, and not knowing how to contact the police or ambulance (I don't believe there was a 911 system in effect at the time... either way, if there was, I wasn't aware of it.) I knew that something had to be done, though I wasn't particularly clear on what that might be. My mom didn't seem to be all that much of help at the moment, and I had no clue what phone number I should dial, not to mention that the phone was well out of my reach, and with Mrs. Popsy stretched out on the kitchen floor, looking decidedly gray and waxy, I knew that it would be somewhat dodgy trying to get a kitchen chair properly placed so that I could climb up on it to dial the phone in any case. I decided that I needed an adult who was not emotionally involved (yet) to lend a hand. I ran next door, in my pajamas, and banged on the side-door of the neighbor's house. When she came to the door, I told her what had happened, and that I thought we needed an ambulance, or the police, or perhaps the fire department, but that we definitely needed something, and that my mom was crying, and that I didn't know how to call them, and that the phone was to high up, so, would she ever mind calling them and asking them to come to our house, and if she would, I promise not to throw any more crab apples against the side of their house??
The neighbor came through, the call was made, and the ambulance arrived in short order to remove Mrs. Popsy from the kitchen floor. My poor mom was shaking like a leaf, and felt somehow responsible for Mrs. Popsy's death for many years to follow. I was summarily whisked off to the neighbor's house and plopped in front of the black & white television with a cream cheese and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk. I had never heard of a creamed cheese and jelly sandwich, and though it sounded positively vile to me, I went ahead and ate it, not wanting to offend the neighbor's sensibilities, or to somehow cause my mother any embarassment; particularly on this day, which hadn't really started off so well for her. Or, for that matter... for Mrs. Popsy. The cream cheese and jelly sandwich turned out to be pretty darned tasty.
When I was perhaps nine or ten years old, I was living with my grandparents. Both of them were drinkers, and though they were kind to me and showed me a great deal of love and affection, one of the downsides was that I spent a great deal of time hanging around in bars. For a child, there generally isn't much interest in the goings-on inside of a bar, and for the most part after the first coke and slim-jim are gone, and after having collected the last of the juke-box quarters, the goal is to try to get whichever adult that has brought you to the bar to take you home before the ride becomes a bumper-car ride, or worse, a horror-show (having experienced both, I wanted neither, but thanks for offering...).
We had been in this particular bar from about 7pm or so... it was now 2 or 3 in the morning, and I had school the next day and wanted in the worst way to go home. I had been pestering my grandparents to leave, and kept getting the standard "as soon as I finish this drink" answer.... (that time never, ever arrives, in case you were wondering...).
Disgusted, and sick of the drunks and the smoke, I went outside into the night and leaned against the wall, mostly feeling sorry for myself, but enjoying the fresh air. It was a foggy night, and we were very close to the water (New York Harbor). I heard a man yelling incoherently in the distance, but didn't really give it much thought. After a time, I realized that he was coming closer, but was not able to see him through the fog.
Eventually, a shadowy figure coalesced out of the mist, and I could see that he was carrying something in his left hand. It looked like a cloth bag or something, and every so often, I suppose as a punctuation mark to whatever he was yelling, he would turn and swing the bag in an arc, slamming it against the fender of a parked car, or against a telephone pole. As he got closer, I noticed that the bag was dripping blood in a thin line of droplets along the sidewalk, and onto the objects that he was hitting. I focused a little more closely at the 'bag' that he was carrying, and nearly flinched out of my clothes when I saw what he was carrying... to my abject horror, it was a baby, not a bag at all...and he was carrying it by the legs. I have no idea how old the baby was, but I would have to say less than a year old. Even at that age, I could recognize that peculiar limpness that only something dead exhibits.
I ran like hell back into the bar, and yelled to anyone who would listen that there was a crazy man trying to kill a baby outside (as it turns out, this was a bit of hopeful thinking on my part as the poor little thing was long since out of its misery...). A crowd of inebriated, and partially inebriated bar patrons crowded to the front window for a gander, and after a horrified second, having apparently reached a consensus, all began shouting at the bartender to call the police. It soon became apparent to us that some other witness or witnesses had already put in the call, because right then numerous police cars pulled up and placed the man under arrest.
The newspaper reports later said that he had been left to watch his girlfriend's baby, and something had gone terribly wrong (more likely, something was already terribly wrong, and only manifested itself on that evening...). After that sobering occurence, I finally got what I had wanted all along, and we went home immediately... but I wasn't able to sleep a wink, and ended up staying home from school anyway. Just as well, crying in school isn't generally looked upon as an acceptable practice at any rate.
Over the ensuing years, I became better and better acquainted with death in its many and intricate forms. I witnessed a schoolmate's death when he was struck and killed while riding a mini-bike, was sitting across another boy who had his head knocked almost off by a street sign as he hung out the window to taunt his friends.
I saw a crossing guard get run down in front of me, saw another kid struck and killed by lightning as he climbed a chain-link fence during an electrical storm (bad idea, he stuck there... like a mosquito on one of those electric grills). I was present when the owner of the corner gas station shot and killed another man who was attempting to break into the vehicles parked in the lot awaiting service, and saw numerous 'floaters' that washed up on the beach by my home (or bits of them...). At the time, I lived on the north shore of Staten Island, just alongside the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and it would seem that the currents in the surrounding waters conspired to deposit anybody who turned up dead in the local waters right on that beach.
My grandmother and I were parked at the curb when a despondent man leaped from the 15th floor of the apartment building where he had lived up to that moment, crashing through the skylight in the overhanging marquis that covered the semi-circular drive in front of the building, and striking the pavement perhaps 20 feet from where I was sitting. I had just happened to be looking up at the building when the man jumped, but didn't have the presence of mind to even say anything before he hit the ground.
While working as a helper on a milk truck, I inadvertently discovered the corpse of one of our customers; a woman who had decided to attempt a lye douche in an attempt, apparently, to abort an unwanted fetus. The milk that we had delivered the previous visit had been left to sour in front of the door, and maggots were beginning to creep out from under the door.
I returned to the truck and told Ray, the milkman, what I had found.
We went back together, and found that the door was locked. While he went to find a phone with which to summon police (no such thing as a cell phone in those days), I went around back and found the sliding glass door slightly ajar. I stuck my head in and pushed the curtain out of the way, and was horrified by the macabre sight that greeted me that day; She was lying in her bed, nude. Her skin had horribly discolored with decomposition, and she had huge blisters where the gas produced by bacteria had pushed the skin away from the underlying flesh. Some of them had broken open, and had weeped fluids out onto the bed. She had been wearing some jewelry.. rings, and bracelets, and where these were, the skin around them had bloated, leaving constricted rings where the jewellry was. The lye had eaten away at her genital area, as well as the upper portion of her inner thighs, and the bone and tendons gleamed through whitely. Fluids that had leaked from her body had been soaked up by the mattress and bedclothes, creating concentric rings of color where the fluid had been diffused by the material in the mattress. Where her eyes were supposed to be where two knots of squirming maggots. The stench was unbearable, and unforgettable. I was frightened, horrifed, disgusted, and saddened... for I had known her, peripherally, and she had always been bright and pleasant to me. I felt intrusive to have seen her so. Gagging, and on the verge of vomiting, I fled... tears streaming down my face. I couldn't understand, at the time, why anybody would have voluntarily done such a thing. Over the years, as I gained more life experience, I was more able to empathize with all of the thoughts and feelings that must have been going through her head, and all of the fears that she must have struggled with that finally ended in her taking such a drastic step. I think that her choices were bad, but I don't judge her. It feels somehow wrong to me that I don't even know her name.
A friend of mine killed herself by leaping from the Bayonne bridge, which spans the Kill Van Kull; the body of water which separates Staten Island from New Jersey. She jumped from the exact same spot her mother had jumped from exactly two years before. None of us expected it. Maybe we should have. Whether or not we could have done anything to prevent her death is question without an answer. Suicide, my friends, is terribly contagious. If life gave us do-overs, that is definitely one situation that I would like to have a try at.
Early one morning, while walking to the bus stop on my way to school, I came across the body of a man sitting in a parked vehicle, who had apparently been shot to death. It later turned out that he was the victim of a suspected mob hit, or so the rumors said, at least. I don't suppose it made any difference to the poor bastard who got shot, though.
When I was 16 years old, while walking along Bay Street in Staten Island early one summer morning, I saw a vehicle come tearing down one of the intersecting streets, maybe 80 feet away from where I was walking, shoot across both lanes of traffic (thankfully, there was just about no traffic at that hour of the morning), bouncing over a concrete median that separated them in the process, then continued on without reducing speed, by crashing through the concrete wall and falling to the ground 15 or 20 feet below. The vehicle's forward momentum carried it forward just enough to skim the top of the vehicle off against the steel I-beam situated on the underside of the elevated train tracks that ran parallel to Bay Street. I saw the vehicle hit the ground and bounce. It rose up on two wheels, and seemed perilously close to flipping over before finally settling back on all four wheels, and slowly rolling to a stop. A huge cloud of steam rose from the passenger compartment of the vehicle, and even from my vantage point, I could see that this wasn't going to turn out well at all. Something was nagging my brain about the vehicle, on top of everything else, but, under the present circumstances, I didn't have the presence of mind to address it at the time. I ran to the nearest pay phone, which was across the street, and called 911. Once I knew they were on the way, I found a way down to where the vehicle had come to rest, in hopes of being able to help in some way. As soon as I took my first look into the vehicle, I knew there was no hope. There were two passengers, both female. Both were obviously very, very dead. I say this because the driver's head was on the floor behind the driver's seat, and the passenger was practically cut in two, and her insides were stretched across the passengers seat-back, which had been broken and was lying back in an almost horizontal position. Her upper torso was scrunched unnaturally into the rear corner formed by the back seat and the side wall of the vehicle... what made this a particularly macabre scene is that the lower portion of her body was on the floor in front of the front passenger seat, legs folded beneath her rear-end. What made it most upsetting was that I recognized her. She was the mother of two of my friends. They were sisters. We hung out together practically every day. I only knew the mother peripherally, because both girls were living with their grandparents. Apparently, the mother had left the girl's father, because she had become involved with the woman who had been driving this vehicle (that was what had been nagging me about the car! I had seen it plenty of times when the mother and this woman had stopped by to visit the girls and their grandparents). As it turned out, the relationship apparently hadn't worked out all that well. (Well, as far as I'm concerned, any relationship that ends up with both parnters dead of unnatural causes which have been engineered by at least one of the partners is definitely on the rocks). When she, (the girl's mom), made her choice, I don't suppose she had any idea how it would end up for her. What I didn't look forward to was the sad meeting when I would have to tell both of the girls that their mom was gone. It sucked. Both girls were almost destroyed by the news. Neither of them was ever the same again, as far as I could tell. Something had gone from them.
When I was in the Air Force, stationed in Greece, one of the guys we worked with hanged himself. When we found him, it was much too late to do anything other than summon security police, and stand watch over the scene until they arrived. He was a little guy.. and hanging there, he looked impossibly small. The dead always look small, and somehow deflated.
Later, when stationed in Korea, I witnessed three men get vaporized when the fuel storage tank that they were working on exploded. The concrete lid was found lodged in the ground almost a half-mile away. Of the men, nothing was ever recovered. We had been standing at the top of a hill called 'Hill 180' looking across the base at the top of 'Hill 170' (catchy names, I know...). The fuel dump was at the foot of Hill 170. There was a change in the air first, then a flash and a low 'Whump!', and we could actually see the ring of overpressure moving away from the blast. It was eerie.
I left the Air Force and joined the Army, and during basic training, while on a morning physical training run, the soldier next to me dropped dead on the spot. He had apparently been born with a congenital heart defect, and nobody ever caught it. He was 19 years old.
I was subsequently stationed in a Ranger Battalion, and during my time there witnesses numerous training accidents, and a few combat related deaths. Two soldiers 'burned in' on a jump, landing less than 70 feet from where I stood. They were both running as fast as they could when they hit the ground the first time. The next few times, they were limp as rag dolls. When their rucksacks hit the ground, I heard two distinct pops, after which cheeze-whiz and shaving cream began spaghetti-ing out of the drain-hole grommets on the underside of the outside pockets of the rucksack (the force of the fall had ruptured the cans, I guess...) There were two drownings. The second one I recovered, as one of the SCUBA trained soldiers in the unit. We found him over a week later, and the fish and crabs had been at him. His fingertips were less than 10 inches from the surface of the water. His 'rubber-ducky', or training rifle, which is a non-firing replica made of metal and hard rubber, and which was attached to his LCE (Load Carrying Equipment - sort of a belt with suspenders) by a 6' length of cord, had caught under a root and held him under water. He could have just shed his LCE and he would have been able to swim to shore. When I pulled him into the boat, I almost had a heart attack as numerous hagfish slithered out of various holes in him, and flopped over the side in a frantic attempt to get back to water. Water isn't kind to us when we are left in it for any time. On one of our Panama deployments, one of the guys was accidentally shot in the head with a .12 gauge shotgun slug. We had to tackle and hold the soldier who shot him in order to prevent him from killing himself on the spot. They had been close friends.
No less than three Rangers committed suicide during the time I was a member of the unit. One hanged himself in a tree, naked, in full view of the company as we made our right face to begin morning PT (physical training). Apparently, his marriage had taken a turn for the worse, and he didn't want to remain in this place any longer, I suppose. I didn't know him, personally, but the sight of his white, thin body slowly turning up there stayed in the front of my thoughts for quite some time. The next one was on a beautiful sunny spring day. I was on CQ (charge of quarters) duty, and we had set up a field table just outside the barracks entrance door to enjoy the sunshine. The phone cord was long enough to reach, and we were happily chatting and talking with soldiers as they came and went on their business. One soldier had been walking back and forth up the long sidewalk alongside the road that ran past the Ranger barracks. A few of us had taken notice of him, and began to wonder what he was up to, walking back and forth with no apparent goal in mind. One of the guys yelled out to him, asking if he had lost something. He answered that he had, but that he thought he may have found it. This struck us as a rather cryptic answer, but we didn't give much thought to it at the time. He eventually got into his vehicle, and sat there, doing nothing. We took notice of this, once again, after some period of time. When he noticed that we were looking at him, he smiled and then put a Ruger .44 Magnum pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was dead before I sprung to my feet. Nobody ever worked out what his reasons were. He was smiling at us the second or so before he shot himself. The third suicide was also a hanging. We found him hanging from one of the obstacles in our obstacle course. Marital problems again.
On the island of Grenada, October of 1983, a number of us came under fire from a pair of hostiles holed up under the porch of one of the houses overlooking the airfield. We took cover underneath a Russian made deuce-and-a-half truck. Standing under there, with bullets pounding the metal, it sounded as though hundreds of mad dwarves were beating on the truck with sledgehammers. One of the guys was carrying an M-60 machine gun, and he dropped to a prone position, and began firing three-round bursts in an attempt to force the shooters to keep their heads down so that the rest of us could maneuver to a position where we could begin putting some fire onto them with any degree of accuracy. (they were firing down at us from a hill, and our return fire was going harmlessly over their heads). After he had fired perhaps eight three-round bursts, a bullet struck him in the right cheek, travelled underneath his jawbone, and lodged in the back of his neck. He began to bleed profusely, all the while firing three-round bursts until he no longer had the capacity control his voluntary muscle movements, when the gun began firing a final continuous burst until the belt of ammunition ran out. I looked down, and saw blood pooling around my boots. We began working on him, trying frantically to keep him alive, but what we didn't know is that the round had clipped a good sized chunk out if the inner aspect of his carotid artery. One of the Ranger Physician's Assistants (in a Ranger battalion, as in a Special Forces unit, we have both Phyician's Assistants and Special Forces medics) was flinging hemostats at us from a position further down slope from where we were located. Nobody was able to move in the open for fear of being killed on the spot. Indeed, I could feel bullets tearing through my clothing, and striking my equipment. One round tore a furrow into the web strapping on the outside of my right jungle boot. (I still have one round, and a few pieces of copper jacketing from some of the bullets that were (thankfully) spent enough to simply run out of steam after piercing my uniform; I found them upon removing my clothes after returning to Savannah, which was our home base. We continued to try to use the hemostats to pinch off the carotid artery, while others were performing CPR on what eventually became apparent to us all was a lifeless body. Later that same day, we discovered the burned out shell of one of our gun jeeps that had been hit by a rocket propelled grenade, an RPG-7. Four badly burned bodies of Rangers were at the scene. It was a very somber moment for us, as we stood there looking over what remained of our fellow Rangers. There was more death to come that day, in some cases, I was the instrument of that death, as a member of a scout sniper team. In those cases, it was a methodical, deliberate action on my part, but I knew that in so doing, I was perhaps saving the lives of my fellow soldiers. What was later described as "errant ground fire" struck and killed a pilot of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter while he was piloting the aircraft. The round entered the lower front observation screen and went unter the pilot's helmet, striking him in head and killing him instantly. The aircraft auto-rotated to the ground, slammed into a hillside, and rolled over, crushing the hapless Rangers who were sitting in the open doorway under the fuselage. One was thrown through the rotors, and a few us wore parts of him for the next few days.
I returned to Korea in January of 1985, and during the next few years, death paid a call on a number of people. I was assigned to a detail as a "UP" which stands for Unit Patrol. We assisted the town patrol (military police) because they were suffering from critically low manning. On one particular night, we responded to a call of a naked american soldier, who was both intoxicated and screaming in the streets. Upon locating the man, we learned from him that he had gone to a local house of ill repute, and, according to him, had encountered something horrific, though he wouldn't elaborate. Instead, when he was pressed for details, he fell to the ground, curled into a fetal position, and trembled as he quietly sobbed, lost somewhere in the secret recesses of his mind. A Korean National Police Officer had responded as well, and we all trooped off to the location that the soldier had specified, leaving the man with another group of MPs to be either questioned, or dealt with accordingly, depending upon how this whole thing panned out. We arrived and upon trying to enter, were barred by a middle-aged korean woman, and a rather large korean man, who, apparently, was the muscle in charge of security on the premises. After a few carefully chosen words by the KNP officer, the two immediately backed off, but looked worried. The KNP led the way through a warren of small cubicles that had been constructed by partitioning the building off with cheap plywood walls. Flimsy curtains served as doors. The sounds of clients getting what they had paid for was audible here and there. It was a dark, dingy, and altogether depressing place. The KNP unabashedly stuck his head through doorways as we moved along the hallway, until finally, he gasped in surprise and disgust. We cautiously entered the cubicle behind him, and in the harsh light of our flashlights, were treated to a ghastly sight. The soldiers clothes were piled in a corner of the room, so we knew that we had found what had been so upsetting to him. On a cot lay a woman... perhaps a young girl, perhaps not... it was hard to tell. She was suffering from some terribly degenerative disease.. perhaps syphillis, I don't know. One side of her upper face was missing, and the entire lower portion of her face as well. White bone gleamed in the flashlit cubicle, stunning us all to shocked silence. In her lower abdomen was hole, perhaps 3 1/2 to 4" in diameter, where the disease had eaten away the flesh and the muscle beneath. She lay there, obviously unaware of our presence, making inhuman mewling sounds in the dark. I don't really know what words to use to describe how I felt, standing there staring down at her in horror, but my lips, fingers and toes were tingling, and I could feel my knees trembling. I was embarassed that the others would see my knees knocking together and think less of me for it. My first thought was gratitude and relief that it was her and not me lying there like that... my next thought was guilt and shame for thinking the first thought, and my third thought was anger and indignation that anyone would allow her to be left like this, and, to add insult to injury, profit by allowing her to be used and defiled. I was extremely shamed in the presence of the KNP because the last 'customer' she had had was one of my own countrymen. As I thought this, I looked up at him, and he, most likely mirroring my own thoughts looked up at me at the same moment. Both of us were white faced, and had tears streaming down our faces at this...travesty. He looked back down at her, and, wiping the tears from his eyes, he seemed to arrive at a difficult decision. With an air of resolve, he picked the woman up from the cot that was lying on, and carried her outside. With question marks hovering over our heads, we followed him outdoors, having no clue what was going to happen next. He placed her gently on the ground, and without so much as a glance in our direction, drew his sidearm and shot her twice in the head in rapid succession. It was apparent to me that this action took a great deal out of him. He seemed to deflate visibly. Then, drawing himself up, he pounded on the door of a local resident, a farmer, and when the bleary eyed man came to the door, ordered the man to bury the unfortunate woman and wrote out a chit for recompense, presumably from some agency for that purpose. When he turned back towards the building he had just taken the woman out of, the look on his face made me thankful that I was not one of the people responsible for the woman's misuse. This was the moment that the MP with whom I was assigned for this night's patrol decided that pending further investigation, no further American presence was required at the scene. We departed, and continued on with the rest of the night's patrol without incident of any note. My mind, however, couldn't let go of the scene that replayed in my head over and over of the woman's body flinching with the first impact of the bullets that tore through her skull, and the shudder and cadavaric spasm that followed, before going limp.... forever. Sometimes, even today, that particular memory will catch me by surprise by intruding on my thoughts when I am off my guard.
My first sergeant's son went missing, and after a week of fruitless searching by most of the soldiers in our unit, the military police, and Korean authorities, his body was finally found. He had been struck in the head, with a fire extinguisher, and then drowned in a puddle while unconscious by the son of a foreign ambassador to the Republic of Korea. The perpetrator was never charged with any crime, as he enjoyed the priveledge of diplomatic immunity. We later heard that the Korean government had quietly requested through the diplomat's host goverment that he and his family be recalled. So, apparently, they had simply packed their belongings, boarded a plane, and flew home. My first sergeant was never the same again in all the time that I knew him.
In a fire fight in Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone, we shot and killed a number of soldiers from the other side as they pursued a few Bulgarian soldiers who defected to the U.S. by fleeing across the border towards us on foot.
On the Korean Army installation that I was assigned to for a good part of my second tour in Korea, we were awakened in the night by the sound of gun fire. Hastily grabbing our weapons and organizing a quick response, we were shocked and saddened to learn that a distraught Korean soldier had gone through his barracks, methodically shooting and killing all the soldiers who were asleep there, before turning the weapon on himself. Blood was literally running out of the doorway in a small red river. Most of the poor bastards never knew what hit them, but it was apparent that a few had tried to either fight or flee, but were cut down before they were able to move more than a step or two.
While temporarily assigned to teach drill and ceremonies to foreign members of the UNC Honor Guard, which was the ceremonial unit at U.S. Army Garrison, Yongsan, in Itaewon-Dong, Seoul, Republic of Korea, I was present when, in an attempt to exercise on-the-spot discipline, a Korean Marine sergeant punched an Air Force private in the chest. To everyone's horror, the man dropped to the ground, dead.
Not more than a few days after that, another member of the Korean contingent of the honor guard shot and killed himself while on guard duty. We discovered him when his relief didn't find him at his post. After a cursory search of the area, we found him on the ground a short distance away from where he was supposed to have been. He wasn't immediately visible in the darkness. None of us had any clue that he was contemplating this act, or why. All he left behind was a series of unanswered questions.
A few months later, the sentry on guard at the gate of the Korean Army installation where I was assigned received a visit from a frantic woman who had been driven to the gate by a man on a bicycle. She claimed there was a terrible accident involving soldiers from this unit at a railroad crossing a few miles away. This didn't sound good at all. A few soldiers stayed with the woman in the event any further information was forthcoming from her if she was able to calm down sufficiently, and a couple of the special forces teams mounted various vehicles and we headed to the location with the man who had brought her to the gate to show us the way. The jeep was unrecognizable. It was a twisted mass of spidery metal. The bodies of the four soldiers who had occupied the vehicle were strewn about over a distance of about 150 feet. Some were in pieces, and all had been knocked completely out of their clothing, except for thier underpants, and in two cases, one sock each. What kind of force does it take to knock you completely out of your clothes, boots included??
I was sent back to the states on emegency leave... my grandfather was critically ill. I flew into O'Hare Airport, in Chicago, and immediately called the number of my grandfather's room. It rang and rang, but nobody answered, so I called back... Finally, a man answered, and when I asked for my grandfather, he began to sputter a little... I asked him if my grandfather had passed away... and he said that he wasn't really supposed to give out that sort of information. I told him that I had just flown back from Korea, and that I still had a long flight ahead of me. I asked him to please tell me if he had died, so that I wouldn't keep my hopes up unnecessarily, and so that I could have time to adjust before I had to face the rest of my family.... he was silent for a few moments, then he simply said, "I'm very sorry...". It was a long flight from Chicago to New York knowing that my Pop was already gone. After the funeral, it was even a longer flight back to Korea for me, with the weight of my grandfather's loss hanging heavily on my shoulders.
I was subsequently assigned to a different unit, during which I had cause to witness no less than four suicides committed by individuals who were on the verge of capture by south korean authorities. In one case, two individuals who had been cornered on a rocky beach gathered whatever incriminating documentation they could get their hands on in the few seconds afforded them, and pulling the pins on the long handled grenades that they carried, hugged them to their abdomens and died within a second or two of one another as the grenades exploded, strewing their internal organs over a four or five square foot area around them. The other two were by self-inflicted gunshot wound, and poison, respectively. Poisoning is not a method that I would voluntarily choose, should I ever decide to engineer my own death.
I left active duty service and worked as an executive protective specialist for a year or so, during which time, thankfully, I had no close contact with death whatsoever. However, when I decided to embark on a new career as a police officer, that would drastically change. Before I had finished the police academy, we had searched one homicide scene in which the victim had had his head crushed by a large chunk of concrete. Also, as a part of our training, we attended an autopsy. Elysia was standing right beside me as the medical examiner dissected the cadaver who had been chosen for this particular autopsy. We were a little surprised by how matter of factly the task was undertaken. The Y-shaped cut that initiated the procedure was executed by a technician with a utility knife... the type with the retractable blade that just about everybody has at home in a tool box or a junk drawer. A clipper, of the sort used to prune branches from trees, was used to cut away a section of ribs over the chest cavity. As the autopsy progressed, the ME removed various organs from the body and cut sections away for laboratory analysis. Some of the contents of the intestine spilled out at one point, and splattered the dead man's feet and legs. The ME removed his tongue, and without a thought, draped it over the man's right ankle to free his hands up while he performed some other task. This was the same ankle that had just been splattered with fecal matter. I was unaccountably offended by this, and voiced it by saying, "No offense, but this guy probably spent most of his 32 years trying his damndest to keep his tongue out of shit... is that really necessary?? I mean... what the fuck?!?!" He said, "He can't taste anything with that tongue... he's dead." (as if I hadn't been able to put that together on my own, and the corpse with his guts spread all over hell by now....). I just continued to stare at him, silently, and finally, he removed the tongue from the man's leg. "Can you give it rinse in the sink there?" I added... and, with an exasperated sigh, he rinsed the tongue, and continued on with the autopsy. It was the man's 32nd birthday, we learned. He had been an alcoholic, and his liver was diseased and damaged from years of abuse.
Once I got out onto the road, the deaths came fast and furiously; car accidents, shootings, stabbings, drownings, victims of fire, heart attack, natural causes, beatings, slashings, train accidents, electrocutions, plane crashes, hit-and-runs, heat stroke, construction accidents, falls, animal attacks, accidents involving heavy machinery, mishandled loads, hazardous materials, explosives... if you can die from it, I saw the results. Without realizing it at the time, it began to take a toll on my spirit.
Meanwhile, while serving as a reserve drill sergeant in the army, I had one troop hang himself one night, and not long after, one of the drill sergeants who worked for me (I was a company senior drill sergeant at the time...) choked on a chicken bone while driving and crashed into a concrete abutment. The same day as I returned from the scene of the accident where he was killed and oversaw the disposition of his personal effects and the notification of his next-of-kin, I received notification from my department to respond to a scene to act as a translator for the homicide bureau (some korean people, out picking kosari, a type of fern, discovered the badly decomposed body of a woman who was later identified as one of the victims of serial killer Joel Rifkin), so, I headed out there and did my best to obtain statements from the poor badly shaken-up folks who had stumbled across the body.
Of the hundreds of calls where death had made an appearance, some few have remained vivid in my mind over the passing years. In keeping with the spirit of this post, I will share a few of them with you here.
One of the earliest calls that I received, which has stuck in my mind, involved a motorcycle accident where the motorcyclist had apparently been thrown from the motorcycle and struck a telephone pole. Where it became particularly dodgy was when the unfortunate man's head struck a protruding nail, which subsequently penetrated both his helmet, and, strangely, his skull. This made it appear at first glance as though he was simply standing with his face to the pole, and his knees slightly bent. It was a grotesque and unnerving sight.
I was still in field training when we responded to a call of a heart attack victim. We responded to the address, and learned that the man had been attending a family birthday party when he suddenly collapsed to the ground. He was wearing a cardboard birthday hat, which contrasted starkly with his purple face, bulging eyes, and grimace. I initiated CPR and continued working on him in the ambulance. Twice he vomited on me, and twice I got a faint heartbeat which lasted a few seconds before he once again went into cardiac arrest. I cleaned up after arriving at the hospital, and learned as I was leaving that he passed away. I still see his face in my mind, and think about what memories his poor family must carry about that day.
We got a call of a dump truck with the bed stuck in the up position, touching the high-tension electrical wires overhead. We responded immediately, and as we were pulling up to the scene, saw the driver jump from the cab and, miraculously, land safely on the ground. Upon turning around and surveying the situation, however, he made the imprudent decision to attempt to use the exterior bed controls on the vehicle. He took a single step and what looked like lightning arced from the side of the truck and killed him on the spot. The force of the shock turned him inside out and cooked him as thoroughly as though he had spent two or three hours in an oven. I gained a very deep respect for electricity on that day, and had recurring dreams where I kept having do-overs in an attempt to stop him from taking that one step, but not once did I ever manage to save him... even in my dreams.
A vehicle lost control, swerved, and struck a 9 year old girl on a bicycle, then jumped the curb and came to a stop. The girl was trapped beneath the vehicle, in fact the oil pan was pinning her head to the ground, when we arrived. I crawled under the vehicle to try to treat her or help her in any way that I could until the ambulance and emergency services trucks arrived. I told her my name, asked her hers, and asked her how she was doing... she looked at me with tears in her eyes, and begged me not to let her die. I promised her that she wouldn't die, and told her that she was going to be fine. The ambulances, fire vehicles, and emergency services crews all arrived, and when they lifted the vehicle from her, despite our best efforts to stabilize her neck... she died. I broke my promise. She was 9.
I responded to a one vehicle accident, where the motorist had lost control, drove off the road, and struck a tree. When I arrived, she was conscious, but her foot was trapped beneath the brake pedal. Her ankle was definitely broken. We attempted to use a rope to pull the brake pedal away from her foot with the police vehicle, but there wasn't enough room to pass the rope through without the risk of causing further pain or injury. I had notified the dispatcher to start rescue, and begun to treat her, taking her blood pressure, checking her for further injuries, and starting oxygen therapy. I told her my name, asked her hers, and noticed that the steering wheel was pushing against her abdomen... she appeared 7 to 8 months pregnant to me. I asked her if she was having any difficulty breathing, and she said that her breathing was fine, but that she starting to feel slightly dizzy. This caused a flag to go up in my mind, and I asked her when she was due. "Due for what?" she asked, and I tried to recover by saying, "Oh, I'm sorry... I thought you were pregnant....". When she failed to answer, I looked up at her face, (I was squatting beside the open door), only to see that in the moment it took me to answer her, she had left this place. I could hear the sirens as the ambulance raced towards us... I keyed the mike on my radio, and requested via the dispatcher that the ambulances slow it down, as it was no longer an urgent situation.... It turned out that the steering wheel, in striking her chest, had caused a small tear in her aorta, which, gradually weakened until it finally tore wide open, causing her to hemhorrage to death internally. I was later told that had she been lying on a fully equipped operating table at the time this occurred, nothing could have been done to save her. My thoughts on this are that most people are kind, and wouldn't want someone to carry a burden such as this unnecessarily. I don't know whether there was anything more I could have done. But, I have always, and probably always will wonder if I might have done things differently, if it would have changed the way it turned out.
There were a few train accidents and/or suicides, two were particularly disturbing to me. In one case, a young man had decided that the world was no longer a tolerable place for him to remain, and had made the decision to lay upon the railroad tracks in order to put an end to his life, for whatever reasons he had for doing so.... I take particular offense to this, because by doing so, one necessarily involves the operator of the train in a situation that involves the loss of a human life where he or she was afforded neither the choice, nor the means to avoid being involved. It is inflicted. This person then carries this for the rest of his or her life. It isn't fair.... anyway, this lad laid alongside the tracks with his neck on one rail. A train came along, and he was killed, as planned. We received the call, placed by a shaken railroad employee, and upon our arrival found the body, but could not find the head that belonged to it.... .... .... or any disembodied head whatsoever, now that I think about it... We conducted successively wider searches of the immediate area, and had someone check the underside of the train, all with no luck. Finally, another officer and myself began walking along the tracks, but back along the tracks in the opposite direction from which the train was travelling. After about 150 to 200 feet, we found the head. It was sitting upright dead center on a railroad tie, facing straight down the center of the tracks. By this I mean that it looked as though someone had placed it there. It stands to reason that if a head simply came to rest after being bounced along for any appreciable distance, that it would have been on it's side, or face down, or, if right side up, the face would be turned perhaps, slightly, or quite a bit to one side or the other. In this case, however, if an imaginary center line had been drawn between the tracks, the nose of the head would have been sighting exactly along it. It was weird. What's more; it (the head) wasn't bruised, cut, scraped, or, for that matter, dirty, other than one small smudge on the cheek. So. We have a head, some 200 feet or so from the body, placed dead center on the railroad tie, apparently oriented to appear as though it was looking back down the tracks for the next approaching train, and it doesn't have a mark on it to speak of......well, to us, it was downright suspicious! There had to be something foul and nefarious going on here.... but, when the investigation reached its completion, it turned out to simply be weird; the head was about two feet from where the lad had been struck. The body, however, had been dragged and rolled alongside the train for 200 feet! It was creepy-wierd walking up on a head. It looked as though someone had been buried up to the neck and would open their eyes at any moment and greet us..."Why, hello officers!! Lovely evening we're having, eh?" oh, man....
The next train incident stayed in my mind, and saddened my heart for other reasons. This occurred at the station, and was not a deliberate act, but an unfortunate and tragic accident. A commuter had somehow, and we were never able to piece it together... fallen in such a way that he became lodged between the body of the train, and the station platform... (there is approximately 2 to 3 inches of space there, folks... We received the call and responded. The victim was alive, and conscious, and we began to treat him and talk to him. The sergeant on the scene quietly directed one of the other cops to circumspectly move around and beneath the train to see if he could gauge the degree of injury the man had sustained. Emergency service was on the way with air bags with which to move the train away from the platform so that we could extricate the man. After a few minutes, the cop returned, white-faced, and with an almost imperceptable shake of his head, communicated to us the extent of the mans injuries. Below the level of the platform, there was nothing. He had been effectively cut in half, and the pressure of the train against the platform was the only thing keeping his blood and organs inside of him. When we moved the train, we would be, in effect, killing him. We moved away and discussed how we wanted to handle this, and how we would want it handled if it were one of us in his shoes (bad choice of words... I know...). I was elected to break the news to him, lucky me... (Welcome to Bear's world...) so I squatted down next to him, and basically told him that he was much more seriously injured than we had realized, and that basically, there was no way that he would be able to survive once we moved the train from him. I made sure he knew that there was no time pressure on us to move the train, and that we would work on any time-table he wished. I told him that if he wanted, that we would bring his family members there to be with him, by helicopter if need be (we were prepared to go and get them wherever they were). He asked if he could use a telephone, and one of the cops on the scene immediately offered his cell phone. Then man made a series of calls, each time getting a voice mail or an answering machine, and each time leaving a heartbreaking message.... telling the intended recipient that he loved them, and would always love them, and that he was sorry that he missed them. Finally, he asked for a pen and paper, and wrote a quick note to his wife, and then one to his children. By this time, he was beginning to succumb to pain and shock, and asked us to move the train before it became unbearable. He didn't want his family to remember him like this, he said, and wanted to pass on from this place before the pain forced him to lose his dignity... (his words). He thanked us all, and shook hands with those of us who had been there from the start. He then said some silent prayers, took my hand, closed his eyes, and nodded his assent. The emergency service cops inflated the airbags and moved the train the few inches necessary to allow us to pull him from between train and platform. I didn't see him die, because my eyesight was blurred with tears, but I felt him leave... I was holding his hand. I felt his weight, which wasn't all that much, increase as the train moved and freed him, and we gently lifted him to the platform and covered his remains. Thankfully, I was spared the job of delivering his notes to the family, and of making the death notification.
I got a call of a victim needing assistance, possibly unconscious, at a house in my assigned sector. I responded, and the wife of the victim told me that he was in the guest room, taking a nap, and wouldn't answer her knocks or her calls.... she then went on to say that the family's german shepard dog was in the room, and refused to allow anyone to enter. We contacted animal control, and had the dog removed from the premises. I entered immediately, and didn't see anyone lying in the bed. As I walked further into the room, I saw feet protruding from between the bed and the wall. I called the man's name as I approached, but received no answer.... I soon found out why; He had no head. At all. It was gone. There was very little blood, just some smears... We cordoned off the house, separated everyone, and had the homicide detectives respond. When all was said and done, it turned out that the man had died in his sleep of a heart attack, and the dog had eaten his head. I'm not quite clear on how the dog was able to do this... but I don't really think I need to know... The sound of crunching bones, and squelching, and god knows what else is already a hideous image in my mind. The man's wife had asked me if he was "allright?", in my mind, some insane part of me... most likely the part wanting to run out of there... answered silently (thank god!), "Sure, lady... he'll be fine... we just get him another head, snap it on, and he'll be good as new!" When it was determined that the dog had no part in causing the man's death, the decision was made not to have the dog put down, which, I think, was the right decision, somehow.... I shudder to think whether the dog licks peoples faces and hands now, though...
We were summoned to another house by a worried wife..... her husband, so she said, was in his "secret room" in the basement... (Secret room?). "Nobody is allowed to bother him when he's in there... but he hasn't come out in hours and he won't answer the door." Not sounding good to me. We pounded on the door, calling the man's name... all to no avail. When we finally received permission to break the door, we were greeted by a man dressed in panties, bra, boostier, fishnet stockings replete with garters, and spiked high heels, hanging from a velvet covered noose, in the center of a room plastered with pictures of transvestites, and other pornographic images. He had apparently managed to masturbate to orgasm, and had apparently cum and gone at the same time. I make no moral judgements here, to each his own... I just felt awkward because I had a sense that his wife was going to have a bit of a hard time with the circumstances surrounding her husband's death.
One sad case involved a woman who had pestered her brother to allow her to take the brother's daughter out for the day, against the child's mother's better judgement. This had apparently been an issue for quite some time, and the father of the child had finally managed to persuade the mother to allow his sister to take the baby out, against mom's instincts. Well, the woman took the baby to a yard sale, turned her back for what amounted to 20 seconds, during which time the child ran out into the street and was struck and killed instantly by a motor vehicle. It was a tragic and sad enough situation without the certain knowlege that this was going to completely tear that family apart...
I handled a motor vehicle accident in my sector, and took the paperwork, licenses, etc., to the hospital to give them to the drivers of the vehicles involved, both of whom had sustained injuries. I left the hospital and on my way back to my sector saw flames ahead of me that were maybe fifty or sixty feet tall. I asked the dispatcher whether there was a working fire in the area, and he said that he had no knowlege of any fire at all in the vicinity. As I got closer, I saw a pickup truck, in flames in the north bound lane of the county road I was travelling on... the south and northbound lanes are separated by a grass median perhaps 50 feet wide at that point. The fire was so hot, that I had a difficult time keeping my eyes open, as the fire was drying them out and causing me to squint. I approached the pickup, and pulled the driver out of the vehicle, dragging him a safe distance away where I laid him on the grass and began to treat him for the compound fracture of his arm. He asked me if the "other people" were alright... (???) I asked him how many people had been in the truck with him, and he said, "No..., the people in the other vehicle.." (WHAT other vehicle?!?!). I ran back to the vehicles, and sure enough, a passenger car was alongside the pickup, but had been blocked from my view from the angle that I initially approached the truck. I ran to the drivers side door and could see someone sitting in the drivers seat. I yelled, asking if he was alright, but got no answer... I made the mistake of touching the door handle, and it was like picking up a hot frying pan from the stove. I burned the hell out of my hand! About then, the tires on the pickup began exploding, and I felt shards of something tear into the backs of my legs and head (the rest of me was protected by a leather jacket). I smashed the drivers side window, but couldn't manage to budge the driver. It got too hot to breathe, so I ran around the rear of the vehicle to the passenger's side, and kicked the window out on that side, reached in and grabbed the driver's right arm at the wrist. I pulled with all my strength, but he didn't move. I braced my foot on the door of the vehicle, melting the sole in so doing, and used my back and legs in an attempt to pull the driver out, but to no avail. The fire quickly spread at that point, and when I saw the mans hair go up in flames, I pretty much had to admit to myself that it was a fatal accident. We weren't able to extricate the man's remains from the vehicle until the following morning. We had to cut the vehicle nearly in half and use rams to lift the center of the vehicle in order to lift the engine and steering column off of him. His pelvis was fractured in numerous places, and all of his internal organs had slid down into his scrotum, which was the size of a watermelon. He was burned beyond recognition from the nipples up. Further investigation revealed that he had written a suicide note, leaving it at his place of residence, he had then consumed almost a case of beer, and had then driven southbound in the northbound lane and had deliberately swerved in order to collide with the pickup truck.
In a house in my sector, the husband shot and killed his wife, the three children, his wife's parents and then himself. I drove by that house every single day.
A cop's wife, suffering from post partum depression, saw her husband off to work, then took the baby downstairs to the basement, covered it with a blanket, then reached under the blanket and shot it to death with her husband's off-duty pistol before shooting herself.
Around Christmas, my neighbor came and knocked at my door. I asked him to come inside, thinking that it was a holiday visit. He politely declined, explaining that he had just dropped by to inform me that his infant daughter had died earlier from an acute viral infection of the heart. He was a big man, and I liked him. It was very difficult to hold him while he sobbed his heart out and not to have a single thing to do that would fix it. I just held him and cried silently along with him.
I got a nasty surprise on Memorial Day weekend of 1990. A cop from NYPD called my house, and asked me if I was related to [woman's name and address], I replied that I was related, and that the person in question was my grandmother. I then asked how he had obtained my number and what the problem was. He said that he found the number in my grandmother's pocket book. (!!! My knees turned to water.... ). I asked again what the problem was, and he hesitated, then said that she had suffered a fall. I asked him how she was doing, and whether she was alright... (the fact that he had made the call rather than her didn't deter me from hoping that everything was fine). He started to backpedal and I told him that I was 'on the job' meaning that I was also a police officer... I told him where I worked, and told him that I could give him a telephone number with which to verify this.... (this was copspeak for "I won't screw you by making a stink about how you tell me the news.... I just want the truth.... you face no dangers or headaches from me"), he took a deep breath, (this wasn't going to be good), and said, "She fell down a steep metal flight of stairs....it doesn't look good". I asked him where she was being transported, and he told me the name of the hospital... I thanked him, hung up, and called the hospital emergency room a few minutes later. She was there already. I got a Filipino doctor, and in a brief conversation I explained who I was, and asked him what my grandmother's condition was. He also, understandably, hesitated.... I spoke with him for a few moments, and he went in to the trauma room where she was being treated... they were in a full-blown code, meaning that she was clinically dead and they were attempting to revive her, and after a few very tense minutes, she died. It was over. My grandmother would never again walk on this earth with me. I was heartbroken. The one saving grace about the whole thing was that the last time I spoke with her, the last thing we said to one another was, "I love you". When my grandmother died, I felt totally alone for the first time in my life. She was the one person who I knew loved me unconditionally, no matter what. I could call Nana and be assured that she would say or do something to make me feel better... even if it was only to be there. When I got my first glimpse of her in her casket, I passed out. I woke up lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, and wondering where I was. Since I was the only person in the room with her, and the doors were closed, nobody saw this, thankfully.
I handled a car accident in which the male driver and female passenger were killed. As we were removing them from the vehicle, we found a diaper bag on the passenger side floor of the vehicle. After a heart-stopping few seconds of letting all of the possible ramifications of this drop into place in our minds, we requested the fire department lift the vehicle with airbags so that we could check underneath. Finding nothing, we organized a grid search of the wooded area surrounding the accident scene. I have never looked so hard for something I prayed I wouldn't find. Towards morning, we found the tiny little body where it had struck a tree and fell to the ground after being ejected from the vehicle. The only small blessing was that the entire family passed on from this world together... if that can be considered a blessing. I suppose it can, depending upon how you look at it.
I got a call of a man requiring medical aid due to a gunshot wound. I arrived at the house, and smelled the acrid stench of cordite. I could see thin smoke in the air. I drew my weapon, not knowing what I was walking into, and as I slowly walked through the house, I slipped in something in the semi-darkness... as I looked down to see what I had stepped in, something warm and wet dropped from above and down the collar of my shirt... disgusted and horrified, I looked up to see a mess of blood and brains all over the ceiling. The man had a gunshot wound, alright.... he had taken his head off with a shotgun blast.
One night while training a newly graduated probationary police officer (PPO) (I was a field training officer, or, FTO), I had just dropped him off at the relief point, since he only worked until midnight, and I was working from 9PM until 7AM or so... (coincidentally, this was the same relief point where I had had the possum adventure a few years prior... for those of you who have been reading my blog...). I was driving to the precinct to turn in some paperwork, when the vehicle in front me, travelling at perhaps 20 miles per hour, if that, suddenly swerved, jumped the curb, and hit a sign post... and then continued to slowly roll forward with one set of tires on the road, and the other on the sidewalk. The vehicle was moving at a slower pace than one could walk at this point, so I exited the police vehicle, and approached the other vehicle, telling the driver to stop the car. I could see that it was a female by this time, and I could see the sign post that she had hit protruding from the windshield. The driver's window was open, so I finally reached in and shifted the car into park. With a snarl of clashing gears the vehicle finally came to a stop... I was in the process of asking the driver if she was alright when she slumped forward against the steering wheel. When she did this, copious amounts of blood and pretty much everything else that was in there spilled out onto the floor, her lap, and the dashboard. The sign post had somehow struck the woman, taking the right top section of her head off, and killing her. It was a freak accident, especially at that speed.... it gets freakier. As I was filling out the accident report, something about the woman's name kept nagging at me. It turned out that she was the sister of the PPO that I had dropped off moments before the accident occurred. If he had still been in the vehicle with me, I would have had a dramatically different situation on my hands.....
There was a hit in run involving a DWI motorist and a woman bicyclist. He struck her so hard that her legs and one arm separated from her body. I was guarding the crime scene when a man approached and asked whether I seen his wife, who was late coming home from her bike ride (flags immediately went up in my brain)... I asked him to describe her bicycle for me, and as he looked past me he said, "just like that..." and fainted. It was his wife... she left behind three small children, and all of their dreams together. Later, in the couple's small house, I had a hard time maintaining my composure with all of the photos and the huge prominently displayed marriage certificate that the woman had faithfully reproduced in beautiful embroidery. These two had loved one another dearly, and she had been snatched away from family with no warning, and no way back.
I handled a head on collision late one night... or early one morning, depending, I suppose, how you look at it. A young girl was driving one vehicle, and was killed instantly. As I was removing her body from the vehicle, I was startled to see that I knew her... she worked at the dry cleaners where I brought my uniforms and clothing to be cleaned... she couldn't have been older than 21 or 22.
At the end of a day-tour, we got a call to a house near the relief point to see a complainant... no further information available. We responded, and the wife said that she thought perhaps her husband had called, but that she hadn't called us. She said that he was "on the job" in the city, and she figured he wanted to give us information or something. We headed upstairs to where she said he was. As I got to the top of the stairs, I looked to my left through a doorway into what was the master bedroom. A man was standing in the middle of the room, facing the door. His right hand was out of sight behind his right leg. This made me somewhat uneasy, and I asked if I could see his hands. He said that he was on the job, and that it was alright. I explained that be that as it may, I would feel more comfortable if I coudl see both hands at once, and that that way, I could be sure that everyone was safe, and would remain so... he nodded, looked to one side, and his eyes filled with tears, and he began to silently cry. I asked what the matter was, and he explained that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that he didn't want his family to have to endure the pain of seeing him deteriorate and suffer from it. I asked him if he had gotten a second opinion, and explained that doctors, just like cops, sometimes make mistakes. It was as though he hadn't heard a word... he just kept saying that he couldn't let his family 'go through this'... He finally looked at me, right in the eye, said, "I love my wife.... I'm sorry", and in one fluid movement, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and shot himself. He fell to the floor, and blood ran from his nose, filling the hollows of his eyes as we tried to keep him alive. A piece of his skull, and a good portion of his brains splattered the bed where he and his wife had shared their love over the years that they were married. I will never understand how he could bring himself to do this. It turned out that he had never been diagnosed with any type of cancer. The autopsy showed no sign of any cancer, either. It remains a puzzle to this day.
We pursued a man on a motorcycle who had shot his girlfriend's father, injuring him. He finally came to a stop on the median of one of the local parkways. We were trying to talk him into putting the gun down, when he put the barrel under the motorcycle helmet and shot himself to death.
I dated a girl who had a drinking problem. She continuously drove while intoxicated, to the point where I broke off the relationship and went my own way after repeatedly trying to convince her to at least let me pick her up and drive her home, or take a taxi, or, more importantly - seek help. She adamantly refused, and I could see where this would end up, eventually. A few months later I got a phone call that she had crashed her vehicle on the way home from partying at a club. She died in the accident, and two of her friends were crippled. She was 23.
I got called to a house for a man injured in a fall. I pulled up in front of the house, and could see the wife washing dishes, apparently, through the kitchen window. I waved to her, and she smiled and waved back. She told me that her husband was in the back yard. As I walked down the driveway, I saw a chain saw hanging from a rope, one end of which was tied to a branch perhaps 20 feet off the ground. There was a rather large branch from the same tree lying on the ground. As I got closer, I saw that there was blood dripping from the chainsaw, and that, indeed, the chainsaw was literally covered in blood... Just then, I caught a glimpse of a man lying on the ground just on the other side of the fallen branch. It looked as though someone had taken the chainsaw and tried to saw him in half from the top of his head to his solar plexus.. but slightly on a diagonal.
The wife came out the back door just then, carrying a tray of refreshments, and beaming at me. (what the fuck?!). I asked her when she last spoke to her husband, and she told me she had just spoken to him a few seconds before I arrived. "After he fell?" I queried, and she replied, "Oh yes, officer...he was just saying that he was thirsty..." Well, he hadn't talked to anyone recently unless it was through a ouija board. As it turned out, the branch he had cut, while sitting on a lower branch of the same tree, had kicked back and knocked the chainsaw blade back into the poor bastards head, killing him. I don't have any idea what her issue was, though I suspect she was experiencing the worst case of denial this century. Poor woman.
I responded to a natural causes death of an elderly woman. At one point, her husband looked at me, shrugged, and said, "We were married for 52 years...what do I do now? What am I supposed to without her??" and he began to cry.... I visited him almost daily until he himself died a few months later...
One early morning, we got a call of an elderly male, suffering a heart attack. We arrived at the house, and strangely, nobody was frantically waving at us to hurry.... we knocked at the door, and someone finally ambled over and opened the door. An elderly woman and a 16 or 17 year old girl were watching cartoons on the television. Beyond them, we could see a man lying on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator, the door of which was still being held open by his body. A container of milk was lying on its side, the milk having poured out onto the floor.... we rushed over to him, and were somewhat taken aback by three people sitting at the kitchen table, no more than three or four feet from the victim, all quietly munching on their breakfast cereal, and reading box labels, newspapers, or what have you. We started CPR, and continued working on the man until rescue arrived and took over. They transported him to the hospital (he never regained consciousness), and we packed up our gear and tried fruitlessly to get information from the family so that we could write our reports.... after exchanging some meaningful looks at one another, the other cop and I simply left... I still have no idea what the hell that was about.
We received a call to a local supermarket where the caller stated that one of the female cashiers was missing. We found her in the employee restroom, nude except for the packing tape that bound her head and hands, draped over the toilet like some cast aside piece of garbage... the victim of a rape and homicide. She had been working to save money for her children's Christmas gifts, and some useless piece of shit had taken everything from her and left her behind without a thought. This was neither the first nor the last time I was witness to the depths of depravity and brutality that humans are capable and willing to inflict upon one another.
Sometimes, I only get to know someone after they are dead. Calls to check on the welfare, where I find the subject had passed away, and stay with them for hours until the medical examiner arrives to remove their body from the scene. Sitting there quietly with the dead, I wonder what they were like in life, and whether or not my presence is an intrusion.
There were many, many more... more than I can relate here..... but then there were these....
Two boys crossing a major highway after watching a movie. One boy was struck and killed by a van. I had both families show up at the scene, with his body spread over a quarter mile of highway... I began to think that my job sucked that night.
I stopped to help two men change a flat tire. They were well off the road, and politely refused my assistance. I offered to change the tire, or to stay with them, or to call a tow truck, but they insisted that they would have the tire changed in no time, and that they would be on their way within "ten minutes". They were going fishing. I initially decided to stay with them, but rather than work on changing the tire, they became distracted by my presence, and I could see that I was prolonging the process. I agreed to leave, but on the condition that once I had changed over the police car to the next shift and was on my way back in my own vehicle, if they were still there, I would stay with them and summon help with my cell phone. They agreed to this, and I pulled away... no more than 15 seconds later a motorist who had fallen asleep at the wheel left the roadway and plowed into them, killing one man outright and throwing the other almost 300 feet. He was flat, like a soaker hose, from the lower part of his rib cage down. One foot and one hand were hanging by threads... and one of his eyes was laying on his cheek. He had been crushed between the vehicles, and his jaw was crushed from side to side. I had to spead the broken bones and teeth apart in order to intubate him to open his airway. I worked on him for what seemed like 30 to 40 minutes, until the helicopter arrived to transport him to the trauma center. He died on the way. Part of me died that day with those men. I was told that if I had remained with them for 10 to 15 seconds longer, I would have been killed along with them. I know that I did what any other cop would have done under the circumstances, but I still turn the situation over in my mind, searching for the one thing I could or should have done that would have changed everything and made it all turn out alright.... they call it "magical thinking". They have been dead for almost six years now.... I still think of them... especially on the anniversary of their deaths.
Not more than a few days later, while on my way to work, the vehicle in front of mine swerved, jumped the curb, and struck an elderly man out for a walk...smashing him into a stone wall and killing him, and then backing over him and speeding off. I checked the older man, there was nothing that I could do. Another officer stopped, and I went after the motorist, since I had seen both the vehicle and the driver. I caught him and arrested him a few miles away.
I have shared with you the details of a number of deaths that I have been either present during, or at the immediate aftermath of.... what you should realize is that each and every one of those people was not very different from you or I.... what kills them also can kill us... they have crossed the threshold before we have, but, make no mistake.... we will all be following them soon enough.... when it is your time, will you know in your heart that you have done everything that you possibly could to live a full and worthwhile life??
Your loved ones will one day pass from this world... when they do, will you be able to continue knowing that you treated them as they deserved to be treated in life, and that you took every opportunity to let them know that you loved them?? Once they are gone, the opportunity to tell them anything... to show them anything... to do anything for them goes along with them.... once they are gone, you are doing for yourself, or for your conscience.... take the time now. Now is all you ever have.
After the deaths of the two men changing their tire, and the old man out for a walk, something broke inside of me, I think. I finally had had my fill of death in all of its forms, or, more accurately, I had had my fill of having to deal with death on such an intimate and daily basis. I turned my back on police work, and, indeed, on any vocation that involved anything remotely similar....I think that a part of me died. I know that I have changed a great deal. I don't even really know the person that I was at that time. I came to realize how important the simple act of living was through seeing the loss of it so many times, I think... I learned to focus on what was real, and what mattered. Leaving the police job was not only about getting away from death... you never get away from death. It was about finding a way of life that afforded a greater degree of serenity, solitude, and peace of mind. Of course, over the ensuing years, I have come to realize that you can no more run away from death than you can run away from yourself... indeed, death is a part of us all. What I was running away from was the responsibility of dealing with death. The deaths of others, and, ultimately, my own inevitable death. I have come to accept this inevitabilty, perhaps by force, since there is nothing that I can do to change this... but, I would like to think that I have managed to come to terms with this reality, and to peacefully accept it. I take solace in the understanding that everything works out the way that it is supposed to in the long run.
Initially, I raged internally over what I considered to be wrongful and unfair deaths. Nothing has changed my feeling that the deaths I viewed as unfair or wrongful were in fact so, but I have come to understand that once death has taken hold, ethics and opinions, and just about everything else no longer matters. Dead is dead. A man died in the year 2,500 B.C. He is still just as dead today. If you think about it, there are more of our kind dead at any one time than are alive.
I have had time to think after being removed from so much repeated hands-on experience for a number of years now, but nothing has changed other than my outlook. Life and death have been what they are since the beginning. I struggled with these thoughts for quite some time, but, finally, after much reflection and introspection, I have finally come to the realization that death is a part of life. Not a pleasant part, by any means, but a part of each of our lives. It comes to us all sooner or later. I began to wonder if I was upset over the lives that these people lost, or if I was upset over how it affected me.... after all, people die every minute of every day, but I was only upset, apparently, at the ones that I had direct contact with.
I thought about where I was before I was born.... I have no memory, and I have no fear of that place. I suppose I was nowhere, but then, I can't reconcile in my mind how something can be produced from nothing at all... which leads me back to the conclusion that I must have been somewhere, and, in a circular fashion, back to the assumption that something cannot be made into nothing... only into something else....
Whatever the next stage is, I am ready to face it when my time comes. Naturally, I don't want to hurry it or reach for it, because like the rest of us, I fear the unknown to some extent.
I also have accepted that my time here must come to an end, as it should. Its part of the plan. I don't want to live forever... the pressure of having a limited time forces me to savor the small moments in my life, and to focus on what is truly important to me. It certainly isn't the amassing of wealth. I enjoy the moments of harmony and beauty that I am fortunate enough to experience.... the curve of my wife's neck, or the swing of her hips when she walks (do you know that the Brazilians found the movement of a woman's hips so beautiful that they made a dance about it?!), the feel of her lips when she kisses me, or the gleam of sunlight in her hair. There are so many things of beauty that surround me, that I sometimes find myself distracted by them. I know with certainty that I will only walk this way this one time. At least only one time that I will have any conscious rememberance of... I cannot afford to waste portions of my life and time on things that have no meaning in the long run. I only have this one shot. The rub, for me as for most of us, is that I don't have any idea how much time I actually have remaining to me. It may be measured in decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, or seconds... I just don't know.
My response to this is to make every attempt to live my life as fully and as lustily as I possibly can, by trying everything and anything I can, without any great import as to whether I succeed or fail at what I try... I have attended so very many deaths.... as a helpless observer in most cases... I have seen people die under many different circumstances, and I have seen them handle their deaths in many different ways.... the outcome is always the same with death. Death.
I don't try to delude myself into thinking that I will have much in the way of choice regarding the time or the method of my own demise. Death will come for me in it's own good time. It is my hope that whenever that may be, I will have no regrets, and no unfinished business... I don't want to think at the last moment that I wished I had tried this or that. I don't want to regret that I failed to let my wife or other loved one's know how much I love them, and what a light they are in my life. I don't want to go from this place leaving any kindnesses unpaid or unappreciated.
When I go, I hope to go with my head held high and my curiosity piqued, looking forward to this new adventure, and eager to learn what happens next. If it turns out to be a great nothingness.... then, I will be in good company.... I will rest in that state of nothingness with all of the souls who have gone before me. There is a great deal of comfort and peace knowing that whatever the plan may be, I can rest assured knowing that I am a small part of it.
As I write this, the sun is shining outside.... there is a spray of light green spring leaves on the trees, and there is a cool breeze stirring the branches. The occasional bird calls, and there are daffodils and forsythia and other spring flowers blooming all over the place. Fluffy white clouds scud across a brilliant blue sky the color of a robin's egg, freshly scrubbed by rain, and perfect! For those whose day it is to die, it's a good one. Full of promise and hope for those who remain behind, and such a beautiful day to have as a last one. I hope the day I die will be as gorgeous as today.
Until then, I will take every moment to enjoy all of the small things that make my life what it is. I will watch every bird, pet every cat, smile at every grandmother, and help wherever I can. I will make love to my wife as deeply and as often as I can. When I work, I will work as hard as I am able, and revel in the feel of my body going through its paces, and when I rest, I will rest completely... I will really listen to the music, just as I will listen to the silences. I will enjoy the cold and the rain as much as I enjoy the warmth and the sunshine. When I am faced with difficulties, I will take joy in meeting the challenges that they present, and overcome them if I am able... if not, I will enjoy whatever small moments that I can find in between the difficulties, because, after all.... This is the only life I will ever have, that I know of.
In the end, I have realized, through the contemplation of death and all that that means, that I am indeed very, very lucky to have a full and glorious life to live, and with every breath, every sight, every sound, taste, experience and feeling, I am so, so grateful for it.
I am alive!! What's better than that?!?!?
When death comes - Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Panama Canal Zone
Annual Jungle Operations Training Center Deployment
1st Battalion (Ranger), 75th Infantry (Airborne)
We had been out in triple-canopy jungle for perhaps two weeks. We were hot, sweaty, wet, filthy, scratched, bitten, stung, tired, and hungry.
Day in and day out we had been alternately moving and hiding in the green gloom that was all the light available in the thick Panamanian jungle. For three days, a troop of howler monkeys had been following us, pelting us with everything that they could get their hands on, and letting what seemed like the entire world know our position with thier lion-like roars. Sometime during the night of the previous day, they had mysteriously grown tired of the sport and vanished without a trace, though not a single one of us was sorry to see them leave.
On this particular day, we had been moving through a particularly hilly section of jungle, and we were getting our asses kicked. Our rucksacks weighed between 80 and 120 lbs, and the heat and humididty had been chipping away at us and sapping our strength since we had put our 'knees to the breeze' and parachuted onto Gatun DZ. The monotony of the day was also taking its toll; up a hill, down a hill, through some water, watch out for the black palm! (a thorn bearing tree that proliferates the area -- I have a piece of black palm lodged in my left wrist to this day!), up a hill, down a hill, through some water, watch out for the black palm! Our equipment alternately chafed bloody holes through our skin, which were quickly set upon by blackflies, which made our lives miserable, or chafed us raw through our wet jungle fatigues, and many of us had festering sores where the leeches had been inadvertently torn from our skin. We were, in a word, 'smoked'.
Being Rangers, we lived up to every word of the 'Ranger Creed', which meant that we kept our complaints to ourselves, shouldered our rucks, and continued to 'drive-on!'.
For those of my readers unfamiliar with the Ranger Creed, it is the oath, the guide, the promise that those of us who wear the black and gold Ranger tab, or who serve in a Ranger Battalion live by. Word for word. It was written by Command Sergeant Major Gentry in 1974, Today it is recited by Rangers during change of command ceremonies, regimental and battalion level physical training, upon graduation from Ranger school, and daily by young Rangers in the regiment. Here it is;
Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession. I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor and high "esprit de corps" of my Ranger Regiment.
Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air. I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.
Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be. One hundred percent and then some
Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.
Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.
The day wore slowly on, and seemed to get hotter, wetter, and stickier as the hours ticked by. I felt as though someone had drenched a washcloth in hot water, covered it in saran wrap, and then wrapped it over my nose and mouth. I was at the very front of our platoon formation, walking "point", my friend Robert had the "slot", and he was right behind me. Up ahead, we could see an area that was glowing brightly with sunshine. Apparently a tree had fallen there recently, and the plantlife hadn't had time to grow over and cover up the hole quite yet. Normally, such an area was to be avoided as a 'danger area'... we treated any such area cautiously; streams, roads, clearings, what-have-you. I gave a 'danger' hand signal, which was quickly passed back through the unit, from soldier to soldier and the platoon stopped, slowly spread into an oblong perimeter, facing outwards, and everybody got down low to the ground, facing outwards. The two of us slowly moved forward to take a look and see if there was anything that should concern us about the clearing. We moved towards it, and then in a series of semi-circular sweeps, we made our way around the clearing, one on each side, creeping towards the light and quietly watching, and then, moving like the hour hand of a clock.. very, very slowly.. we would back away, and make another sweep.... each time getting a slightly different view of the small clearing. We made our separate ways around the open area until we met on the far side. Satisfied that there were no surprises in store for us, we 'dog-legged' away from the clearing, and made our way back to the platoon, where we let the platoon commander know that there was nothing nefarious or suspicious about the clearing... it was just a clearing. He slowly nodded his head, obviously turning something over in his mind, then, apparently coming to a decision, he told the platoon sergeant, "Move the men into the clearing... post a 50% watch, and let the others eat, rest, dry their clothes and socks, and take care of personal hygeine." The platoon sergeant relayed the orders to the squad leaders, and we moved towards the clearing.
As I stepped into the clearing, the ground exploded in front of me!!
I stood there, gaping, my mouth hanging open in wonder as literally thousands upon thousands of butterflies rose into the air around me!!
I had never in all of my life seen such a sight, nor have I ever again since that day... butterflies of every size and description. Green, yellow, black, gray, red, orange, blue... every color in existence. There was a particularly large butterfly, metallic blue, with black borders on its wingtips, which were sometimes 6" from tip to tip!! There were butterflies with clear wings, upon which were markings in bright red!
Everywhere I looked, winged jewels fluttered, and swooped, and whirled through the air. It was absolutely amazing!!
I noticed, after a time, that my cheeks hurt, from smiling!! I looked around me, and saw to my surprise, that all semblance of military order had been temporarily forgotten. Rangers stood around me in a disorderly semi-circle... arms dangling limply at thier sides as they stared up at the spectacle, mouths hanging open, or smiling like cheshire cats!
Time stopped for us that afternoon, as we all simply stood and wondered at the simple beauty of these marvelous little creatures as they serenely winged their little bodies in lazy spirals all around the clearing.
Eventually, the butterflies slowly began to vacate the clearing, leaving a few hardy stragglers behind. Apparently, they didn't enjoy our company anywhere near as much as we enjoyed theirs.
The majority of them flew off to points unknown, but quite a few of them have flown with me, in my heart, ever since that day. In happy moments or sad, I look inside and find solace by watching them as fly and flutter around, glinting and darkling in the dappled sunshine.
Isn't it amazing that they can bestow such a wonderful gift without ever even thinking of asking for anything in return??