Monday, June 4, 2012

The line of trees

A few days ago Amanda participated in an all-state choir in a small town about an hour and a half away.  As we drove to our destination, a sight came before me that instantly recalled a memory from when I was maybe a year older than Amanda is now.

I saw trees in the far distance, arranged in a way that, from several miles away, hadn't changed much in 25 years.  Maybe they had become bigger, maybe some new ones had joined them and others had fallen, but the basic look of those trees reached into my brain and pulled out a memory that might as well have been made a week ago.  I saw that line of trees a year ago, and it was no different - the same memory was scooped up and replayed for my drive.  Other than that, I hadn't taken that road in probably twenty years.

My dad owned a carpet cleaning business which started around the time I was born and continued until he sold it in the mid-nineties.  It flourished throughout what is called the Big Horn Basin, which consists of several small towns within about a ninety-mile radius of Cody.  TANN Services was what it was called, a mixture of my parents' middle names, Tim and Ann.  Just seeing that word TANN rushes me back to childhood - that company was my childhood.  The vehicles we drove were emblazoned with that logo; I learned my work ethic with that logo as early as around eight years old; that logo was our bread and butter.

So that memory, the one that's so seared into my brain, took place on a hot summer day.  I was helping Dad that day as we cleaned the carpets of a church in Worland, the same small town where Amanda's choir performed.  I remember the look of that church; I remember the smell of what was called pre-spray, a solution Dad helped invent that made the carpets extraordinarily clean; I remember the hot stickiness of that day.

After a long day of work we got into the black and red TANN van and I fell asleep.  Unaware of how much time had passed, I was awakened by Dad commenting with his deep resonant voice for me to Look, that man is gonna wreck!  I quickly opened my eyes and an old pick-up truck with a shell on its bed had passed us going extremely fast, recklessly and quickly swerving left and right, as if he just couldn't get a hold of the straight highway.

Geez he's crazy, I thought, and fell back asleep.  Minutes later I was awakened again by the slowing of the van.  As we began to slow I saw a big puff of dust on the opposite side of the highway's soft shoulder a short ways up.  A truck had wrecked and landed on its side, facing the opposite way we were driving, and Dad felt the need to stop.  By the time we pulled up to the scene, several people were lifting the truck to set it upright.

Right after it was lifted and as I prepared to get out, I noticed something that caused horror to materialize deep in my chest - a man was beneath the fallen truck.

It didn't take but a few seconds to know it was the truck that had so crazily passed us earlier.  I crossed the highway and slowly peered around the now-upright truck.  A few people surrounded the body laying in the dirt and weeds.  No one seemed to care that a twelve-year-old girl was there; no one seemed to think I shouldn't see what they were seeing; words were few and quiet.

I learned very quickly how curious I was, as I almost eagerly walked up to the body.  I wasn't afraid of what  I saw, I was just - curious.  From the neck down he was just a young man wearing a blue plaid shirt, his chest bare from a few open buttons.  His hands, torso, legs and feet were all perfectly intact on the outside, who knew what they looked like on the inside.

His head.  His head was not human.  The truck had flattened his head and face, a sight I still remember vividly.  It was so big - what should have been a roundish head was so wide, as if a child took a ball of Play Doh and gently pushed on it with something flat, making everything grotesquely distorted.  One eye protruded out just a bit more than the other, and they were both slightly open.  Something white and gooey and thick was in the inner corner of one of his eyes.  I couldn't figure out what it was.  His mouth was slightly open and didn't move - I'm certain moving anything was an impossibility, as his bones were crushed.

As I investigated what the fallen truck had done to this man's face and head, I noticed he was breathing.  He was still alive.  As much as I hoped someone could save him, I knew he would not survive and that the partially bare chest that was slowly rising up and down, would eventually stop.

An ambulance had been called and I kept looking to my right, up the highway where we had just driven from, where it would any minute be hurrying towards us.  Every time I impatiently looked up the highway hoping to see the flashing lights, I only saw a line of trees.  The line of trees.  Over and over and over again.

I stood looking at the man and there was a smell in the air that to this day I can't describe.  I now know it wasn't the smell of alcohol.  It may have just been a mixture of the hot day, the pavement of the highway, the aftermath of tires skidding.  I think it was death standing there with us, watching him patiently until he decided it was time the misshapen face drew its last breath.

Nothing about the scene bothered me until a woman bystander, who happened to be a nurse, decided she needed to clear his teeth out of his throat to help him breathe better.  A white T-shirt was handed to her and as she put it around her two fingers and reached into his mouth, I had to turn away.

To take my mind off the woman scraping bloody teeth from his throat, I walked around a bit.  The man's personal items had been thrown out of the truck and littered the side of the highway.  I knew the man had been drinking.  In spite of the fact that I had never been exposed to alcohol in all of my twelve years, it didn't take a scientist to know that what I saw when Dad woke me up the first time, was the driving of someone intoxicated.  This thought brought me sadness - had he made a better choice he wouldn't be lying in the dirt and weeds with a flat head, on the brink of death.

Within minutes someone pronounced him dead and he was covered with what I remember as a yellow blanket.  Not long after he was covered, I again looked to my right, to the row of trees, and finally saw the flashing lights of an ambulance.  I had no idea how long we were there - it could have been five minutes, it could have been twenty.  All I knew was that as we watched this person slipping from life, it seemed like an eternity before proper help came to try to keep him alive, even though I knew it couldn't happen.

With death taking over where life once flourished, and with the oncoming ambulance, Dad decided it was time for us to go.  The rest of the drive home was somber - I don't remember if we talked about it, or talked at all for that matter.  That night I couldn't sleep and climbed into bed with my sister Amy, with whom I had shared a bed for so many years until older siblings left and more bedrooms became available for us to enjoy our own spaces.  She was my safe place from the heebie jeebies of the day's events, and once I climbed in I slept a peaceful sleep.

My dad got flack from a family friend for allowing such a young child to witness the accident.  While I've never outright asked why he chose to stop that day, I think it was so that I could experience the realities of life, and that included witnessing the atrocities of drunk driving and death.  I don't regret it, not for one second.

The sight of those trees and how they represent the day I watched a man die, will never be lost on me.  The memory will never fade.  The stark reality of the delicacy of the human body and the uncertainty of our time here on earth became a part of me that day.

It wouldn't be the last time I experienced the aftermath of death at a young age, but that's another story.  For now I just needed to get it out of my head, and allow the energy of this recent memory to escape from my fingertips as a story to tell. Thank you for allowing me that opportunity.



Roksana Podgorska said...

oh man, what a story...

Keith Wynn said...

Reading this, it feels like it would have been quite liberating to that the case?

Melissa said...

Wowzer!! Way intense!

Steve said...

Speechless.....Kim, thank you for sharing.

Brian said...

Nicely written. What a powerful memory and valuable lesson.

Bobi Jensen said...

Thanks for sharing.

The Accidental Somebody said...

Yes!! All weekend long it ruminated in my brain. Now it has been released. :)

Sandra said...

Oh my....that's so traumatic Kim! I'm not surprised that the memory is seared into your brain though. But I'm sorry it is.

Susan, Super Earthling said...

That was both powerful and beautifully written. It’s clear that something inside your young heart and mind helped you decide to use this senseless tragedy in the most positive way possible…as a significant lesson in life, rather than simply a nightmare-inducing reminiscence. And it seems your father knew his daughter well enough to realize that.

Jayne said...

All the elements of a good story are present here. The fact that it's true is just a bonus. You held me from the first sentence and the power of your beautifully selected words kept me spellbound. You're really a wonderful writer. It sounds like you had a wise dad. Such a hard thing to see, but such a lesson learned. And the image of those trees. Wow! Nice work.