Memento Mori? I Wish I Could Forget

It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to get through this life knowing that sooner or later it’s going to end and we don’t know when and we don’t know what happens next. We must accept the grim reality of death every time we lose someone close to us and feel the pain of irretrievable loss and the chilling, inescapable knowledge that, as Shakespeare pointed out, we owe God a death.

I’ve been pondering this since I was 17, when one of my aunts in her mid-40s died of a brain tumor. She had an open-coffin funeral, and that’s the first time I recall seeing a corpse. I remember being greatly impressed at first by the undertaker’s handiwork. At a distance, she didn’t appear to be dead. She seemed to have chosen a very odd place to take a nap, fully clothed.

But when I got closer, the artificiality of her appearance became glaringly apparent. There was something strange about her lying in a coffin looking as though she’d fallen asleep with too much makeup on.

A few years later I saw death without the cosmetics and preservatives when I witnessed an autopsy as an Army medic. It was the summer of 1973 and I was in training at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. A Navy chief petty officer in his early 50s had gotten up and gone to work like he’d done every day for 30 years, and then dropped dead while on duty. The poor guy began his day like any other and ended up on a cold stainless-steel slab.

The pathologist used his grim gleaming tools to open the man’s thorax. He removed the heart and used a scalpel to cut onionskin-thin slices so he could examine them for signs of a stroke. I was one of four medics, all in our early 20s, standing a respectful distance from the autopsy table.

This was an important part of our training, and the pathologist told us to step closer. “That’s OK,” I said, presuming to speak for the group and trying for a little wry humor. “I can see just fine from here.”

The pathologist, bending over the heart, paused for a moment, his scalpel poised in mid-air. He looked up at me over the rims of his glasses. On his face was an expression of obvious disdain. “This isn’t a pretty process,” he said. “You’ll have to get used to that.”

We reluctantly stepped closer and examined the precise slices of the heart. We also watched as the brain and other organs were removed. A couple hours later we went to the mess hall for lunch. The special was sliced roast beef. Couldn’t even look at it.

A couple years later I was out of the Army and back in school at Belmont Abbey College to get credits I needed for admission to the University of North Carolina. I was home for the weekend before final exams. It was early Sunday morning, and I was eating breakfast and thinking about the ordeal ahead.

The phone rang. My mother answered. It was my aunt, who lived a couple hundred yards down the road. Her husband had had a massive heart attack during the night. Please come, she said.

He was sprawled on the bedroom floor, cold and stiff. The expression frozen on his face indicated that his last moments had been a very unpleasant surprise.

A few more years passed. I was a student at UNC. I was taking a course in film criticism. We watched M*A*S*H”, the classic dark comedy satire directed by Robert Altman about a front-line medical unit during the Korean War.

After the movie, the class divided into discussion seminars. A young woman in my class complained about the doctors, nurses and medics making jokes about death and dying. She thought it was crude, cruel and insensitive.

I raised my hand. I was an Army medic, I said. If youre around that every day, the only way you can stay sane is to make fun of it. If you dont, youll go nuts. 

I thought Id been very helpful. But a long silence fell over the class until the grad student directing the seminar, sensing the awkwardness, changed the subject.

What did I do? I thought. Its true. If youve been there you know. But I didnt say anything more.

I also worked as a pharmacy technician at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. One day I was delivering drugs to a ward when I heard a woman shout from behind a closed door, “I don’t care who you get! Get somebody! Get anybody!”

The door flew open and a nurse stepped quickly into the hallway, looked around hurriedly, and saw me. I was wearing the white jacket that identified me as a member of the hospital staff. She pointed at me and motioned for me to follow her.

I saw two other nurses standing over a huge woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was going into cardiac arrest, and the nurses had to get her out of the wheelchair and onto a bed to perform CPR. I took her legs and two nurses took her shoulders. We struggled to lift her. But the dying woman weighed more than 300 pounds. I felt her slipping from my grasp, so I slid my knee beneath her buttocks to keep from dropping her. I felt something warm and damp on my knee.

At that moment the door burst open and the hospital’s cardiac arrest response team poured noisily into the room. The doctor in charge saw us struggling to lift her onto the bed. “Put her on the floor!” he shouted. We gently lowered her and stepped back. She was instantly surrounded by the medical team as they began the frantic, highly choreographed and ultimately futile struggle to revive her. I figured they didn’t need me any longer so I slipped quietly out the door and went back to my job.

Back in the pharmacy I discovered a brown spot on the left knee of my white corduroy jeans. I realized that the woman had died when I’d slid my knee under her, and at that moment her sphincter relaxed and her bowel emptied.

After I graduated from Carolina I got a job in Georgia covering the cop beat for the Macon Telegraph. My job was to chase cops and firefighters every time they moved. I became part of a small, select group that gathered when someone died violently or of unexplained causes—cops, firefighters, paramedics, the county coroner and me. Soon the cops recognized me when I arrived. They trusted me, and they’d wave me past the police line. I’d join the privileged group studying the death tableau. Sometimes after looking at the gruesome scene I exchanged knowing glances with the others.

I became a familiar sight on local TV stations’ coverage of untimely deaths on the 11 o’clock news. As viewers watched the TV reporters in the foreground do their standup, I’d be seen in the background, wearing aviator sunglasses, a leather flight jacket over a T-shirt or pullover sweater, jeans and sneakers. Walkie-talkie and portable police radio scanner dangling from my belt. Standing in front of flames or a wrecked car that had been torn and twisted and battered out of shape by the savage forces of high-speed impact. Talking to a cop and jotting notes in my notebook.

After a couple years of this I started seeing death as a tragic circus at which my presence was required. Sometimes I loved it. Sometimes I hated having to immerse myself in this public spectacle, learn every sad gory detail of the last moments of someone’s life, and write about it. Part of me got tougher. Another part of me quietly and secretly freaked out. Sometimes I thought I’d scream if I had to see one more stiff. Sometimes after my shift ended at midnight, I’d lie awake staring into the darkness until dawn because I couldn’t scrub a gruesome image or a tragic event from my mind.

Some of the angst gradually faded when I moved on to covering politics for other newspapers, but some of the memories have never left me. The sobbing, grief-stricken mother kneeling over the bleeding body of her toddler son who’d been standing on the sidewalk and was hit by a drunk driver. The horribly mangled farmer who’d fallen backwards off his tractor and been plowed into the Georgia earth by his huge, heavy plow. The teenager fishing from a small two-lane bridge over a creek out in the country who’d hooked a big one, tried to reel him in, forgot where he was, and stepped backwards right into the path of a car doing 60 mph.

As I got older, I realized that my experiences with death separated me from the masses and, like that moment in the film criticism class at UNC, imposed a different view of life on me. Not many people had seen a body clinically disassembled like so many spare parts, or had someone die in their arms, or watched paramedics pick up pieces of human brain after a terrible car wreck. I believed I knew something about life that others didn’t know and didn't want to know. I believed that knowledge had altered my outlook on life and separated me from others. I felt alienated.

When my wife and I lived in South Florida in the 1990s, I discovered that Key West’s dark sense of humor and quirky take on life are reflected in the city’s cemetery, where residents have long thumbed their noses at the Grim Reaper with hilarious epitaphs. A man who died decades ago took a posthumous dig at his doubting friends with the inscription, “I told you I was sick.” Another took a shot at the stratospheric cost of real estate with this parting quip about the only plot of land he could afford in the city: “I always dreamed of owning a small place in Key West.”

My favorite is one apparently written by a wife weary of her late husband’s constant philandering. She had her unfaithful mate’s tombstone inscribed: “At least I know where you’re sleeping tonight.”

Humor, I thought. That’s the only real answer. Show the Reaper you’re not intimidated by him and leave something behind to bring a chuckle to those who happen past your marker years after you've departed.

I searched for a one-liner to sum up my sense of alienation and my reluctant acceptance of life’s inevitable unpleasantness. Eventually something came to me. For the record, I want this inscribed on my tombstone: “At last, I’m part of the majority.”


Crudity vs. Cleverness at Hockey Games

I wrote about last Sunday's Vegas Golden Knights-Carolina Hurricanes game for LVsportsbiz.com. Sitting in the press box high above it all, I noticed a decided difference in crowd behavior from what I've seen at New Jersey Devils' games.

We've been to many New Jersey Devils' games, which are played in the Prudential Center (aka "The Rock") in downtown Newark. We sat in the cheap seats up near the rafters only once, and we won't do it again.

From what I've seen of Devils fans in the nosebleed sections, they tend to be loud, obnoxious, often drunk, and profane. Resolutely profane. Their favorite cheer seems to involve some variation of this phrase: "(Noun), (pronoun) suck!" That's about it, as far as I've heard after attending more than half-a-dozen games there. They also are fond of shouting in loud unison, "Rangers suck!" Even if they're playing, say, Montreal or Philadelphia.

Anyway, the press box at PNC Arena is actually looking down on the cheap seats there. Sunday night the section closest to the end of the press box where I was was filled with a bunch of guys, most of them middle-aged 30s-40s-50s as far as I could tell, who all seemed to know each other. I'm guessing that they all work in the same office, bought tickets together, and attend a lot of Canes games.

These guys were loud, and made noise throughout the game. Their chief cheerleader was a beefy, bespectacled guy with an old-fashioned flattop haircut who sat in the center seat in the section's front row. Sometimes this guy just sort of yelled, no words, growling loudly. Then he'd come up with a chant of some kind and start yelling that, and all the other guys would join in and chant it loudly for a little while.

The Canes basically got their clocks cleaned Sunday night, losing 5-1 to Vegas. But the guys in this section never tuned out the game, despite the one-sided score. They yelled encouragement and sometimes sardonic advice throughout. But they were getting more and more sarcastic as the game progressed and the Canes fell further behind.

Early in the third period, the chief cheerleader was in one of his inarticulate yowls, then apparently inspiration hit him and he started chanting "Please do bet-ter! Please do bet-ter!"

His pals picket it up and started chanting it, then some of the sections around them picked it up, and pretty soon maybe a few hundred Canes' fans in that end of the arena were chanting "Please do bet-ter! Please do bet-ter!" You had to be there to get the full effect (it really was funny), and you had to have been in a sewer-mouthed crowd like the cheap seats at a Devils' game to appreciate the contrast between the crowds in Newark and those in Raleigh. Crudity vs. cleverness. I hope the Canes succeed in returning the crowds to PNC Arena. It really is a lot of fun.


Why I Never Joined The Circus

In 1972 I was 22 years old and looking back on a thoroughly undistinguished post-high school career.

I’d played some baseball at a junior college in Statesville, North Carolina but my academic accomplishments were unimpressive and I’d used up my baseball eligibility. I was living in my hometown and working as a heavy equipment operator at a nearby quarry. I was young and restless and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t it.

In April 1972 I decided I needed a change of scenery. I quit my job, emptied my meager checking account, packed a few belongings into my 1959 Ford, and moved in with friends in Statesville.

I didn’t have enough money to stay unemployed long. The Iredell County Cattlemen’s Association held cattle auctions every so often and was always looking for wranglers to work the sales, so I could get a couple days work there. The job was to make sure the animals ended up in the correct holding pens after they’d been weighed and graded and released from the grading pen.

It was simple work—one wrangler held a pen gate open while others kept the animal moving down the alley into the pen. The pay was pretty good and you got free meals.

The same week as the cattle sale, a friend and I learned that there was another opportunity for some quick cash. The Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus was coming to town for a couple of weekend performances. The circus management was looking for roustabouts to help erect and take down the big top.

The pay wasn’t great—a ticket to the performance if you helped set up the big top, a few bucks cash if you helped take it down. My friend and I had no interest in the tickets, but we did want the cash. So on a Sunday afternoon after the circus’s final matinee performance, we showed up to take down the big top.

The tent was dropped to the ground. Then one gang of roustabouts separated sections of the tent and folded them up while another gang lowered the tent poles. I worked with the gang on the poles while my friend worked with a carney to load tent sections onto a wooden sledge.

The sledge was harnessed to an elephant, a patient, good-natured beast that towed the sledge back and forth between the tent site and the truck that hauled the tent sections. The carney and my friend sat on a pile of folded tent sections as the elephant trudged along.

Seeing an elephant towing a sledge wasn’t something I’d routinely witnessed growing up in rural North Carolina, so I often glanced in their direction. They’d made a couple of trips between the site and the truck when the elephant suddenly stopped and stood very still for a moment. It raised one of its rear legs and stood balanced in that position for a second or two.

And then, with a loud, lingering, sort of moist ripping noise, the elephant let loose a mighty expulsion of flatulence. As the gaseous blast escaped the great beast, I swear I saw its butt cheeks quiver and the same sort of shimmery image you see in the distance on a hot highway in the summer.

The foul-smelling fumes enveloped my friend and the carney, and they fell over backwards like they’d been shoved by the force of a powerful wind. They rolled off the sledge and lay on their backs in the grass and waited for the noxious cloud to dissipate.

The elephant, relieved of its discomfort, waited patiently for them to resume the work. Meanwhile, a dozen or so men were helpless with laughter.

When we finished, my friend and I waited with the others for our pay. A couple of the circus carnies approached us and struck up a conversation.

It turned into a recruiting pitch. Had we ever thought about joining the circus, they asked. We could use a couple guys like you.

The pay was OK but not great, they said, but there always were opportunities to pick up a few bucks on the side and off the books. You got to spend the winters in Florida. And if you had debts or an ex-wife, they’d never find you.

I wasn’t running from creditors or former wives, but I’d always secretly envied carnies. They seemed wise in a way I wanted to be. They understood human nature and could size up people, spot their weaknesses, work a crowd. It seemed like a waiting adventure. I may have been on the verge of joining up.

Then they showed us the sleeping quarters.

They slept in a tractor-trailer truck that had been converted into a rolling bunkhouse. We looked inside the trailer but didn’t enter. It was dark and a bit dingy, and I got a sensation that the dim light concealed all kinds of unpleasant surprises.

You’d think a couple of young guys not known for fastidious hygiene wouldn’t have been bothered by those conditions. But I felt an internal shiver, a primal dread, about the prospect of sleeping in there.

The carnies kept up their pitch. We leave tomorrow morning, they said. If you want to go, be here around daybreak.

We collected our pay—seven bucks for about three hours work—and left.

As we drove back to Statesville, my friend asked me, “So you gonna go?”

I thought for a moment. “Nah,” I said. “Something about those sleeping trailers.”

“Yeah,” my friend said. “Me too.”


All My Pусский Contacts, I Swear

So we’re up to our nostrils in all things Russian these days and people are worried sick that the US is soon going to be Moscow on the Hudson, as well as Moscow on the Mississippi and Moscow on the Rio Grande and Moscow on every other river and creek and bayou in the country. We’ve become so suffused with Russia paranoia and things have become so edgy that Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wants to get to the bottom of all this Russki stuff. He’s urging that folks come clean about all their contacts with Russians.

Gowdy minced no words in his call for full disclosure. “Someone needs to get everyone in a room and say, from the time you saw ‘Dr. Zhivago’ until the moment you drank vodka with a guy named Boris, you list every single contact with Russia.”

Pretty hard to misunderstand that kind of demand.

Now, I consider myself a loyal American and a patriot, and in this stressful time I think I should, like all good Americans, come clean about my association with Russians. So here’s my confession: A long time ago in Chapel Hill—a town of known leftist tendencies that US Senator Jesse Helms once said could function as the North Carolina state zoo if you put a fence around it—I had contact with Russians. And in that spirit of full disclosure that Representative Gowdy is demanding, I’d like to tell everything I can recall about those contacts.

It was the summer of 1977. I’d signed up for a summer school course at Carolina. I had a good friend from Raleigh, a brilliant linguist who was fluent in Russian, German and Polish and could probably make himself understood in at least half a dozen other languages. He was good friends with some Soviet (as we called them in those days) exchange students.

He was especially good friends with a guy who I remember only as Evgeni—or, as he may have spelled it in Cryillic, Евгений. Evgeni was, until Vladimir Putin came along, the image that popped into my head when anybody mentioned Russians.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s generally not a good thing to think of groups of people in stereotypes. It can get you into trouble in lots of ways. And yet, Evgeni pretty much perfectly fit the American stereotype of a Russian. He was big, blond, loud, and backslapping friendly with a booming voice that could have been heard by Sarah Palin on the other side of the Bering Strait. And he could drink all the residents of any small rural American county under the table.

I don’t remember the first time I met Evgeni, but it may have been when I bumped into my friend and him on Franklin Street. During my introduction, my friend probably said something to Evgeni in Russian that sounded something like this: “Das vidanya. Spragelly meestslamy mas y telly joo davastli.” And then a huge grin spread across Evgeni’s face and he extended a hand the size of a bear’s paw and wrapped his fingers several times around my hand as he shook it.

I saw Evgeni regularly, always in the company of my friend. One day, my friend asked me to spend a Friday night with Evgeni. I think he had a date and he didn’t want Evgeni tagging along. Evgeni knew very little English at this point, and I knew no Russian. But what the hell, I was game. I figured with enough beer, everything would be OK.

And it was. We hit many Franklin Street watering holes that night, and downed many beers, and exchanged no intelligible language that I recall. But alcohol, in the hands of open-minded and imaginative imbibers, can erase language barriers and be a remarkable facilitator of communications. We made ourselves understood with gestures, backslaps, facial expressions and noises. And when all else failed, we ordered another round. By the end of the evening, we were drinking buddies even though we had not exchanged a single coherent sentence.

As the summer progressed, Evgeni’s English improved, as did his ability to calculate American prices in terms of his Soviet background. I recall him asking the price in American dollars of something he wanted. Someone told him. He was silent for a few moments as he mentally converted the cost in US currency to the Soviet economy. He became wide-eyed when he’d finished the calculation. “Is two cheekens!” he exclaimed in disbelief.

I had another memorable encounter with Evgeni later that summer. This time I was stumping down Franklin Street with a cast that covered my left leg from my foot to just below my knee. How I got that cast is an anecdote that makes a great story, but it’s a story that I’m not ready to publicly disclose. I will say this, however: It involved excessive alcohol on a Friday night, misplaced youthful exuberance, and one of the worst decisions I've ever made. Still, no laws were broken, no property was damaged, no cops were involved and no one except me was injured. I never received a bill for my visit to the emergency room at North Carolina Memorial Hospital, so I assume it was covered by my student health insurance.

Anyway, I was somewhere near the Varsity Theater when I heard this booming voice above the Franklin Street traffic noise. It was speaking Russian. I have no idea what was being said, but it sounded like “Vee lee! Vu dees eu da!” I think I must have looked skyward, because my friend said afterwards that I looked like I’d heard the voice of God calling to me.

It was, of course, my drinking buddy Evgeni, and he was concerned about the cast on my leg. I don’t remember much else about that encounter. I’m sure my friend explained to Evgeni what had happened to me and he thought it was hilarious and slapped me on the back.

I saw Evgeni occasionally during the next year or so. I remember parties with other Soviet exchange students. I remember these guys downing tumblers of vodka like it was ice water, and feats of strength and loud conversations, mostly in Russian. I never picked up any of that language, so I have no idea what they were talking about. But since the conversations seemed to involve calls for more vodka and challenges to arm-wrestling, I don’t think anything subversive was being said.

That’s all I recall of Evgeni. I think he left Chapel Hill sometime in the late ‘70s, and I haven’t heard from him since. So this concludes my debriefing of my Russian contacts.

A final note to Representative Gowdy. I also saw Dr. Zhivago. A long time ago in Charlotte. With a couple of friends. I’m still good friends with that guy from Raleigh, and he still speaks Russian fluently. And sometimes I use Russian vodka for my vodka martinis. That's all my Pусский contacts, I swear.