Another life well-lived. And although Tony Hillerman will be remembered, quite rightly, for his mystery novels, the passage that sticks with me comes from his memoirs, describing an incident during his early post-war life as a reporter:
I was talking to a young Texas highway patrolman one morning outside the Stinnett Courthouse when his radio buzzed him. A double fatality on Highway 206 about 12 miles north. He roared away. I followed. A Packard sedan had collided head-on in about the center of the two-lane highway with some sort of pickup truck. The remains of the truck were scattered in the roadside wheat field. The sedan was still on the pavement, its front end back to the instrument panel missing. The body of the driver was in his seat, his head impaled on the steering post, blood, teeth and tissue splashed everywhere. The highway patrolman backed away from this, unable to control his nausea. I remember standing there untouched, guessing at the combined speeds, noticing how the wheel rim had gouged a rut in the concrete, collecting the details I'd need for my story, finally aware the patrolman, still pale and shaken, was looking at me as if I was something less than human. And all I could say to explain it was that it's not so bad when the dead are not your friends.
The shrinks had not yet invented post-combat trauma syndrome but I suppose that's the name for it — for the accumulation of baggage we sometimes talk about even now when what's left of Charley Company has its annual reunion. We mention the recurrence of old nightmares, of how long it took us to get rid of chronic moments of “morning sickness,” but we hardly ever discuss this incurable numbness. A deep, deep burn costs one the feeling in a fingertip. Perhaps seeing too much ghastly casual death does it to a nerve somewhere behind the forehead bone.
Links: here I muse over one of Hillerman's Jim Chee novels. Here I report back on his memoirs, which, though memorable, desperately needed an attentive copy editor.