Postcard from Mackinac: Death visits the Island

by Bud Polk


Monday, September 2, 1996

Monday was to be our last full day on the Island. Plants and birds of the northern forest dominate the Island -- located in the Straits of Huron between Lakes Michigan and Huron and between Upper and Lower Michigan.

I wanted to see more of this flora and fauna so different than that of the Indiana Dunes at the bottom of Lake Michigan. I loaded a botany text, water bottle, jacket, binoculars, maps into a day pack. I hoped to see a common raven and a black-backed woodpecker -- two species indigenous to the Island that I had never seen.


The path was lined with sky-blue aster

I left Grand Hotel and followed the road up and around a steep hill to the heights of the Island. The South Bicycle Path looped several miles through natural areas within the state park -- fragrant stands of cedar, spruce, white pine. The path was lined with sky-blue aster -- one of North America's most beautiful wildflowers.

I found a woodpecker tree -- hammered with holes from which ran sap. Insects would be attracted to the sap and make a meal for the woodpeckers. I waited, but no woodpeckers came. The woods and the Island were quiet as only a place without automobiles can be. All transportation was by horse, carriage, bicycle or foot.

A few bikes whizzed by me, but the woods were silent -- except for the calls of birds and sounds of insects. I walked slowly, and I looked and listened. Something is always discovered in the woods, if only for the moment, oneself.


Death rattle

A man came around a bend in the path twenty-five yards ahead of me, flew off his bicycle, slammed into a tree and landed heavily on the ground. "Oh, my God," a woman screamed, "somebody help me."

I sprinted toward the pair and a man rushed from the other direction. He and I first checked for a head injury, but the man on the ground was turning blue. He had a massive heart attack.

We rolled him over on his back and tried to sit him up to ease his breathing and the strain on his heart. "Larry, honey don't leave me," the woman said. Larry was barrel-chested, a big man, obese.

A sound came from deep within Larry that I pray God I will never hear again in my life. Larry exhaled two deep rolling, sputtering, rasping breaths -- and never breathed again. Before then I had never understood the expression "death rattle."



The other man and I checked for a neck or wrist pulse -- none. We yelled at a small crowd of gawkers to go get the EMTs. The man and I started CPR on Larry. He did the compressions and I did the breaths.

Larry's face and lips were blue and his unseeing eyes were fixed and wide open, the pupils dilated. We could not reestablish a pulse. I knew he was dead. I knelt on gravel, tearing my knees, straining my back. Between the breaths, I patted and reassured the woman.

My CPR partner's wife repeatedly asked gawkers to move along and keep the path clear for the emergency vehicle.


Gagging and retching

The compressions or overbreathing during CPR usually force out some of the victim's stomach contents. After about ten minutes of CPR, I tasted Larry's and began to retch and gag. My CPR partner turned Larry's head, cleaned and rinsed his mouth with water. I then continued the breaths. But each compression forced more into Larry's mouth. I cleansed to make sure his airway was not blocked and continued the breaths -- gagging and retching in between.

The ambulance -- one of a few engine-powered vehicles on the Island -- arrived about 30 minutes after Larry fell from his bike. We continued the compressions and breathing as the EMTs unloaded their gear. They did not defibrillate Larry because it was evident he was dead.

After they loaded up and left, my CPR partner and I introduced ourselves. "His eyes were fixed and pupils dilated from the time we started CPR," I said.

"I know, we did everything that we could do." he said.

We knew that what we had done was for the living -- for the woman with Larry -- not for the dead. I could not tell you my partner's name, nor do I recollect his face. But I will remember every detail of Larry's face as long as I live.


Ill, hot and dizzy

I became ill, hot and dizzy. I am like this in an emergency -- calm and focused and then in shock. A massive panic attack started -- I could not breathe.

A worker from the state park walked me part way down the hill to the home of the park superintendent. I soaked myself with water and rinsed and spit, spit and rinsed. They gave me orange juice and candy to get my blood sugar back up. I was still too weak and shaken to walk back to Grand Hotel so the superintendent paid for a taxi -- a horse drawn carriage -- to take me back.

I staggered up to our room and told Linda what had happened. Our last formal dinner with the Polk clan on the Island was to be in thirty minutes. She gave me a tranquilizer and had me -- the family non-drinker -- drink two beers she went and got from my brother's room.


An immaculate white shirt

A bit later I sat at a long table with fifteen family members, dressed in my suit and an immaculate white shirt, chatting and joking while we dined on an ornate five-course meal.

I wanted to tell my family that The People -- the Ojibway -- called this place Michilimackinac (a French corruption of the native word) meaning "Turtle Island." The People knew that each depended upon all for his survival and that the Village, Clan, Band and Tribe depended on each person for survival.

Other Native American Tribes call our Mother, the Earth, Turtle Island. The Tribes know the relatedness of all life.

I wanted to speak aloud there were no gawkers on Turtle Island in the time before the Euro-Americans. I wanted to speak these things. But, when -- during the Lobster Bisque?



That night in bed, Linda's hands soothed me as they would a frightened child. Her mouth covered mine with kisses. But all I could taste was the dead man's mouth against my own.


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