This is a short story I wrote for one of my college classes. It’s based on some of my experiences while serving in the US Coast Guard. Names etc. have been changed as appropriate.
Sometimes I wondered if we were just a hearse sent out to collect the dead. What happened to “Station Sandy hook, home of the rescue experts,” or “The Coast Guard, the life savers?”
The crew would probably judge this bridge jumper just like all the rest.
“I’d rate him a five. He probably just walked up to the edge and jumped.” Joe would start it, and another would add-on.
“Yeah, not like the lady who was pushed out of the moving car and fell over the railing. She must have had great form and style. She was definitely in the nine to ten range.”
These were human lives we were talking about, not some athlete competing in a sporting event. I kept quit, though. They were young, and if that was the way they had to deal with it then there wasn’t much to say. They had to deal with it somehow or end up paying the price. One of the crewmen kept seeing a girl in the passenger seat of his car. She had died on one of the missions a week or two earlier.
We arrived on scene, but the man had already been found. Nearing the beach, we came up to the boat containing the dead man’s body. I glanced down out of curiosity. I tried to look away but couldn’t. I was transfixed by the motionless body in the bottom of the boat. He laid there, a rag doll tossed aside. His gold, round, wire rimmed glasses, half of them lost on impact, hung saddened on his face, unused in his wide-eyed stare. His wet clothes outlined his frail body and the “V” of the John Boat half swallowed him.
Why would anyone take their own life? Who had he been? What about his family? His family. It was the week before Christmas; maybe that was why. Maybe he didn’t have a family. I finally pulled my eyes away, hoping my mind’s film hadn’t fully developed his image. I closed my eyes to gather myself, but there he was, hanging in my mind’s gallery of death, right next to the unnamed portrait of the lady who scored “definitely in the nine to ten range.” I opened my eyes in one last desperate attempt to flood the image with light, overexpose it, and make it “disappear.”
“Steve, you need to go ashore and gather the usual info. The only problem is that the water is too shallow, so I’ll have to drop you off on the John Boat.”
The man’s face flooded back like a tidal wave, eliminating all possible chance of forgetting him.
Stepping into the John Boat, I looked for the best way to get ashore. There was no other way than to step over the dead man’s body. I covered the distance to his body in two feeble steps. Holding my breath, I began the dreaded step that took me directly across his midsection. Time stood still, as my leg moved in slow motion. I looked down to guide my foot to a secure landing. His cold blue eyes pierced me, finishing the minute details of his portrait on the wall of my mind. Toes, threatening to push through the tips of my boat shoes, groped for the surface on the other side. Finally making contact, I quickly pulled my other leg across his body. Had I just dishonored him somehow? I hopped over the edge of the boat, making a small splash in the knee-deep water.
I walked up the beach to where a small group of men and police cars had gathered. I began to ask for information.
“Hey, guys, I’m petty Officer Stephen Kellogg.” I extended my hand to the nearest man. He reached out in response.
“Hi, Steve, I’m Officer Bob Gorly, N.Y.P.D. You guys from Station Sandy Hook?”
“Yeah” I replied.
“Man, you guys got here fast.” Bob Said.
“Not fast enough, I guess. Y’all got any info on this guy?”
I tried to keep the conversation going; it helped to blur the image.
“Eight-seven years old,” Bob said.
“Eight-seven and he jumped.”
“What’s his name?” I prompted.
“Henry Steinburn,” he replied. “At least that’s what we’ve been told.”
Again I pushed.
“Do you have his address?”
“No.” he replied.
“Did anybody check for a wallet?” I asked.
Another N.Y.P.D. officer spoke for the first time. He was much younger than the first officer. His face was pale and his voice quivered, despite the obvious attempt to hide it.
“I pulled him out of the water. I just grabbed him by the back of his pants, pulled him over the side of the boat, and dumped him in. He was all limp. I wasn’t about to touch him again, especially just to get his wallet. You’re welcome to get it yourself.”
I quickly declined, and offered my sympathy. I stalled for more time, asking every question remotely connected to the case, and even a few that weren’t. I tried to avoid the inevitable, but no longer could. I thanked Bob and the rest of the men for their assistance and asked them to send a copy of their report to the station.
Grabbing the young officer’s arm, I looked him in the eye, gave a short nod, and headed for the boat.
The ride home was quiet. Everyone was performing their jobs in rote military manner.
“He was a ten,” Joe said. “A definite ten.”
Stephen Kellogg – 1993
Oh wow, “Not fast enough, I guess.” So true! Thanks for sharing this experience Stephen, I am glad you are writing Prose! Amazing to read about one’s life, so full of interesting and also sad experiences.. Who is a Jumper, someone who commits suicide? Atleast that is what i gathered at the beginning of the story.. And the rating, I am sure, you guys did that just to keep your mind of the actual horror of transporting a dead person!
Some parts of being in the Coast Guard were exciting and fun, others boring and still others, like this story, were very sad. A jumper is someone who commits suicide by jumping off of a bridge.
As for the rating thing, there were a few people who did it, I was not among them, but it was their way of dealing with it. I think Leslie is right in that it was their way to “take the humanity out of the man.” It was their way of dealing not only with the fact that someone just died, but that they actually took their own life or died in a horrific way (like being pushed out of a car and falling off a bridge). They were trying to make it more like watching a sporting event and less like the reality of life (or death) they were having to deal with at the time.
As always, thanks for the feedback. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read “Friend of the Dew” ( http://wp.me/pNbgI-9D ) yet. I enjoyed writing that prose and may try to get back to it a bit more. I’m trying to figure out if I have the time and skill to actually write a full book. We’ll see …
Reading these painful words is awful enough, can’t believe how I would have performed for the job.. You are strong, yet compassionate..
Numbers take the humanity out of the man for these people that rate them, I think. Suicides are a sad statistic we humans bear. Perhaps a temporary insanity when all else seems to fail and there is no vision beyond the horror of facing tomorrow. I don’t know. I think this speaks to the living, though. It shares an intimate moment that, once read, will come back to the reader in the event he has to experience what you have, here. Respect for a soul, alive or passed on, is always better than reducing him to a number.
As I was saying to Rachana in my reply to her, I think you got this one just right on why they would “rate” the deaths.
Suicides are extremely sad and I totally agree with your last sentence, you expressed it very well. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Ha! As I read that, I wonder that Leslie is one heck of a writer as she is a painter.. !! Please no competition to us Leslie 😉
I had the most problem with a body, when we returned from a SAR mission, an had to face the family, when we did not find a body, what do you say when there is no body, an the family is waiting for an answer or closure.
The empty boat is found, no body found, the family looks around on your SAR boat as you are tying up to the dock,, no father, grandfather to bury, just memories, nothing to bring them closure.
Thats the sad part of SAR as a Coastie. Doug
I was fortunate enough to never have had that experience. Have you ever written about it? Sometimes it does good just to “put it down on paper”or type it on the computer, even if you don’t share it with others.
I have performed the burial at sea detail several times. A hard mix of keeping everyone safe, minding your duties, showing respect and not crossing into the private world of their burial process.
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