When I was a kid, I found a dead body by the railroad tracks near our house.
The body of a young man—a young black man—sat in the front seat of a white 1963 Pontiac Tempest. His skin was puffy and stretched tight like a balloon about to pop. An empty syringe dangled in the crook of his right arm. Shocked and not sure what to do, a thought flashed through my mind.
What would Nancy Drew do?
Nancy Drew is the famous girl detective in the books that thrilled female readers over seven decades. She was the smart, independent young woman generations of girls wanted to be. I sure did. Frozen on my bike, I stared in through the driver's side window at the dead person sitting there and realized I was in way over my head.
What would Nancy do?
I knew what she wouldn't do. She wouldn't run screaming home to mommy, that's for sure. So I studied the scene. The body sat in the middle of the seat, slightly tipped forward. I found this odd. I imagined him seated between two guys who drove him to this quiet area in the dead of night and injected a syringe full of air into his arm, killing him immediately. He'd slumped forward and stayed that way due to rigor mortis. I was convinced he'd been murdered.
When I ran home and told my mom I'd found a dead body near the tracks, she put her hand on her chest and stared at me for what seemed like an hour—her mouth open, her eyes wide—before she picked up the phone.
"Are you OK?" she asked me as she dialed the police.
"Yeah, why?" I said.
"You're not scared?"
"Nope," I said running out the kitchen door. "I should be there when the police show up. They may want to talk to me."
Of course, the police didn't want to talk to a 10-year-old kid but they were nice about it. Tagging along beside them as they checked out the car, I offered my theories about the murder. They listened politely, and nodded and grunted in all the right places.
By this time, a crowd of people had assembled on the street. We were told to leave the area because they were going to open the car.
One of the cops, probably with annoying kids of his own, patiently explained that the body in the car wasn't a black man—it was a decomposed white male in his mid-20s. They believed the vehicle had been parked there for three days in the August heat and this not only accelerated decomposition, it turned the car into a pressure cooker. If they didn't open it carefully, the body could explode.
I was halfway home when the air was suddenly filled with the sweet, putrid scent of what could only be the smell of dead flesh. I'd never smelled anything like it before and haven't since. But Nancy wouldn't care, so neither did I.
When my daughter was a kid, role models were scarce. The Power Rangers of the '90s just didn't cut it. But last Halloween a little girl dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg—the Notorious RBG, as the kids lovingly call her—showed up at our door in black robes and signature lace collar. And my daughter now has a stable of amazing women she admires: RBG, of course; Michelle Obama; Malala Yousafzai; Helen Mirren; and feminist artists Mary Kelly and Barbara Kruger, to name just a few. Things are looking up.
A week after I found the body, a short news article appeared in the local paper. The murder victim had been a drug dealer and his death was ruled a suicide. I think they dropped the ball there and I'm sure Nancy would agree.
Ten years after the Adventure of the Body in the Car, I found myself in the UCLA gross anatomy lab standing over the corpse of an 80-year-old woman. My medical illustration class had come to study the human body up close. Two of us showed up. Twelve stayed away. They'd chickened out.