Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Fire and Ice

I watch very little TV, some Discovery Channel, some hunting shows, Mythbusters, Top Gear, Dirty Jobs, tapes of Firefly and Dead like Me and Red Dwarf. But once in a while I just can't resist and in a fit of boredom I will watch some cop or CSI type show.

It's more entertaining than most of the TV shows out there now, so removed from actual reality that they hardly bear watching. The original CSI Vegas though I actually liked, shelving the science and just watching the interactions between the characters which were well acted and crafted. But the spin offs were painful to watch.

Opening Scene -Young party girl in the New York subway has her face suddenly start to melt while vomiting blood.

In the distant city, Mac the steely eyed investigator, to his date: "sorry" (damn, my beeper went off at the opera. . . AGAIN).

Here comes the CSI Team, back from their night on the town, arriving in terribly expensive fashion wear, from their homes or dates, with all the traffic, in minutes.

Mac (entering the scene with no gloves, no mask, no eye protection, as he bends closely over someone that looks like a sleeping supermodel, except with lots of blood splashed on her): "Detective Angel, What have we got ?"

Detective Angel, Victoria's Secret Model in tight pants and a skin tight low cut sparkly t-shirt under her suit jacket: "Looks like a Chemical or a Biological ! ! "

Female CSI assigned to the scene: "Oh Happy Birthday Mac!" (giggle, giggle, blush stare at ground, forget to work the scene)

Mac smiles and pokes closely at the body again, steely eyes glinting since he's not wearing any eye protection.

Mac: looking closely:" hmmm. . . doesn't look like small pox or anthrax"

(Time to look a little closer and poke in the blood spatter to make sure it's not the incurable ebola, which you can get by exposure to (ahem)the blood of the infected person.)

Dr. H.: "No pruritic macular or papular rash" (Good thing, as that might be Ebola or Cutaneous Anthrax, which means you're standing in the minefield.)

Mac: "So no hemorrhagic fever!" ( Wow Mac, you diagnosed with just that steely glance. You didn't even have to isolate the virus from the patients blood and have acute serum samples inoculated into tissue cultures of mosquito cells or directly into live Toxorhynchites or Aedes mosquitoes or try a Immunodiagnostic method such as detection of anti-dengue IgM and IgG by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and detection of hemagglutination inhibition antibody. Good job Mac, you'll have this solved before the hour is up!)

Pretty girl in a $700 outfit playing with something that I swear is an Etch a Sketch: "It's OK now! This subway tested negative for all hazmat and biologicals!".

Mac: " great!"

Watching any more would have made me laugh so hard I'd spill my beer. Besides they'll have their DNA evidence in oh, like 10 minutes.

TV is fantasy, what remains of a life is seldom so pretty. If you don't suit up properly, to protect yourself from elements, the terrain, or a hoard of nasty biologicals, you will likely join them on the next table. But then again, there's not too many jobs where you can on occasion rappel into work.

But it's not easy work, and sometimes one has to let it out somehow. Myself, only rarely, others bloggers, first responders, LEO's, EMT's, openly writing about it, words that ignite, words that heal.

I thought about those words as I went for a morning walk and found the bones of a small animal out in the woods. How long had it lay here? Long enough for the bones to bleach to soft white, the flesh now part of the earth, the eyes, dark orbs of history. The shape was benign as if the creature simply stopped quietly and died, unlike other bones one finds in the wild, the animals of the tar pits, trapped in the primordial ooze in the posture of shock. Other animals dropped while running, the bones scattered by predators til the remaining pieces are simply laid out in a question mark.

These bones were in the shape of quiet sleep, as if the animal simply lay down, waiting for death to catch up.

It only takes a few days for an animal to decompose at this time of year. Why I've seen hunters lose good game, simply because in the occasional hot temperatures of an Indian summer, a kill left too long can turn quickly. Only a few days to return to bone, to the simplest components of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur. Only bones left, pressing into the soft welcoming earth, the soil a rich bed of late summer.

Sometimes all we find are bones, laid bare to the elements, or burned clean.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
Robert Frost

With the right temperature all things will burn, yet bone itself stubbornly resists all but the hottest of fires. Even when all the carbon is burned from it, bone will still retain it's shape. An insubstantial ghost of itself, it crumbles easily, the last bastion of the person's being transformed into ash. Yet in that ash remain large pieces, calcined and with the consistency of pumice, yet when held in the hand, almost seeming to posses a trace of warmth from within their core.

But even if they can not speak to me, sometimes what is left gives us a clue. Who was this person? In what manner of violence was their end? It's a world few wish to visit, yet it drives me, the mystery, the puzzle . . . . perhaps because I realize that the final mystery is ourselves.

The use of physical evidence to build a theoretical model of a given crime or accident scene involves a number of sciences, the chemistry of death, and the engineering of the body. Even in the cold quiet of the wood, I stop and survey the scene, making mental notes in my head. How long had it been laying here? Bones, especially ones that have burned, do not give up a time of death. For that you need to trace the extent of decomposition in volatile fatty acids, in muscle proteins and amino acids, all which are normally destroyed in a hot fire. Even in the woods, simply surveying my environment, my brain sifts through ideas, time lines and theory based on simple white bone.

So often, while fire and EMS valiantly does their work, I wait quietly in the wings, waiting to do mine. Skin almost blistering in the heat, hoping to get close enough to see a clue before its burned and gone, a time line of life and death lost to the flame. Fire doesn't just destroy paper and combustible evidence, it's disruptive to the analysis of bone trauma, especially separating fragmentation patterns resulting from perimortem trauma, such blunt force, projectile impact, etc., from those resulting from postmortem heat and fire modification. Fire suppression
, though necessary, even if there is no chance of life remaining, also does its damage. The sudden cooling of hose streams fracturing or spalling bones that are hot, especially if they've gotten hot to the point of delamination of calcination, can cause harm that may or may not be salvaged in a laboratory. Then there's mechanical damage, direct hose impact, falling debris.

The tiny pieces of life's remains that still can speak to me are drowning in water. I stand helplessly by the scene, like a person watching a too late rescue swimmer, knowing the outcome, yet hoping for something from which I can put the dead to rest. I wait, too close for safety, not wanting to turn away, as fire roars right up against the night stars and the deep dark spaces. Wait, while the ice, the silent ice, drips from the trees, melting in the heat of the flame.

I wait among the dead, sometimes without cause and sometimes for reason. Treading carefully on the small broken artifacts of life, part pathology, part engineering, going beyond either. For after the mechanics of motion have stopped, after human physiology has broken down, and what once was animated life, a heart that loved, a soul that dreamed, is reduced to flesh or ash, decay or dried bone, the dead will still bear witness.

They can tell me a story.

It is usually not a story that would make a good television show, and it rarely can be wrapped up in a neat sixty minutes, but it is a story that needs to be told.

Today, so that others may learn, I craft another story as I watch a small fire, tended to warm a house surprisingly cold after a front came through. I watch the flames twist and sway in their age-old dance. As humans, we are more than our past, yet we are the same, seeking life and comfort. Seeking answers. As I do, gazing at a flame in a fireplace that warms something deep in me, something stirring in memory from the ashes as I go back to my work. Back to bones that will tell someone their story in front of the morning fire, as my own heart, beaten and darkened by soot, contains in its core, one small piece untouched, that smoldered back into life. with just the right breath on it.

Dreams in front of a fire. Entwined with well being, warm from a meal, sipping a Guinness, reinventing kissing, watching skin play in the firelight, snuffling against a neck glistening with the heat, a salt lick of nourishment. Not speaking, future or past. No promises. There might be no future, time and fate has changed that for all of us, but there was the present. This fire, this moment. Too soon, perhaps to be be only the past, gone up the chimney with the pinion smoke as the night recedes and soft dreamless sleep on the rug comes creeping in as that fire dies, though the embers remain

Life is ice and fire. You can't control what you will feel, who you can save or how they will impact your life. What you can do is take what remains that brings you joy and move forward.
It is not the glamorous drama one sees on TV, done for the excitement, the money or the time off to go to the opera. You do this work because you want to, for no other reason. This was a mission that was not assigned, simply a garment of duty one felt compelled to pick off of a bare floor one cold morning.

That fire burns bright in you, as it does me, exposing what is strong and good. What is still useful. You can not save every heart, but you can save your own. A heart diligent in its task, even if wounded in battle. Diligent perhaps because we've learned through our work that life is prescious. We will all die, but we will not all truly live. In doing this, with the small tools we have, with the mind God has given us, we do our part to see that perhaps just one person inherits more than the wind and the dark. In that, no matter hard the duty, I live fuller, breathe deeper, and sleep with peace.

The scent of woodsmoke remains in my hair, waiting to be breathed in deep, thankful to be alive so that I may speak for the dead and treasure that which remains. Life is a risk, never a posession, love and live accordingly.

Carpe Diem.

- Brigid


  1. Have you ever watched the show NCIS? My family is avid fans of it and I was wondering what you thought of it from a professional's point of view. I'm sure it's cheesy, so you won't burst any bubbles, just curious.

  2. After reading that I might need to sit by the fire to cool off.


    PS - A favourite (and topical) XKCD cartoon.

  3. I remember Agent Sparkly Top. A true pro. She's my favorite.

  4. BK - it's a guilty pleasure but I like the original and have watched a couple dozen episodes in hotel rooms. Again, I suspend disbelief as much of the science is tech speak that isn't really accurate. But I like the character of Abby, who reminds me of myself in my youth in terms of enthusasiam (and the big bucket of brain freeze drinks which are still the very rare (and small sized) pleasure)

  5. This post reminds me of a comic one of my students sent me not too long ago:

  6. Anyone who has professional experience in something TV dramatizes tends to cringe when they watch that particular drama.

    For me, its computers, and airplanes since I know my computers and what you generally can and can't do (though Stuxnet did make me sit back and take note) in general and airplanes since I've been around them most of my life. And what Hollywood does to them as a normal operating proceedure makes my brain hurt.

    But hey, at least you know that any airplane you slap a big red star on is a MiG and any airplane you slap a big red Japanese rising sun meatball on is a Zero :D

    Even if the actual aircraft is an F-5 or a AT-6 ;)

  7. There is only one "crime" show on TV I watch, and I placed it in quotes on purpose.


    Because anything with Nathan Fillion in it is simply that good .
    And yes, it's entirely about the characters, the murders are completely incidental.

  8. Mrs. Drang enjoys "Bones." I suspect it's because of the reformed vampire...
    (Doesn't every FBI Special Agent have a pet forensic anthropologist?)
    I do like the way that the geeks in the show occasionally do display obvious signs of Aspergers, like discussing the threat of fecal coliform bacteria to your toothbrush--at lunch.

  9. Funny, everyone who watched NCIS says I am Abby's brow-haired clone. Without the tats, of course.

  10. Oh, and do you mind if I copy your image in the sidebar that say "We have nothing to fear but fear itself... And spiders"? I would love to put that on my blog.

  11. I never got too much into CSI, I like NCIS for the character play and the long prep over earlier episodes for stuff. But then I laughed loudly when television had a California based Airborne unit, with females in the Headquarters Company, (while I was on one of my tours with the 82nd in North Carolina) since the writers really had little idea of what we did.

    I have noticed that one of the reasons we have no more money in government is that Kojak's office and Gibb's work areas are so different, and how does CSI ever do anything in the dark, I have to have bright lights.

  12. Just checking in to say hi, and make certain things progress well.

    As usual, an excellent essay, swinging from fun to seriously touching. I remembered most of it almost verbatim.

    Hang in there and get your clock completely rewound, then come back and wow us with even more good stuff.
    Ed Foster

  13. I hit the wrong button on a couple of comments. One I remember, highdiver, yes, the new readers got a kick out of it. The other was just three initials, my apologies and thanks for reading all this time.


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly, kid safe, and open to discussion, not criticism. If you comment as unknown and have nothing nice to say you go straight to SPAM.