And this is how you die… By Roger Aldridge

WARNING: This graphic article, published in The Age 39 years ago, contains explicit descriptions … but it may save your life

How do people die in motor “accidents”?

I’ll tell you.

Some people explode — like a thin plastic envelope full of offal which has been hurled against a brick wall. No pain.

They put them on a sheet of canvas and pick it up at the corners like, as one tow truck driver described it: “A tub of guts”

I haven’t seen one of these.

Others die intact. Ruptured inside, you understand, but un-harmed to look at. There may be a thin, trickle
of blood from an ear or nostril.

It annoys you, subconsciously … you wish they’d raise a dead hand and wipe it away.

Death is not instantaneous.

Rather, it comes in a matter of minutes. There is no pain as we know it … nothing sharp, exquisite, searing. It is an inner numbness, a bubbling frothing thing and a terrible inability to breathe.

They are winded, punched in the stomach by a ton of metal moving at 60 mph or more, shattering
every bone in the body as a fist would shatter a wine glass wrapped in a rug.

They never breathe again.

I’ve seen a number of these.

Men die with their trousers on, which somehow lends them dignity.

Women die with their legs apart in a lewd display.

Children die most horribly because they are seldom properly seated or braced. And they
are very small. They are thrown through jagged windscreens to roll and skid along road surfaces
as abrasive as cheese-graters.

Or, cradled in their mother’s laps, they are sandwiched between her and the unyielding dashboard. Mummy might just as well have jumped on the child from a third-storey window.

Without meaning to, of course.

Some people are burned to death.

They are not incinerated, as you’d imagine, but tend to bake or char.

Their clothes burn off them— if it is wool it forms a ghastly black”crackling”— and the skin bakes into quite a hard rind which makes a hollow sound if you tap it.

When the corpse is lifted from the wreckage it is as rigid as a papier mache dummy.

Often it is set in a sculpted, lifelike posture, but unnaturally stiff, like the little plastic drivers that toy manufacturers put in the front seats of model cars.

I’ve seen a couple of these, too.

I’ve seen men’s faces buried in the stringy bark of a tree trunk; fixed there, seemingly, by
a gob of sticky red gum.

And men hanging from halfopen car doors; fl ung rag dolls of men embracing steel power pylons; men skewered on steering columns; men whose faces are gone, as if nibbled by rats.

I’ve seen men survive.

Dragged from the back seat, soaked in a shandy of blood and beer, the shards of smashed bottles glinting in the frantic blue of the revolving police light.

Carried into casualty on a stretcher, hurt, frightened, shocked.

Men without dignity, crying while other men cut away their blood-soaked rags and yet other men explore abdomen and groin with fingers that feel like fence-posts.

Men blinking through blood and tears into bright lights while probes and tweezers remove chunks and slivers of glass from facial wounds — eyes, cheeks, gums — that big bit was a tooth. Two teeth, actually.
Having trouble talking.

Panic-stricken men with crushed rib-cages trying to breathe through broken bellows. Grey-faced, incoherent, being asked questions:

What’s your name? Are you married? Where do you live? Where does it hurt … here … here … does THAT hurt? Any children?

Thighs as flexible as a rolled-up towel, pushed back into shape and splinted. Men wheeled into the X-ray room and laid this way, then that while the ragged edges of a broken pelvic girdle scrape together. Got to get a good picture.

Men denied pain-killers while an eternity of assessment passes and other men pierce their arms and insert tubes and hold up little canisters of blood … blood donors love life, but butter eaters make better lovers.

Then sliding blissfully into euphoria as the pain-killing injection hits and they are wheeled into the operating theatre.

And I’ve seen men survive this, too.

The Russians were criticised in the 1930s for severing a dog’s head and keeping it clinically alive for a number of hours.

Alive enough to salivate at the smell of food.

I’ve seen men in the quadriplegic wards at the Austin Hospital and at Mont Park who might just as well not have bodies, although their heads are alive.

The unlucky ones are mentally unimpaired and strive for months and years to learn to write with a pencil held in their teeth, or to type by flicking one of the few remaining responsive muscles in their bodies.

Their intelligence is sharp, their appetite for books and learning is gargantuan, their role in life that of the eternal spectator … eternity being, in some cases, a “lif” expectancy of 50 or more years.

They make the best of it, but many wish for death.

And I’ve seen the lucky ones, those with brain damage, whose minds were shaken loose in the
cataclysm of car with car.

Men with glazed, half-lidded eyes, with neither bowel nor bladder control who sog in bed with no sensation below the shoulders so that bowel obstructions, appendicitis, bladder problems go undetected
by the normal warning systems which we know as pain.

Men whose total sexual impotence is parodied by an apparent state of constant sexual excitation.

Men who were mothers’ sons, wives’ husbands, girls’ lovers, children’s fathers. Men who recognise no one.

Or men whose eyes ignite for a brief moment with recognition, whose mouths open to speak a flubbery sound like deflating bubble gum, then sink exhausted into the pillow.

I’ve seen things that make me sick to the heart. I thought you should know.

Reprinted from The Age, Thursday, October 26, 1972

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