I was driving to a poker game with a friend who’d come in from Colorado, and we were just outside of the town we both grew up in.
It’s Georgia piedmont, good for deer hunting, in fact I used to have a barber down in Florida who went up there every season, just coincidentally.
The state road wound through an industrial park there in the woods and was criss-crossed by railways. So we could see this column of black smoke a mile or so before we could tell what it came from.
There were some other fellows who headed out later and by the time they came along there were emergency vehicles and no smoke, but when we cleared the curve there was just a car body on fire in a small patch of woods between the road and the wall of a factory away to the right.
Two guys in working clothes stood off over toward the building with their eyes on the fire, and another person was just laid out on the ground in an open area between the burning car shell and the highway with his arms out and his face up to the sky.
At the time my buddy was on the phone with someone at work, and I nearly rear-ended a Jeep that simply stopped in the road just as we crossed the tracks leading to the factory. Obviously someone had called somebody by this point, so he kept his conversation up and I circumnavigated the Jeep, and I found out when we talked at the game that he thought it was a woman lying on the grass.
So I looked it up when we got back. This is what the newspaper said:
“A man was killed in a one-vehicle wreck Friday afternoon on Georgia Highway 16, just west of Wilson Road, according to Griffin Police Department Lt. Mike Richardson. The man was driving west on Highway 16 when his car veered off the roadway, struck an embankment, entered the woods and came to rest in the area of the Coveris facility, formerly known as Exopack.”
Never could find out anything more than that. Tried to. I really wanted to know his name at least.
And the odd thing is, I don’t know him any better than if he’d never crossed the median and I’d just watched him drive by.
Even if he’d leaned out his window and cursed me as we passed, I still wouldn’t have wanted to know what people called him. But I saw him dead, or not long from it, so I do. I want to know.
You could say, well, it’s no wonder that people evolved to be interested in the facts related to other people’s deaths. Curiosity might help you avoid the same fate.
But I already know the circumstances. How this guy died doesn’t matter to me so much as the fact that I was there when it happened, and I saw him, and he wasn’t my enemy. So he becomes my Robert Paulson — in death we will have our own names because in death we become heroes.
Or maybe subconsciously you just can’t help thinking it could be you one day, and you could be in the middle of nowhere, and wouldn’t you want someone to take note and remember and say something?
That’s not how it feels, though. You just feel like you owe it to them.
You witness a baby being born, you ask after its name. You see a couple get married, you want to know their names.
And so if I knew this man’s name, then I would have seen a person who died lying in that tiny field. As it is, I’ve only driven past a corpse. And I would rather have done the former.