On a cool winter Saturday afternoon, the all-American couple comprised of Lenny and June parked on hard red clay in the woods under longleaf pines a few miles from her university.
A loud explosive crash with the shattering of glass was followed by the scraping of metal skidding on the asphalt-and-gravel state road; then came the continuous blowing of a ceaseless horn – a sound of distress.
“There’s been an accident,” Lenny said.
They tossed their textbooks into the backseat. As it happened, they had been studying in their textbooks when the accident occurred and were not involved in their frequent love play. They thought they were very mature; he was nineteen, she would be nineteen in summer, and she would be in business sooner or later, while he saved the world.
He started the light-blue, 1962 Mercury Comet his father had purchased from the estate of a woman who died of cancer and careened out the bumpy, curvy woods road to the state highway and turned in the direction of the horn that wouldn’t stop blowing. Hanging from the rearview mirror of the Comet were two high school graduation tassels and a small plastic doll with a clump of wild white filament “hair” that June thought was funny or cute or both.
The accident had happened less than a half-mile from where they had parked. The overturned convertible had come to a stop in the middle of the road with the yellow no-passing stripes seemingly centered beneath, as if the car had been driven upside down in the middle of the road.
The body of a man obviously dead was half-in and half-out of the bulky, flipped convertible. He had been dragged a considerable distance, leaving a bloody red and partially orange smear on the highway. There was no other car involved or any sign of how the car had flipped, but by the length of the slide Lenny figured the driver had taken the curve too fast or slipped off the edge of the road somehow (maybe he had fallen asleep) and flipped the auto when trying to get back onto the pavement at too high a speed.
Lenny told June, “It’s bad. Don’t look,” and pulled his car to the road shoulder pointing it in a direction so that June could not see the man who couldn’t possibly be alive with that much of his head and brains smeared on the highway. “Don’t get out of the car,” he said.
The wheels of the overturned car still spun when Lenny ran to it and yelled, “Is there anyone in there?” The air smelled of petroleum products, oil and gas and lube, exhaust fumes, and burning rubber. The humming sound of the spinning tires overpowered the sounds of the birds chirping in the woods.
“Is someone there?” a woman called from under the car in a muffled voice.
“Yes,” Lenny replied.
“Is my son all right, mister?”
Lenny looked again at the dead African-American man pinned half out of the car. The dead man wore a white t-shirt shredded into bloody strips. One side of his head still had scalp and hair. The man had probably been in his thirties. The rest of the corpse below the blood-soaked t-shirt could not be seen because it was under the overturned car.
“I’m not a doctor,” Lenny said, quaking inside and unwilling to tell the woman that the driver, apparently her son, was dead beyond both hope and recognition. “Is there anyone else in there with you?”
“My other son and me are inside. Is my son James all right? I can feel his legs, but I can’t wake him up.”
Lenny looked down at the man so obviously dead and said, “I don’t know. I’m going to go for help. I don’t see how I can get you out of there myself, so I’m going to the nearest house and phone for a wrecker, an ambulance, and the police.”
“Please hurry, mister,” pleaded the other son.
It was 1965. Cellular phones hadn’t yet been invented. Nor had the Internet. They were as much pipe dreams to Lenny’s generation as rocket ships and space travel had been to his parents. If it were modern times, he would simply have taken his Android from his pocket and dialed 911. He might have taken photographs of the accident and the dead African American’s mutilated body beside the car. Others would probably have posted these photographs on Facebook; he wouldn’t have. He would have taken them for documentation, if needed. In the time of cellular phones, and if young, Lenny would have had at least one tattoo and a body piercing; alas, he would never have either. Someone else in such future times might have taken a “selfie” by the overturned car and dead man’s body, but not Lenny. But it was not modern times. It was 1965, there were no cell phones, but at least things were still good between him and June.
Gasoline was leaking out of the car and threatening a fire.
He ran to his car and took out a sandy blanket from the trunk that he and June used when they went to the beach. At the beach, because they were young and the war hadn’t hunted him down yet, they did pretty much the same frisky things they did when parked in the woods.
He ran back to the car oozing gasoline and threatening fire, hissing from the radiator, and humming with spinning tires, and covered the dead man with a blanket. Steam was rising from the upside down radiator as leaking water and touched the hot engine block in a continuous hiss.
Lenny didn’t want anyone to see the corpse, especially his dear June. He put the blanket over the dead man. He didn’t want to see the dead son again either.
The woman in the farmhouse wouldn’t let Lenny in to use the phone. Her large outside dogs milled about him growling in a threatening way, but didn’t attack. The wife stood behind a locked screen door at the front doorway into her tiny wooden house in the loblolly woods. It was more of a shotgun shack than a house, Lenny thought, and he wondered if it had indoor plumbing.
“But there’s been a terrible accident just down the road.” Lenny pleaded: “Please let me in to use your phone. One man’s dead. Two people may burn to death. They’re trapped under this flipped convertible, and gasoline is running out of it and over everything.”
“My husband said not to let anyone in,” the woman said in her weak Southern voice, a whining wobbling plea.
Lenny couldn’t see the woman clearly because it was dim behind the screen door, but he could see well enough to know she had long stringy blond hair and wore a loose light-colored house dress and looked to be about the age he and June were, only this woman clearly wasn’t a student in college working on her basic studies. She had two children he could hear screaming, two pit bulls Lenny feared, and a husband who was not home and who had given her orders to let no one in while he was gone. Lenny thought the husband was probably the type of man who meant her not to let anyone one in for different reasons than her personal safety, probably to make sure she didn’t fool around, and she was a woman who usually obeyed orders from her husband – or else.
“Look,” Lenny said to the young housewife, “would you at least call the highway patrol and tell them there’s an accident and two people are trapped under a flipped car on the state road? You don’t need to be afraid of us. It’s just me out here and June. She’s a college student in town. I’m here visiting her for the weekend. Do we look like criminals?”
“I don’t know,” the reluctant woman said. “I’m not supposed to let anyone in.”
“Listen,” Lenny said. He pointed in the direction of the continually blowing car horn. “Don’t you hear the horn? People could die.”
The woman unlatched the screen door and leaned her head out the door and tilted an ear toward the sound. Lenny then saw the woman had a long scar on the left side of her face and a bruise that looked like a black eye and tired blue eyes, and wore a dingy, food-stained dress, under which she appeared to be wearing nothing else on her skinny frame. She might have been pretty, if she didn’t look so worn and beaten and starved, and had put on some makeup and done her hair and didn’t have two young kids screaming “Mama” and a husband who gave her a hard time and forbid her to let anyone in. She certainly wasn’t much older than Lenny and must have had the first kid when she was about fifteen.
“All right,” the woman relented. “But I won’t let you in. I’ll call the highway patrol myself.”
“Fine,” Lenny said. “That’ll do it.”
She latched the screen door again and went into the house, closing and locking the second door behind her.
“Do you really think there will be a fire and those poor people will burn to death?” June asked him when he got back into the car.
Lenny tried not to look at her and replied that he hoped not.
At least the horn had stopped blowing. While he had been gone, another car had stopped by the wreck. He checked his watch on his left wrist and saw he had been gone less than five minutes. On his right wrist was the bracelet June had given him for Christmas.
Afraid of a gasoline explosion and fire, the two men from the new car stood a safe distance from the accident. The bystanders were middle age white men with white hair and round bellies under shirts tucked into bib overalls, men who had been hunting that morning, apparently with no luck.
“Stay in the car,” Lenny said to June. He had again parked the car so June couldn’t see the accident unless she tried to.
“I wouldn’t go over there,” one of the men said to Lenny when he started toward the flipped car. “It might blow.”
A siren could be heard in the distance, its loudness increasing.
He ignored the man’s warning and went to the car.
“The highway patrol’s been called,” Lenny said to the woman and son trapped in the car. “You can hear the siren. We’ll get you out of there soon.”
“Thank you, mister,” the woman said.
“I’m just Lenny,” he said. “I’m no mister. I’m sorry about the accident.”
“How’s my son? Is he awake?”
“He’s not awake,” Lenny said. “I’m no doctor.”
“I heard those white men talking,” the woman said. “One said, ‘Lift up that blanket.’ One of them lifted up the blanket and said, ‘That’s as dead as you can get.’ They didn’t know I was under here when they said that. Who put the blanket on my son, mister? Is he dead?”
Lenny said, “I don’t know who put the blanket on your son,” not willing to say he had put the blanket on her son, because that would mean Lenny thought her son was dead too.
“Would you lift up the blanket and look?”
“I need to help the police now,” Lenny said.
The woman began to sob and weep, gently at first, as Lenny moved away from the car so he could be safe if the car went up in flames and so he wouldn’t have to tell the woman her son was dead.
The Highway Patrolman arrived and blocked the road in one direction with his car. He was a compact blond man dressed in his uniform and round hat and wore a pistol. He rushed to the overturned convertible and got on his knees to talk to the people underneath. The patrolman’s emergency lights flashed red and rotated as he talked to the mother whose son was dead, and then the trooper ordered Lenny back farther from the car. The policeman stepped back from the car too and went to his patrol car and called in on a radio. He stayed back from the car until the speeding wrecker roared up the road with its siren on and lights flashing. The wrecker pulled up on the opposite side of the accident from the highway patrol car and turned, blocking traffic in the other direction.
“We got people under there,” the patrolman said to the wrecker driver. “Can you lift the car up a few feet so we can get them out?”
“I don’t know, officer,” the driver said. “I can smell gas. I can see gas all over the pavement. I’m afraid its going to blow.”
“Can we give it a try?” the trooper asked. “The people are dead otherwise.”
The wrecker operator said he’d lift the car, but very slowly and gently, because if he caused a spark, it might trigger a gasoline explosion.
The wrecker driver maneuvered his wrecker into position, the highway patrolman helped him attach cables to the front chassis, and the wrecker driver slowly and carefully raised the car.
A few other cars began to back up on the two-lane highway. Some folks got out of their cars to watch. Other drivers made a U-turn and went back in the direction they had come from.
The trooper lay on the ground and tried to pull the mother out by both arms. She was too heavy for him to pull free without help, an obese woman easily over two hundred pounds. The trooper looked over at Lenny for help. Lenny came and kneeled on the gasoline wet road and took one of the woman’s arms and the trooper the other. The arm Lenny held was pudgy and damp. The patrolman and Lenny each pulled on an arm until the woman was dragged from under the car. She wore a dress fit for church, and Lenny thought maybe the passengers were going to or had come from a church function, a wedding or a choir practice or a Saturday service.
“Can you stand up?” the patrolman asked the woman, but by now she couldn’t reply, because she had gone into shock. Her eyes looked at the patrolman, but she was speechless.
“We have to get her a little farther from the car,” the patrolman said. “Normally I wouldn’t move her any farther, but I think the car is going to burst into flames.”
The trooper and the young lad stood. Lenny took the woman’s feet, the patrolman her arms, and together they struggled and carried the obese woman farther from the car that everyone was certain would catch fire.
The unconscious man under the car was no easier to drag out or to carry than his mother, because was a big man, not fat, just tall and solid and unconscious dead weight. Although the man was bleeding from his mouth and nose and had torn skin wherever exposed, Lenny was relieved that both the man and his mother were breathing and wouldn’t burn up under the car.
After the second son was at a safe distance from the convertible, the wrecker operator carefully lowered the car back to the asphalt and backed away a safe distance.
The siren of an ambulance could be heard approaching, then a fire truck. The trooper took blankets from his car and covered both the mother and her living son with them.
“I got water and some rags,” the wrecker driver said to Lenny. The water was in a five-gallon can. The driver tilted the can so it poured over Lenny’s hands and arms removing the blood, and Lenny used the bar of soap offered to wash, rinsed again with water, and dried his hands and arms with rags.
Lenny went back to his car, got inside, and said to June, “That’s about it. I can’t do anything more.”
He left the sandy beach blanket over the dead son and drove away from the accident. In his rearview mirror, he saw the overturned vehicle burst into flames just as the fire truck arrived.
He drove back into the woods and parked where they had been parked before the accident. He was still shaky inside, but it didn’t feel to him like he had done anything important.
In modern times someone would have wanted his name to put in the newspaper or on Facebook. They would have called him a hero, but Lenny didn’t feel like a hero. He didn’t feel like a hero in Vietnam either or afterwards. They would have said he was brave, but he didn’t feel brave that day. He didn’t feel brave in Vietnam either because he didn’t feel much. Everything he felt became buried in a deadness that altered him. Lenny didn’t feel like a hero in the war or that he had done anything brave. June might have thought he was a hero and brave that day at the overturned car, but if she thought so, she didn’t say so. She certainly didn’t feel like he was a hero after the war. Quiet and mouse-like was June, until she wasn’t. He thought here he was, just a kid parked in the woods while hoping to get laid and keep his girlfriend who had gone off to college unexpectedly and without him, and he had heard this accident and gone and done what he thought anyone else would have done. Going to the accident and helping out, that is, not coming back to the woods and trying to get laid, although anyone else might have hoped for that too.
He had done a good deed so he had high hopes for a good deed in return when he parked again under the longleaf and loblolly on a cloudless day. He kissed June continuously with the passion of youth, she kissed him back, and he unbuttoned her blouse and unsnapped her bra. He was working on removing her slacks when a rifled blast above the car jolted them. Fate would not repay him for doing a good deed, even if June were willing. He had just wanted to get laid and keep his girlfriend, but he had been forced into being a hero, and now some dumb-ass hunter, maybe the husband of the wife who called the highway patrol, was terrorizing him and June in the woods. Surely a hero who was brave deserved being laid and not being disturbed in the process, but no such luck.
With the shotgun blast, June quickly covered up. Lenny slid behind the wheel, started the car, and looked up.
From a bluff above them, an unshaven hunter leered down at them. He was of medium height, smiling, and the barrel of the rifle in his hands still smoked. He had been hunting for deer or turkey, whether in season or not, or pigs maybe, but he hadn’t shot at any game yet, just decided to startle the two kids, part of an all-American couple, pawing below him in love play. The unshaven man was dressed in jeans, boots, and a hunting jacket that stored shotgun shells. He likely enjoyed looking at redheaded June’s modest chest and what the blond teenage boy had been doing to it, and from the hunter’s wide grin it was clear that he enjoyed their reaction to his rifle blast.
Out on the highway, Lenny turned on the radio and lit a cigarette. He and June sang along to the latest Beatles hit, then songs by Chad and Jeremy and The Association. She sang in her tonal, nasal way, several octaves off key, but he didn’t mind, for she was his and he was hers, and they were the two halves of an all-American couple, and things were still good between them.