Friday, February 18, 2005


Those of you who are squeamish might want to skip this post.

Back in the days when I earned my living scraping what was left of bad drivers and drunks out of wrecked cars, my partner and I responded to a two-car on a residential street. Residentials are always worse than highways because the public has instant access, and city cops may or may not know how to secure a scene (while troopers always know.)

The accident turned out to be a nasty head-on between a compact car and a ton and a half truck. Compact driver was dead on scene, and fire rescue was already dealing with the trucker. My partner spotted the cause of the accident when he pointed to the tail end of a motorcycle, driver still attached, sticking out from under the compact.

My partner was a big guy, so it was up to me to crawl down and check the victim. Body was a mess, but most bike accidents don't result in an open-casket funeral. Problem was, the biker was missing his helmet. He was also missing his head.

Decapitations were pretty common in the days before the air bag, so it wasn't a huge shock or anything. What jolted me was that the helmet and head weren't under the car. They were nowhere to be seen.

By this time cars were lining up on both sides of the street, hoping to cruise by for a peek. Neighbors, morning coffee cups in hand, packed the sidewalks. A news van was setting up a tripod not thirty feet from the compact, and another was parking. The cops on the scene were busy fussing with barricades and flares.

I told my partner, who guarded the compact while I casually strolled along the curbs, looking for the guy's head. Onlookers always want to talk to you (What happened? I smell gasoline. Is that woman dead?) so I had to dodge them. I also kept an eye on the reporters, who would decaptitate each other for a chance to get the head on film for all the next of kin to see.

Finally I found him, nested between weed clumps in someone's side yard, still neatly packed inside his largely intact helmet. I picked him up by the chin strap and tucked him, end-up so he wouldn't drip, under my arm. My jacket sleeve covered most of him. Then I casually walked back, nodded to my partner, and put the head in the back of our unit.

I never found out who the biker was. I can tell you that he was young, late twenties to early thirties. I don't know if he had children, but he wore a wedding ring. I didn't find out if he had indeed caused the accident. I didn't look at his face. By that time I had learned what I needed to carry away from the job, and what I needed to leave behind.

I don't have nightmares about him because, believe it or not, that's one of my good stories.

Working in writing and publishing remind me a lot of those days. They couldn't be more different, and yet in ways the jobs are remarkably similar. In this industry, you can be a rubbernecker, a glory hound, or a cop trying to control a scene that is uncontrollable. Or you can do your job, clean up what you can, and at the end of your shift, walk away.

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