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It’s a Great Season--Except for the Walking Wounded

<i> Saul Halpert is a reporter and political editor for KNBC News in Los Angeles</i>

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and for us in the news media it’s the time to write and broadcast stories calling attention to the national plague, drunk driving. A difficult dichotomy, in a way.

I have such a story to tell, yet I am reluctant to tell it for fear of being a spoilsport, dredging up unpleasant images when everyone is trying to relax and have some holiday fun. But it would be abdicating responsibility not to tell it, for there is no way of predicting when or where the plague will strike next, or whom. We know only that it will.

My 26-year-old son was one of its victims. Bright, talented, vibrant, he was maturing into the full potential of young manhood when a drunk driver found him and ended his life. Speeding down Sepulveda Boulevard on the wrong side of the center line one night, this presumably mature adult crashed into my son’s car head on, smashing him into a sack of broken bones and killing him instantly.

“He never suffered, it was so fast,” the police tried to reassure me. They mean well, but how do they know?

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Somehow my wife and I survived that first stunning blow, the sheer nightmare, the hysterical chaos of those first days. In time some of our closest friends, even members of the family, encouraged us to “get over it.”

Well, you don’t “get over it.” You live through it, but you never get over it.

Time does heal, but even that is troublesome, and makes you feel guilty. I can’t believe that the “accident” (it was no accident--some courts in California have called this offense an act of murder) occurred nearly five years ago. It is some source of grief to me, when I dwell on it, that we do laugh again, that we work hard, we play, we live. And my son does not.

My son gets killed all over again, almost every day, days without end. He dies whenever I hear the siren of an emergency vehicle wailing in the night as I lie awake or as it passes my window at work. The sound floods my mind like a blinding light, illuminating that sickening scene on the roadway--the rescue ambulance arriving at the wreckage strewn over the street; my son beyond the reach of the paramedics; the police, competent, stern-faced, doing their grim duty. All this must be happening to somebody else, those faceless people about whom we in the media write and broadcast. But not my son!

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I dwell on the unknown young man who, like my son, was going home from classes at UCLA that night when he came upon the wreck. One of the first to reach the scene, he was later found by other passers-by, standing beside the crumpled vehicle, my dead son still pinned inside, holding my son’s hand.

This young man, a total stranger--an exchange student from Norway, I later found out--subsequently told others that he thought that my son ought not to be left alone, untended, uncared for, in those dreadful moments when he was already beyond life.

So this young man stayed with him, and waited until paramedics arrived and relieved him of his volunteer vigil. Later, although I tried every way I knew how, I was never able to either locate or identify this good Samaritan of death’s roadway. Perhaps he valued his own privacy, or wanted no thanks for what he had done.

My son dies all over again every time that I read or hear about another drunk-driving accident. And there is no lack of them. They leap out and grab me by the throat. It’s impossible to avoid them--they occur with sickening frequency every day.

So by all means be jolly in this season of joy. But first of all attend to the security of your own life. And then attend also, if you will, to those who died and to their survivors, for they are victims, too.

They are the walking wounded among you. And despite our best efforts--the new laws and the tough enforcement and Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the media campaigns--the numbers of the dead and the walking wounded are legion, and their numbers continue to grow.


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