Let Me Give You a Hand

The following memoir not only reflects examples of bad judgment and irresponsibility, but also disrespect for humanity. Over the past fifty years I have told this story many times, usually after more than a few glasses of wine. And more often than not, people found it amusing. I no longer see it so. Time has changed my perspective of the events from callous ignorance to indifference, and finally shame. Nevertheless, this did happen.

 

It was the kind of thing you did at that age whenever the opportunity arose. It was 1966. I was a twenty-two-year-old undergraduate at a small northeastern university which had, for the first time, initiated a January Study Program — a full month without formal classes. Students were encouraged to pick a subject that interested them, and dive in, really bear down for those four cold weeks. There were very few restrictions. You were not even required to stay on campus. It was a true opportunity to prove what education was all about. The actual motivation for the program — saving the school thousands of dollars on the January heating bill — was obvious to even a hardcore C student such as myself.

         I had never before been confronted with educational freedom much beyond choosing the subject for an essay on some dead Romantic poet. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I felt threatened. While more studious friends had plans to visit industrial sites or laboratories at larger institutions, I sat in my room unable to think of a single subject to which I could imagine devoting four weeks of study. Stripped of the support structure of a five-day class schedule, I saw only the cold grey landscape of a small upstate New York town.

         I was, in one way, more fortunate than most of my fraternity brothers. I had my own car on campus. It didn’t take me long to link the car to a possible solution to my self-imposed academic roadblock. In my head The Animals’ 1965 hit kept echoing over and over: “We gotta get out of this place”!

         Danny Helmers was a year ahead of me, but we had played enough all-night poker games together to form a casual friendship. It helped that neither of us was a particularly good poker player, and Danny, like me, was unfamiliar with the Dean’s List. Nor was he a great athlete, or big drinker, just a regular sort of guy. Except for one thing: Danny kept his room meticulously clean. Books in order, clothes hung up, and his bed made up every day. A one-of-a-kind in our fraternity house, maybe the whole school.

         Danny was sitting alone reading in the dining room when I came down from my room late that first day in the January program. He was an English major and planned to read several Dickens novels, including Bleak House, as part of his study project.

         “I’m out of here,” I said even though the details of my scheme were scarce.

         Looking up from whatever he was reading, and adopting his best professorial tone, he asked, “So where, dear sir, might you be going?”

         What had been a Ouija board of random thoughts upstairs had somehow morphed into a well-reasoned plan by the time I reached the dining room. “Florida!”

         “Intriguing. Would you consider a co-driver?” Danny said. Then, pointing at a few books, “These travel well.” Apparently, his need for order did not extend much beyond his closet.

         How well did I know this guy? Did I want to risk a week with him? More important, did I trust him to drive my car? But once again: “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do”. 

         Danny and I left the next morning. The idea was to drive straight through, spend a few days, or a week, warming up. Then turn around and do the northbound leg in time to finish our “deep study” project. My father kept a boat docked at a Singer Island marina just north of the Palm Beach inlet. There would be enough room on the boat for the two of us to sleep.

         After twenty-four-hours, aided by a few Dexedrine pills, sunrise greeted us as we drove down old Route US 1. Palm trees and single story ten-room motels lined the road on the outer boundary of each hamlet.

         Danny and I took a day to reset, then began thinking about possibilities for female companionship. A friend of mine was going through medical school in Miami. (As the actions that followed were not moral, or perhaps even legal, I’ll just call him Andy.) And despite however hard he might be studying, I thought I could count on him for some social guidance.

         Next evening, expectations off the charts, Danny and I headed south down Old Military Trail to Miami. Our plan was to meet Andy at a bar on LeJuene Road near the airport, and in close proximity to the Eastern Airlines Stewardess School.

         We had no trouble finding the place, but both the interior decorations and clientele were not what we expected.  A pool table, a few ceiling fans, and a lot of smoke. January is the bullseye of Florida’s tourist season, but the few patrons there that night were, without a doubt, not tourists. Airport maintenance workers, mechanics, and maybe a retired Everglades park ranger, and certainly no one looking remotely like a stewardess-in-training.

         Andy walked in a few minutes after we arrived, and seemed unaware that the patrons bore no resemblance to what he had predicted. Nevertheless, we drank a few beers and shot a game of pool thinking maybe we were too early. An hour later nothing had changed.

         To catch up on the past few months, I asked Andy how med school was going, and got an enthusiastic answer about a huge study load, examinations, lectures, and so on. His current project was by far the most interesting: he and a partner were in the process of dissecting a cadaver.

         "Really? I mean, like a person?" I said.

         "Of course. The school has an anatomy lab used year-round for anatomy work. They split us into two-man teams. Then we go part by part — organs, ligaments, muscles, bones, and so — through the body."

         "No shit!"

         Andy, suddenly excited, "It's not far from here, want a tour?"

         “Well, can you really do that?” Thinking, with no gorgeous socially-aggressive stewardesses in sight, why not scrutinize a partially dissected cadaver?

         Danny, an enthusiastic and somewhat talented pool player, was in a game with a couple of Miami locals. He opted to stay behind. We’d be back in less than an hour.

         Andy’s laboratory was only a mile away, and as it was past 10:00 PM, the building was totally dark. Andy used his university-issued passkey to open a side door, and switched on a light.  We climbed a metal staircase to the second floor. He opened another door and turned on the lights.

         The room, open from one pale green wall to the next, encompassed the entire second story. Row after row of three-foot by six-foot tables, at least thirty in all, filled the room. Rectangular neon light fixtures hung above the tables, each covered by a white sheet draped over indistinct forms. The scent of formaldehyde was overwhelming.

         Andy guided me past a couple of tables, then stopped by one near the far side of the room. Drawing back the cover with his right hand, he offered an introduction. "Bill, meet Harvey.”

         What I saw had once been a person, but the embalming process had seriously shrunken Harvey. Furthermore, Andy and his study partner, had disassembled him exposing the internals of the left shoulder, bicep muscle, elbow joint and forearm. The central body cavity had also been opened.

         I was stunned. What had I expected? How else would med school students study anatomy? Certainly, a necessary interim step between a text book and a hospital operating room. Immobilized, I resembled a holiday host who drops the Thanksgiving Day turkey in front of a dozen houseguests. I was speechless.

         Andy lectured me about muscle tissue, bone structure, tendons, and ligaments. Much more than I could ever take in. It was clear that Andy had found his way in life.

         Still dazed, I uttered an occasional "uhh.” And then maybe later, "interesting,” world's most brain-dead, nauseating and insulting response.

         A few minutes passed, and I regained a degree of composure. In the meantime Andy had cleanly severed Harvey's left hand with a scalpel that had materialized out of nowhere. He stood facing me holding out the now-independent appendage. "Here, why don't you take this?"

         "You can’t be serious! I can't do that.” But Andy’s enthusiasm was in fifth gear. He carefully wrapped Harvey's detached limb in several layers of paper towel, and handed me a memento you would never find at a South Beach souvenir shop.

         Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I did what seemed normal. I carried the loosely packaged hand back to the car, placed it on the back seat, then completely forgot about it.

         The last few days of our sunshine sabbatical passed with us doing as little as possible. Danny manage to finish at least two Dickens novels. Bleak House in paradise.

         The afternoon of our last day, true to character, Danny suggested we wash the car before heading north. There was a car wash just over the Singer Island Bridge on Blue Heron Boulevard, but it was not a drive-through operation. Danny and I had to get out of the car as two teens hand-soaped, rinsed, and finally dried the Pontiac.

         That's when the third member of the team emerged gripping a huge vacuum for the interior. We had been gone for over a week and there was more than a little debris inside so I suggested we straighten up somewhat before letting the suction guy do his part. I took the front seat collecting road maps and storing away a few eight track tapes. I asked Danny to check the back.

         It wasn't but a few seconds before there was a loud bang as the back of Danny's skull collided with roof of the car followed immediately by "Oh motherfucker! What, what, what the fuck is this?" Glancing over the seat I could see Danny, hands and arms withdrawn as he glared at Harvey's hand now exposed on the back seat.        

         Not wanting to draw the attention of the wash/vacuum crew, I tried a quick explanation mumbling something about Andy’s lab. Danny wasn't buying it: "Man you are so very sick, like crazy sick, sick, sick!"

         “Calm down, cool it. It can’t hurt you. And by the way, his name was Harvey.”

         “Oh maaaan … very, very sick.”

         I exchanged places with Danny, repackaged the hand, and transferred it to the trunk. The car guys didn't react. Either they hadn't noticed, or maybe this kind of thing just happened everyday in South Florida. We drove back to the boat to prepare for an early morning departure.

         We were up by 3:00 AM hoping to get through some of the coastal towns on Route 1 before local traffic picked up. Carrying our minimal luggage, we left the boat and were walking down the dock when Danny stopped and said, "No way I'm driving up there with that thing in the trunk."

         I thought it inconsiderate to refer to Harvey's hand as a thing, but I let it pass. I didn't want to lose any time, but I could tell Danny was serious. My one-of-a-kind Florida souvenir would have to stay in Florida. But what to do? Even back then, the notion of throwing a part of Harvey in a trash can seemed disrespectful.

         My only other option, short of throwing the hand overboard on an incoming tide and risk it getting hung up on someone's swim platform, was to put Harvey on ice, literally.

         In those days, every sport fishing boat carried a large multi-layer Igloo icebox to hold prepared baits — small mullet with hooks hand-sewn into their bellies. On a lower tray were the unprepared baits to be retrieved when the first batch was used up. And that's where I put Harvey's hand, still wrapped in paper towels. I said goodbye and walked to the car.

         As we turned out of the parking lot Danny asked me, "So what did you do?"

         "I put him on ice. Happy now?"

         Neither of us spoke for several miles until Danny, head back, eyes closed, said, "You know he was a person, a human being."

         "What?"

         "Your Harvey was a person. Maybe someone's father or husband. Sure, maybe he was a homeless drunk, or addict, or a Cuban refugee washed up on the beach. Or maybe he was a doctor, or a school teacher. You just don't know."

         That was true, sort of. But I had been there in the laboratory and what I had seen were unclaimed corpses, most from the Miami City Morgue. All identity and personal information had been erased before delivery to the laboratory to become part of medical training. A fee had been paid to someone. The cadavers had become products, the basis of a business transaction between the city and the university. Or so I chose to believe.

         Such was my defense: "Danny, it’s like the fireplace ash. The ash is no longer the log. The log is no longer the tree."

         "Don't start with your Alan Watts Eastern philosophical bullshit. He was a person!"

         "Okay, I get it. Enough, alright?"

         Danny opened a book and started to read. I imagined: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

         We drove on in silence through town after town — Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach, Sebastian, Daytona, Flagler Beach, St. Augustine — the railroad sometimes on our left, sometimes on our right. This strip of land, Florida’s east coast, and the railroad, were a twentieth century example of how the country had extended its arms south. But the motivation here was not gold, or free farm land, it was sunshine. How did this happen? Who built the railroad? Did they get rich? Who was Flagler? That name was familiar. Who did the real work, the labor? I had found my January study project.

          By the time the new semester began, I had forgotten the whole Hand-Harvey-Med School affair. Danny had apparently blocked out the entire event, or perhaps recast it as somehow related to one of Dickens’ dark alley London characters.

         Then, three weeks into my new class schedule, I got a call. My mother reached me on the fraternity house phone. This was out of character for her as I usually initiated our catch-up communications. After exchanging “hello-how-are you’s,” Mom hesitated before asking me, "Billy, do you know anything about a hand?"

         What was she talking about? But as I was staring at the receiver in my right hand, it began to resurface. I made a scrambled attempt at an edited version of the incident.

         I should not have been surprised to learn that leaving Harvey's hand on the lower level of the bait box was not a final solution.

         As it turned out, a young couple from Des Moines had heard about the famous sailfishing in the Palm Beach area and decided to charter Dad's boat for a day. It would be their first-time big game fishing.

         The fishing was good the day of the charter, and it was not long before the prepared baits were exhausted. When the mate dug down to the second level of the icebox, he came up with a mess of paper towels. Then unwrapped it thinking he would find some fresh mullet. But of course, there were no mullet, just a brownish-purple shrunken hand.

         Holding it up by the thumb so the captain on the flying bridge could see, he called up, "Hey Cap, what's this?" But before getting an answer he was knocked sideways by the young wife as she lunged to the port side gunwale disgorging the contents of her stomach into the indigo blue waters of the South Florida Gulf Stream.

         The captain had no idea what he was looking at, or how it could have come to be on display in the cockpit of the boat he commanded. Worse, after recognizing they were in possession of what was, or had been, a human hand, he had no idea what to do. Throwing it overboard risked the hand washing up on the beach at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, setting off God knows what kind of investigations and guest complaints. Furthermore, he didn't even want to imagine what might come about, legal or otherwise, if he were to return to the dock with it and alert the authorities. He made a command decision and wrapped Harvey's hand with number 12 steel leader wire along with a half dozen four once lead sinkers and sent the remains three thousand feet to the bottom of the Atlantic. All this happened rather quickly and with a lack of appropriate ceremony. The couple insisted on returning to dry land.

         Mom’s phone call was the last I heard of the whole mess from my parents or Florida authorities. But the memory stayed with me. As the days grew warmer, I began to understand more of what we had done.

         By June the boat was back at its Long Island homeport, and I tried to apologize to the captain for setting off the whole mess. I felt bad for what had happened and for what I had put him through. He had worked for the family for over ten years and was like a second father to me. He thanked me for apologizing, and then lectured me that what I had done was more than stupid.

         Reprimand delivered, he went on to explain that he had no choice but to refund the couple for the cost of the charter after they threatened to report what they had seen to the police. He convinced them this was a waste of time. First, no one would believe them, and second, there was no proof.

        

A decade after our visit to the Miami teaching lab, I spent a weekend visiting “Dr. Andy” at his home in Marin County. He was on his way to becoming head of vascular surgery at a prestigious West Coast hospital. I don’t recall if we talked about our one-night affair.

         It was the last time I saw him. I cannot say if he ever had any second thoughts about what we had done. He could have, I suppose, completely forgotten it. Perhaps not.

         Dr. Andy’s brother lives not far from me, and that is how I know Andy died prematurely of a rare neurological disease — but not before designating his organs for transplant or research purposes.