The Man in the Gray Flannel Volkswagen
When the farm road turned, the Volkswagen had gone straight. Well, it
couldn't have been exactly straight, because it left curved tire marks on
the asphalt and in the ditch, where it must have finally gotten sideways
and rolled over a time or two before starting to flip from end to end.
Of course, all that flipping from end to end hadn't had any bad effect on
the driver of the car. He had been tossed out and rolled over early in the
game. When I found that V.W. it was laying there quietly upside down, all
bent and oily and covered with gray flannel dust, in the cold morning dew.
The sun was not up yet, but the early light was starting to move across
the haze of the brush country. And it was cold. It would be 100 degrees in
another few hours, but right then it felt like the Arctic ice cap.
It had probably been lying there for hours. As I started out walking
toward the wreck, I could hear someone moaning and gurgling somewhere
in the cold air. And who would I happen to have with me that particular
morning? Why, none other than Johnny, the madman flagman.
When Johnny heard the moaning and groaning and gurgling, he gave a
little yelp, jumped, and raced ahead like the madman he was. He ran
around the wreck a time or two, stuck his head in the window, and
starting yelling, "Help! help!", and "Hello, Hello!". Then he started pacing
all about, raging in Spanish curses, and crying out, "Mother of Mary,
Mother of Mary!"
While all this was going on, I was yelling at him that I was going to kill
him and fire him if he didn't shut up. I was trying to figure out where all
the moaning was coming from. I finally caught up to Johnny and managed
to get him to shut up.
Everything grew quiet in the gray dust dawn. Then the moaning started
again, and it was eerie. Johnny gave a yelp, jumped straight up, and hit
the ground running back in the direction we had come from, the direction
the moaning was coming from. Somehow, with all my yelling and Johnny's
commotion, I had walked right past the guy.
In the dawn I could see the man curled up on his side in the ditch, and I
could hear the loud moans. Johnny was running at the man, and I was
yelling, and running, and yelling, "Don't touch that man!" "DON'T TOUCH
Johnny paid no more attention to my orders than he ever did. He flung
himself at the man like Ty Cobb going for second base, grabbed him by the
shoulder, and gave him a mighty heave. The injured man was flipped over
and flung spread eagle on his back. Johnny jammed his face nose to nose
with the man, stared, and screamed like an animal. He erupted right back
onto his feet, and started staring at the man again.
"I know that man," he screamed! "I know that man! HE'S DEAD! I
KNOW THAT SON-OF-A-BITCH, HE'S DEAD, HE'S DEAD!" Then he started
running again. The man on the ground was moaning and starting to jerk
around like he was on a fire ant bed. He was blowing bloody bubbles out of
his mouth. I was trying to talk to him.
Johnny had wandered back over by the wreck and had started
mumbling to himself. He had grown much quieter. Ever now and then he
called out softly, "I know that son-of-a-bitch, I know that son-of-a-bitch."
After a while he started chanting, "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead." It
sounded like something from a voodoo ritual. He was prowling around
inside the wrecked Volkswagen, and I hoped to God he wouldn't find some
other poor soul to torment.
The injured man was incoherent and bleeding from the mouth and
nose. One arm was all mashed and torn open, and when Johnny had flung
him over, that arm had been rolled up under his back. I managed to get
him straightened out, but the guy kept on squirming and groaning. All
that groaning was starting to get on my nerves as much as Johnny, who
was out somewhere in the distance chanting like a Hari Krishna.
The guy smelled real strong of beer, and I finally concluded that he was
dead drunk. This realization greatly boosted my confidence. Although I
didn't know very much about medical care, I had had a great deal of
experience in dealing with drunks.
Accordingly, I got right in the face of the injured man and told him to
shut up, and to stop all that damned groaning and squirming around. And
he did. I asked if he was hurt.
On later reflection, I realized that that was a rather stupid question to
ask a man with an extra bend between his elbow and wrist, and with
bloody bubbles oozing out of one corner of his mouth. But at the time, it
seemed like the only practical question to ask.
Just then I felt something by my sleeve, and Johnny's head, bug-eyes
and all, leaned over into the guy's face again. I stood up, carefully clawed
my fingers into Johnny's hair, and slowly pulled him away. I didn't want to
do anything that would get him spooled up again.
"I want you to go back to the truck," I said sternly.
Johnny just stared back at me. His eyes were like plates in the red
morning sunrise. He brought his face close to mine and whispered, "I know
that son-of-a-bitch. He's dead." His voice was very low and sincere. He
seemed to be sharing a great secret with me. He was talking very softly
because he didn't want the injured man to learn that he was dead.
I told Johnny again to go back to the truck, but he just wandered off.
He didn't go back to the truck.
I figured that by that time somebody else would come driving along
that road, but nobody did. Finally I helped the injured man sit up, and
used his shirt to tie his busted arm to his belly. I left him sitting there and
drove the pickup out into the field right beside him.
Then I took a big chance. I called to Johnny to come over and give me a
hand. He came over, and he was very calm. He did everything I told him
to do, and between us we hoisted that busted-up drunk into the right seat
of my pickup. The guy must have weighed 170 pounds, and I couldn't have
done it without Johnny. Johnny behaved like a real pro and even helped
me get the man buckled into a seat belt. When I walked around to get into
the driver's seat, Johnny got right in front of me and looked intently into
"He's dead," he said, "He's dead."
I told Johnny to stay "right there." I told him that Santos would come
and pick him up very soon. As I drove away, I could see him staring into
my rear-view mirror, big-eyed and wild.
I drove to the nearest emergency room. People in white coats hauled
the man away. A woman with a clipboard told me to wait right there. She
explained that she would be back in a few minutes because she needed to
ask me "...a lot of questions." When she came back, there was nobody
That night Santos asked me about "the dead man" that I had "hauled
away." I explained to him that the guy really wasn't dead. I also told him
that he and I were the two stupidest men on Earth for letting a lunatic like
Johnny work for us.
Santos just shrugged.
I hope that guy didn't die.