Cheating Death: Close calls offer a brush with mortality


About four years before Mount St. Helens blew its top out in Washington state, I nearly died, or at least it seemed that way.

I was hiking the lower elevations with my cousin, Jan, and her man, Ralph. Jan had to attend to nature’s call, as they say in polite newspapers, so Ralph and I walked off the path into a field of boulders that had fallen down the side of the mountain over the eons.

We were just a pair of ignorant Midwesterners who knew nothing about mountains. We jumped from rock to rock and climbed over big boulders, marveling at the size of these pieces of mountain.

One of us took a step too many. The small rock moved and then another rock moved and finally the enormous boulder towering over us moved.

We would have been crushed instantly, but that’s all the farther it went. We gingerly made our way back to the path and learned to stay out of the boulder fields.

That story came to mind last week when I talked with Fayette business owner Sharry Becker. Somehow she got onto the topic of panning for gold and that reminded her of an outing in Arizona.

She and her husband were down in a ravine looking through the rocks. Anyone - or anything - at the top could easily watch their every move.

It wasn’t until later that she learned they were in an area thick with mountain lions.

She told her story, I told about St. Helens, and I thought right then that threatening experiences could make an entertaining story.

I soon discovered that it’s very interesting to ask people about their close calls. Some people can’t think of anything, anything, others need a little prompting, and a few know immediately just when it happened.

I asked one friend who quickly said, “Remember when we were driving somewhere and we skidded on wet leaves on a curve?” Apparently we did a loop or two before pulling out of it. Odd, I don’t remember that day at all. It sounds like one of those how-could-you-forget-it moments.

She even remembers the noises I was making as we spun out of control.

Bite the dust. Kick the bucket. Cash in your chips. Buy the farm. Take the big sleep. Kick off. Croak.

There are a lot of ways to do it, and I started to think about them this morning when I woke up around 4 a.m. I tried to push it out of mind, but I knew I was doomed.

I remembered hitchhiking from Ann Arbor to East Lansing and feeling the front, right tire blow as we approached a bridge abutment.

That brought to mind hitching across British Columbia. The driver sped through the mountain curves on that harrowing afternoon. A few days earlier, the infamous black bear incident occurred. I came through with a ripped tent and the memory of the mother bear’s jaws lightly clamped on my leg.

Please let me sleep. No, I remembered walking out onto the mud flats in Maine when the tide went out. I stepped into a soft spot and went up to my knee. I learned later about people getting stuck out in the mud, and then watching as the tide slowly comes back in.

I probably would have been saved by Shirley who lived up on the hill - the only man I’ve ever met named Shirley.

Then I remembered driving with my mother to Toledo when I was still a student driver. I passed a car east of Chesterfield but had trouble getting around it.

The on-coming semi kept getting closer and closer. It was horrifying.

I recalled a family vacation in Arizona. We stood on the edge of Canyon de Chelley and watched a thunderstorm off to the southwest. We joked about our hair standing on end. Later we read the warning sign about danger from lightning. If your hair stands on end....

Just last fall I crossed Bean Creek on a log above raging flood waters. Last winter while heading south from Clayton, I got to the intersection at M-34 and just kept slowly sliding on the ice. There’s a little building on the left, so I couldn’t tell if I was about to die until I slid on into approaching traffic. There was none.

There’s still a close call involving water that just won’t come clearly into focus.

Maybe it’s the time I was tossed around by ocean waves and bumped my head hard on the bottom. Maybe it’s something else.

Now when I listen to someone else’s story, it often reminds me of one more of my own. This time it was bicycling in the dark early in the morning on my way to work in Oregon. I missed by inches from plowing into a group of cross country runners.

Or how about racing in the dark - again on a bicycle - across Prince Edward Island as a hurricane approached. This has to stop. Enough of these memories.

There are so many ways to die, and fortunately, so many close calls to survive.

   - April 16, 2003


A few other tales of close calls:

Peter Fallot –

“A friend and I decided to climb Mt. Stewart in Washington. We came across a small glacier and I crossed ankles and walked backward and pretended I was falling. And I really did fall, right on a point of rock that was just under the snow. It missed my spine by about an inch. A lit bit over and I would have broken my back right there. It might look all beautiful and wonderful, but it’s dangerous up there.”

Anonymous –

“I was talking on the telephone and I inhaled an ice cube.” She thought she was going to die, but of course it slowly melted away.

Debra MacGregor –

She was sedated while having surgery to remove a cyst from her knee.

“I could hear one nurse say to the other, ‘Her heart rate is down to 50. Now it’s 46. Now it’s 42. Now it’s 40.’ The other nurse finally yelled, ‘Get the doctor!’

“I could feel everything slowing down, and getting slower and slower. I thought I was going to die and I thought about how I was going to miss Noah [her son] growing up.

“I started crying and woke up. A nurse said, ‘I think she’s all right now.’”

Bob Green –

Back in the 1950s, Bob and Keith Whitehouse decided to go skating on Lake James at Pokagon State Park in Indiana. They arrived at night and it was pitch dark.

“We skated out a ways and then decided to head back to the inn. The next morning we looked out the window and saw that we stopped right about at the edge of the ice.”

Kathy Melmoth –

Kathy and her husband, Dave, had a similar but even more terrifying ice adventure. They arrived at their destination on the shores of Lake Superior late at night. Everything was frozen on the shore so they decided to ski out onto the lake.

They were really making headway until the ice started sticking to their skis, so they turned and went back to shore to sleep. The next morning they discovered the lake was almost entirely open water.

Heather Whitehouse –

One day when Heather (Walker) Whitehouse was camping with her family in Wyoming  in the 1980s, she and a friend, Laura Thomas, were busy patching a hole in their tent during a storm. Heather’s brother was along the lake and started screaming, “Get out of the tent, get out of the tent!” Laura heard the screams.

“She pushed me out of the tent and she followed right behind me. Just then a huge pine tree fell on the tent.”

Her brother had spotted the slow descent of the tree during the storm.

Josiah Fallot –

Sometimes the first close call comes at a young age. Josiah, not yet a teenager, got a big chunk of chicken stuck in his throat as the family was having dinner.

“He couldn’t get any air at all,” said his father, Pete. “I think he almost died. It scared all of us.”

Colleen Leddy –

Colleen’s brush with mortality came on a winter night as she was driving home from Toledo in a van with front-wheel drive. She hit an icy patch on a small bridge east of Lyons and started slowing spinning.

“It’s like you’re in your own little world,” she says. “You can hear yourself screaming and screaming. It just drags on and on. I was thinking, ‘I can’t die now, I’ve got a family to take of.’”

Anonymous –

“I don’t remember it, but I was told that when I was a baby, my sister tried to hang me from the venetian blind cord.”

Ron O’Brien –

When Ron was a principal in Dowagiac, he often arose early with a friend or two to swim at the lake around 5:30 a.m. and then run back to town. It was mostly a jog back until the end when it became an all-out race. They ran facing traffic to keep on eye on approaching vehicles.

One day he and a pal were nearly in a sprint when he felt his buddy hit him in the arm.

“Then he knocked me into the ditch.”

They tumbled off to the side of the road just as a truck rushed through right where they were running. “We would have died,” he thought later.

Pedestrians think they’re safe facing traffic, Ron said, but runners generally are struck from behind—like he almost was.

Duane Dunbar –

“I was driving on Coomer Street with Rod Kauffman headed for Don Crowell’s.”

There was a storm blowing through town that night, but it didn’t seem all that bad.

“We came up to the corner of Coomer and N. Summit and a tree fell over. A big branch just missed the truck by a couple of feet.”

What a coincidence—Duane owned the property where the tree fell.

Jim Whitehouse –

Jim’s closest call came during college when he was president of his fraternity. The group had recently moved into a new house and the old one was about to be torn down.

A couple frat brothers got good and drunk and decided to start in early with the demolition. They started breaking out windows at two in the morning. The police were called, Jim was called, and he and his roommate sprinted the three blocks to the scene.

They talked one of the two guys into leaving, but the other one had to be forcibly removed.

“As we came down the sidewalk, hoping to slip away into the night, the woman who lived across the very narrow side street, came onto the porch and began screaming at us, calling us names and ranting and raving about what a bunch of low-lifes we were for waking her up. 

The drunk guy tried to break away from us to go confront her, but we held on, so he instead called her a foul name. At this, her husband stepped out onto the porch about 20 yards from us, and aimed a double barreled shotgun at us.

The bores of the barrels looked about 20 inches in diameter from that perspective!

I could see the man’s finger tightening on the trigger, as if in slow motion.  I remember thinking that the drunk was going to die, as the gun was pointed right at his chest, and that my roommate and I were going to be blinded and wounded badly by the spraying buckshot.

At that moment, from out of nowhere, a policeman literally dove over the porch railing and tackled the man around the knees. The gun went flying (but did not discharge) and we ran like hell. Another tenth of a second and we would have been toast.”

Jim also recalls a stupid diving incident with a pal at Devils Hole in Devils Lake in which they almost lost consciousness. And then there was driving with Jerry Jones, “the clumsiest driver I have ever known.”