Living Up to High Ideals Isn’t Easy
Trying to live up to the ideal modeled by my father has never been easy. In, fact it’s hard.
Trying to live up to the ideal modeled by my father has never been easy. So many times, I would have preferred to put on blinders and ignore what was going on around me. Most of those times, I can’t. The way I was raised, and maybe my Catholic upbringing, prevent me from standing by and doing nothing when someone is in trouble. In June of 2001, after a pizza dinner with my sister and her husband near their apartment in Connecticut, my mother and I were driving home to Piermont on the Cross Westchester Expressway. It was still light out — early evening — when a car cut across three lanes of traffic directly in front of us. Its tires squealed and sparks flew. The car spun around on the grassy divider and hit a concrete sign post broadside. The passenger in the back seat was ejected from the car and flew twenty yards through the air before he landed on the ground.
I’ve never seen a human body hurtle through the air in such violent fashion. I watched in silent horror before yelling, “Stop! Stop! Pull over!”
My mother’s instincts were the same as mine and she immediately pulled over while I called 911. As I desperately tried to relay our exact location, my mom and I ran to the man who had been ejected and was lying on the grass. He was bloody, swollen and barely conscious -moaning and trying to move. He was also barefoot — he had been ejected with such force through the back windshield that he must have lost his shoes.
We kneeled next to him, prayed Hail Marys, and tried to offer some comfort until the ambulance arrived. My mother covered him with a blanket she found in the trunk of our car. My heart pounded as I rested my hands on the man’s forearm and tried to let him know he was not alone.
The 911 operator told me to check on other people involved in the accident so I left my mom with the man on the ground and raced to where the car had stopped. My heart felt like it could pound straight out of my body. Around a dozen others stood near a woman who was lying unconscious just outside the front of the car — yards away from where the man had landed. She had long dark hair and was wearing a pink T-shirt with a heart on it and appeared to be a little older than me. The 911 operator asked if anyone had checked her pulse. Someone had and her heart wasn’t beating. He said I needed to start CPR. The people around me said they had tried and it didn’t work, she was dead. I relayed this to 911. He told me I needed to start CPR again. He had asked my name and said, “Claudette, you need to start CPR, now.”
I felt foolish, inexperienced and just plain young. He said he would talk me through it. Even though my father had trained my sisters and me when we were kids, I lacked confidence. At twenty-five, in that moment, I still had the mindset of a kid — there were other, older legitimate grown-ups around me who said they already tried and it didn’t work. To this day, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t try because for starters, I was embarrassed.
I heard sirens — the ambulance seemed to be very close and the 911 operator must have heard the sirens too because he didn’t push me. It seemed as if hours passed before rescue workers finally arrived and began working on the two victims. The driver was unscathed. Months later, my mother and I learned both passengers died.
Once the police arrived, my mother and I told them what we saw. A reporter was also on the scene and I shared my story. My mom and I returned to our car — we were both shaken and upset. Looking back, I don’t know how she could even drive us home. I’d never seen anything close to the accident scene we had just witnessed. The image of the man’s body in the air is forever burned in my brain and I will never forget the feeling of the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
By the time my mom and I got to Piermont, I was distraught and crying. I felt helpless when we were at the accident and the only tool I had in my arsenal was prayer, since my lack of confidence prevented me from trying to help in any life-saving way. I wished I’d known what to do while the man was on the ground. I wished I’d tried to do more for the woman. All I wanted was to talk to my dad and tell him what had happened but I was too embarrassed, again, to call the firehouse through my tears — in case someone other than my father answered. My mom made the call.
On the phone, I shared with my dad how I’d felt so frantic — how I’d run to the man on the ground and didn’t know what to do once I got there. I felt as if my head was going to pop off. I could feel his composure through the phone. “You have to stay cool. When something like that happens, the most important thing is for you to be calm.” I told him I didn’t try CPR on the woman. If he was disappointed in me, he didn’t show it. He reassured me we did all the right things. We tried to help. We stopped the car immediately. I called 911. My mom thought of the blanket. He validated that I did the things I knew how to do. (The very next day, I also signed up for a CPR and First Aid class at the Red Cross. I wanted to be prepared if I ever found myself in a similar situation again.)
I have high expectations of myself — I’m Freddie’s daughter after all. I aspire to be like him and make him proud. My dad was easier on me. He understood the difference between what a professional can do and what a lay person can do. To me, he was always a civilian and I don’t think I ever fully grasped the depth of his life-saving training. How maybe it didn’t come naturally to him to remain calm in dire situations — it probably took time, training and a lot of experience. How learning CPR and First Aid were skills he cultivated over years, not over a few sessions on the floor of our living room. My mother shared with me that my dad completed more training than most firemen because he wanted an additional certification. As part of the specialized training, he spent many nights volunteering in the emergency room at Harlem Hospital in the early 1980s. She said he loved it.
I was, and still am, disappointed in myself for not trying CPR on the woman. I don’t want to let myself off easy. I feel like I could have done more and I didn’t. And I’m ashamed. As I’ve gotten older, I try to make sure I can do other things to help when I can. I never shy away from calling 911 if I see someone on the street who looks like they need help. I helped a new mom with her baby on a hot summer day when she fainted on my corner in Yorkville. We’ve since become friendly, and I like knowing I was able to help her, a stranger in need. And one of the many wonderful things about New York City, where I live, is the police, fire department and EMS, respond within a couple of minutes. I think it’s better to be safe than sorry and I prefer to let the experts decide what the situation requires.
Growing up, my father’s bravery and obligations were ever-present and not something he turned off because he was off-duty. I was seventeen before it clicked for me when writing a college application essay. The essay called for me to write two to three pages about someone I admired and I decided to write about my father. When I was a teenager, my father and I didn’t always get along but mostly it was because of my poor teenage attitude. I wrote the pages about my father’s bravery — what I saw at Great Adventure but also in everyday life — and how he was always willing to help someone. I asked him to read it before I sent it. I was a little surprised by his reaction — he put it on the bed and was about to walk about of the room before I asked what he thought. He said, “It’s good,” and nothing more. I hope his silence was because he was honored by my words and not because he didn’t like what I wrote. I hope he was touched and the essay communicated feelings I’d had for 17 years but hadn’t articulated. I hope he was proud of himself.
Thirteen years after the car accident, I received a phone call from a woman who said she knew the victim and his brother was with her. The victim had been visiting from Peru in 2001 and had a four-year old daughter. With the woman translating into Spanish, I relayed the story to the victim’s brother and dropped a pin and texted it to them so they could visit the accident site. While I wasn’t able to meet this man in person as he had requested, I hope that by learning my part of the story, he found some comfort. Years earlier, when the reporter asked if I would talk to him after the accident, I had a brief flash of my father’s hesitation with the media in the aftermath of the murder. I did talk to the reporter after the accident and as a result, the victim’s family was able to find me.
At times, my dad’s moral compass could be plain annoying. While stuck in traffic once with someone trying to sneak in from the shoulder, my father refused to let this car in and became agitated over this cheater. I said, “Does it really matter? Who cares if one person tries to get in?” My father exploded, “Of course it matters! It’s appeasement! If someone had stood up to Hitler when the Nazis marched into the Rhineland, maybe we could have avoided World War II.”
That was a stretch for me. I had trouble drawing the line between one person sneaking into traffic and an entire world war. Then again, I was a teenager when he made the analogy. Now, I see what he was saying. We can’t stand by and appease those who do the wrong thing — we look the other way, we pretend we don’t notice, we rationalize bad behavior. One act of appeasement leads to another and small acts can lead to big consequences.
We are all called to look after one another but also we are all called to stand up for the greater good. My father had used all his skills to try to save a stranger’s life at Great Adventure and from watching that, I learned that if I had something to offer to a person in distress, it’s my obligation as a human being to do it. It’s also my obligation to look out for my community in general. To be aware and vigilant. To notice what’s going on around me.
As Freddie’s daughter, I won’t turn a blind eye to things when they don’t seem right — I will step in or I will call for help. As Freddie’s daughter, I will do what I can to stop people from being taken advantage of. As Freddie’s daughter, I won’t tolerate cheaters and liars. As Freddie’s daughter, I will remember my moral compass. As Freddie’s daughter, I will stand firm when faced with a choice between right and wrong. As Freddie’s daughter, I will vote for goodness and morality.