How I Learned I’m Not A Hero

[ Note: From 2008 to 2013, I kept a writing blog, which I then took down. Now that I am starting a new blog in 2018, I will be adding some older posts backdated to their original publication. Many of these were obviously written by a young, naive, perhaps foolish person, with prose ranging from overblown to just plain shitty, but they illustrate my journey as a writer and a person, so I think it is worth the embarrassment. ]

It was a late summer night a few weeks ago. It had just rained, and there was a wonderful ground mist lurking about ankle deep in the hollows and the fields. About 2 AM. For some reason, that kind of mist always reminds me of werewolves, probably from American Werewolf in London or perhaps the clips I’ve seen of that old movie Wolfman. In any case, it swirled in curls and eddies like milk in coffee, translucent beautiful and strange. I was driving home from my brother’s house, about a fifteen minute drive from the country to the country, one rural house to another. As I said, it had rained, and I was thinking as I drove down the hill that it was perfect weather for a car accident. The road I was on had just been paved, smooth black tar covered in that water and mist. It looked like a highway, not a country road. I don’t know why they paved it that way. Usually it’s the gray stuff, the cheap stuff, for country roads. Anyway, I was driving down this long hill and as I came to the bottom I saw ahead two lights in strange configuration, a canted angle like a car jacked way up on one side. But it wasn’t a car.

I slowed way down, and as I passed I saw it was actually two motorcycles, one of which was twisted and broken and resting on its side. But at the moment it didn’t look broken, it just looked laid there, like someone had set it there, and I remembered stories I had heard of people faking accidents so strangers would stop, then when you rolled down your window people came sprinting from the ditches to attack. That ran through my head, but I kind of doubted that was the case, and when the lady walked out into my headlights I knew it wasn’t. I stopped as she wondered back into the darkness, having passed the wreck, and I put it in reverse and surged backwards. Once I was about thirty feet behind the accident I put on my blinkers and parked the car. I had brought a flashlight to my brother’s because I knew I would be there late, and I took it from my pocket as I got out of the car, clicked it on. It swung on the asphalt ahead of me as I walked, but when I reached them I turned it off. Both the headlights were on on the bikes, even the broken one: in fact it was the one turned over that shined on the man in the ditch.

He was in a long patch of blood, having obviously slid in the grass from the force of the crash, and his friend, the other man in the group, knelt above him. There were four total, those two in the grass and the two women walking, one of which was scraped up in the face and had been on the  back of the bike. The other was on the phone, talking to the emergency operator. She didn’t know where they were, so she asked me. I knew where we were in relation to my house, but I didn’t know the road number. She gave me a road name I knew was wrong and asked me if it was right, and I said no. Then followed a fumbling exchange in which I proved how idiotic I am when it comes to directions. I kept saying things like:

“We’re—we’re para—no, we’re perpendicular to 26—” and she would repeat to the operator:

“We’re perpendicular to 26,” at which point I’d say:

“And we’re north of—no, no—we’re south, I mean east of—”

“We’re east of . . .”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Let me call my brother, he lives right up the road.”

As I said, I was on my way home from my brother’s house, and I was only one turn away from his road, so I knew he would know the street name. But it was 2 AM, and I had actually gone to see a movie since I last saw him awake (a friend had dropped me off at my brother’s place, where I’d left my car) so I wasn’t sure if he was awake. The woman told the operator I was going to call my brother. As the phone rang, I looked back to the injured man with his friend. He was lying face down, not moving, but he was breathing every few seconds with these horrible gurgle-click sounds, and his friend kept asking, “Where are they?” to the woman on the phone, and she kept saying, “They’re coming, they’re coming!” The injured woman was hysterical, walking and crying, but she handed the uninjured man a handkerchief from her pocket, which he pressed against some wound. I didn’t look at the head on the injured. The sound and the look of his body was enough, and I felt it would be disrespectful to go any closer than I had to, to look any closer than I must. It was obviously a major head injury, and there was nothing I could to help with that. So I called my brother, but he didn’t pick up. It went to voice-mail and I hung up, apologized to the woman.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m calling the other one.” She couldn’t have known what I meant by that. I meant my other brother. We were actually on a road between two of my brothers’ houses, and as I dialed the number for the second I realized we were actually closer to him. Thankfully, he works nights but had the day off, so he was awake, and he was able to tell me exactly where we were. The signal was bad and I wasn’t sure at first that he had heard me, but I was able to hear him through the audio cutting out and told her where we were, which she relayed to the person on the phone. I hung up, she hung up, and she said the ambulance was on its way. 

We waited. I stood there, feeling useless, hearing those horrible breathing sounds, and the man kept asking where they were, kneeling over his friend, holding that cloth wherever he was holding it. The woman who had spoken on the phone was stone calm, even more calm than I was, and she kept telling him, “They’re coming.” I looked at her and told her I was sorry, not telling what I was sorry for, though what I meant was that I was sorry I couldn’t do more. She said:

“No. Thank you for stopping,” and I stood there, mute and useless. After about five or ten minutes, I saw lights over the hill, then a police car came and parked ahead of us. A man with gloves got out and came to squat by the inert body of the unconscious man. He asked the name of the wounded, one of them told the name, and he repeated it to the unconscious wounded man, said, “Stay with us, buddy!” Then he looked at the friend who was kneeling over him and said, “Sir, can I please ask you to step away with the females.” The two women had grouped together by the cruiser and he gestured at them. I was far away, about twenty feet, knowing I was useless and doing all I could to not be a cheap onlooker, waiting out of the way. The friend didn’t move and the policeman kept saying, “Please join the females, sir! I’m going to have to ask you to join the females!” The friend didn’t respond and I didn’t blame him. He stayed with his buddy.

After a while, about three ambulances showed up with maybe a dozen police cars all lined up in a row, lights flashing, and while the EMTs loaded the injured man into the ambulance the cops split up the others and talked to them while the rest of the policemen and emergency responders gathered in a group and stood around, talking and looking important. I stayed far away in the grass, almost into the field, and looked at my car which was still running. It was blocked in on both sides by long lines of cruisers and ambulances. After the others were in ambulances or with policemen, the original cop came and asked if I had seen the wreck. I said no, I had come along after. He said okay then, I could leave. So I did, creeping along between the flashing lights and uniformed men crowding the street. I got about half a mile away before I had to pull over to let the ambulance past. Last I heard the man was still in the hospital in a coma.

Whenever I used to think about incidents like these, about accidents or medical emergencies, I always assumed they’d be intense and dramatic, that I’d be able to jump in and do something, help out in some way. I imagined my training in CPR coming in handy (even if it was years ago that I learned and CPR has changed since then) or some other bold action being needed, but it was nothing like that. There was nothing I could do. Not even that policeman could do anything but crouch there and ask the others to give distance. Hell, I was barely even able to help with where we were at. If my brother hadn’t been awake, I would have just been a stupid onlooker. I had my GPS in the car, but to be honest I’m not even sure I would have thought of that. It’s strange how much events, really important, dramatic events, don’t match at all our conceptions of them. As much as fiction works to analyze the core of human experience, of the nature of people, it completely fails to encompass the actual nature of dramatic events. Drama in life and fiction are entirely separate. This is obvious, I know, but until put into the situation it never viscerally registered with me. Perhaps there are opportunities where you get to leap in and take action, where it really does feel like the books or movies, where you get to be like a hero and feel like one. It seems plausible, or at least possible. But in my experience it doesn’t happen that way. In real life, dramatic events are just tragic and regretful. Even the adrenaline is the sinking kind. But perhaps I’m just not a hero. I wonder about the EMTs and firemen, the ER nurses and doctors, the people who do make a material difference. Do they ever feel like heroes, or is it always this stark reality, this ultimate helplessness, the gurgling blood in the dark? Maybe heroes only exist in fiction, and real life is only a series of tragedies with better or worse results. I guess that seems the most realistic to me. What do you think?

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