First On Scene

Now that I think of it, getting the mail that day was the problem, I should have left it for my wife. The summons from the court in said day’s mail brought it all back, and I very perceptibly began to shudder, an involuntary kind that ran through my body due to a good portion of the last year having been spent repressing the memories of that night, if not being able to totally forget them. Now I was forced to reexamine those emotions and memories again, and no amount of liquid, over the counter addictions were going to put them back into a subconscious state.

If you would ask me about that night, I would tell you it was, well, sticky. June 28, 2012, started out pretty normal, and was on track to end normal, but most assuredly it did not. There is nothing normal about having to peel a man’s shattered face off of the downtown pavement.

What they never told me about vehicle crashes, what they never mention in the movies is the hyper excited state I entered when the crash happened, or rather, upon hearing it happen. I was never told about the scents that come from these crashes. How the sickly sweet scent of motor oil on pavement; the acidic coppery scent of blood, will hang heavy in midsummer’s moist air. They never told me what it would feel like to wash another man’s blood from underneath my fingernails, watching the lazy red runnels swirl about the white porcelain sink or having to stow a crimson stained T-shirt at the bottom of the garbage can, so as not to arouse suspicion from my curious children and inquisitive wife.

I live in a small house, in a quiet neighborhood, on North Grand Avenue, in an older neighborhood of Bozeman, with my beautiful wife and six adorable children. With that many people occupying such a small house, without the convenience of central air conditioning, windows are seemingly always open, fans seemingly always stirring swampy stagnant air from the depths of the basement to circulate some form of cooler air to the sweltering family room, above. These living conditions often lead to bouts of insomnia. Insomnia and open windows can be the devil’s playground, or a gateway to someone’s salvation.

My neighborhood is a quiet one, a historical relic from the original parts of Bozeman. Most of the homes in this area are no less than 60 years old. Like any residential street there is traffic, sometimes at various hours of the night, but for the most part, residents of this neighborhood live in peace. There is a park nearby to our house where my kids can, and often do run. This park is bordered by a softball diamond where we’ve taught each other to hit fly balls and overrun first base. It’s all very mundane in a “Leave it to Beaver” type of way, which is the way I like it. It’s safe.

As far back as I can remember I have been a movie lover, nay fanatic. There are many movies that stand out in my life, for whatever reason, and one of those particular movies is Black Hawk Down. There is a historical context that it points to, a time and place in my life that I cannot get away from. It’s a beautifully choreographed film detailing what many perceive to be a failure, but what was in reality, a success by mission standards. Even the mission code name, Gothic Serpent, has a serious and striking tone, resonating throughout my mind.

In my box of “stuff” in the garage, I know that there is still a copy of Newsweek, which still bears the image of dead special operations soldiers being drug through the filthy streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. This particular magazine issue is important to me, not because of the sadistic horror displayed on its cover, but because this was the issue that I read, cover to cover, over and over again, that helped me to decide that I wanted to be a journalist. At the tender age of 14 I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was also the first time I realized the fragile state that is life.

I have watched Black Hawk Down quite literally over one hundred times and I have a notorious ability for falling asleep during the movie and then awakening later, still knowing exactly where I am at in the movie, and what’s going on; this much to my wife’s chagrin. It was on this particular sweltering night, at the end of June, sleep deprived and insomniatic that I found myself watching said film, volume turned up so loud that noise from the helicopter’s rotors seemed to pulse and buffet the very walls of my home. I kept checking on my wife and children to ensure that I wasn’t waking them, but they slept right through the movie, and the ensuing drama. I don’t know if they will ever know what a blessing it would be.

As a general rule, police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are designed to attract attention, and cause people to notice them. When these vehicles began to congregate on my quiet block in the early hours of the morning, I was sure there would be no way to escape the blaring cacophony outside; to have everyone sleep through it, but they did. Everyone, that was, but Annie.

“SON OF A BITCH!” I yelled to the dark street. There, next to the curb, was my wife’s vehicle, now with a gigantic gash in the tire, body damage and destruction scattered across the pavement. Some ass clown had just hit my wife’s vehicle and driven off, leaving me to now have to take photos and file a police report. I don’t even remember bringing my flashlight and cell phone outside with me, but they appear in my hand, as if by their own volition. A ghastly HISSING spat into the air, blatant evidence of the defiled and quickly deflating tire. Traces of shattered plastic litter the pavement from the gaping socket of the gouged out rear tail light. The white, narrow focused beam plays down the length of my wife’s vehicle, showing garish scratches and fresh dents and…

What was that? A tire spinning… Faint red tail light, blinking haphazardly… Him…

The bright beam of my MagLite flashlight played over the body lying in the road, showing the obscene and copious amount of blood pooled around what I was immediately sure was a corpse.

I’ve seen dead bodies before. In the remote town of Havre, Mont., many years ago, I once saw the aftermath of a man who had fallen between two train cars and been cut in half as cleanly as if by a butcher’s blade. Through my folding binoculars, atop the steps of an Amtrak passenger car, he appeared to be so much road kill and the overall effect of the gruesome terror was lost due to the distance between me and the poor soul. I can still, though, see the white picket rails of his ribs as they were newly exposed to chilly evening air.

Most of the bodies that I have seen, though, have been made up as mannequins, lying in silken boxes ready to be inserted back into the earth from which my faith tells me they originally came.

“Nine-One-One. What’s your emergency?” The voice on the phone was far more professional than I was. I was coming unglued by the second, but this voice was cool and calm, clear and professional.

What would I say? That there was a dead guy laying in the road, that he just happened to hit my wife’s vehicle and skid out of control? That when his motorcycle crashed it sent him flying some twenty feet and that he then proceeded to skid another seven feet or so? How would I explain that what was once a man was now so much ground meat on the pavement?

A sound like a vacuum makes when it sucks up water began to emanate from the “corpse.” The previously lifeless body began to writhe in the pool of blood, further abrading an already shredded face, like soft cheese on a grater, against the warm pavement.

How has he not been hit by another vehicle? How had this man not been run over, causing further destruction? Answers to these questions still evade me, but again my faith tells me that there was a higher power watching over that man, and me for that matter, as I knelt in the street next to him.

Words flew out of my mouth incoherently, “…aspirating on blood…possible head injury…motorcycle crash…dying in front of me…” I had no idea if I sounded as lunatic on the phone as I did in my head.

“Hang on sir; we’re dispatching officers to your location.” The voice on the other end of the line was still so cool. Professional.

Had I given them my address? I honestly don’t remember. I know that they could pull it off my cell phone through the GPS, but had they done that so quickly? I really wasn’t sure what I was saying, anymore, because the initial moment of when time stood still, when I first witnessed the body, had all started to unravel and seemed to be rapidly spooling out of control.

I don’t know when Annie showed up but suddenly she was beside me, dressed in a long T-shirt and not much else. My neighbor grabbed my flashlight and immediately began signaling the first cruiser to show up on my quiet little street. And like flies to a bright light, they came, one by one, soon in droves.

Within a matter of minutes the entire street was cordoned off to the intersecting roads at each end. Lights from the cruisers washed over, and played with the corresponding lights from the fire trucks and the ambulances, creating a surrealistic light show that lit neighboring houses in a ghastly glow. Not even the sterile light from nearby arc sodium lights could penetrate the hues that should have been comforting but was somehow still creepy.

What I originally mistook for a corpse was now a groaning, writhing man. Pure survival instinct caused this man’s brain to flood the body with adrenaline, in a mad and desperate effort to extricate itself from the contorted pose in which he now lay.

The white strappy tank top shirt, knee length khaki board shorts and flip flops didn’t do much to protect his body from the impact of the street. My initial, and cursory, examination of this man’s body was far from complete. Lying face down I didn’t know that there was a V-shaped depression where his collar bone used to be. I didn’t know that ribs had been broken, or knees had been shredded to the bone. Somehow, the comforting shadows of the night had kept these particular sights from me, and I wasn’t informed of them until later, when I received the report from the police detective.

I’m not sure how it happened that I was kneeling on him, but there I was, when paramedics arrived, trying to keep this man’s convulsing body under some semblance of control. The raw energy that was now coursing through his body was nothing short of an electric current; a pure, primal rage trying desperately to keep the shattered frame alive. My initial fear was that his brain would cause further injury to his body, that possible head and spinal injuries would either cripple or kill him. So I knelt on his shoulder blades, trying to hold on as a bull rider does, praying to keep him stable. This ride, though, proved to be tougher than any eight seconds a rodeo pro had ever endured.

A paramedic appeared with a straight board and firmly, but gently, removed me from the back of the pained man. “It’s OK, you can get off him now; we’ve got him.” The voice was so soft, so gentle; I wasn’t sure if I was hearing things or if he had actually spoken to me.

I looked around, bewildered, not sure of what was going on, but there, on my camo fleece pajama pants that I wore was a sticky maroon oval from this man’s blood. The policeman who was near me gently escorted me back to the curb in front of my house as we spoke about what had happened. He was joined, soon thereafter, by another female officer. Both asked me questions, intensely interviewing me for what I had seen and and what I had heard. Under other circumstances, it could have easily been viewed as an interrogation.

“Did you see what happened?”

“Is this your vehicle?”

“Do you live here?”

“Did you call 9-1-1?”

“Do you know this man?”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Were you the first on scene?”

Officers in uniform surround me with their digital recorders in my face, asking questions like paparazzi questioning Hollywood’s newest starlet. The questions seem to be coming from every direction. I know that what they want is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I feel like Tom Cruise, I CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

The truth of the matter is that a bloodied and mangled man has been loaded into the back of a waiting ambulance. There are probably 30 different men and women, in varying uniforms, milling around snapping photos and taking various forms of measurement. Spray paint marks the gashes on the pavement, tape measures run the length of the street, notes are scratched on yellow legal tablets.

I want to scream at them, “Why aren’t you doing your job?! Why are you just standing there?! Why didn’t that ambulance move a bit faster? Where are the lights, the sirens, and the flashers…?”

It hits me that there is no need to rush because the poor mangled body gave up, the fight has left that poor man and his soul has departed. After all of that, the battle to keep him safe and still, he died anyway. There is quite literally another man’s blood on my hands, and I’m pretty sure that if I look hard enough, I can still see it staining my skin.

The three o’clock hour has come and gone and I’m still wide awake. Blood that was tacky at the onset of this little adventure has now dried to a macabre Halloween makeup on my hands, arms, and knees. A tow truck a few houses down, operated by a bleary eyed driver, manhandles the wreckage of the crashed motorcycle onto its flatbed with all the care a butcher shows a particular cut of meat.

Metal grinds on metal and the very sound is making my skin crawl because I can see that man’s broken body, the image burned into my psyche, and even though my mind processes the image as a motorcycle my imagination cannot help but superimpose the broken man’s body into the scene.

In the year of our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Nine, I attended a funeral for a girl, barely a woman, whom I think I was very much in love with. She was killed by a drunk driver who tore into her car at 85 miles per hour; the force of the impact literally decapitating her. It was a closed casket funeral on a cold winter February afternoon. The sound that the tow truck made hauling that mangled bike onto the flatbed was damn near the sound the backhoe made carving into the frozen earth of the windswept prairie. Death, as the phrase goes, does not become me.

Finally, finally… The flashing lights go. The tow truck leaves with its not so precious cargo. Without a further word of contact police officers mount their vehicles and depart. As quickly as the street became a surreal nightmare, it is once again quiet. Like a graveyard, it seems. Fitting, I suppose.

What they didn’t tell me is that even adrenaline has a limit to the lengths it can sustain a body. What they didn’t tell me was that after an event such as this, when I was as unprepared as I was, I was very likely to be left sobbing on the linoleum floor of my bathroom, covered in another man’s blood, while tears ran hot and salty down my cheeks and my chest heaved and hitched. It’s not very manly. It’s not how a hero should react, but then again, I’m no hero.

What I didn’t know was that stashing that T-shirt at the bottom of the garbage was harder than any other act I have ever committed in my life. An act of betrayal so thorough because how do I tell my wife why I haven’t been in the bed for the last three or so hours? How do I tell her that, as far as I know, a man died in my arms tonight? How do I tell her that I saw our neighbor, a devoted wife and mother, in her night clothes and that it bothered me more than that man’s blood because I felt as if I had betrayed a trust with her husband, a man I call a friend.

So, I scrubbed my fingers raw, and scraped the underside of my fingernails to get the last bits of flesh and blood out from under them, supporting my body weight on the edge of my tiny bathroom’s meager counter. I quietly crept down the creaky wooden stairs and dug through the laundry baskets to find a clean white undershirt to wear to bed; changed from my pajama pants into nylon gym shorts praying I would be able to rinse the blood out of the pants before anyone noticed. Can they smell the blood in the basement? No matter how much I scrub myself down, I swear I can feel the stench on me. I don’t know if it’s my memory playing tricks on me, but I swear I can still see the faint outlines of blood on those pajamas. Why I don’t throw them away, I have no idea…

Crawling into bed, “Where have you been?” Her sleepy voice implies that she has no idea what has transpired. Why am I angry with her? For the love of God, she was just spared a horror that I cannot even begin to at that moment describe to her, but have taken great care and length to detail, now.

What do I say to her? Do I lie? Do I tell her that a bout of insomnia has kept me awake for these last hours? No, in a moment of weakness I tell her everything. Her confusion is rational as she tries to wake herself up, to fully comprehend the details of the story that regurgitate from my mouth in a torrential flood. I still don’t tell her about the shirt at the bottom of the garbage can, though. That detail will go with me a bit further, and until this moment I thought, to the grave.

Old addictions really do die hard. Nine years of sobriety were very near at the teetering point, ready to be pushed off the edge. Suddenly things that I was so very close to being able to put behind me came back, so quick; so damn quick. They say that nicotine is harder to quit than heroin. I’ll believe that, I’ve been under the heels of both of those devils. But suddenly cigarette brands I hadn’t seen in years were now near at hand. I found myself standing in the beer and wine aisles of grocery stores with no cognitive memory of how I got there. I stared into the eyes of many a cashier girl as I realized that nine years was too good a track record to break and so I would walk off, leaving a six pack of imported beer at the register, refusing to pay or succumb to that malignant evil ever again.

Willpower doesn’t always win out, though. The occasional insomnia grew into frequent bouts. The frequent bouts grew into stretches of a few days where I would sit in front of the TV, no idea what was going on, what time it was, or really who I was. I was buying two packs of over the counter sleep aid liquid to the point that I’m sure the people at the store thought I was starting a meth lab. Discarding the measuring caps from those bottles and taking long swigs from those bottles is generally the first sign of trouble, and it was then that I realized I was in deep.

In less than a month I had gone from a loving father and husband to a husk, devoid of cognitive thought. I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a phone call to a friend of mine, who had spent some time in Iraq, to ask her, basically plead with her, to tell my story to someone who would listen. Someone who had seen death and carnage, first hand and up close, she was well aware of the pungent smell of blood mixed with sweat. She knew what scorched and torn bodies looked like, felt like and smelled like.

Of all of the senses, the olfactory sense is the one most haunting; the way that I can walk past a random person and pick up a random scent of perfume and immediately be transported to another time with different people. Why does the sense of smell haunt me so? With vision I can fool myself into thinking I saw something else, and my hearing isn’t all that good, so I can generally trick myself into thinking that I didn’t heard what I thought I heard.

But the sense of smell. It’s that powerful. And as long as I live I will always have that cloying scent hanging heavy in the back of my throat. No matter what medication I spoon into my throat, no matter what beverage I imbibe, there will always be that thickly heavy scent of blood and motor oil hanging like a caustic ball of mucus at the back of my throat.

It’s called survivor’s guilt, a form of PTSD. My mind had somehow convinced me that it was me who should have perished. Apparently, it’s more common than the public is led to believe. The mind can’t rationalize the death and destruction it sees, so it attempts to associate with the image. Thus, if the mind sees death, it wants to become death.

Now, over a year later, the summons in my hand was being crumpled under the pressure of my fist, the official and legal blue coversheet drenched in sweat that poured from my skin, causing it turn from a regal shade of legal blue to a pale shade of dead blue.

What could I tell a courtroom full of people? What could they possibly know, or want to know, that wasn’t already known through stacks of interviews and official police reports?

I was at work, stumbling through the days when my cell phone rang; not knowing the number I let it go to voicemail. I gave that phone call no second thought and went about my day. I would like to be able to say that I was cruising through my day but the over the counter addiction was fast numbing my body, and it was no small miracle that I was even able to move at all.

Getting home that evening I made my way to the back yard and found myself sitting on the lazy yard swing my wife had purchased for herself. It’s quiet in the backyard and in that corner, where the lawn always seems a bit overgrown because the mower won’t fit and the corded trimmer just won’t reach. I sat in that corner, while the faded red paint of the wooden fence chipped and flew in the slight breeze as the swing bumped against the old wood, making a noise that was slightly comforting and slightly nauseating in the very same motion.

Musing through voicemails I skipped some, deleted others, saved most as I told myself the lie that I would come back to them and give them their due diligence but knowing full well that after about ten days my phone would automatically delete them because it knew better. It knew that I wasn’t going to ever think twice about those voicemails and that for all intents and purposes…

“Patrick this is Duane, we met a few weeks ago, in front of your house…”

The voice on the other end of the message. I had heard it before, although at that particular time it had sounded as if it were a vacuum trying to work underwater. Or, through a mouthful of blood.

Without even being aware, I broke down in tears. All of the pent up emotions that I had tried to hold back were now flooding out of me. My wife was standing next to me, not knowing what was going on, only that her husband was staring at the digital screen of his phone, crying his eyes out; sobbing.

The missed call was his. I immediately hit REDIAL. I prayed he would pick up before I lost my nerve and simultaneously prayed he wouldn’t so I wouldn’t have to hear that voice again.

“Hello…?” The gravel voice trembled. Such a meek voice.

“Duane, we met a few weeks ago. Do you remember?”

No voice. The horrible wet sucking sound again. He was trying not to cry into the phone, and failing. So was I. It didn’t matter.

In the next 45 minutes he related to me stories he had been told by his family members. How we had been driven to the hospital with no sense of urgency because the EMTs weren’t sure he was even technically alive anymore. How the courageous staff at the Bozeman hospital had done all they could, short of giving him his last rights before sending him via air ambulance to Billings. How the staff at the Billings hospital had done all they could short of giving him his last rights.

Like Doubting Thomas of Biblical fame I allowed his voice to let my hands trace his wounds; the steel bar that was now his rib. The scars on his head from where his skull had been fractured and repaired. The wiring in his jaw that held it together, now a permanent addition. I saw all of this, and none of this, because I had no point of reference as to what kind of man he was before we met. All I could conjure now was a stylized movie robot. A twisted six million dollar man. A malformed creation of a mad scientist. A scarred face that still belonged to a loving daughter who wasn’t yet old enough to know why her daddy had been away for a while.

But when the conversation ended there was a spark back in my heart. Just a tiny spark. And like the greedy hoarder and poetic warrior, Reverand, I held that flame close for fear of letting it get blown out…

I wonder how, now so many months later, will I tell my children about that night. They have seen the scars that the street still bears, the scars that I still bear. They have yet to meet Duane. Would it be easier to show them clips of The Airborne Toxic Event’s video “Sometime Around Midnight” or Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and hope that they catch the inferred meaning?

Bottles of over the counter elixir are still close at hand, but the desire is not so strong. I can walk through an aisle of beer and wine and not be tempted, not as much, now. The urge to stare into the black abyss of the gun cabinet is gone. It has taken a lot of friends, many whose privilege I wore out crying on their shoulder, but the demon doesn’t haunt me anymore, well not that much.

As for the blue paper? It’s still there. It will always be there, but this time the story won’t contort me, force me into grotesque shapes of mental torridness. The courts will have their address from me and then I will wash my hands of this story, for once and for all. The demon that stares back at me, from the dimly lit corners of my living room will no longer hold sway. Not anymore.

Was it all worth it? The pain, the agony, the stress and suffering, both his and mine? Was it all worth it? Time will be the judge on that account.

© 2013 p.hill

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