Do you guys wanna go see a dead body?
Anyone over 40 years old remembers the movie “Stand By Me,” and secretly wanted to find a dead body as a kid. Not like finding grandma dead in bed, but a legitimate stranger in the woods who died from foul play. It would be heroic, a bit morbid, but a story you could share for the rest of your life.
For me, it took 46 years to stumble on my first mystery.
I was walking through the woods along the Rock River in early January with my elkhound. (We prefer to go off the beaten path, so we can spot eagles, stumble upon beaver-ridden trees, or see other wildlife that you’d miss along the trails.) We were about one mile deep into the woods when I saw a wind-blown tent on the shore. The temperature was near zero and it was near lunch-time.
I wondered if someone was inside. There were no footprints near the tent, but there WAS a small suitecase and a garbage bag filled with beer cans that did NOT have any snow on it. Someone had either abandoned the tent early in the morning to go warm up somewhere, or there was a frozen body inside.
It was just me and the dog and I was unarmed, so I didn’t quite know what to do. Now, I’m not scared of homeless people, but startling someone living in the middle of the woods could be dangerous. He could have a gun ready to pop anyone who unzipped the tent. And yet, if there was someone inside suffering, I was the only person who could help.
After debating the decision for awhile, I decided to check it out.
“Hello?!” I called out, approaching the tent. “Hello?! I’m here to help. Is there anyone in there? Please don’t kill me.”
I shook the snow off the tent. My dog was off sniffing for squirrels.
“Hello?! Are you ok?”
I found the zipper and opened it up. There were three blankets inside with something underneath. It looked like three people curled up in the fetal position with their heads covered by the blankets.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” I muttered as I hurried away from the tent.
Do I call the cops? Head home? It was a moral dilemma that I’d never encountered. What if he was in a coma? Perhaps he was just a heavy sleeper armed with a knife. There were so many possibilities and I wanted to do the right thing.
The dog made the decision for me. He was disinterested. That made me think the guy was either frozen stiff for days with no stench, or by some chance the tent was actually empty.
I went back to the tent. “Are you alive?” No answer.
I pulled back one of the blankets like a magician exposing a trick, my right hand shaking and ready to strike.
It was nothing but a pile of beer cans and Gatorade bottles. Whoever was living here had pulled the oldest trick in the book. Like Ferris on his day off, he piled a bunch of trash or clothes under a blanket to make it look like a person sleeping.
I sighed with relief. Rezipped the tent. And walked the dog home.
The dog would have known if someone was dead. I should have listened to him.
In the end, I felt like a 12 year old looking for a dead body. Full of fear. Full of curiosity. And was thankful it ended on a good note. The moral I learned? Face my fears to help someone, as our imaginations are usually worse than reality.
Ben North lives and writes from a homestead in Iowa.