The search was particularly tragic. A boy, maybe ten years old, had run down the trail ahead of his family as they descended from a mountain picnic. His tracks ended near a bend in what should have been a stream, but that day -- of all days -- it was a furious creek, powerful with fresh snow melt between its confined banks. We knew he was gone, as did all the other Search And Rescue teams. Still, we had to try. It was the only comfort we could offer his stricken family.
I was seventeen, living in a boarding school. We were required to do some sort of community service; I joined SAR. Our dormitory doors had red crosses taped to them signifying where to knock when a call came at three or four a.m. to mobilize. I kept a gear bag ready by the door; I think we all did. Within fifteen minutes we'd be shuffling, yawning, around a basement classroom lit by humming flourescent lights, waiting for assignments. In teams we'd dole out gear -- tents, stoves, food, first aid kits, rope, maps, walkie-talkies -- then slump down on our packs and each other, waiting for details. Sometimes we just loaded into vans and rode through the dawn to the search site.
NMSAR was a tight-knit, well-organized program. I'm sure it has changed significantly with the advent of GPS and cell phones. Twenty years ago, though, teams arrived at a command center, received instructions, and set out to search. New Mexico is high desert, stark and grand and empty, and when hunters or hikers or cheerful little boys went missing it took hundreds of people to cover the grid, seeking traces. We called out as we hiked, always hoping for a cry back. We marched six feet apart in straight lines, eyes to the ground for tracks or torn clothing, or, worst, a body. Teams from our school never found anyone. We'd gripe about how we youngsters always were sent to the least likely area, but felt a current of disappointed relief upon hearing the announcement that the search had been called.
They found the boy's body a few weeks and twenty miles later, caught in reeds at a slow part of the river.
I don't remember how often we were called out. Every few weeks, maybe. Between times we practiced. We climbed peaks wheeling specialized mountain stretchers up the trail. We learned our knots so we could belay down cliffs to damaged people in deep ravines. We hiked at two a.m. on trails barely lit by headlamps. We crossed deserts in the high sun, moving steadily at four miles an hour with fifty pounds of gear on our backs. We held practice searches and rescued terribly "injured" schoolmates from hidden locations. And we learned how to fix them. Wilderness first aid is special -- injuries are often drastic and resources scarce. Compound fractures with bones protruding. Impalements which puncture lungs. Burns and hypothermia and deyhydration. Our instructors covered everything. Small cuts and scrapes became inconsequential when we learned how to treat someone who had been hit by lightning then carry that person fifteen miles in the dark down a steep trail through rain and snow to a place of relative safety for evacuation.
I was only involved in an actual rescue once. Ironically, it was our wilderness instructor. He fell while crossing a fence during a winter practice search. I happened to be team lead that day, so I ran first aid while coordinating the evacuation back to school (all of three or four miles). We already had a sled. I bound and braced his twisted knee (eventually they found a torn ACL) and treated him for shock. We packed him in sleeping bags and skied him down to medical care, then returned to complete our expedition. Later he told me I'd done well. That praise still is a medallion I carry near my heart.
I loved Search And Rescue. The surety of purpose. The knowledge that I was strong and capable. The sense that I could help. So often during crises people feel helpless. We stare at the news wondering how we can make things better, to fix what's wrong. I felt that way watching the stories from Boston this week. I've been meditating on that question: what can I do to help? I try to spread love and understand and tolerance. But those are such ephemeral things, unmeasurable in their effect. I give blood, although honestly not as often as I probably could. That effort can be measured, pint by pint. What else, though? What could I do in the case of a disaster?
Then, I remembered. I have training. Not the wilderness first aid from those years ago. Yes, that's important and the lessons run deep. What I mean, though, is that today I am fully certified by the American Red Cross in First Aid, CPR, and the use of an AED. It sounds silly, I suppose. I got certified in part for my everyday life when I see children in the nurse's office at school. Applying a bandaid to a pinched finger is tiny (except, of course, to the wounded child) compared to applying a tourniquet to a severed leg. Still, if some horrific something happened, I have enough knowledge, enough practice, enough confidence, that I like to think I would be one of those running toward, not away. I could be one of Mr. Rogers' famouse helpers.
You could too.