I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer, and my son assures me on the verge of canonization. Oh, it’s not what I do, or that I’m God’s gift to that (I’m not. I’m a very minor and inept cog. I find the fact that I’m responsible for taking decisions (fast and effectively) that if I have screwed up, I could kill or maim the person I’m trying to save incredibly hard to handle.). No: It’s all the miraculous cures when the death’s-door patient sees who will be driving: “I’m feeling much better! I think I’ll take a little walk.”
Heh. I’ll probably have a terrible accident tomorrow, but oddly, besides reversing my ute into a stump hidden in the tall grass, I haven’t hit anything yet. I used to ride a motorbike with only a front brake. It made me quite observant. And when I’m actually conveying patients I give that task my full concentration, and try not to help them too much to suddenly find religion.
Ahem. I seem to have lost my thread again. Anyway, what I was going to write about was something that came out two of us Ambos talking about very stuff of sf and some fantasy: real disaster. Now, let’s be honest many a writer has never experienced much in the way of disasters. Trust me, this is a good thing, even if it does sometimes make their books irritate the hell out of me. I’ve never been through a major disaster (and I’d like to keep it that way. About 60 injured in bunch was my worst. That was pretty terrible. I can only admire the guys who deal with hundreds or thousands) but I’ve been through a lot more than my fair share of lesser ones – on both sides of the equation (the victim and the rescuer) and a couple of times both. I hasten to assure you that I’m not a jinx (much).
The awkward thing is how badly you remember a lot of it. Seriously, the adrenalin kicks in, and you just do stuff. Well, about 10% of people just do stuff, some of it incredible, some incredibly stupid. The other 90% do freeze and/or panic. Okay maybe I exaggerate a trifle. I’m not much good at most things, but fortunately that also includes panic. I’ve done the wrong thing a few times, but without the panic. I’ll probably master it at precisely the wrong time. That still doesn’t mean I am that good at reconstructing disaster and what happens – besides that people panic. It does mean that when I read SHTF disasters, I often find them throwing me out of the book, without precisely knowing why.
Now, it is perfectly possible that it throws me out simply because of my background. That other people, with the same lack of experience as the writer, think that in a crisis most people do something (besides freeze, panic, or run around like chickens just after having their heads cut off). There is a reason why the military and emergency services practice, practice, practice, practice – because seriously, it’s a lousy time to try and think. Some people do, but most can’t. They (or at least some people) can however go through a pre-thought, pre-practiced routine – whether that’s taking cover and returning fire, or applying pressure to a major bleed, or sounding a fire-alarm. Yeah, I know: all that planning usually goes to shit, because it never happens according to plan. But, speaking personally, that few seconds of practiced, drilled-into-you behavior calms me and helps me to think. Sometimes it’ll be wrong reaction, but generally it saves lives.
So I thought it might be worth trying a bit of this ‘crowd-sourcing’ stuff. Maybe if pool experiences and memories, we’ll get the whole picture. Adrenalin does strange things to me, I don’t even know if they’re normal. Yes, heart rate goes up, mouth dries. Those are common. I also lose all emotion (and normally I’m a big softy. Bawl my eyes out at a funeral) – but I can (and have) dealt with the horrible and tragic with a complete clinical detachment. I know hysterical strength is well reported. It’s very real – I’ve carried twice my body-weight, lifted things I can’t normally move. Pain is another odd one. Unexpected injury can be mind-numbingly sore, robbing you of the capacity for action – expected (or at least possible and known to be) when you’re full of adrenalin – hurts like hell… later.
Under that sort of stress – especially searching or waiting, the jokes are tasteless, crude, and absolutely necessary. Oh and really funny.
What you don’t do (or not me, anyway) is agonize about decisions, or experience a second’s worth of angst. (one of my co-authors –Misty — has people angsting mid crisis. Maybe she does. It’s so unlike me, it drives me spare)
Later is always hard. The hardest part is remembering it all. I find I get scenes, like snapshots, rather than a whole movie. I replay it a lot. I can’t sleep – even a call-out will have me awake for 4-5 hours. Maybe that’s just me. Sex, if it happens is pretty desperate, urgent, and usually entirely without pre-amble.
So: anything you guys can remember?
The other thing I am very aware of is just how in disaster, people actually show a face that you don’t see in day-to-day life. Some of it… seems a great reason to preserve the human race. And some of it shows what useless assholes some people are (the guy who ran up his wife’s back to get into a tree when they were being chased by a Rhino comes to mind. Photographs of the boot-print on her back were used in the divorce case.)
Other people show sacrifice and kindness and courage so far past any expectation as to leave you wondering if anyone knew that quiet guy who drowned, going back into the water for the fourth flood victim, was really something of a demi-god in disguise. (That’s my only ghost story. I was underwater, bleeding like a stuck pig with several 8 inch cuts down my back from being swept over a rock. I was exsanguinating and drowning. I had already passed trying, and was to all intents and purposes in final stage of drowning, and going to die. Then I saw my brother (who was a 1000 miles away at the time) – with muttonchop sideburns (which he never had). He lifted me and shoved me into the wave that washed me up at my father’s feet, who hauled me up the rocks and emptied water out of me. I kept trying to tell him to get help for my brother. There was no-one else in the water. Years later I had the eerie experience of being shown an old picture of the man who had saved me: my Great Uncle. He’d been dead for seventy years or more, drowned after rescuing three Mosotho women in a flooded river. I’ve never been able to explain that one.)
It’s the one place where I have trouble with the basic building block of good character writing – people do not do what you expect, so it is hard to foreshadow. Look, I cheat. I do foreshadow it, even if by putting it in in lesser incidents – so it is not so implausible when it happens. But yes, disaster: when the veneer of human society is stripped off, and you see the raw steel, or the raw crap underneath. And size and strength… don’t seem determinants.
It does make me wonder what will happen if – or rather — when, we have the big disaster. When the power grid goes down, or Yellowstone blows, or that asteroid hits. Odds are those who do have the right background – the military, the outdoor survivalist, the paramedic will have a better chance. But of course every time is different, and just because you kept your head before, doesn’t mean it will be true this time (more likely, but not sure). I always have this lurking fear that I’ll flip out, run away, myself, if it was big and bad enough, or just do the wrong thing. It’s something you just can’t write off. And then there are opposite extreme: the people who will panic, the people who will turn feral to save themselves. The people with no experience and no skills. Most will die. But I believe some will surprise us… and that would be a story to write.