Saturday evening we found a dead guy under a tree while we were walking our dog around our property at dusk in our pajamas. At first, we thought he was a bag of trash someone had dumped over the fence. Then I saw his face frozen in the grimace of his last gasp, mouth wide open to the sky. His shirtless pink abdomen moved ever so slightly. A finger twitched. “Hey, there, are you ok? Do you need some help? Hello? Are you ok? Can you hear me? Can I help you? Are you ok?” No answer. His motionless eyes were wide open, bulging out of his purple head. His bare belly was covered with scratches. His blue jeans were unzipped. He was at death’s door. As we ran back to the house to call 911 and put on some pants, we tried to imagine how he got there. It was a shocking thing to see, but then again, not. We often see mentally ill young men pacing the sidewalks in our city.
But how did he get there? The place where we live abuts a busy hiking trail up a steep hill through wildflower meadows that open to beautiful views. The landowner long ago fenced in this parcel with box-wire topped by four strands of barbed wire to discourage hikers from trespassing. The guy must have climbed the fence. But why? And why shirtless under a scrawny pine tree, flat on his back with his head downhill from his feet?
The first responders were matter of fact, focused on life-saving medical procedures, thorough and emotionless. They were young enough to be our children, but we could see on their faces a cold resignation. For them, the scene was all too familiar. This guy with his blood oxygen at 58% was their age, in the attire of their culture, a member of their community, soon to be dead on arrival at their local hospital, without any identification. John Doe.
All day Sunday we puzzled over the experience, trying to piece random bits of information into coherent behavior. What was the dead guy’s story? He wasn’t disheveled like a homeless person. His clothes were clean and newish. Was he a criminal or was he the victim of a crime? He was obviously trespassing. Are we safe in our home? Maybe he died of COVID. Maybe he was murdered. Were his shoes stolen? And why were his eyes wide open like that? Did he choke on something? Was he poisoned? Maybe he got stung by a bee and asphyxiated. How could he not be carrying some kind of ID? And no phone? It didn’t make sense.
Monday, just as I returned from a home security shopping spree with new door locks, window locks, outdoor lights, chain locks and entry bells, two officers from the sheriff’s department pulled in the driveway to follow up on the coroner’s report. Evidently, when he died, John Doe was severely dehydrated, most likely overheated due to over exertion climbing the hill while he was buzzed out of his mind on a big dose of meth amphetamines, which caused his heart to fail. Their best guess is that he was an inexperienced meth user who may have thought meth would be more of a sensory experience, like pot or mushrooms or acid, so he did the drug and went hiking to bliss out on nature. According to the officers, too much meth can make a person want to get out of their body, so shedding clothes and shoes, and anxious wandering in illogical places like through a barbed wire fence into a patch of blackberry bushes, is actually typical. After a tour of the scene, they left to retrace John Doe’s steps and try to find anything that might give a clue as to his name.
You might think this experience would leave us bleak. And we do feel sorry for the dead guy and his loved ones. But we’re also very relieved, elated actually, to be living in a small city where public safety systems work. First responders, healthcare and law enforcement — they were there for us. We called 911 and help arrived. In a hospital overwhelmed by COVID, John Doe could have been shelved, but he was examined, and a coroner’s report produced and delivered to law enforcement so they could take next steps on Monday for a guy who died Saturday. The officers that came to our house were kind and smart and diligent, and they reassured me. So, a situation that began with a big fright ended with a feeling of confidence in the system and gratitude for the people who make it work. Our life is better thanks to the efforts of thousands of people we don’t even know, the public good in action.