The bullet exited under his eye, and the back of his skull caved in. With bits of his bone, blood, and hair all over me, I feel like Jackie Kennedy.
He’s peaceful, though, as I kneel over him, but for a gurgling I hear beneath the din of another shooting victim who’s screaming beside us.
“My” victim’s dressed in sweats and a denim jacket over a clean white T-shirt. I will find out tomorrow that his name is Chris.
He’s not from Manchester proper where I’ve been at University and where I’ll later do my Master’s degree, but Glossop, Derbyshire, “the gateway to the Peak District National Park.”
“He was a good boy,” his mother will tell the Guardian tomorrow.You’ll be able to see my bloody footprints — my new Marks & Spencer trainers — in the newspaper photograph.
I’ll send it to my parents, and they’ll save it in a file until they die 25 years later, and I find it while cleaning up.
But tonight, a random night in 1994, my hands are under Chris’s shirt, on the warm, still supple skin of this man’s abdomen and chest—and it’s surreal to find myself so intimate with someone I’ve just met.
His heart beats hollowly, slowly, like some beached and emaciated sea creature. I’m consumed by the possibility that my hands alone might jolt some strength into that feeble organ like the machine they use after yelling “Clear!”
His diaphragm rises and falls unnaturally, like a CPR dummy. Blood burbles over his lips. I turn Chris to the side so the blood will pour out his mouth. With one hand, I cradle his head—just dead weight, and warm.
And with the other, I scoop out as much blood as I can with my fingers. Copious, carmine blood. It covers my new sneakers, and soaks through to my underwear on the side where I’m sitting on my haunches, warmer than my skin. It makes me want to pee.
The last time my hands are on Chris Horrox, 30, Glossup (as a paramedic lifts me to a standing position from under the arms), he’s still technically alive. Ninety seconds later, he isn’t.
That’s life. One moment, you’re walking down Granby Row from the bars with your boyfriend, Gavin, on your way to visit your boss, the Mexican-British poet and writer, Michael Schmidt, and the next…
Th-th-that’s all, Folks!
In the kitchen, we have an anecdote for all our flatmates — there are 8 of us, from 8 different countries — even as the cops still swarm our beloved Granby Row.
The groove’s been leapt.
I strip off my sopping clothes and toss my ruined shoes in the bin.
Later that night, I’m writing about Isadora Duncan for a giant novel I’m working on.
After an evening walk along the Promenade de Anglais in Paris, September 14, 1927, she got into her rented car, and according to the New York Times:
The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk suddenly began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street.
In 1913 Duncan’s two young children had drowned when the car in which their mother had left them seated, rolled, driverless, down a hill, and plunged over a bridge into the river Seine.
Shit. It’s hard to stress this enough, Isadora and Chris, and all my beloved fine-feathered friends. It’s not morbid – merely realistic – to remember this could be your very last hour on Earth.
I could not figure out whether I was envious or not of my boyfriend, Gavin, for rushing to the other victim. His name was Jimmy Carr, 46, I’ll never forget it.
Jimmy was shot four times to Chris’s one—because he somehow survived the attempted murder after multiple surgeries.
Regardless, when you witness two people shot at close range, this notion of the fragility of life tends to linger around you, and offers a faint and momentous buzz.
And the randomness of Fortune’s Wheel: Had Gavin and I not stopped to pee in the alley, we would have turned the corner of our once-peaceful street just a moment later, in time for some Sol Cerveza at Michael’s place—but likely found ourselves in the line of fire.
You shouldn’t fear, you realize, but you should always keep in the back of your mind, Peeps: Monoxide could leak tonight from some faulty hose somewhere. The wood truss roof of your house could crumple. Meanwhile, your toddler – forgive me for saying, but it happens all the time in America and England and Mexico and Kenya – could choke herself in the curtain cord while you’re watching Oprah’s Next Chapter in an adjacent room.
Your spouse could bend down to grab the blintzes from the basement freezer, and burst a blood vessel in the brain. Or some Bhopal-style airborne toxic nebula could drift up the river from a mishap at a nearby plastics plant, robbing your entire town’s breath while you sleep.
(I came to learn at the Fire Training Academy this this is called a Mass Casualty Event, and there are complex protocols to follow, called ICS—Incident Command System, far less chaotic than two lads – one Creative Writing Master’s student and one former rent boy – rushing headlong into a shooting-in-progress with absolutely no training in rescue, no less protection.)
It ain’t just the cliche stuff of Robin Cook fiction: You could go to the hospital for a trick knee, and die of a flesh-eating virus (an irrepressible itch today, liquefied organs tomorrow. I’ve written books about this. These virulent bugs live on your doctor’s cuffs).
Or it could be wind shear, that’s a good one. No one expects wind shear. You’re on your way to an antique toy show in Akron, eating your three-ounce salty snack with your elbows tucked in, then suddenly you’re in the midst of a blaring vortex, plummeting toward the ground.
In 1991, some friends and I heard a United Airlines Boeing 737 with 25 people on board slam nose-down into my favorite park in Colorado Springs after an “anomalous gust.” The plane exploded into puny shards: From across the police tape, my friend, Jim, the first EMT I ever knew, told me rescuers recovered “no human part larger than a Chicken McNugget.” You don’t forget a phrase like that.
I hadn’t seen Jim in a minute (27 years) and he surprised me by showing up for my 50th BD party in March. Thanks, Jim.
So I eventually became a Firefighter. I drove the ambulance in my tiny town.
Sullivan County New York is nooooo WeHo. Let me just say that. But I loved it just the same.
Why on Earth did I put myself through that grueling training? Is it because I couldn’t save Chris? Or is it because, improbably, Jimmy — the victim of the shooting, not the friend who was an EMT — lived?
The sickle is always so close to our nose, yet we never seem to learn. Only 10 days before the 1988 Lockerbie crash, I was on Pan Am Flight 103, the same flight, even the same plane, the Clipper Maid of the Seas. I traveled that route as an exchange student all the time between London and NY, just as I traveled the same streets as Chris and Jimmy the night they were flypostering near Sackville and Bombay, hoping for a quick buck as Gavin was years earlier, the night we met.
You just never know where the Wheel will land.
Celebrity Wheel of Fortune plays no favorites, either. No one’s safe.
Angel and live about a mile from where River Phoenix bought the farm in front of the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip.
Over the past coupla years, there was American actor Paul Walker, crushed in a high-performance Porsche of all ironies. What’s his name, cutie from Star Trek? Crushed between his Cherokee and a brick pillar in his own driveway in Studio City.
Princess Diana, of course. Or consider Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Latin hottie Ritchie Valens, only 17. Humming over Mason City, Iowa in a new Beech Bonanza, 1959. Valens’s meteoric rise from anonymity to the top of the charts lasted only eight months—and in a whirlpool of metal and corn husks, it screeched to a halt in second like a needle on a 45 torn across “La Bamba.”
From time before time, people have learned this lesson the hard way: A.D. 79. Between Herculaneum and Pompeii. I walked that route two summers ago during a break from a job in Italy. Always wanted to see it.
It didn’t disappoint.
Yeah. You’re just a poor, toiling cobbler when Vesuvius erupts. They find you two millennia later, buried where you sat in your outhouse, parchment in hand, looking toward a tiny window shaped like a starburst, thinking of the pyroclastic flow, “Awesome—”
There’s Christopher Reeve. Christa McAuliffe. JonBenét Ramsey. Madeleine McCann. Leon Klinghoffer—remember that poor fucker?
Or consider gun turret number two on the USS Iowa, which exploded in April, 1989. The Gerald Posner story in Penthouse. My father collected Penthouses, among others, so I’ve been slogging through boxes and boxes of those.
Anyway, Posner recounts that the blast, “sent a giant 3,000-degree fireball mushrooming through the turret’s lower chambers at more than 2,000 feet a second.” It caused what the witnesses called a “‘dead man’s soup’ … a ghastly mixture of chest-high water, hydraulic fluid, blood, and body parts.” Again—shit.
One bullet through the head looks pretty good in contrast, if you don’t mind my saying, Mrs. Horrox.
Look, these are object lessons.
Your most profound tutorial could come like mine came in 1998. You could be a first-year teacher, 27, reading a magazine feature about our Pope (two-Popes ago) as a teen, when the doctor comes in with results of that “routine” exam. He could say, looking ashen, not meeting your eyes, “Is there someone here with you today?” (which you never want to hear from anyone in a white coat.)
Then 17 surgeries later – several organs in the Dumpster, an electrical charge wired into your spine – you could find yourself begging for the end.
Or like my brother, who’ll I’ll call Lance, you could take your new glasses off during a quick break from training on the 62nd floor of the World Trade Center on a bright Tuesday morning in September, 2001, and squeeze the bridge of your nose. You could see burning papers floating past the windows like confetti, and fire engines screaming up the street below.
A curious sight for 9ish in the morning. (Is this why I suffered through firefighter training—failing the first time on the last fucking day, breaking a bone in the last “evolution,” and hearing my instructors tell me there’s honor and dignity in a “supporting role,” say in the fire police or in pump operations?)
It would seem impossible to you at the moment that this building you’re in will collapse into rebar and asbestos dust before everyone – well, not everyone – can get out.
What exactly is the lesson here? That life is a delicate, frail, and feeble thing that might be snatched away in an instant. To live your life with a constant gratefulness, as though an anvil could literally fall from the sky at any moment.
Don’t kid yourself, these experiences tell us. The cranium’s only so much armor. Which is funny. Given I’ve a tiger locked inside my cage.
We learned this in our training. Every day we stood silently for the LODD—the Line of Duty Deaths. Under the tutelage of our grave old salty instructors, we studied the fatality investigations of what went wrong.
This guy in Fairbanks failed to pull his Nomex hood completely around his breathing mask. This lieutenant in Spokane got ejected out the rig because he failed to belt himself in. This chief in Denver—heart attack, which is the number one cause of LODDs; the stress of responding to emergencies, jolting your heart from zero to sixty.
Here’s a big one: Nineteen Arizona hotshots die in 2013. “Crispy fritters,” someone says on the radio.
You cannot prepare in a lifetime for such an upheaval. But you can be ready. Since these multiple cautions aimed at me, I’ve determined to expect the unexpected. So that when that inexorable last day arrives, I’ll have made it a day that’s, as they say in the Native American tradition I learned one year I spent with the Lakota Sioux, “A good day to die.”
A day of exuberance, wailing, gesticulating wildly. Or deep, Zen-like contemplation of our existential quandaries. Or love. Or making some kind of difference. Maybe that’s why I answered the call all those years at 4 AM for an MVA with entrapment when it’s 0 degrees and I know the sucker’s gonna be drunk.
Just pulling stiff bunkers on over warm pajamas sucks, but it will make some kind of difference, won’t it? Not everyone will be Chris Horrox. I might save one, right?
I never became the Chief or any kind of officer. I didn’t want any of the guys’ lives dependent on a shitty decision of mine any more than is absolutely necessary—as I said, I did fail Firefighter I my first time around. But I was the President of my Department for a time.
So a lot of the Probies looked up to me, I suppose.
And this is what I told the young men and women who tended to find themselves mired in inconsequential nonsense and drama, the same thing I told the kids who faced me daily from their desks.
The same I tell you now across the transom, all my fine feathered friends: This life is not a practice run. This life is not a dress rehearsal for something else.
Hey, that’s another great cliche expression I love. This life is not a dress rehearsal for something else.
It’s one show only, Man.
So make it matter.
For this reason the idea of sound and fury signifying nothing is anathema to me (and Shakespeare proved himself wrong anyway, by his own incalculable contribution to the world).
But you can’t work in the fire service and EMS for long without buying Macbeth’s gloomy assertion that we do get only that hour upon the stage. Some, like Chris, and my brother, and maybe me with my cancer and Type 1 diabetes (thanks to losing my pancreas to that Dumpster) might get even less. But I also assume some of us might be blessed by an encore.
There was a time I couldn’t walk. Then The Flying Tofu Monster and I got me walking. So I walked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. So I rescued some elephants. So I became a first responder. So we should strive to do more than merely “strut and fret” before the inevitable final curtain, is what I’m saying.
In my capacity as President of the Mountaindale NY Fire Department, I presided over several “Firematic” funerals (that’s the big show with the Honor Guard and the trucks and the ringing of the bells and saluting and bagpipers playing “Danny Boy”).
Two brothers in our department both died of drug overdoses.
One kid jumped off the GWB.
Another, a young (24-year-old) firefighter named Shawn. It was an honor, for sure, but an awful one. The only saving grace was the realization that Shawn knew life’s about passion, not precision. Like good sex or drumming.
Some guys try their whole life to “get it right” and then die trying – literally – having turned down a lifelong invitation to joy. As a first responder, you can see them at 4 in the morning when you answer the call, underneath their cars or at the bottom of their pools or way after rigor mortis has set in and all kinds of unsavory shit is spilling out of them over their linoleum, and you just know how fucking miserable they were their entire lives.
Do you want to be like that—to end like that?
Look, you can’t keep waiting. At some point, somebody’s gonna have to call 911 for – 999 if you’re in England, like the lad we met at the beginning of our essay – or you might have to dial those three scary digits for yourself.
Shit, I asked Angel what the equivalent is in Mexico, and it slipped right out the sieve of my brain.
One way or another this call comes literally or figuratively for everyone. Then someone like me’s gonna show up with my former buddies in arms.
Sure, we’re gonna be professional, compassionate, and execute every trick we know through our hard-won training to give you another day, which we hope you won’t waste. Sure, when you and your loved ones are not watching or listening, we might use a little gallows humor. It’s the only way we can get through some of the terrible, terrible shit we see.
But remember, someday, there won’t be another day. So until that day, please make this day matter. You’ve got to throw yourself into something, anything; plunge headlong where you’ve only dipped a toe.
Go tell her you love her.
Look him in the eyes for once.
Go back to that place and rescue the child you once were, as my therapist, Attica always recommends.
Pick up and am-scray already.
Drop out of school if intuition screams you don’t belong.
Or start giving a fuck about school because that little voice underneath aforementioned drama and triviality is calling you.
Start now, whatever it is you’ve been putting off, even though it’s going to take you years (the time’s going to pass regardless).
Put that thing down. Stand up to your parents. Let your parents hug you.
Suffer them. In the blink of an eye (to use a cliche) they’ll be gone. You’ll regret it.
At the very least, change something, do something different. A wise man – either a saint, or the writer Ring Lardner – once said the difference between a groove and a grave is only a matter of depth.
I hope it’s OK to let a survivor and a rescuer evangelize: We should get on our knees and till the garden soil with bare hands the way we were meant to. We should wake in the night and cut a cold tangerine in half, shut our eyes and just inhale it in the dark.
We should sprawl on the couch with a friend, the one we love, a kid who matters. We ought to laugh at the funny stuff, cry more, kiss more, write elegiac sonnets like my friend Bud.
Run, don’t walk, and get a pet. Nothing arouses a lazy heart like the untainted soul of a bunny or bird, a beagle or a quarter horse.
Go fight for what you believe in.
You’re going to be a dead body. I carried the bags. I had the code for the coroner on my speed dial.
So meantime, take your shirt off outside. Better yet, take it all off, spread out somewhere private and stretch, let the sun awaken all those parts the world has made dark through shame and disuse.
Romp. Skinny dip. Run. Be a hedonist! Blast the music of your youth.
Read a book a week at least, for the rest of your time alive.
Trust me as the guy who showed up to a lot of scary bedrooms in the night, there will come a time when you won’t have your faculties intact, and you’ll not have been worthy of having possessed so astounding a miracle as that of your consciousness.
I presuppose that books, which are distillations of vision and wisdom, bring us closer to a higher purpose, to unity, truth, and thanksgiving. Books and love alike therefore act as foils for Macbeth’s – and Frost’s – depressing conception of life for us poor players.
Better yet, write a book! You know you’ve got one in you. I’ve written a few already, and it’s very cool feeling. I’m glad I’ve done it before one of my buddies in bunkers puts me in a bag.
Many more to go! Twelve this year. A million words.
I lived so long just unable to forgive myself for wasting all my time and talent.
And for God’s sake, do something about your regret.
Don’t wait for a brain tumor or a rolling car or a bad batch of black tar heroin to get yer ass in gear.
Forgive yourself already. You did the best you could. And if by chance you didn’t really, promise yourself that you will next time, and get the hell on with it.
I guess it’s obvious why after I miserably failed Firefighter training and let all my brothers down, I took it again (and not incidentally won the Firefighter of the Year award. Whatever “Of the Year” award you’re after comes not from demonstrations of perfection but from what firefighters and coaches have for centuries called “heart.”
Bring your fucking heart to the interactions, your classroom, your work, your relationship with your book, instead of just your cell phone and a Starbucks venti mocha chai latte).
It’s merely all our yesterdays that have lighted fools the fated way to dusty death. And it’s tomorrow creeping in its petty pace from day to day. So that leaves only our today.
What will we do with ourselves, for each other, in the world, today? Maybe for you it’s not running into burning buildings or pulling twisted kids out of upside-down cars. It isn’t for me any more.
Maybe it’s not writing a million words in a year.
And maybe it’s not falling head over boots for Paradise Lost. But whatever it is, what the fuck are you waiting for? Please don’t wait for the cancer doctor, or for someone in PPE to show up and drag out your busted-up, regretful corpse.
Remember today that you bring yourself your life. Another great cliche. You bring yourself your life.
You don’t like it—only you can change it. Today.
So realize the insignificance of petty distresses. Homework. Paperwork. Fur balls under the coffee table. Dirty dishes. The neighbor’s dog. Boyfriend trouble, female trouble. Penis size.
Road rage. Cell phones ringing. Thinning hair.
OK, penis size is maybe too tough to get over without … No. Penis size. Trivial. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Nazi bosses. Rusty car. Forget all that shit and follow your bliss, finally—it’s God or the universe or that little voice or your Friendly Firefighter or maybe Chris Horrox from the grave in Glossop shaking you by the shoulders, reminding you what you’re doing here, what it’s all about.
Nothing puts the day’s small apprehensions in perspective like a house on fire or a bullet in the back of the head.
With Love and Optimism Abounding,
Ollie Ogre and The Blake