'What was the worst accident you ever responded to', came the unsavory question. I didn't want to answer, as trading tales of roadside gore ain't my bag. But a certain early-morning episode from my early days kept bobbing to the surface. Eventually I had to pluck it from the backwaters of my memory banks and figure out why it just wouldn't sink...
Three A.M. on a Wednesday. I was sleeping soundly when the telephone jumped up and slapped me. The cigarette-stained voice on the other end pierced the darkness, commanding me to 'roll on a bad 10-50'. Stumbling from my bedroom, I began the time-honored process without ever rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
The drive across town was uneventful, though my half-conscious mind did marvel at how all the angry stoplights flashed a friendly yellow when no drivers were around to bug them. What was usually a congested boulevard now stood empty and I made it to the scene in record time.
Early summer fog added to the dreamy feel of the night, and as I parked on the side of the road and grabbed my gear, I was probably still sleep-walking. Up ahead a lone state trooper's car idled by a badly accordioned Datsun B-210. Across the road, an eighteen-wheeler sat halfway in a ditch, it's backlit driver wiping his brow in silhouette.
Suddenly, a tall figure in a Smokey-Bear hat stepped into my vision. I t took me a second to realize it was the state-trooper, one who either knew me, or at least pretended to.
"Hey boss-man! Ain't you got nothin' better to do?"
Though his face was hidden beneath his hat-brim, the voice was friendly, and he escorted me toward the wrecked car like the host of some late-night garden party.
"You must a been waitin' in the bushes ya got here so fast..."
I was only half-listening as I powered up my camera and flipped various switches. When I turned my sleepy attention back to the trooper, he hoisted his enormous flashlight, and motioned me to the window of the crumpled car.
"Don't know if he didn't see the truck, or was just trying to get past it..."
With that, the man in the official hat switched on his flashlight, and ripped every shred of rest from my sleepy brain.
The light's beam danced around the car's interior and my mind's eye took in every detail. There was no gore, only a young driver slumped around the steering wheel in sudden eternity. He was dressed in a fast-food uniform, and the coffee he'd been sipping on the way to work was puddled in the floorboard. Next to him on the seat, a worn case full of cassette tapes sat in silence. An air-freshener exactly like the one in my news unit hung from a cigarette lighter that had lit its last Marlboro.
I backed away from the car after only a few seconds, my mind now glaringly awake and racing with grim scenarios. Trying not to expose my shock to the trooper, I played it cool and got a quick sound-bite. After a few cursory shots of the wreckage, I crawled into my news car and turned back toward home. But for once, I took my time, for rushing seemed to disrespect the newly dead. Though it was a straight, flat route back to the house, I held the steering wheel in a sweaty driver's-ed regulation grip.
I've seen a lot of trauma since then, but the scene of that poor soul's final commute has always held a special place in my memory. It must have been the fast-food uniform, the spilled coffee and the air freshener that did it; inconsequential personal items that forced me to relate to the crash victim. Whatever did it, I learned an important lesson that sweltering summer morning: No matter how callous, how flippant, how tough we all pretend to be when covering sudden deaths, the people we point our cameras at are real and not all that far removed from ourselves. It's something all of us behind the lens should remember, even when we want desperately to forget it. Of course sometimes, simply forgetting isn't an option.