Something terrible happened.
A young man died
and I found his body.
I woke up Thursday feeling kind of off. I still had enough sick-time hours to cover my workday, so I left the campground I was babysitting and drove the few miles to my campground. I spent the day working on my book and taking down my privacy tent and generally resting up for the weekend. After eating dinner around 4:30, I felt well enough to put on my uniform and check-in some campers who’d just arrived. As I prepared to drive back to the campground I had to babysit, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been to the group campground I was responsible for since the previous morning. So after emptying the iron ranger at the parking lot, I headed over to the group campground.
I didn’t see the pickup truck until I was on the road running through the middle of the group campground. It was parked as far to the left side of the road as possible. It was still partly in the road, but there was just enough room for a vehicle as large as my van to pass it.
I thought the pickup probably belonged to a hunter. It was deer season, and hunters in pickups were all over the place. I thought the hunter had left the truck there and had gone out past the meadow and into the trees to look for a buck.
I noticed a bag of charcoal in the back of the truck. It had been opened, some of the charcoal removed, then the top edge rolled closed, In addition to telling the hunter s/he was parked in a $126 per night campground, I wanted to make sure s/he knew charcoal fires were prohibited.
I didn’t think I would actually talk to the person who’d driven the truck into the campground. I thought I’d end up leaving a courtesy notice under a windshield wiper, but I decided to try to make personal contact before I wrote out a notice.
Hello! Hello! I called out when I left the van. I looked around the campground, but I didn’t see anyone walking about or sitting at a picnic table.
I approached the passenger side of the truck and peered through the dusty window. To my surprise, I saw someone sitting in the driver’s seat. Judging from the person’s short hair and flat chest, the person was male. His face was unlined, young. He seemed to be sleeping—eyes closed, mouth slightly open—although the position of his head and necked looked extremely uncomfortable.
I knocked on the glass of the passenger side window with a series of knuckle tingling thumps—no gentle taps for this camp host in a hurry. The young man’s eyelids did not flutter. His shoulders did not twitch.
Wow! I thought. That kid’s really sleeping hard!
I had a new idea.
I went back to my van and sounded the horn. Honk! Honk! Honk!
Then I laid on the horn for several long seconds—Hooooonnnnnkkkkkk!!!
I walked back over to the truck and peered through the dusty window again. The young man had not moved. At this point I started getting worried.
I rapped loudly on the passenger side window again but saw not a flicker of movement.
I began to focus on my attention on the young man’s chest.
Throughout my nervous life, I’ve concentrated on so many chests—those belonging to children and pets I was caring for, those belonging to the boyfriend I hoped would die in the night and the boyfriends I hoped would live. Always, if I stared at the chest long enough, always, the chest would eventually move. This time though, the breath had run out. I saw no rise, no fall, no movement, no nothing.
I beat on the window with the flat of my fist. Bam! Bam! Bam!
No response. No movement of the young man’s chest.
I thought I should try knocking on the driver’s side window. Maybe the young man was just a really deep sleeper. Maybe the young man was chemically altered. (But his chest wasn’t moving. I knew his chest wasn’t moving. I knew what it meant that his chest wasn’t moving.) I tried to get to the driver’s side window, but the truck was parked up against trees and brush and there was no clear space to easily slip through.
I went back to my van and honked the horn, then laid on it again. When I got back to the truck, the young man had not moved a muscle. Although I was beginning to have to believe he was dead, I pounded on the window a few more times; of course, I received no response.
I stood there and wondered what I should do.
I’ve seen enough cop shows on TV and read enough mystery novels to know I did not want to be the hapless individual who stumbles upon a murder scene and destroys evidence or gets accused of the crime. This didn’t look like a crime scene, but what did I know? I didn’t want my fingerprints all over everything.
Should I try to do CPR on this guy? I haven’t had CPR training in nearly twenty years. Would I remember what to do? Better question: Would CPR do this guy any good? I remember reading or hearing somewhere that CPR can sometimes keep a person alive until EMTs arrive on the scene, but CPR alone is probably not going to save anyone’s life. Even if I got past the brush and dragged the young man out of the truck and performed CPR on him…No professional medical person of any kind was likely to happen down a winding dirt road and into the group campground to take over from me and save this guy’s life.
I decided the best thing I could do was call 911.
Of course, I was nowhere near a telephone. So I jumped in my van and drove fifteen miles to the campground where my boss was stationed. There was a landline there. I drove as fast as I dared on those mountain curves. (Slow down. I’m in a hurry, I heard a former co-worker quote her grandmother.)
When I arrived at the campground, my boss wasn’t there. The camp host didn’t know where he was or when he’d be back. I was on my own.
I called my boss’s cell phone first and left a message on his voice mail saying I’d found someone I thought was dead and was calling 911.
The 911 call was a farce. The dispatcher had me spell my name but still got it wrong when she read the letters back to me. She asked me the last time I’d been in the campground, and I said between 7am and 9am the day before. She said, So 10am yesterday? Was she even listening to me? Finally, she asked if I could go back to the campground to guide the first responders to the body.
Yes, I said. I can do that.
I sat at the end of the road to the campground for nearly an hour before a deputy arrived. He had me drive in first, while he followed behind. I parked in front of the truck and got out of the van. The interior of the truck was dark, and I couldn’t see the young man in the driver’s seat. I hoped he’d woken up, left the truck, walked out into the meadow to take a leak or shoot a deer, or anything at all, really. I was totally willing to look like a fool for calling 911 if only the young man could be alive.
The officer shined his flashlight into the cab of the truck. The young man was still there.
He hasn’t moved, I said softly.
The officer tried to open the passenger side door. Locked.
Then he squeezed between the truck and the trees and the brush and tried the driver side door. Unlocked. He opened the door and the overhead light came on. I saw the officer reach in and put his fingers on the young man’s neck to check for a pulse.
In a few moments, the officer stepped from the side of the truck and said to me, He is deceased.
Then the officer rummaged around in the back of the dead man’s truck. He told me there was a small charcoal grill behind the passenger seat. He said it had evidence of charcoal that had been lit, but whether the young man had been trying to kill himself or stay warm, he didn’t know.
Medical personnel arrived and the officer and the EMT both squeezed between the truck and the trees to look at the dead man. They managed to get the door open and the overhead light was on again. The officer pointed out the charcoal grill and said he thought the man had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
If carbon monoxide had killed him, his face would be red, the EMT said. Carbon monoxide poisoning would make his face red like a tomato, the EMT said.
I can vouch for the fact that his face was not red at all.
The deputy and the EMT agreed the young man must have died from suffocation. The fire used up all the oxygen in the tightly closed truck, and the young man had nothing left to breathe.
The EMT left, and the deputy took my statement. I told him I had a group scheduled to arrive in the campground the next afternoon. He said the mobile morgue was on its way and the body and the truck would be going in the morning.
I went back to the campground where I was spending the night. I felt empty and old. I kept remembering how the young man’s face looked while I was trying to wake him. I know it’s a cliché to say I kept seeing his face, but it’s true.
I don’t know if I should write about what happened. It seems so personal, not so much for me as for him. Should I write about a stranger’s death? I was there, for part of it at least, so now this death is a part of my story too.
Please, if you’re going to leave a comment on this post, please be compassionate. I don’t want to read anything negative about how this young man died. I don’t want anyone telling me what I should have done. I did the best I could under the circumstances. I think the young man probably did the best he could too. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but this time, please share the negative ones with someone else.