Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Wreck

I saw the truck swerve across the highway and plow into the grass median, flipping it and jack-knifing the trailer it towed, sending a splash of sod and grass into the air. As it settled in the fresh dirt, other drivers began pulling over and getting out of their cars, cell phones in hand. As I got closer I noticed one woman with fresh tears streaming down her cheeks, which, for some reason, annoyed me. Unless she knew the driver, why would she cry over a complete stranger in a (most likely) non-fatal accident? The cars lining the sides of the road began to slow traffic, which annoyed me even more. Let's go people, I thought as I tried to maneuver into a different lane to get past the car in front of me, which had slowed to a crawl even though there wasn't car in front of it. Finally free of the cluster of onlookers, I found open road and picked up speed, leaving the now-smoking accident in the rear-view mirror.

As I lay in bed that night, I began to evaluate my actions. Replaying my thoughts from the accident, I began to feel a little ashamed. What happened to me? Have I lost the compassion that I used to have for others? Am I so jaded that I no longer even feel the compulsion to help someone in need? I tried to justify my actions to myself. There were so many people stopped. I would have just been in the way. Someone else helped the driver, I'm sure. Exactly. Someone else. And that bothered me, because not helping people? Is not who I am or what I'm about. I know better than that. I remember a time when I would go out of my way to help someone. In the late eighties I was out one night with one of my best friends from high school, Bobby, when we saw a pickup truck smash into a sedan at an intersection. An explosion of tempered glass and twisted metal littered the rain-soaked street, and while other cars were just starting to slow down, Bobby and I had already pulled over and begun to approach the wreck. We had just returned a few weeks earlier from ten weeks of combat medic training at Fort Sam Houston, and we were prepared. We had even called dibs; I took the pickup and he took the sedan.

The driver of the pickup was bleeding badly. The collision had launched him into the windshield, and now blood was pouring from a hundred little cuts on his forehead like water through a sieve, matting his black hair against his head like a thick red carpet. As I attended to him, the sickly-sweet aroma of alcohol paired with his incessant—and unintelligible—chatter made it obvious that he had passed "drunk" quite some time ago and was now on the cusp of "sloshed". I fashioned a crude cervical collar out of a towel from Bobby's car and secured it around his neck like a long, thick scarf. As I the held the end of the towel against his forehead and tried to keep him from moving, he babbled on incoherently through the blood, which now just trickled from his forehead. He had no idea he had been in an accident. I suppose when you're that inebriated, the brain fills in the blank spots with familiar things, the way you wake up from a dream about a beeping dump truck backing up, only to discover it’s your alarm clock. With the towel, the line of cars, and the falling rain, he apparently thought we were at a car wash and I was the attendant.

The woman driving the sedan, who was wearing her seatbelt, had several cuts on her face as well. And she was furious at the other driver. Her light was green and she was halfway through the intersection when Chatty McDrinksalot t-boned her. He never even hit his brakes. Bobby was trying to hold a t-shirt against her wounds, but she kept yelling around him at the drunken pickup driver. Each time she screamed at him, he would chuckle and, without moving, yell back for her to wait her turn. As the police and ambulance pulled up, Bobby and I, with a few other bystanders who had called 911, explained to them what had happened. We got in the car to leave, sinking down into the seats and exhaling for what felt like the first time in days. Our hands, shirts, jeans, and shoes were covered with streaks and splotches of blood, and the blue and red lights flashing through the rain on the windshield drew strange patterns on top of it. But we wore that blood like a badge of honor, proud that we had helped someone else. I’m still proud to tell that story.

As I lay in the nearly-dark room staring at the ceiling fan rotating slowly above me, I had a sudden moment of clarity; an ironic, sad realization that draped itself over me like a thick, heavy quilt. I still care about what happens to people. I still have compassion for others; I never lost it. I just haven't used it.