Coming down the Triboro Bridge into Queens, one can depart into Astoria just at the foot of the bridge. As I approached the light at 31st street ( above which runs, at 90* to the roadway, the elevated subway train ), I saw a ton of papers, shiny things ( broken CD cases, as it turns out ) and file folders. I realized as I drove over them that they were the kind of large brown expanding folder with a flap and tie that people use for serious papers. The stuff you store in a safe deposit box. This stuff is being driven over as I go past.
I circled and illegally parked. The friend in the car and I got out. I ran into the middle of the street ( at a red light ), and picked up a bunch of stuff. We ran into Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner to examine. I had in my arms the large brown file folder, 4 or 5 manilla folders, 2 1 gallon zip lock bags and other papers.
The brown file holder and other folders contained, in no particular detail, the entry papers ( enlistment? ), papers of transfer and assignment, promotion from Private 1st Class, medical documents, plastic folders with awards, citations and promotions in each, and so on.
The zip lock bags held Iraqi money and documents.
We found dog tags. We found his birth certificate, social security card and Discharge Papers. As I held road flares so we wouldn’t be struck by cars bombing by us, my friend picked up more and more papers. Photos strewn and blown along the roadway- and as we walked a few blocks in the road, and eventually DOWN the on-ramp to the Grand Central Parkway, we found more papers. NYPD stopped, lights flashing, to ask what we were doing. We’d just found a copy of the man’s driver’s license. They told us to be careful in the roadway, expressed zero interest in finding out WHO these papers and personal effects should go to, and drove off. ( bastards… )
I got on the phone and, using an address shown in MANY of the documents, tried finding next of kin. No luck. We kept going back out for more papers, more items. I was on the last of 3 road flares ( we were out there over an hour ), when a man in his mid-20’s and a woman of similar age walked along the sidewalk near the Burger King next to the roadway. I looked over, and recognized him.
It was the soldier shown in so many of the photos we’d picked up. He had moved down from upstate New York that day, and the precious huge box of papers ( we also found stuff from his father, his H.S. yearbook, etc. ) were in a large stiff plastic shipping box. I found the shattered cover of that box- it still had the US Customs label affixed to it, from when it was shipped stateside from Iraq.
We went over, and I asked him, " Are you John? " He said yes. We all walked out into the road, avoiding cars and getting some more. Incredibly, we’d both missed his passport- and he found it.
He’d used the box spring from his bed to “pin down” that precious box in his pickup truck. Going over the Triboro, the bouncing was too much and the box spring was dislodged, letting this box be thrown free and shatter as it tumbled.
We got the couple into the car, and drove them the blocks to where he’d parked his truck after realizing that things had broken loose.
He said, and I will never forget this statement, " Some of that stuff came from my father. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me, and I’ve been to the War. " He was utterly stunned.
People stood and watched as my lady and I were in the middle of the damned roadway, picking this stuff up. Did anyone call out to see what we were doing? If we were okay? Did we need help? They did not.
He was already walking back as we were picking stuff up, so I suspect he’d have found a good bit of it. However, his original birth certificate, social security card and discharge papers were a few blocks from the big pile, being blown along by cars zooming by.
Yes, all of those can be replaced. I’ve replaced birth certificates and social security cards myself in the last 20 years. But the totality of such a loss apparently hit the fellow hard. He was quite appreciative. When we first started talking to him, he took out his wallet to give me money. I put a quick stop to that.
It was an upsetting event. I’m so damned glad I saw those papers- apparently they’d been on the road for at least 10- 15 minutes. He got pieces of his military and personal life back, and pieces from his Dad. Now he has THINGS to pass on to his kids… not just spoken stories. Things like his dog tags, and medals he was awarded.
Things from his life.
What an evening.
I’m not posting this to garner attaboy’s. In NYC, there are signs up that speak to a desire for heightened awareness. " If you see something, say something ". In this case, if you see something, DO something.