The Penance of Preparedness

Nothing reminds you of how ill-prepared you are for an emergency like being first on the scene of a crash.

VESUVIUS, Virginia — The airport’s an hour away by 81 North, then 64 East at Staunton. I hate that drive. All those people running the same direction, their heads down, schooling like fish and ignoring the green wonder of the Shenandoah Valley. The counties up here all sit on a loose grid, the roads either parallel or perpendicular, dictated by the old and gnarled spine of the Blue Ridge, how it lies pointing vaguely northeast. It means there are a thousand ways to get to the same place so long as you’ve got a wealth of minutes to burn.

For once, I did. Beth gathered up our daughter and dropped her in the tub about the time I set out the door to meet my step mother’s flight. I’d planned to take the Mercedes. Aim its silver star at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s crumbling asphalt and trace the road all the way to Afton. Run my hands through the long light of late summer and breathe a minute. The sky had other ambitions.

The wind was cool, snapping its jaws at the line of maples, poplars and oaks that frame our place, the lot of them turning their leaves, flashing their silver bellies at the low clouds in a dare. The horizon was dark, rippling with the blue muscle of an evening storm pushing its way east. The first fat drops planted themselves on the sidewalk as I stood on the porch, considering my options. My 1977 Mercedes 230 with no air conditioning and four questionable tires is no place to spend a Virginia thunderstorm.

I took our second-generation Honda CR-V instead. Maybe the nicest vehicle we own, it’s happy to trudge its way through the grind of daily existence with neither complaint nor demand. I can’t stand the adequacy of it, how gladly it eschews excellence for acceptability, abandoning the precise handling and crisp steering of the brand’s past for a driving experience that’s completely forgettable—far worse than merely bad.

That’s what was on my mind as I grabbed the thing by its scruff and shook it up the mountain outside of Vesuvius. There’s a satisfaction to wailing on a car you hate, stoking your mechanical masochism. Somewhere along the way, I realized I was having fun outsprinting the storm. I dropped the windows and laughed at the stumbling understeer, the tippy body and detached steering. Grinned at the sound of four commuter tires pleading for mercy, their wail a crescendo in the dusk.

By the time I reached the Parkway, I could see patches of clear sky here and there, all set orange with the slipping sun. The light dashed through the trees at the crest of the Blue Ridge, making for long and perfect staccato shadows. The road wound into deeper and darker woods. That’s when I saw the Wrangler on the shoulder, its front bashed to an improper V, the hood peaked, and the windshield shattered. Steam climbed from the grille. Earth, leaves, and a scattering of items once inside the Jeep sat strewn across the pavement. A cooler. Shards of broken bottles. A pile of dark clothing. But as I pulled the Honda off the road and got out, the scene clicked into focus. It wasn’t just discarded cloth piled in the middle of the road. It was a person.

I checked my phone as I ran, the slaps of my boot heels and the plink of cooling metal playing lead to the rhythm chant of late-summer cicadas. No service. The Jeep’s horn began to blare. I was begging already, pleading with the whoever or whatever would listen, “Don’t be dead.”

The curses that were on my lips froze there as I reached the man. He was in his late 40s, his head shaved. He’d been in shape once, his legs, arms and shoulders thick with muscle that hadn’t enjoyed the breadth of its function in years. He wore shorts and sandals, his body cut and scraped, the cloth of his t-shirt pulled up over his half-barrel belly. I called to him, and at first, got no response. Knelt, leaned close, and tried again. He groaned, his eyes fluttering. The brief joy of seeing him alive was replaced by real fear as blood ran from the back of his head so fast the asphalt couldn’t absorb it. In all my years of construction and mechanic work, I’ve never seen so much blood all at once. A red river of life running from this man.

It hadn’t dawned on me just how unprepared I was. I had nothing to give him. No gloves to protect myself, no bandages, no towel or blanket. My last first aid class was more than 10 years ago. I’d always rolled my eyes at the people who packed their trunks with emergency supplies, who lived under the insufferable banner of “just in case.” Now it seemed painfully stupid to be a man who carries a spare alternator in his truck but has no way to help a stranger in need.

Desperate, I took off my shirt, gently lifted his head and placed the fabric beneath his skull, holding it there. I couldn’t quit cursing, my heart hammering against the bones of my chest. His skin was already cold from shock, alien through the slick of his warm blood. The fear was bad, but not nearly so cruel as not knowing what to do. My mind flicked through the options. Stay, keep pressure on the wound, and hope someone else drove by on this abandoned two lane. Or, somehow put him in the Honda and take him to aid. Or, rest his head on the ground, hope like hell the weight of it was enough to staunch the bleeding, and go for help.

Every one of them seemed a gamble. I knew better than to try to move the man. I had no idea how he wound up in the road, though it seemed likely he was thrown there, ejected from the Jeep along with the rest of the detritus that littered the southbound lane. I had no way of knowing how bad his injuries were, but moving him would likely make them worse. And, there was no telling when the next car could come by. It could be minutes. It could be hours.

I laid his head back on my shirt and promised I’d return. Ran to the Honda and got in. I didn’t make it 50 yards down the road before I saw headlights. I blew the horn, flashed my high beams and stopped the Honda dead center on the double yellows. Got out and ran to the driver’s window, where I found a car full of terrified college-aged young women, all wide-eyed at the blood-covered stranger with no shirt, demanding to know if any of them had service.

They all looked at their phones, and by some miracle, one of them had a few bars. I told her to call 911, to tell the dispatcher that there had been an accident on the Parkway and that the driver had been ejected from his vehicle. I told them I didn’t know the mile marker, that they needed to go find the closest one if they didn’t either.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, a shadow of a memory illuminated as I ran back to the man’s side. If he had a concussion, I shouldn’t let him fall asleep. I knelt and called to him again.

“Buddy, you need to wake up, ok? What’s your name?”

This time, the groaning stopped. His breath went shallow. I reached over and slapped him on his ribs, and he started.

“What’s your name, man?”


“Bobby, that’s good. Where you from, Bobby?”

Another car pulled up, its driver a woman who was quick to help, quick to keep Bobby talking. We asked him everything we could think of. Asked him to move his toes, then his fingers. Asked him to tell us about his wife, and when he said her name was Karen, the woman brightened.

“That’s my name, Bobby,” she said.

His answers came in labored, single-word bursts, some easier than others. He couldn’t tell us his last name or the names of his two boys, but could rattle off his wife’s phone number with relative ease, give or take a few digits. One of the young women from the first car walked up barefoot, picking her way between the broken glass. She knelt and held Bobby’s right hand as his words stumbled and faltered, her shoulders making the tattoo that ran from the base of her neck down her spine shift and move in the twilight.

The storm caught us, then, announced on that same cool wind I felt on my porch. It moved through the trees, whispered across our skin. It felt like some sort of reprieve.

“Feel that, Bobby? The rain’s coming. It’s gonna feel awfully good after this heat.”

And it did, each heavy drop like a sweet and cool kiss. The young woman looked up, drops of rain suspended in her flyaway hair capturing the last light of the day. Her brown eyes were worried.

“His arm and shoulder are in bad shape,” she said. “I think the muscle might be torn.”

We were there an hour. Maybe more. A mingling crowd gathered on the ridge top. Bobby’s bleeding slowed, then stopped. His answers never got clearer, but they came easier. Someone lent me a pullover. Umbrellas appeared.

“Guys, why are we doing this?” Bobby asked. Everyone laughed.

“That’s a good question, brother,” I answered, finally suspecting that he’d be alright.

We heard the sirens long before we saw the trucks, their lights cutting through the dark that had long-since descended on the scene. The fire fighters and EMTs loaded Bobby onto an ambulance and took him to UVA, leaving the small crowd of strangers standing there with nothing more than each other and the rain. I told them thanks, and apologized for having to leave so quickly, but I was already very late for my step mother’s flight.

I got back in the Honda, the dome light illuminating my phone and sunglasses, both covered in Bobby’s blood from when I’d gotten in earlier, the cabin bright with the penny smell that only comes when the stuff starts to dry. I sat for half a second, my hands shaking with the jab of adrenaline. And as I drove out the remainder of the Parkway, I couldn’t pry that flood of Bobby’s blood from my mind. Not because it was shocking, which it was, but because that could have been me a hundred times over. I spent my young years on a tear, eschewing drinking and drugs in empty hay fields for full-throttle rips around this county, a collection of near misses on my hip.

Finding that man sprawled on a road I’ve run a hundred times was a clear reminder: the penance for living is being prepared with more than the shirt off your back. The American Red Cross sells inexpensive kits stocked with necessary basics for less than you’d pay for a year’s worth of Netflix. Likewise, keeping up with first aid training only takes a handful of hours, time I’d likely squander anyhow. Bobby was a good reminder to keep more than car parts under my back seat, and to sharpen the skills necessary to keep someone safe until help arrives.

My phone rang when I finally reached the interstate. It was my wife, calling to tell me my step mother’s flight was cancelled. That she’d been rerouted to another airport an hour south and that my father was on his way to pick her up. It was hard not to laugh at the cosmic click of things, the cascade of events that put you where you are. I hung up the phone and pointed the Honda toward home, back through the storm.

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