Yesterday morning Lou and I took our usual walk to the gate, about a third of a mile on a gravel road through the woods. I picked up the newspaper and we stood at the gate for less than a minute, Lou with her nose sticking through with every dog’s conviction that the grass is always greener on the other side of the gate and me, shaking my head as I watched two school buses slow to make the ninety-degree curve safely. I thought about the new elementary school coming less than a mile and a half up Kingsfield Road and wondered what on earth the county was going to do to make this crowded, dangerous road safer. Lou was pushing on the gate, so I called to her. “Lou! Come on, now, let’s take the newspaper to Buck. I’m ready for some more coffee. Let’s go.”
“Help me.” Lou and I both froze. She looked at me. My mind didn’t know how to make sense of what I thought I might have heard. I looked toward where I thought the sound might have come from but didn’t see anything but thick woods. I wasn’t sure it was a human sound, wasn’t sure “help me” is what I heard. My first instinct was to run back to the house and get Buck. So Lou and I ran. I’m not much of a runner, but we ran. Running, I tried to process what I had heard and became convinced that a man pleading for help was indeed the truth of it.
I put Lou in her crate and went in to wake Buck. Fortunately, he was already up and brushing his teeth. He didn’t have his hearing aids on, but it was clear from my body language that something was up and his help was urgently needed. Within minutes we were on our way to the gate. I explained what I thought I heard and hoped our neighbor or a walker hadn’t had a heart attack. I hoped it was a wild goose chase.
At first, we thought the wild goose scenario was right. We walked by the thicket outside our gate around to our neighbor’s yard. Couldn’t see a thing. I called out, “Hello? Hello?”
And there it was: “Help me. I’m in here. Please. Help me.”
So while Buck looked closely to see where the man might have entered the woods, I called 911.
Buck hacked carefully through thick smilax vines studded with wicked thorns following the disembodied voice. “I think my jaw’s broke.”
The 911 dispatcher wanted to know what happened, the man’s age, was he bleeding; then she patched me over to Florida Highway Patrol to give them directions.
I stepped into the tunnel Buck was creating from the nearly solid wall of thorns. There! A flash of chrome. Oh my God, it’s a motorcycle. I relayed this to the dispatcher, who assured me EMS was on the way. I still couldn’t see the man, but he was able to holler out answers to my questions. Motorcycle’s brakes failed. Age 58. Some blood, he didn’t think a whole lot. Prosthetic leg. Not pinned by the cycle, but immobilized by vines. His voice faded.
Then I saw a denim-clad leg and could hear Buck talking to him. “Don’t go to sleep on me, now. Stay awake, okay?” They were roughly 20 feet west between our gate and the main road. A neighbor’s adult daughter brought another pair of clippers and set to work making the tunnel entry bigger.
I saw the firetruck moving slowly, held my arm up and waved. They picked up speed and eased the big vehicle off the road just past our drive. An ambulance arrived a minute or so later.
By this time a small group of neighbors and a local online paper reporter had gathered in our driveway, all of whom we were meeting for the first time. They seemed to know us, but we didn’t know them. One said, “My brother, George, trimmed out your house.” I remember George, a fine craftsman. Does great work. We watched as a convoy of school buses and a sanitation truck carefully threaded their way around the dangerous curve on a road that is too narrow for two-way traffic even when it’s not clogged with emergency vehicles and curious onlookers.
The medical techs readied a stretcher while the firemen went in the thorn tunnel to help Buck free the injured man from the vines. Buck told me later that the vines were so springy and dense, they had acted like a net to keep the vehicle from going even farther into the brush, but also like a prison and had wrapped around the motorcycle so that it stayed upright with the man bound to it like he had been duct-taped. Vines around his shoulders made it impossible for him to move. Buck had to work carefully to cut vines from the man’s legs and arms one at a time to free them, and to move the prosthetic leg to make it less painful. It was clear to him that the man could never have gotten out of there without help, and the really terrible part was the way the vines had closed around the point of violent entry so as to make it very hard to discern that the vegetation had been disturbed.
When Buck and the rider emerged from the vine tunnel, helped by the firemen, it was a dramatic moment. Buck in his NRA hat and old Navy blue shorts with his Beretta stuck in the waistband and clippers in his right hand; and the injured rider, a thin, hard-looking denim-clad man blinking in the sun, looking stunned. The medical folks took control, thank goodness, and got him onto the stretcher. Buck had found the man’s sunglasses that had been knocked off and returned them to him.
As the rider was being wheeled over to the ambulance, the firemen went back into the rough to retrieve the cycle. It was a fireman’s job, for sure, but they eventually got it loose. It still had some vegetation attached, but otherwise looked in good shape.
The highway patrol officer arrived while this was going on to ask some questions and take control of the cycle until the wrecker could arrive. A good guy, on the force since 1983, he had those wise law enforcement eyes that take in a scene quickly. No one ever said a word about Buck’s pistol. Most folks around here remember the awful incident a few years ago on a Sunday morning less than half a mile from where we were standing when a retired police office simply taking a walk was shot in the head and killed by a schizophrenic young man off his meds. No one around here would go unarmed into a tangle of woods just based on a call of “help me.”
The show was over, so Buck and I returned to our pickup truck and headed back to the house. I could tell he was a little haunted by that scene in the woods, the arresting image of a man on a motorcycle, bound and circumscribed by thorn vines, unable to move. So much in life depends on timing and random luck.
And maybe some credit is due to the little chocolate Lab who hopped up and down yesterday morning until I agreed to write later and take her for a walk to the gate first. Good going, Lou.