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Opinion: Hanging Chevy

By Jefferson Weaver

I do not know James Perry Garris, but I know a lot of men and women like him.

My beautiful cousin Christen knows him, and thinks a lot of him, so that would be enough for me, even if he were not a firefighter and an EMT.

Unfortunately, I have learned more about him not because of his dedication to helping others, but because he ended up on the other side of a radio call the other night. Instead of rushing to help someone, folks were rushing to help him, through no fault of his own.

My cousin’s friend was struck by a drunk driver. He’s alive, but had very serious injuries. Potentially life-changing injuries. Without delving into too much detail without his permission, let me just say his injuries are such that too much pain medication could be dangerous.

It struck me to the core when I got the news from Christen because not long before, I had posted my annual New Year’s Eve message, which is —

Please, folks:
Do not make me have to write about you tomorrow on my crime page.
Do not make my firefighter friends cut up a car because you were drunk.
Do not make my rescue friends have to cut your clothes off to find where you are bleeding.
Do not make my law enforcement friends have to visit your family with bad news.
As much as I like them, don’t give my bail bond friends more business tonight.
If you drink too much, you can call me.

It still amazes me that people will drink too much alcohol – or worse, use illegal drugs – and somehow have to get behind the wheel. One study showed that one of every five people or an immediate family member has been affected by an impaired driver at some point in their lives. Now, “affected” is a fairly broad term – it meant anything from a minor traffic crash to a fatality – but that’s 20 percent of the population.

I grew up as a crime reporter – they call us “public safety” reporters now – reared by two crime reporters.  Somewhere is a photograph of a tiny version of me emulating my dad as I stood beside him, taking a photo with my toy camera. That  photo was of a smashed car that didn’t make it past a bridge abutment, because the driver was drunk.

From the time I was 12 or so until after I was in college, the frame and fenders of a Chevelle hung from a tree on one of the back roads near my hometown. The Old Man got a call about the wreck one night around bed time, and I rode with him, since it was a chance to be with my dad for a little while.

I do not claim to recall all the details of that wreck, but I know two people, a man and a woman, were killed. The female passenger turned out not to have had anything to drink, but her companion consumed her share.

The road there made a long but tricky curve; the roadbed was raised above a swamp that was dry half the year. The Chevelle missed the curve, went through the guardrails and a barbed wire fence, and impaled the radiator and front end on a broken oak tree limb. The weight of the car then bent everything from the firewall back toward the ground.

The female victim was ejected and thrown against a thick gum tree. She died later at the hospital. Her companion died at the scene. Never mind the details which I should not have been privy to.

The wreck occurred in a sort-of casual junkyard, which we later would scavenge for parts for our various old cars and trucks.

The thing that sticks out in my mind to this day was how the doors were  jammed open like broken wings. I remember seeing and hearing a half-dozen or more beer cans falling from the open doors like individual raindrops. Gas, antifreeze, oil and yes, blood, stained the grass below the wreckage. The landowner kept the car more hanging there than a decade, until the trees were cleared for timber. We called it the Hanging Chevy.

While I no longer drink alcohol, and I never used drugs, I am ashamed to admit there were several times when I did drink that I displayed more confidence than common sense. When I sobered up, I was horrified that I had been so stupid. I berated myself, because I knew better. Thankfully, nothing bad ever happened, except for a hangover or two, perhaps a shamefaced apology, and another wornout guardian angel. It wouldn’t have taken much for things to go the wrong way, and somebody ending up killed or hurt.

A dear friend of mine made the same offer I did on New Year’s Eve, because she lost three friends in one year to drunk drivers. When you think about it, assuming both a victim and a suspect in each case, that’s at least three families affected by the decision of one impaired driver – the families of those in a wreck, and one if not two families that care deeply about one of those involved. On three different occasions, I knew the person whose family got a knock on the door from a sad-faced law enforcement officer. I no longer keep track of how many times I have asked the same question about a serious wreck – “Any evidence or drugs or alcohol involved?” – and had the investigating officer say yes. Few have been as dramatic as the Hanging Chevy, with Budweiser cans falling out the warped doors, but there have been some more like that.

I have to admit, I am pleased to see lowered blood-alcohol thresholds for DWI cases; I’m pleased to see harder prosecution of people who take a life after they take a drink or a hit and get behind a wheel. There’s simply no excuse for it, but yet Box 37 on the DMV-349 wreck report used by all law enforcement agencies often has the number one through six marked. Zero, by the way, means no impairing substances. Seven can mean a body was too damaged to determine whether impairing substances were present.

I am thankful that I am just a reporter, not one of those who have the responsibility of catching drunk drivers, cutting apart cars to rescue people hurt by drunk drivers, or trying desperately to remain detached whilst fighting to save the lives of those hurt by drunk drivers – or for that matter, desperately trying to save the life of the impaired driver. We talk a lot about respecting our LEOs, fire and rescue personnel, but a lot of folks are still willing to disrespect them by taking to the road after having one or two or five too many drinks.

My experiences naturally pale beside those of the folks who are first there and last out. I have a choice to be at a wreck scene, when first responders do not. Even though I have been doing this longer than some emergency workers have been alive, I still don’t claim to have the same experience of some folks in my trade when it comes to making sense of the results of alcohol, flesh and automobiles.

I know I have seen enough to move beyond the sadness to anger, in many cases.

I hope and pray James Perry Gerris recovers, and is one day able to continue his career of saving other people’s lives.

What I really for is that people develop enough sense not to get behind the wheel when they’ve had too much to drink, or for more people to be willing to risk an argument with a drunken friend as opposed to another number is Box 37.

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