From memory triggered back to life by this poem by Jim Harrison.
The newsroom’s police scanner squawked around 3:30 one afternoon and my editor sent me out with camera and notebook.
It was a cloudy day in early Spring, the roadside grass was fresh and green, the
baby wheat plants covered the fields on either side in a fuzzy carpet.
The scene was very ordinary-looking at first, and it confused me. This was my first fatal accident as a reporter and I didn’t know what to expect.
A sheriff’s department cruiser was off the road with lights flashing behind a family wagon, which had a flatbed trailer smashed against the front. An ambulance pulled away as I arrived, and a tow truck’s amber flashers flicked across my windshield.
The police radio code had meant this was a fatality, but everyone was moving in slow motion, and something didn’t seem right. I was anxious, not sure what to do. I parked a distance away off the road and walked back to where a deputy was standing behind a station wagon writing on a clipboard.
I could tell that someone was still behind the wheel of car, but they didn’t look right. . The hitch end of a goosenecked ‘low-boy’ flatbed trailer was speared through the windshield on the driver’s side. Deputy wasn’t happy to see me, but then they never are when a reporter shows up. Questions. Trust issues. And a little officiousness, usually.
Eventually he growled out that she’d been decapitated. The head was a few yards away from the car on the shoulder. Covered with a white towel. “Don’t touch anything.” Told me when the report would be filed at the station, so I could pick it up to write my story.
Details… I had to ask, and I wanted to make sense of this. She’d just dropped her 13-year-old daughter off at school for soccer practice, and was headed back to their home in the country to start dinner. Coming the other way was a neighbor, a farmer towing the trailer empty after dropping off a load somewhere. He had failed to secure the safety chains that kept the trailer tied to the truck even if the hitch failed to latch tight, which it had. A bump in the road bounced the truck and trailer apart and sent the trailer at a slightly different trajectory than the truck, but at the same speed over the center line toward the young mother, who was probably thinking about whether to have chicken or hamburgers. The trailer hitch ended whatever thought she was having as it punched a hole in the glass and separated her head from her shoulders and sent it bouncing out of the open window.
Now what was left were all the things that follow sudden death. The paperwork, the calls to the ambulance company, who then left when they realized there was no one to save. The call to the coroner, who hadn’t shown up yet. I walked over toward the white towel, but stopped a respectful distance away, sick at my stomach. My wife and I had small children. This could have been her.
The tow truck driver waited in his cab, pretending to write on a clipboard too, not willing to look at the towel. He and the deputy knew the woman. Their kids were in the same grade in school as her daughter. This was small-town personal. The deputy and he also were not new to such scenes. It put them both in bad moods for days.
My job was to report this death for tomorrow’s paper. To use a formula that keeps some of the horror out of it. But people want to know when things happen.
The coroner eventually makes his pronouncement about the cause. There may be an inquest if there’s something suspicious, but in this case there’s no mystery about what happened. Reports are written and filed. The body is gently retrieved by one of the local undertakers and preparations start for a funeral. Ministers visit, murmuring condolences, quietly moving plans that must be made on people who cannot think of plans. Grief settles over families and a pain that seems unbearable.
The people who’s job it is to clean up the scene do that, and within hours there’s no sign anything happened, except for a piece of chrome from the car’s windshield that was overlooked in the tall grass by a fence.
Everyone feels it. The dark wings of mortality leave their foul stench over everyone. Two families are destroyed, but most of us don’t think about that then, or even later all that much. The trauma ripples out in invisible waves and bounces back and forth across the waters of a community. The harshness gradually sinks beneath the surface, but it becomes part of the pond, one of the stories of the waters of a place.
The farmer who drove the pickup truck and forgot to tie his safety chains tight was charged with manslaughter. His marriage dissolved and his wife moved away with their two kids. He lost the farm because he couldn’t work it any more. The guilt was too much. The looks in people’s eyes haunted him.
The young mother’s daughter dropped soccer that fall. She became her little brother’s mother, and the burden was heavy, as if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough.
And so on.
It has been a few years, but I can still see something delicate and round on the shoulder of a country road in spring, discretely covered by a white towel. And I knew, even as I filed the story that afternoon that nothing I could say in the space I had would do that life justice.
Then I saw this poem, and maybe this is all you can say:
by Jim Harrison
The ambulance driver told me in a bar
about the car accident–Elsa’s head torn off
and her eyes stayed open.
I went to the site with a bouquet of flowers.
The road’s shoulder was short green grass and along
the fence there were primroses and California
poppies. In the field a brown-and-white cow
watched me wander around. I wondered
how long Elsa could see, and what.
I found a patch of blood-crisp grass
where her head must have rested
surrounded by shards of windshield.
She was a fine gardener with a sweet,