Long before America's fascination with CSI (and indeed even before Quincy, MD), I was a young high school student working for a Mortuary in Zephyrhills Fl.
Among my duties (for which I was paid a princely wage of $30 a week) I assisted in the removal of deceased, their embalming, Family Visitation and Funeral Services as well as being an Ambulance Attendant.
In 1971, all that was required by Fla. State Law was an American Red Cross First Aid Card and a strong back. God knows what reaction there would have been if those injured souls had known I was only 16 years old! Fortunately, I looked “much” older!\
I attended High School from 7am – 1pm and then immediately went to work where I was “on duty” until 6am the next morning. I had Friday nights off from 6pm – Midnight and worked the rest of the weekend.
Being a small town, we probably averaged less than 10 funerals and “maybe” 30 ambulance calls a month. Most days were pretty quiet and I lived in an apartment above the Funeral Home.
One Sunday afternoon (circa 1971), the telephone rang and Pat Richardson, the Funeral Director & Owner answered the phone and immediately got an ear to ear grin on his face. He jotted down some notes and said to get ready because this was a “special one”.
I was still relatively new to this but I sensed this would be my first “floater”.- a badly decomposed body. Dealing with a floater is a right of passage in the industry – a genuine test of composure (the smell of decaying flesh stays with you forever).
The Funeral Director was looking forward to my “losing my virginity”.
We drove about 20 miles down Hwy 54 and turned on the the 52 Street Extension (known as the Road to Nowhere). We spotted the Sheriff's cars stopped up ahead and pulled along side.
“In the Ditch” One of the Officers said.
And there it was, a half submerged male body floating face up in about four feet of water. The body was distended (skin above the water appeared blackened while below the waterline greenish) and appeared to have been there four or five days. And of course it smelled to high heaven.
Pat turned to me and said “ Go get him”.
Knowing that if I grabbed it by the arm, I'd probably end up with only the detached arm, I decided to roll a sheet lengthwise and thread it under the arms and drag the corpse ashore by the torso from behind. The Funeral Director was impressed by my ingenuity.
Once the body was dragged onto the embankment, we carefully placed it in a disaster pouch (body bag) and proceeded back to the funeral home (with all windows wide open!).
Since this was a probable “Foul Play” scenario, the Medical Examiner was notified and preparations were made for an immediate autopsy. Due to the advanced state of decomposition, it was impossible to perform the postmortem indoors – the ventilation system would never handle the odor so the decision was made to perform the autopsy outdoors – at the Zephyrhills Airport.
So there we were standing in the middle of the open airfield about to investigate the cause of death. Two saw horses and a wooden door formed a makeshift table and portable power equipment was brought in.
I was “volunteered” to assist the Pathologist - Dr. John R. Feegel.
The son of a police officer, Dr. Feegel grew up to become a forensic pathologist, a trial attorney and the chief medical examiner in Tampa. He performed thousands of autopsies; the death of Elvis Presley and Atlanta serial killer Wayne B. Williams were two of his most famous cases.
Additionally, Dr. Feegel became well known as the author of seven mystery novels. In 1976, he won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his first book, "Autopsy."
But this was five years before he was to gain such notoriety.
Your first autopsy is such an assault on your senses, the details tend to get blurred after 35 years. I remember Dr. Feegel to be very talented, personable and very funny! Believe me, the humor helped me through the experience and I'm still grateful for his patience and willingness to allow me the opportunity to assist that summer afternoon.
Most valuable thing he taught me was to smear “Zoxema Metholated Creme” under my nose in order to mask the odor. It really works!
By the way, we found the cause of death was a bullet to the brain and his wife (and her boyfriend) were eventually charged with murder.
I probably assisted in well over 250 Embalmings and 20 Autopsies in my career but I'll always hold a special place in my heart for my “first”
Dr Feegel passed away September 16, 2003 at age 70. His books are still available via the Internet.