Parking at Starved Rock is full, and people are now told to use the designated overflow parking area—a grass lot that is destined to flood at the first sign of rain. The park is home to some of the best waterfalls and mini canyons in the state of Illinois. Tourists love coming here year-round in hopes of seeing running waterfalls in the spring and summer months, the changing of leaves during fall, and frozen waterfalls in the winter. But issues tend to occur every year. There seems to always be at least one death during the summer months, and Memorial Day is usually that unlucky day. There are designated hiking trails for park visitors, and these trails include danger signs for hikers that want to try to go off path like they’re Bear Grylls. These signs usually say, “Stay on marked trails, Poison Oak and Ivy” or “No climbing. Sandstone and Limestone unstable.” But those signs to your average dumbass aren’t a heed of warning. Instead, they are a chance for someone to say “Bet” and accept the challenge of climbing the wall of a canyon. And what happens? My dad will receive a phone call from the on-duty deputy coroner.
The Vermillion River has been overtaken by eccentric city people looking for something stupid to do in my rural community that we call the Valley. The river is running harder this spring from all of the rainfall we had over the previous couple of weeks, causing the rapids of this whitewater river to run noticeably faster than usual and violently thrash against the jagged rocks. Locals know that at this time of year, certain sections of the river are best left alone until the water level goes back down to around three feet. Yet, those eccentric city people that I mentioned earlier never seem to really get the message from Mother Nature. Leave the river the fuck alone—unless you want a life or death situation—then, by all means, I encourage those adventure seeking moronic amateurs who are feeling stupid enough to go try and raft or kayak the rapids throughout the river to give it a go. And what happens? My dad will once again receive a phone call from the on-duty deputy coroner.
It was four something in the afternoon and I had just lit the charcoal grill at my parents’ house. We never do anything crazy on Memorial Day, but grilling is the custom among most Americans, so we follow suit—because who doesn’t like to cookout? But cooking out changed to getting a quick burger from The Rootbeer Stand when my dad received a call from the deputy coroner. Some guy from out of state was hiking the trails at Starved Rock. And like everyone else, he found himself in one of the canyons enjoying the hard-flowing waterfall. The difference between this guy and everyone else there? He was one of those morons who decided to ignore all danger sings and try to climb all the way up the canyon wall (it didn’t help that the autopsy report showed that there was heroine in his system at the time of his death). Apparently, this guy had done a pretty good job climbing about three quarters of the way up…until he didn’t. As expected, he found himself clinging to a piece of limestone that just didn’t want to hold anymore. So, once again as expected, he fell, headfirst. How far you might be wondering? About seventy feet. But he died of a heart attack before his head ever hit the ground. All of these details are what the police, deputy coroner, and then the medical examiner told me and my dad when we arrived at the scene. Luckily when we got to the scene, the body was already double bagged in hopes of stopping any possible fluid leakage. After we got the body loaded up into the van, this call was normal. It was a typical drive to the Will County Morgue and our conversation was the same as it would be during any other call. We listened to the Cubs postgame show and talked about the next game on their schedule. It really was just another death call.
Around nine-thirty at night my dad received another phone call. It was his friend, Rick, who is on a neighboring town’s fire department. He said for us to be ready to receive a phone call regarding river rescue. There was a report of some people from Chicago rafting the river during the afternoon. The raft made it to the boat launch, but the five people on it did not at first. Four of them were seen on foot walking the four-wheeler trails towards the launch. The fifth person, a boyfriend to one of the survivors, had been swept away by the rapids and potentially drowned due to the undertow caused by the old inactive dam at the cement plant. Sure enough, dad got the phone call from the deputy coroner. Two calls in one day that involved major accidents due to tourists not taking the danger signs seriously. Once again, my dad and I went to the crime scene. This time the body was not bagged when we got there. But it was dark, so there wasn’t much for me to see other than the chunk of meat that needed to be put into the body bag. The only visible sign of injury was a laceration on the side of the man’s head. Nothing out of the norm considering there are jagged rocks everywhere in that river. The hardest part about this particular call was getting the body back to the van. It was impossible to bring the cot down to the scene and then back up. It took five guys to haul the body (which was in the bag) up the riverbank. Once we got up there, we were back onto a dirt road, and it was possible to put the body bag onto the cot. We loaded up the van and headed back out to Joliet, where the same medical examiner was waiting for us. This car ride was quieter. Not because of what we just saw, but because we were tired. Is this emotionally draining? Yes. But are we also used to seeing this stuff on a regular basis? Also, yes. I won’t go as far to say that I hate Memorial Day. But I’m used to seeing a lot of stupid things happen, which is why it’s a day that I don’t go crazy. Not with the cookouts, neighborhood parties, nothing. It’s a day to stay home, grill out, watch a ballgame, and wait for my dad to receive the annual phone call from the deputy coroner.
Jack Shields graduated from the University of St. Francis in 2016 and is currently an MFA Student at Reinhardt University.