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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

The Smell of Alcohol and Death

September 16, 2000|JOHN HERD | John Herd lives in Santa Barbara

In the early 1970s, I was a typical young man who embraced the fallacy, "It can't happen to me." More times than I wish to admit I got behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol. Thankfully, neither I nor others on the road suffered from my poor judgment.

Late one evening, I was approaching a three-way intersection. A compact car with several teenagers in it preceded me by a few car lengths. Out of the darkness came a car from the opposite direction. My foot instinctively hit the brakes when I realized the oncoming car wasn't following the curve of the road.

Time immediately snapped into a super-reality slow motion. The oncoming car crossed over the white line on a straight trajectory toward a stone wall. At that very moment the car ahead of me was in between the oncoming car and the wall. The energy that struck the teenagers' car was enormous--far more than the steel or fragile bones could withstand. In a fraction of a second, the car was transformed into a Salvador Dali-type image less than half its prior size.

Pulling off the road, I pulled off the road, jumped from my car and rushed toward the crumpled metal to see if I could help. From behind the wheel of the larger car staggered the man who caused the accident. The stench of alcohol was immediately apparent. Neighbors rushed out of their houses; 911 was called.

The image inside the crumpled remains of what had been a car stopped my breath. Not only was there no movement, there was virtually no open space below the level of the twisted, glassless window frames. All that was recognizable were what appeared to be several expressionless mannekin heads. The only sounds that cut through the night's silence were onlookers' comments of despair, their futile demands to do something and the approaching sound of sirens.

The police arrived just before the fire department. There was nothing they could do. One officer vomited. As firemen approached the car, two policemen held the drunken driver, forcing him to watch the spectacle he had created. The firemen only had one jaws of life, but there were more bodies that had to be extricated, each from a different direction. Large crowbars were brought from the fire engine.

A fireman asked me to give him a hand with the jaws of life. Cries of metal giving up its new form and a radio call for multiple ambulances was all I heard. Everyone was silent as their thoughts were overwhelmed with hope. Without speaking, the firemen worked like a precision machine, removing the roof of the car and doors. Even then only the heads of the victims could be viewed. The dashboard and what was left of the firewall had to be cut away before there was access to the people inside. It had not registered in my mind yet that the people inside were lifeless.

The first gruesome Raggedy Ann figure the firemen got to was the driver. Her figure was horribly distorted and impaled by the steering column. Next came the front passenger, twisted and crumpled. The engine had to be pried out of the way before she could be removed.

After what was left of a front seat had been removed, the last victim was extricated--another teenage life snubbed out by a drunken driver.

The ambulances departed silently and slowly. Never again did I drive under the influence of any inebriating substance. I wish everyone who has a driver's license could see a documentary film of how grotesquely lives get snubbed out by drunken drivers. Maybe then more car keys would go back into pockets when too much alcohol is consumed.

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