Trooper Hardwick backed off the accelerator and hoped that his “perp” would do the same. He fully understood what was up ahead as he disengaged. The white “dually” F-150 did not slow down. Trooper Hardwick braced himself emotionally for what he knew was inevitable. He watched the taillights disappear over the knoll. Without realizing it, he stopped breathing and he could hear the pounding of his heart. A knot in his stomach quickly formed and twisted his gut. Even though it was 0 degrees outside and not particularly warm in his cruiser, beads of sweat formed on his brow. As he approached a curve and crested a knoll, he saw the telltale orange glow against the blackness of a January night.
Following the state trooper’s rear taillights, Sergeant Emmett Johnson kept a safe distance. At first he was confused by the trooper’s deceleration. Flush with adrenaline and excited by the chase, he tingled with anticipation. He had already unsnapped his holster. In all the excitement, he hadn’t even contacted the trooper on his radio. He was about to transmit when he saw the glow. His mouth fell open as realized the gravity of the situation. “Aww fuck!” he muttered in a shrill and unmanly voice.
Nothing in his experience as a small town cop had prepared him for what was just a few hundred yards ahead. He’d seen a couple of suicides and some deaths by natural causes. They certainly had been gruesome. He didn’t realize it then, but his life was about to change dramatically and suddenly.
The ancient maple was scarred and missing chunks of bark. It had been hit several times over the years and had always stood its ground. With its gnarly limbs reaching up nearly 40 feet high, it had stood at this curve when farmers hauled their hay to Lancaster on horse drawn hay wagons.
It didn’t budge an inch when the white dually f-150 smashed headlong into it at 90 mph. The driver was so intoxicated that by the time his brain told his foot to hit the brake, he’d already hit the tree and those two gas tanks (hence the name dually) had exploded. Flames reached to the top of the maple. The snow around the crashed truck melted and then quickly refroze a few feet away. Both Trooper Hardwick and Sergeant Johnson parked their vehicles a safe distance from the blazing truck. Occasionally, a shift in the flames allowed them to see the torso slumped against the steering wheel. After a few minutes, they saw it topple and rest against the door.
Wanting to save something for the driver’s family, the trooper took off his winter jacket and held it out as a shield as he approached the truck. The jacket was starting smolder and the heat was painful as Trooper Hardwick opened the door. As soon as he did, the burned torso fell to the melting snow. As he kicked snow on the smoking hulk, Trooper Hardwick saw the local cop stop and throw up the contents of his stomach into a snow bank at the edge of the driveway. Hardwick asked the local if the fire department had been alerted. Finding out that it hadn’t, the trooper went to his car and alerted his dispatcher to summons the emergency personnel. Returning to the burning truck, he could see that the flames were subsiding. It doesn’t take long to burn 40 gallons of gasoline. He avoided looking at the blackened body. When the truck was fully engulfed, all of the air was pulled into the blaze and violently convected upward. With the fire close to being out, the cold returned, and as both men choked, so did the stench of burning plastic, rubber and worst of all, human flesh. Johnson returned to the snow bank and wretched some more. Trooper Hardwick could now hear the emergency vehicles off in the distance. He also heard a low guttural moan. He assumed it was coming from Johnson, but when he looked, he saw that Johnson was in his patrol car staying warm. He listened carefully and above the sound of distant sirens and the sizzling of melting snow, he heard it again.
His face contorted into a grimace as the unthinkable became fact… the body was trying to breathe. He looked down. Lying face down in the snow with nearly all of its clothing burned off, the body was gasping for air. As he grabbed the body to turn it over, large chunks of blackened skin came off in his hands. He struggled with the contents of his stomach as the stench of charred flesh assaulted his sensibilities. The entire right side was burned to the bone. There was nearly nothing left of the arm. Almost all of the skin and flesh over the ribs was gone. There was some muscle left on the upper thigh but none left below the knee. The face was severely burned and was without a nose, ears, eyelids and lips.
In spite of that, he was gasping for air. The lungs and throat had been badly burned from inhaling the hot air, smoke and flames. The damaged tissue was swelling and making it hard to draw air into the blackened lungs.
Lacking any clear direction or knowledge of what to do, Trooper Hardwick went to his trunk for a blanket. Returning to the torso, he gently lifted it off the snow and slid the blanket under. Very carefully, he covered the body with the other half of the blanket. On the arm that had nearly burned off, the synthetic fabric had melted into the charred skin. The rubber sneaker sole had burned so that even flesh inside the shoe was nearly gone.
The cold had returned. All of the melted snow was refrozen. By the time the fire department arrived, there was nothing to do. The fire was out, there were no contaminants to contain and it was terribly cold. They stood by while the EMTs transferred the torso to a gurney and rolled him to the ambulance.
Trooper Hardwick slowly walked to the local’s squad car. Sergeant Johnson sat at the wheel staring blankly into the night. There was nothing that needed to be said.
Norseman Motorcycle in Berlin, NH was a motorcycle shop catering to Harley enthusiasts. It’s gregarious owner, an outlaw biker by the name of David Brungot, was a notorious and colorful figure. One day he told me that he was taking on a new employee; said that he was disabled and that the state would pay part of the payroll for a period of time. “Got fucked up running from the cops…” In David’s world, that was an automatic “in”! Within a few days, I met the apprentice. At first, I was taken aback. He was grotesque. He had pinkish white skin with heavy scars everywhere. There were no eyebrows, no nose, and no ears. His eyelids were surgical constructions that had a bright red color because the skin was so transparent. There were no eyelashes. His lips were also surgically reconstructed. The openings into his sinus cavities were also a pinkish red. He wore a typical biker bandana on his hairless head. One arm had been amputated and his right leg was little more than bone and skin. His right nipple was missing as was most of the tissue over the right side of his ribcage. In spite of his appearance, he was immediately warm and engrossing. He offered his left hand and we shook hands vigorously. His friendly banter and endearing personality quickly became his most obvious attributes, and the disfigurement quickly became unimportant. The initial recoil was a onetime response and was never repeated.
“I’m Pigeon”, I offered, “what’s your name?” “Well, “he began, “my real name is Mike, but for obvious reasons, I go by my nickname… French Fry!” We both laughed uncontrollably; it was the first of many times that he would have me laughing that way.
Over time, he would tell me his story, of how he got drunk and tried to elude the police, crashed his truck and nearly died. He told me that he had been in a coma for two years and that he had little awareness during most of that time. Occasionally, he felt like he was in a fish bowl and was aware of diffuse light and sound as though coming from a great distance. He would float up to the top where the sounds were louder and the light brighter but would sink back down again.
He had attended the local culinary arts college and had been working as a line cook prior to the accident, but the prospects for a one armed cook in a wheelchair were pretty slim.
After regaining consciousness, he needed to undergo numerous surgeries, procedures and reconstructions. His eyelids and lips were considered necessities, not cosmetic, so Social Security has paid for the work. Apparently ears and noses were not necessary and were considered cosmetic surgery. Various social agencies had been advocating on his behalf and he was confident that he would have surgical reconstructions at some point.
A few years after the accident, he wanted to meet Trooper Hardwick. He wrote a letter to the barracks commander, and a meeting was arranged. They met at the barracks. French Fry thanked Trooper Hardwick for risking the heat to remove him from the truck. French Fry knew he was “in the wrong” and held no animosity. Trooper Hardwick recounted the details of that night; how he had started the chase after the Irving clerk reported an extremely drunk driver, had engaged and then disengaged the chase, the orange glow, kicking the snow on the smoldering French Fry…
Trooper Hardwick told French Fry that the local police sergeant had suffered post traumatic stress, had never been able to effectively resume his job and was still drifting though his own wrecked life.
As would be expected, the job money ran out and French Fry’s physical limitations precluded him from truly doing his job. Much of the inventory was too heavy or too high on the shelves. French Fry eventually moved on. Before he did, though, he gave me one more good belly laugh. One day, while having difficulty with his wheelchair in the frozen slush in the middle of the street, a car hit him and knocked his wheel chair over. He said “that was close, if I had gotten run over, you’d have to change my name to “Mashed Potatoes”!