A POLICEMAN’S LOT, part 12. A defining moment.

A DEFINING MOMENT. The previous eleven instalments have had a jocular feel to them, last weeks blog showed the grim side of police life. Todays is no exception. No matter what you do or who you are, we all have defining moments. I’m opening up today, letting my deeper feelings out and sharing a defining moment. We are all human and most of us feel, most of the time. What happens when you stop feeling? When your life is such that if you let someone in, you fear that any show of emotion will bring you down. It’s then you know that you need help. Seeing a shrink as a copper in my time would sound the death knell for your career. You wouldn’t be tossed out but you would end up in some back office job. Now there are trauma counsellors to help you through.

One of three events in Vietnam and the resulting PTSD, which took around 10 years to raise its ugly head came to the fore after the following incident. It set in motion the eventual downfall of my police career. The following is day one of a horror week. I will talk about the remainder of it in next weeks post.

A Monday morning dawned like any other and if I’d have known what was coming I would’ve stayed in bed. Cedric had gone on leave and I returned to the country station to work with Bob. We tossed a coin when I arrived at the office to see who took the first job. Bob won and the first call of the day came in, a light plane crash. Phew, you can have that Bob I thought and all the bloody paper work. We arrived at the potato farm to find a crop dusting plane with its nose buried deep in the rich, dark soil. The pilot survived, ending up we found out later, with 28 breaks to both legs. That sorted the rest of our work day, interview witnesses, go to hospital and interview the pilot, have the plane checked. As I said, paperwork. I was living at the local pub and after knock off time went back to my little room. A pub dinner and a quiet beer was disturbed by a phone call, “Get the car we’ve got a vehicle on fire.”
It wasn’t hard to miss, fire engines, an ambulances, SES and every local within a 10 klm radius. We’d been contacted last. The road connected two major highways and had been recently updated. Imagine the scene with only the power pole and the car. A long dark road stretching into the night and a small farmhouse to the right. The car, a V8 Valiant sedan had come to rest, rear first into the power pole and was still on fire. A set of skid marks highlighted by evidence of a burst tyre, stretched for over a 150 metres. Several broken power lines cracked and danced as they touched the car, sending huge sparks into the night sky.

The sub station that served the area was located kilometres away and the firefighters, rightly so, couldn’t put water on the fire as the high voltage lines were still alive. Two men were laid out on the gravel verge, the driver and front seat passenger. The passenger survived and the driver died later in hospital. Until the fire was put out I had very little to do, Bob took a statement off the man who pulled the two men out. (The farmer received a bravery award. Barefooted he ran through the power lines and burning fuel to rescue them. A sad post script, he was knocked off his bike and killed in the exact spot 3 years later.)

The back story to this event reads like a novel, the driver, his brother and a friend had pulled off an extremely large heist of frozen food a few weeks earlier from the wharves. Their time had been taken up selling the proceeds to pubs and clubs wherever they could. This then entailed drinking some of the profits and buying greyhound dogs to race. Being of the criminal persuasion they then bought huge amounts of medication to dope said greyhounds. On this night they were heading back to a local pub to buy some fresh farm produce,(must have got sick of frozen). The driver had a young son who had come from interstate to spend the holidays with him and his defacto wife.

The power was switched off, the firemen did their thing and the injured were taken to hospital. The farmer informed me that he thought he saw two people in the rear of the car. I approached the wreck but due to the heat coming from it couldn’t get too close. All that I could see by torchlight was a black lump. I’d checked the driver’s ID and made my way to his address, a caravan park about 10 klm’s away. Up until that time I was an easy-going sort of bloke and thought I’d seen it all, no – I was to be surprised.

She opened the caravan door and looked down on me, “What the bloody hell do you want?” She wore shorts three sizes too small an open blouse and held a bottle of Jack in one hand, and a cigarette in another. I asked if so and so lived there, showed her his licence and queried as to the number of people in the car. “Yeah that’s him, four if you count that effing kid of his.”

If she’d of hit me I would have understood, or maybe screamed, even fell on the floor but no. Her next question, “You’ve got his licence, where’s his wallet? It’s got two thousand dollars in it.” His licence had been in his shirt pocket and I ask,  “So, where did he keep his wallet?” Taking another swig she glared at me, “On the dashboard, where else.” No amount of explaining would convince her that the car was presently smouldering away and that anything in it was now destroyed. Back at the scene I felt weary, the Detectives had arrived and I helped with mapping out the crash site. The night dragged on, the firemen and SES left. Bob returned to the station, the gawkers had left and the undertaker and myself sat by the slowly cooling wreck. The only consolation, it was a lovely evening. By 2 a.m the car, now a burnt out metal hulk had cooled enough so we could remove the victims. The undertaker brought a canvas stretcher over, a garden rake and a shovel.

A fireman had left me a crow bar to open the door, after some prising it opened with a creak. I’d never seen real burnt human remains before, only what you see on war documentaries. Burnt crewman hanging out of wrecked tanks on a battlefield, this was worse. Fire does terrible things to the body. Where flesh is close to the bone it sears it away, where it’s thicker it cooks. I had to go halfway in with the rake and find somewhere to dig it into the bodies to be able to haul them out.

With the power being restored to the area, the streetlight on the power pole, (the only light for about a kilometre) shone down on us. Putting into stark relief the charred remains on the stretcher. When hot flesh meets cool night air it seperates. The man and boy were entwined in an almost obscene embrace in death. They fell apart as we shifted them into the middle of the stretcher. I won’t go into detail here, only to say it took me four months before I could eat meat of any kind.

The night hadn’t finished, Bob sent out the tow truck and when the vehicle had gone we took the remains to the Hospital, so a doctor could confirm death. I’d received some information about the identity of the man in the back, he had a glass eye. I told the doctor this and he nipped back inside and came out with a long probe. Quite excited and going on about what lovely specimens they were, he stuck it into the eye socket and ground it around on the shattered glass, I came close to heaving then. After escorting the bodies to the morgue in Brisbane I finally fell into bed at 6 a.m.

Bob, God bless him attended the post-mortem, I had to contend with the driver’s wife. He’d died through the night and she came to the police station at 9 a.m. I had the receptionist there, about six people after different things and this harpie abusing me. No amount of explaining would convince her that I knew nothing about the wallet and money. She’d been and looked at the car and at least thirty people were at the scene before Bob and I got there. How I kept my cool I’ll never know, she accused me of stealing the money and actually hired a solicitor later to lodge a complaint.

I never found out if the haul of frozen food was ever located. The front seat passenger survived. The driver was blood tested before he died and he was three and a half times over the limit. The outcome of the investigation showed that the car blew a tyre while being driven in excess of 140 kilometres an hour. Skidded up the wrong side of the road, hit the embankment, flipped over and sailed rear first into the pole, five metres off the ground. The fuel tank ruptured and falling power lines ignited the fuel. I had no feelings whatsoever for the two men who perished. The pathologist found that the boy didn’t die as a result of the impact but from being burnt to death. The man in the back had fallen over on top of him. The boy’s struggles were what the rescuer saw while he was pulling the others out. I found out much later that the boy was forced to go with his father in the car, he wanted to stay behind and watch television.

A pervasive sadness fills me as I write this. I still cannot comprehend the feelings and motives of some people. That money is a prime consideration when told of a loved one’s death. Or that the death of a child brings nothing but scorn. Now as the old saying goes, “This wasn’t my first rodeo.” Death had presented itself a few times prior to this. I think though that fire, the primal element that it is ignites something in us. It fascinates and repels, serves and enslaves us and shows us that we have no real control over it – or life. A final word, when bravery is spoken about I think of a tall, lanky barefooted farmer. Running through the darkness and into a burning wreck, not once but twice to remove the injured. With thick steel cables carrying tens of thousands of volts leaping and snapping around him and the car. That dear readers was a brave man.

PS. If you are wondering what an impact at 140 klm hour can do, the contents of the car’s boot (trunk for my US readers) syringes, doggy dope and other paraphernalia was spread around a two hundred metre radius

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13 thoughts on “A POLICEMAN’S LOT, part 12. A defining moment.

  1. Owls and Orchids

    I’ll keep this one really simple – I hear you! If you haven’t been there, seen it, lived through it you simply can’t know. I’m thankful most people will never know. What else can you say? Sorry Laurie. Susan x

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Susan, whenever some young P plater goes ripping past, or anyone does something stupid I think of this and wonder if I sat down and told them how it affects everybody involved, would it make a difference? I honestly don’t know. Thanks for caring Susan.

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  2. Pingback: Midweek Poetry. What Are You? | laurie27wsmith

  3. kelihasablog

    I agree with the others! You are an excellent writer in that you paint the story with your words for us to picture in or heads. I think there are some things in life that we will just never get use to… Things we can’t compartmentalize and they effect us for ever… Our past makes us who we are, right? Very good, even though I am reading backwards… LOL 😀

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thank you, I try to say as much as I can with as few words as possible. You are right, there are some things that we don’t get used to and have to live with. And yes we are the end result of our past. They actually get a little funnier as you go back.
      Laurie.

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  4. James Roth

    I second 1000% everything Patricia has said. You are a very deep and profound writer who tackles some of the hardest things in life but still manage to find beauty and hope. I believe your writing creates healing. What more could any writer accomplish?

    Kindest Regards,
    Jim

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thank you so much Jim for your kind words and input and taking the time to stop by and comment. It means a lot coming from you. I try to balance it all out and show that having worked and lived through some testing times, I can still show people there is some hope.
      Thank You.
      Laurie.

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  5. patgarcia

    Hi,
    My dear Laurie, as I read this, I too could have cried for the boy that didn’t make it. He didn’t want to go and died at a very early age, because of being forced into something. And then I thought about the brave man that pulled two of the men out. That is really bravery, to put the lives of others before your own.
    As I read your article, I also thought of you, and again I went back to your book, Mountain Of Death, and I could feel your pain. That book is a wonder. You have turned some of what you have experienced, and this incident is only one of them, into a way of helping others who work in careers dealing with people that society shuns. I know you felt pain when you wrote this article, but you could have never written it with so much heart and understanding, if you had never experienced it. I sat here fascinated about what you wrote. I could see you on duty that fateful night, see you waiting until the car cooled down, as well as, see you facing the woman with the bottle of Jack in her hands.
    I am so happy that you have allowed the writer/author in you to come out. A lot of your being a healthy person, both physically and mentally, is because of your being blessed to tell your story so that others may learn to show compassion.
    I love you, Laurie. Keep on writing because you are a very beautiful person, and I am happy to know you.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Patricia, So good to hear from you again. The boy, well he affected my life so much. It took me back to when I was a boy and under the heavy hand of a father who drank. I think the thing that hurt me the most was that nobody seemed to care about him. The farmer, well if that happened in war he would have recieved the highest honours. He was such an easy going, everyday kind of man and to die in exactly the same spot three years later tells me he cheated death on that night. I guess it does show in Mountain of Death, there is a lot of my pain and experience in there. (It may take some time but one day I will write the story of a childhood that nobody should have to go through.) I would sincerely like to think that my experiences would help someone out in the world of policing, social services etc. I imagine that experience does bring out the heart in any writing. Believe me, there are some days when I wish I could have made it up. But the reality is I wouldn’t change my life, it all happened for a reason and if that reason is for my ramblings to touch someone and help them, well so be it.
      Ooh, compassion, I struggled with that one when she stood at the door and her only thought was the money. I have a free verse poem that I wrote about her and one about the father on another computer. I will share it one day.
      Patricia, I thank you for your love and thoughts and I know that even though you are on the other side of the world, you care for me. You are a good friend.
      With Love from Laurie.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks for dropping by Linneann, at least now I can talk about it now and hopefully someone who reads it may change their driving habits. There’s not a lot one can say.
      Laurie

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  6. Raani York

    Dear Laurie,

    I read this blog post twice. and the second time I had a tear running down my cheek – I tear cried for the boy…
    My Brother-in-law used to be a cop before going back to join the National Guard… I remember visitng my sister and him and he got back from work, struggling with what he had seen that day… I’m not going deep into that story now… but I remember looking into his eyes and seeing so much sadness and emotional shakes and trembles… it almost made me cry.
    Your blog post reminded me of that day.
    It is no doubt your writing – your descriptions, as excellent and extraordinary as usually…
    And still: there’s an emotional sadness within that’s hard to describe.
    I couldn’t say “I like it”… that would be cruel… it just shows me a side in you Laurie, that I haven’t seen before… going through all your “Policeman’s Lot” post, it’s not something one would expect… but still, it’s always been there….
    You’re a very special person Laurie.
    Sending you a hug
    Raani

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Raani, Thanks for stopping by the hug is greatfully accepted. I have a shed a tear or two over time for that little boy. To be forced into a car full of drunks defies everything a parent or step parent stands for. I feel for your brother in law, many a day I came home and couldn’t convey how I felt. I appreciate your honesty Raani. I hope that others read this post and find something that moves them too. The reality was I very nearly lost it that night but doing that wouldn’t have helped the victim. In a way it strengthened me but did nothing for what happened two nights later. I might have a small humorous post as an adendum next week, to lift the vibe a little
      Thanks so much,
      Laurie.

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