An After School Hanging

Henry Lansing Woodward

© Copyright 2022 by Henry Lansing Woodward
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

When I was discharged from the US Navy, I decided to remain in Hawaii rather than return to my hometown on the mainland. After becoming an EMT, I was accepted into the ten-month Hawaii State Paramedic Program. This program was divided into two separate phases. The first four months were in the classroom. The second six-month phase was called “Internship,” during which we rode on the Paramedic units of the City of Honolulu. We were required to take charge of an emergency under the watchful eye of the certified Paramedic and put into practice what we had just been taught. Simple enough, right? Fairly straightforward, right? Well, that is what I first thought. What follows is the reality of, “the rest of the story.”

Certain criteria had to be fulfilled during the internship to graduate. I’ve included a copy of those criteria so you might see what was required. Please look at it carefully. The reality of it is disturbing.

Making up this list is what a Paramedic, any Paramedic, encounters most frequently during the normal course of doing the job. They wouldn’t be on it if they were not. But, as clear as it is, somehow I failed to register its macamba nature. At the time, I naively thought these were only some things I needed to experience a certain number of times under supervision before I could graduate. To say that was an oversight of enormous proportions would also be oversight of enormous proportions.

And to make things even more macamba, whether or not I would be able to make everything better for the patients by doing these tasks was not the point. I just had to jump in and become involved as the decision maker. It wasn’t required that my efforts were successful or that the patient survived. I was only required to accumulate the quotas for each category. Here is the list.


Somehow, it didn’t occur to me that these categories were about people. Living, breathing, suffering, and dying people not just categories on a sheet of paper. People. It took six months as a Paramedic after my internship for the realities of this list to hit home. I relate the exact time and event of when and how this happened in “Crushed by His Jeep.” That story is also contained in this book.

This story is about the “laissez-faire” approach I maintained throughout my six-month internship and a very sad event. Somehow, daily, I could remove myself from what was happening and just think about gaining enough criteria to graduate. My patients weren’t people; they were criteria.

It was my third day of Internship. I was riding along on one of the Paramedic units in Honolulu. The dispatch came in as a “possible hanging.” Because this call was one of my first during my internship, I had yet to collect any of the criteria on the list. There were two of us interns in the ambulance, but this was my call. My hanging. Perhaps, I thought, I would gain some criteria during this call.

We arrived CODE THREE - lights and sirens, on a beautiful Hawaiian day as it always is in “paradise.” When the call came in, we were nearby. That enabled a shorter response time to a small, one-floor, WWII-era house with a small front yard. It was located in a part of Honolulu known as the Hawaiian Homestead lands. We felt hopeful this shorter response time would provide success for this call. It wasn’t to be.

Only those people with twenty-five percent or more Hawaiian blood could live on these lands and own them. The land is known as the “Ohana” in the Hawaiian language and is the true wealth of their islands. Throughout their history, the Hawaiians had their lands stolen from them by commercial whalers and missionaries. To restore the land to the Hawaiians, the State of Hawaii reserved portions of each island only for Hawaiians. The family had probably owned this land and house for decades, maybe longer, long before WWII.

The small yard had coconut palms with full-size coconuts ready to fall. Caressing the palm branches of the palms was the ever present Trade Winds causing them to sing their song of paradise. One could hear it on all the islands.

On the side of the house to the right of the front door, there were banana trees with bananas ready to harvest. Each tree only produces one bunch of bananas during its lifetime. The bunch consists of many smaller bunches called “hands,” which you see in the markets. They’re called hands because the individual bananas within the “hand” look so much like fingers. The entire tree is cut down when it is time to harvest.

Also in the front yard were two giant Plumeria trees, one on each side of the walkway leading to the front door. They towered over the house and must have been planted when it was built. One had yellow flowers, and the other had pink. Along the front of the house were Ti (pronounced tee) plants. It is said in Hawaii no house should be without this plant. Before anyone moves into a new house, it is blessed by the Kahuna, and this plant is used in the ritual. The plant is sacred, and by using it, the new owners are “married” to the house and the land and are obligated to care for it forever.

There were also Hibiscus plants in the front yard. As the state flower of Hawaii, the large blooms only last a single day, fading during the night and then replaced with new blossoms the next morning. Mixed in with the Hibiscus were Tuberose plants smelling like double-strength Gardenias. These and the Plumeria perfumed the air so magnificently, it was like walking through an olfactory rainbow. And this was just one yard and one house in paradise.

Similar beauty is everywhere in this garden paradise, and today, it was all in sharp contrast to why we were here in its midst. Who would have thought there would be pain, suffering, and loss in such a place. Such a Paradise. This is what I was thinking as I carried our medical equipment into the house.

There were a lot of people standing around in that small front. They were standing under the coconut palms, about as far away from the front door as possible and still be in the yard. There were so many, some of them spilled out of the yard and onto the sidewalk. Some were even standing in the street, and no one, not one single person, was making a sound. It was as if there was something poisonous in the house or that it was on fire, and everyone had run outside to escape it. As we walked past all these people, in a low voice, I heard someone said, “He’s in his bedroom, down the hall on the right.”

As we entered, it was like entering a time warp. All the furniture appeared to be of the first and only generation of furniture originally purchased for the house. I felt like I was in a World War II Pearl Harbor movie.

Just inside the front door in the main room, there was an old, faded, one-time yellow, square armchair built low to the floor. It had to be from the forties or before and was styled with wide armrests, flat on their top surfaces and both sides. It had a square, thick, wide cushioned back, also flat on the top, both sides, and the front and back. The seat cushion between the armrests was also square, thick, flat and faded in the center where people had sat for many years. It drew my attention as we rushed past, but I didn’t have the time to look it over. It just struck me as being very curious, and at that time, I wasn’t sure why.

We crossed the main room, went down the short hallway, and found the bedroom door on the right. But, it wasn’t a door to a bedroom. Instead, it was a closet door and the closet had been turned into a bedroom. Inside the closet bedroom was just enough space right to left for a twin mattress to fit on the floor with its head touching one wall, the foot touching the other, and the back edge touching the back wall.

About four-and-a-half feet above the mattress was a metal bar extending wall to wall, right to left. It was so packed with clothes on hangers, it should not have been possible to shove them aside, along the pipe, to hang even one more item. But, somehow, it had been possible because, in the middle of that bar, between those crammed-in clothes on hangers, was a young Hawaiian boy hanging from it by a belt around his neck.

He and his sister were in high school, and she always came home after he did. For some reason, in my diary entry accompanying this narrative, I wrote he was twenty. That could not have been possible because the sister was in high school, and he was younger than she. He was a young schoolboy who had just hung himself and was now dead.

As we entered the closet bedroom, there was a bare wall to the left. Actually, it wasn’t exactly bare. It was covered with angry writings with words of all sizes, mostly black, screaming out things like, “There is no love.” “I hate them all,” and more. The words “hate” and “screw them” were everywhere mixed in with drawings of angry faces, lots of knives and guns, and lots of profanity.

And there in front of us was that young Hawaiian boy hanging by his belt. His knees were bent and his feet were touching the mattress. He could have easily supported himself. He could have just stood up. But he hadn’t, and it was obvious he had already been there too long.

It must have taken him some time to tie the knot at his neck. He had taken off his belt and looped it around the hanger pole using the buckle end. Then, probably because the remaining length of the belt was very short, he had to stand on the mattress to get as close as possible to the pole. Only by doing this would he have enough belt length to wrap it around his neck and tie the knot. The distance between the buckle on the pole and the knot on his neck was about four inches, so short his head was touching the pole.

Can you picture him struggling with the short belt, his head pressed against the metal pole next to the buckle, as he was tieing it below his chin where he could not see what he was doing? I can not. After almost twenty years what I can do, unfortunately, is still picture all of this. And every time I do, it makes me shudder thinking about the planned finality of his actions.

The two wraps around his neck were enough to hold it in place. Then he let his knees buckle so the belt could begin to tighten. No one will ever know if he had lowered himself slowly while considering whether or not he should go through with it. Maybe he had accidentally gone too far, or too long, to recover. Maybe he had done it all at once to get it over. From what I saw on the wall in the closet bedroom and later, on that square yellow chair later as we were leaving, I felt sure he had wanted to do it and had done it in one action.

Before he passed out, he had to have felt the belt begin to tighten around his neck. As it continued more and more to inhibit the blood flow to his brain, he would have finally passed out, and the weight of his body and gravity did the rest. Thirty minutes later, his sister found him when she came home from school. She called 911, but she left him hanging. No one had told her to get him down.

After my internship, in all my years as a Paramedic, people were left hanging when there was a suicide by hanging. Every one of them. No one person, not even family members, had cut them down. After calling 911, they just left them hanging in place. If it hadn’t been too late to save the person when they were first found, it surely was when the emergency services arrived. If only they would have immediately done something to get them down. Perhaps then I would have had fewer dead people in my life, never to be able to forget.

This case was over. His head and neck were pulled to his left at a severe and unnatural angle, and the skin on the opposite side of his neck was stretched so tight, it looked like leather and had developed white stretch marks. The saliva which had flowed from the corner of his mouth down over his chin was now dry. There was also a wet area in his crotch. When the bladder muscles relax in death, allowing the bladder to empty, it is already too late.

I heard the lead Paramedic say, “don’t touch the knot,” as he grabbed the boy around the upper legs and lifted him enough for the downward pull of gravity to be relieved. As he did this, the left side of his face was against that wet spot in the boy’s crotch. I was interning with a good Paramedic.

As he continued to support him, I held the defibrillator paddles of the cardiac machine against the boy’s chest. If there was a heartbeat they would be able to detect it, even while he was still wearing his shirt. There wasn’t. All was silent inside the chest of this boy. I recorded a flat-line paper strip to document the absence of cardiac activity and my lead Paramedic relaxed his hold.

That was all there was to it. We gathered our equipment and we too left him hanging in his closet bedroom just like his sister. Because he was dead, the scene had to be left as close to the original condition as possible. The police and coroner had to do their investigations. That is why the lead Paramedic had told us not to touch the knot. If we ever were to cut down a hanging patient, the cut had to be somewhere between the attachment point on one end and the knot on the other. Neither end was to be changed or altered.

In silence we walked again through the short hallway back to the main room to return to the ambulance. As we passed that old faded yellow chair, this time I paused and looked at it closely. I had to know why it had drawn my attention as we entered the house.

On the flat surface of the right armrest lay his wristwatch. He had taken it off and laid it carefully in an arranged position so the metal wrist bank was shaped into a perfect oval. Next to it there was an empty glass and an ashtray, an open pack of cigarettes and his lighter. He had arranged all the items in such a way they looked as if they had been placed as offerings upon an altar. I guess he had parted with all his earthly goods before he did what he had decided to do.

When he had arrived home, he had fixed something to drink and retrieved an ashtray. Then, he sat down in the chair and lit a cigarette. After doing that, he must have laid down his pack and lighter on the armrest and drank whatever it was he was drinking. When he had finished, he then must have snuffed the cigarette in the ashtray. The filtered end of it and the ashes were still there. Probably the last thing he did was to take off his watch.

Then he must have risen from the chair and walked down the short hall to his closet bedroom on the right and acted on the final decision he was ever to make. That chair told a sad story. I think it had wanted to tell me that story when I first passed it. Maybe that was why it originally drew my attention.

That was my first 911 ambulance call. Remember those intern criteria I listed at the beginning of this story? Well, I hadn’t completed even one of them. Not one. None of those items were knocked off that list. One hundred and forty-four more people still had to die or nearly die before I could be certified as a Paramedic. This angry, lonely and sad Hawaiian highschool boy and his death didn’t count. From what I had seen in his closet bedroom, it was probably the same for him most of his life. He just didn’t count.

This call had been on my third shift as an intern. As a Paramedic, so many more exactly like this one were yet to come. I had no conception of what it was going to be like in the profession I had chosen. None. What a naive life I had been living.

Contact Henry

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Henry's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher