Something Terrible

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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.

About Blaize Sun

I live in my van, which makes me a rubber tramp. I like to see places I've never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again. I like to play with color. I make collages and hemp jewelry and cheerful winter hats. I take photographs and (sometimes, not in a long time) write poetry. All of those things make me an artist. Although I like to spread joy and to make people laugh, my wit can be sharp. I try to stay positives in all situations, to find the goodness in all people. But I often feel compelled to point out bullshit when I smell it. I like to have fun, to dance, to eat yummy food, to sit by a fire and share stories. I want to know what people hold dear and important, not just make surface small talk. This blog is a way for me to share stories. This blog is made up of my stories, rants, and observations, as well as my photographs.

25 Responses »

    • Thank you, Auntie M, for your kind words and the virtual hug. I’ve gotten a lot of comforting words of support from friends, including an offer of informal counseling from our former firefighting New England friend. I appreciate the outpouring of love.

      I really feel for the young man’s family. It must have been such a shock to them. I wish I could tell them how peaceful he looked, how I thought he was just sleeping. I saw nothing that indicated he had suffered, which I think would be a comforting thing for a family to know.

  1. I’m so sorry that you had to go through this. What a terrible experience. His family must be devastated.

    I know that you value your privacy but would you consider posting this on CRVLing? This is a story that every van dwelling should hear.

    • Thank you for your kind words, tonyandkaren.I appreciate them.

      Anything I post on this blog is for public consumption. Readers are welcome to share links to this blog wherever it seems appropriate.

      I would be glad to have this post shared to Cheap RV Living. I think you are right that the information about NOT USING HEATING DEVICES IN A TIGHTLY CLOSED VEHICLE is important to get out to van dwellers. If you are on Cheap RV Living regularly, I would be glad for you to share the link to this post or copy and paste the entire post if you think that would be better. I’m not on the Cheap RV Living site often (not because it’s not a great site, because it IS a great site, but because I’ve got a lot on my plate), so if you want to post about this post there, it would be a huge favor to me.

      Thank you for this suggestion.

  2. This happened to my childhood friend in a small travel trailer many years ago. I don’t think enough people realize this can happen.

    • I’m sorry to hear about the death of your friend, Maddie.

      I think you are right that many people don’t know how dangerous fires in enclosed spaces can be. We think if we want to warm up, the space needs to be closed tight, not realizing we need fresh air too.

      Maybe this post will help spread the word.

  3. What a horrible situation for you! And there’s no shoulda-coulda-woulda here. If he died of oxygen deprivation, he had been dead all night and day. When the first thing people ask is, “Did you try CPR?”, they’re mostly stupid. CPR is usually most effective when you’ve seen them go down — three to five minutes w/o oxygen, and after that there’s really no point.

    I’m sorry that you had to go through all of this, and you’ll probably think about it for quite a while. But it certainly sounds like you did everything right, and you didn’t panic and start screwing things up. So, please just think about what you did right, and don’t beat yourself up about something that was completely out of your control.

  4. Sounds like you kept a level head. You did all the right things. And you are right: his story is now linked to your story. Hugs, you!

    • Thanks for your support and encouragement, Midge. It means a lot coming from you.

      I don’t think of myself as someone who does well in stressful, emergency situations, but I agree that this time I kept a level head.

      Hugs to you too, Midge!

  5. I’m so sorry for your experience and so thankful you posted this. I had no idea that having an open fire could suffocate you. I have been told, and read repeatedly, that you should keep a window cracked but I never knew why. I’m not sure I would have done it if it was cold and I was trying to warm up. (((Hugs)))

    • Thanks for letting me know this information was helpful to you, Cerene. Just knowing that now you know having a fire in a closed space can kill you has made me totally glad I shared this story.

      Using propane in an improperly vented, enclosed space can also kill. That’s why camp stoves have warnings about not using them in houses, tents, campers, vehicles, etc.

      Please always be safe.

  6. Such a sad story, on so many levels.

    I’m sending out good mojo and positive vibes to you the young man and those that loved him.

    Thanks for handling this tragedy with so much compassion.

  7. Finding a dead body has always been one of my worst fears. I’m sorry you had to go through this. You were very brave and level-headed. Have I told you how much I admire you? Much love, Sue

  8. I’ve been following your blog for years and have never felt the need to post until now. I’m sorry for you, and I’m sorry for the young man who died. You did everything right. So sad, and so…random. Seems like the poor guy had no idea that what he was doing would kill him. We’re all just trying to get along in life and then something like this happens. Hope you are doing okay. This would majorly freak me out. He’s in the great beyond. If there is one. But you are still here, so I hope you are okay with this.

  9. Pingback: More About the Man Who Died | Rubber Tramp Artist

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