an excerpt from the novel POOKOO
The bodies were scattered across the Loyola Park athletic field house grounds. Some of the victims were on stretchers or backboards. Thick smoke swirled in front of the field house and out over the two softball fields toward the playground, the beach and Lake Michigan. Medics set broken arms and legs, dressed wounds, made tourniquets, started IVs, or CPR. There were serious burns and bad glass cuts and a lot of blood.
I crossed the street and wove through the crowd at the southeast corner of Sheridan Road and Greenleaf Avenue where a Chicago police squad car blocked traffic; the onlooker next to me watched it all from a hand-held TV (a news camera was perched near the trees). The fire in the brick and glass block structure was contained. Type A foam diluted with water 10-parts-to-1 made the ground soggy next to the building where there were no flowers. There'd been a boiler explosion in the field house.
I popped open my Zippo lighter and lit a cigarette (I wasn't trying very hard to quit). A man rolled a wheelbarrow-styled stretcher past me. I saw a man with a clip-on bow tie speak into a walkie-talkie.
“Can I help?” I asked, walking up to him. I sort of remembered CPR from high school and thought I might be of use.
“You're late,” Bow Tie Man said, checking the clipboard. He handed me a box of 4 x 4 sterile bandages from a supply table. “Take this to Mrs. Herren now. And put that cigarette out!”
I put it out.
Bow Tie Man spoke into the walkie-talkie again.
I didn't know any Mrs. Herren.
“What are you waiting for? Move it!”
I wandered over to the West Entrance. An ambulance backed up over the curb and onto the grass; the crowd parted. The medics immobilized a teenage boy who had a spinal cord injury. There were other victims, from the stone flower garden on the corner to the Southwest Entrance and at the pitcher's mound of the softball diamond just north of the field house. The chain-link backstop served as a makeshift IV stand. A father, with large splinters of glass in his neck and arms, wrestled with a medic as he cried out to an unconscious little girl in a yellow sun dress and patent leather shoes.
“I need plasma, stat!” a woman shouted. “There's hemorrhaging of the abdomen, a ruptured spleen, and multiple lacerations and abrasions. Where's my plasma?”
A woman was in labor under a tree and her dress was soaked with blood about the waist and her swollen belly. Three medics attended to her: one on both knees in front of her, one kneeling on one leg near her head, and the other took vital signs. Her screams were violent. Help, help me. I can't take it anymore. Stop it, stop. Please stop it. Push, they told her. She made a deep cleansing breath and pushed again and the medics kept coaching her and she made the final push.
A basketball rolled out from under her dress.
The woman sat up, cackled, and fell back on the grass.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Naismith!” one medic said. “It's a 7-pound bouncing boy!”
The medic at her feet picked up the basketball, bounced it on the grass and spun it on his index finger. He passed it to the woman.
“You gonna name the baby Spalding?”
“No, no — make it Michael.”
Mrs. Naismith didn't say what she was going to name her “baby.” She wrapped the basketball in a towel and cradled it.
“Focus, people, focus,” one instructor said. “That's what this drill is all about. Disaster strikes. Prepare, focus and adapt.”
“Focus pocus,” a medic muttered, stealing the ball away from the woman.
“Can you at least let the others learn?” the instructor snapped.
“Whatever,” the medic said, bouncing the ball.
An air horn sounded three times and Bow Tie Man used a bullhorn to address the people. Victims rose up, as if Bow Tie Man's voice was that of a revival tent healer. Scorekeepers delivered the medics' results to the fold-out table. Equipment and supplies were returned.
“Can we leave?” asked a victim. I thought I'd seen her when I filed for Unemployment. “I got a place to be at 4.”
“When do we get paid?” asked a man with a “broken arm.”
I returned the box of bandages to the fold-out table. A man with a half-severed hand drank coffee and he talked to a medic who was tying her shoe. Past them went a man who'd had a broken collarbone; he was carrying a heavy box on his bad shoulder. A burn victim, with flesh raw as steak, listened to the Cubs game on a radio while sunbathing. Three kids in bandages played Double Dutch with IV tubes.
“It's over,” the father said, peeling the fake glass off his arms and neck. The girl lay on the ground.
“Get up, honey.”
“But Daddy, I want to play dead some more.”
“No, it's time to leave,” the father said. The girl laid back and had to be pulled up.
A TV reporter used the park as a backdrop for the mid-afternoon live weather report. The alderman was on the sidewalk passing out campaign buttons and bumper stickers. I heard the distant bell ringing of an ice cream vendor's handcart.
The crowd thinned out. A Park District worker rode in the back of a slow-moving truck and stacked orange cones one on top of another. The yellow POLICE LINE: DO NOT CROSS tape was taken down and the flares were removed. I was mad at having been fooled by the mock-disaster drill and its unyielding sense of doom at the doorstep. I was mad at myself for believing in it (an old trait of mine). I just didn't like to see anyone in pain.
The traffic light was red. Then it turned green. I walked.