The Fragility of Life

This morning, I was running late on my way up to Berkeley. I had abandoned my desk today for a lunchtime meeting with Orville Schell, Dean of UC Berkeley’s school of journalism. Schell had agreed to lend me some of his scarce time for a conversation about Google News and its role in the future of journalism.

As I reached the intersection where Willow turned off to the Dumbarton bridge, I became aware that an accident had just happened – moments ago. I was in motion in the right lane, attempting not to compound the problem by rubbernecking, so I only caught a fleeting glimpse of the scene: a crumpled car rested on the divider, nose-to-nose with another stopped in the left turn lane. The latter had very little damage, and somewhere in my mind, I tumbled through scenarios that could have left the two in such an odd configuration. Two men – young and Hispanic, had just scrambled out of the second car, and were approaching the first with concern, where an older gray-haired man sat, apparently dazed, in the passenger seat. Steam, or smoke curled from the hood, and then traffic moved on and carried me away.

The meeting with Schell was inspiring, and I was still completely buzzed on it when I made it back to my desk that afternoon. Customary check of News when I logged back in, and a headline caught my eye: “Author David Halberstam killed in crash near Dumbarton Bridge“. It described how Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Vietnam war, was a passenger in a car being driven down from Berkeley by a UC journalism student. The car had been broadsided while making a left turn and thrown into another car waiting at the intersection. Halberstam, pinned in the car, died at the scene.

The article spoke of his close friend and colleague, Orville Schell of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Schell had hosted Halberstam’s visit to Berkeley over the weekend, and had been the one to call his family. When asked by the Merc reporter how he felt about Halberstam’s sudden death (who could ask such a question?!?), Schell replied with far better words that I could ever muster: “What can one say? The fragility of life sometimes just intrudes with a kind of savageness that we normally don’t pay much attention to.”

That morning, when we had gone out to lunch, Schell left his cell phone with the department secretary – I was humbled that he hadn’t wanted to be interrupted. When we returned, she told him – with a look that I couldn’t quite explain – that he’d had one call while out; he took the time to thank me for visiting and saw me out before dealing with it. Sitting at my desk and reading the article, it all came together in a sickening “small world” thud what that call must have been. And that, though neither of us knew at the time, I was one of the last people to see his friend alive.

I’m a little stunned by this thought, and can’t seem to shake it. Being witness, however briefly, to a person’s last minutes on earth is a terrible responsibility. It feels wrong to whisper it out to the world as though it were some “I was there” scoop. I didn’t know what I was seeing, and I didn’t know how personal or how global the connection was. But it’s left me shaken, and I’m trying to deal with it the only way I know how: by putting words out onto a page and letting them be free. So I’ll ask your forgiveness if this post seems ill-conceived.

There were many lessons today, more than I bargained for. Some are scribbled in my notebook on the future of journalism. Some are captured in the words of a wise and saddened man who has lost an inspirational colleague. And some are gone forever, a hidden connection just past the corner of our eyes, as the traffic moves on.

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