By Cecil Hoge
I suppose everybody has some life or death experiences. I can identify several myself. Two of these events I can say were clearly my fault. Two I would say were not.
When I was about 19 my parents bought a second car, a classic Volkswagon bug, and assigned it to me. To celebrate I drove that little car that very evening to a friend’s house and proceeded to have as many drinks as I could within a four hour spell. The results were not good. I drove home zigzagging my way from Old Brookville on the North Shore of Long Island to Setauket, also on the North Shore of Long Island. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, I stuck to less traveled roads and did not go too fast. So while my driving was clearly erratic, it was at least relatively slow and no one noticed or stopped me.
I say fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, because if I had stuck to more traveled roads, I would probably have been pulled over and arrested for drunk driving and that Volkswagon might be in service today. You could say that was fortunate or unfortunate, again depending on your point of view. Certainly, I probably would not have broken my collarbone or split the Volkswagon in half, but then, again, I did avoid arrest.
I suppose speculating on events that did not happen is something of a waste of time, although I think all people do wonder what would have happened if some events turned out differently. In any case, I was not pulled over and arrested. What happened was that I was wending my way happily for almost 30 miles until I came to an infamous series of hairpin turns on Route 25A approaching Stonybrook. This series of turns has been the undoing of many a man and/or woman and certainly it proved more than I was able to handle.
I remember the drive and I remember realizing I was swerving off the road on the first hairpin turn, so I naturally corrected that swerve and that worked very well for about 10 seconds until I realized that I was again swerving off the other side of the road. So I naturally corrected that serve. That had the unfortunate result of sending me to the opposite side of the road directly into a tree. I remember seeing the tree approaching quickly and did at the last moment make yet another correcting swerve. That, I think, saved my life. Because I arrived about 8″ ahead a tree trunk that cut the back half of the Volkswagon in half.
I did not really realize the damage that I had done to the vehicle. Frankly, I felt a little groggy and confused, but I could tell one thing for sure. The car had stopped. Anyway, the collision had the result of sobering me up pronto. As I started to take inventory, I could tell the car was no longer functioning and it did not seem to want to start. I did try to start it, but the engine was unresponsive. This was probably because part of the engine had also been severed in half.
Eventually a policeman showed up and wrote down a report of my accident. By that time, I was able to talk pretty well although I was beginning to realize that I had cuts on my face and my shoulder was hurting. It seemed sore to me, but I did not think anything was broken, so I did not pay it too much attention. The police officer probably could tell that drinking may have been involved in this accident, but considering that I was still alive and had not injured anyone else, he probably thought he would let it pass and save some paperwork and a trip to the county precinct. In the end he volunteered to take me to a hospital, but I opted out to go back to my parents house and the officer kindly drove me home.
The next day I woke and realized had more than a bruise because every time I tried to move my arm more than a quarter of an inch to the right or left I screamed in pain. This led me to visit my doctor who shook his head and told me he had a son about my age and he did not want to see his son get into an accident like me and that I was damn lucky to be alive. After some X-rays it became apparent that I had broken shoulder bone. Fortunately, it was a hairline fracture and that meant the shoulder bone was basically intact. There were two courses of action for that. Get put in a three foot cast and stay that way for 3 months or put a sling on and stay still for three months. I opted for the latter and that was one life or death moment for me and it ended as well as it could.
The second life or death moment was also clearly my fault although the degree to which I was to blame was somewhat less. Here is what happened.
It happened to me on a whitewater river in the days that river running was a big part of my life. A group of us (maybe 4 couples) went to the take a trip on the West River in Massachusetts. When we got to the West River was found that the section we wanted to run had been diverted by a new tributary leading into the river that had been dug by the Army Corp of Engineers.
Anyway, we checked out this tributary that had been dug and decided that was the thing to run. It was running a solid class 4 white water. I am not sure you are familiar with the scale of whitewater. It goes from 1 to 6, with 1 and 2 being small riffles to 1 foot waves, class 3 being 2 to 3 foot drops and some hydraulics, class 4 being 4-6 foot drops, little waterfalls, nasty hydraulics, class 5 being near death and class 6 being sure death.
As mentioned, this tributary looked like class 4, but it looked pretty clean, even if it was quite fast. So we decided to run it. The section we went on was about a mile long and it led directly into the West River. So the plan was to go down the tributary and then head into the West River for 4 or 5 miles. That would have been a nice day’s trip.
I should have noticed two things at the time. One, it was raining and had been raining for 2 days. Two, I could hear what sounded like thunder.
Anyway, we prepared ourselves in the normal fashion of the time. Since it had been decided that no ladies would accompany us, the guys had a few shots of Mr. Jack and smoked a couple of funny cigarettes. This was kind of traditional beginning to river trips in that era of confused ethics and river running bravado. The nub of it was that we were feeling no pain. Fortunately, we all had life jackets and we all were wearing either wetsuits or dry suits.
To make a long story short, we started down this tributary and I again noticed the sound of what I thought was thunder. We felt pretty insulated given the fact that we were wrapped up in rubber, so off we went. Immediately, it became clear that I was on a river of another magnitude and the river was really running a solid class 5. At that point, there was no option other than to continue.
About a half a mile down the river, I struck a rock with my paddle blade just as I was trying make a stroke and I was pulling hard down on the blade. As soon as I hit that rock, which must been just under the water, it threw me out of the kayak (I was in an open river-running inflatable kayak). In short, I was the moveable object, the rock under the water was the immovable object. The paddle was the projectile throwing me out into the water, kind of like a pole vault.
This left me floating in the water about ten feet from the river’s shore. The whole river was only about 25 feet across and boiling white water. I looked to the right at the shoreline which mostly composed large sharp boulders 5 or 6 feet across, put there recently by the competent folks at the Army Corp of Engineers. I was thinking to try and grab on to one of those boulders and climb out and I was only 10 feet away.
Then, I looked to my left and saw that my inflatable kayak was floating just 3 feet away and was miraculously upright. In that 2 or 3 seconds, I decided to go for the kayak. I was able to roll into the kayak and immediately I discovered something was very wrong with my shoulder and that I was in great pain. I did not have much time to think about it because I was still running down this class 5 river, so all I did was lay in the kayak and lean one way or another as the kayak bounced down this whitewater river hitting rocks and boulders on one side and then moseying over to the other side and hitting rocks and boulders on the other side. Occasionally, I would try to stick my head up to see where I was going.
Again, all I could do was lean one way or another and bounce off or slide off various rocks and boulders on different sides of the river. Each time the kayak hit a boulder on one side or the other it had a tendency to turn the kayak completely around. So sometimes I was facing forward, sometimes facing backwards. By this time, I realized that I was in quite a bit of pain, but really didn’t have any time to think about it since I was concentrating on just leaning one way or another trying to get down this river and, occasionally sticking my head up, trying to see where the hell I was going.
I went on for about almost a half a mile like that and finally ran aground on one side of the small river where there was some quiet water and a sandy beach to get out. When I did, I found myself trapped by bushes and unable to walk to a nearby road. It took some time for me get out of there, angling my way through briars with a lame shoulder, and it took some time for the other guys to find me, but eventually they did. By that time, I was realizing I had really screwed up my shoulder and I was really in a lot of pain. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, this was not the shoulder I had injured many years before in the automobile accident described above. I was giving other parts of my body a chance to get injured.
Eventually, I got to a hospital and immediately I was told that I had dislocated my shoulder. At the hospital 3 or 4 interns spent a couple hours trying pull my arm back into place with zero luck. They were an impressive team of interns and they pulled as hard as four strong men could, but unfortunately they knew very little about the way dislocated shoulders worked and their efforts were unsuccessful.
Eventually, a country doctor named Dr. Otis, arrived munching on a chicken bone (I kid you not) and he put my arm back in place about 2 minutes. It turned out that this was a ski area and he did 25 to 50 dislocations every ski season, so putting arm back was literally a piece of cake for him or in this case, a piece of chicken. The good doctor turned out to be a distant relative. When one of the interns suggested to give me a shot of pain-killer afterwards, the good doctor said.
“No need, the gentleman has already had his wine.”
Before going back to the motel for the evening, we stopped by the river to take another look. After your arm is put back, the pain disappears and my arm was snugly in a sling so I was no longer in any pain. Standing on the side of the river, I realized what I thought was the sound of thunder was not the sound of thunder. I realized this because the river was still thundering and it was no longer raining. It was then that I understood that thundering was actually the sound of boulders washing down the bottom of river, literally knocking against each other. That is how fast and how forceful this little tributary was. Thank you Army Corps. of Engineers.
When I got back to the motel we were staying at, I dawned on me if I had gone for the rocks as I originally thought I would, I would have been torn to pieces in seconds and I would not be typing this blog story today. So that is another life or death moment.
The two stories above go to show you that life and death turn on very short simple decisions and anyone can guess wrong. They also teach you that it probably better not to complicate things with self-impairment.
In both of the above cases, I had either caused the danger I was in or I had aggravated the danger I was in. There are other cases where we do not have control of moments that can result in our death.
I can give you two examples of that. One time I was flying into some airport in the Midwest and there was a very, very low cloud cover, so the pilot was operating solely on instruments. The approach seemed very long – all we could see out the window was totally dense cloud cover that was so thick you could hardly see the tip of the wing. At the last moment, the runway came into view and that was a problem because we were about 200 feet up and about 75 feet to left of the runway. The airplane pilot made an instant turn, dipping his wing almost to the ground and then righting the airplane and landing perfectly.
Another pilot who happened to be a little slower on the uptake would have crashed that plane and in those few seconds we could have been spewn all over the lawn that was the left of runway, just before we hit the solidly built concrete shacks that were also on the left. The prognosis would not have been good. Game over. So that is an example of a life or death moment that did not happen, that could have happened and if it did happen, that would not have allowed me to write this story. And so it goes.
Of course, I was blessed or fated to have a highly skilled pilot who avoided killing me. There are other instance of events overtaking us which we cannot escape, where you could be killed in seconds. I will give you an another example of one that happened to me.
One time I was in California with Archer, a cousin of mine, who suggested we run the American River and that is what we did. I will not mention how we prepared for that trip. I will only mention we were in California and it was the early 70s. Anyway, we ran down a 12 mile section of the Americsn River and had a grand time. I remember passing multiple couples sitting or standing on the vriver’s edge, either swimming or smoking joints, all completely nude. That was a very popular river running activity in California at the time.
The river trip was uneventful although I considered the scenery pretty interesting. Those hippy, dippy ladies did look pretty good with just long hair and no clothes. After the trip we decided to cruise into San Francisco, which if I remember was not to far. My cousin, who happened to be jazz musician, said we should go listen to this mellow music in this groovy black and white bar.
“It’s a good scene, man,” he said, “we got to make it.”
Archer was both a jazz musician and a New Orleans resident. When someone from New Orleans says you have got to make, well, you just have to make it. So off we went to the mellow bar somewhere in San Francisco. And indeed for the first 20 minutes or so, it was a groovy scene. There was this mellow jazz trio, a piano, a horn and a saxophone and they were going at it. My cousin and I settled into a couple of well-deserved beers and sat down sat down at a table about 12 feet from the trio and 6 feet from the bar.
We were strategically located. I was in the process of ordering another glass of mead, just as Archer slouched off to the bathroom. Archer was 6′ 3″ so his slouching amble made him seem slightly shorter, but still tall. Archer went in search of relief. That left me alone at this little 3 foot table just 12′ feet away from the mellow music. About 3 seconds after my cousin cruised towards the bathroom, a Rastafarian looking black guy with a long coat slid into one the seats at the bar. I did not pay any attention, but a few minutes later I heard the sound of a breaking glass. I know that sound and in a bar, usually it is sign of the beginning of trouble.
Anyway, the bartender and the Rastafarian guy started to have words. Both were black, but the bartender seemed to be a very clean cut, intelligent guy while the black customer seemed disheveled and ominous.
“That’s it, you are cut off,” the bartender said.
I could not make out what the Rastafarian guy said. It was a kind of a snarl – almost immediately, he walked out of the bar.
That’s cool, I thought, the dude is out of here. But that judgment turned out to be wrong because about 2 minutes later the same dude came back carrying wicker basket, which I thought was a little strange as I sipped my beer.
Then the black Rastafarian guy stood up on the foot rail of the bar, pulled a pistol out of the wicker basket and proceeded to shoot at the bartender twice.
Well, I do not know if you have ever tried to hide under a 3 foot table from a guy 6 feet away. It is not easy and the best you can say about such a situation is that you feel exposed. I was not alone. Just beyond me, just 9 feet away from the shooter, was a black girl also trying to take shelter under her 3 foot table. We looked at each other and we looked at the shooter, who was still standing on the bar railing looking over the bar, trying to get a view of the bartender who was no longer standing.
I know what we were thinking. This ain’t cool, this ain’t mellow.
I could tell the black girl was a little more accustomed to the situation than I was. She kind of crouched behind the table and did not bother to try to get fully under it. Perhaps, she understood that it really didn’t matter because if the shooter wanted to shoot bullets he could either take two steps or just shoot through the table and right into us. All I could think of was the headline in tomorrow’s San Fancisco Cronicle – “3 shot dead in mellow jazz bar.”
All during this episode my cousin Archer was nowhere to be seen. I guessed he had heard the commotion and decided it was best to hang back until the dust settled. In the meantime, I and this poor black girl were trying huddle behind our respective tables as best we could. After a few minutes the black Rastafarian guy stumbled out of the bar and seemed to go away.
Then, just as I thought the coast was clear, the black guy comes back in, pistol still in hand and steps back up on the bar railing, again, trying look over behind the bar.
“Is that guy dead yet?” The black guy with the called out. To make sure, he fired 3 more shots down behind the bar and then turned around and faced us. I am trying to think – how can I get more behind this table. But it was a hopeless cause. I was just 5 feet away, literally two steps and a pop away from death.
For whatever reason, the black guy decided this was not the night to kill more people and once again, he staggered out of the bar. This made me feel a lot better. A few minutes later, my cousin ambles up.
“That wasn’t cool, man,” my cousin said.
Lo and behold, who should be seen re-entering the bar. The same black guy with the same pistol. This time, I, the black girl and my cousin all take evasive action. We collectively head for the bathroom in hopes that there is a back door exit. Fortunately, there is. Unfortunately, it is bolted shut with some kind of padlock.
I should mention at this time, the men’s room was pretty crowded, about 8 guys and 3 girls, all screaming. Something happens to people when the fear of death is upon them. They move faster, they push harder, they shove harder. I do not know who did it or how they did it, but miraculously the exit door to the bathroom sprung open and within seconds we were all out of there in the street.
This experience shook me up. When got back to the small rental car that I had rented for the occasion and I got in, my knees shook uncontrollably for about 5 minutes. I said the obvious.
“That was not a mellow bar,” Then I started the car up and drove away, grateful that I had passed through another life or death moment.
In the long run, there are many things that can happen to a person which you have no control over. Not only can you die of any number of things instantly even before you have a chance to think it over, but you can also die slowly if you happen to be unfortunate enough get a debilitating and fatal disease such as cancer or get wounded in war. Fortunately, and I do say fortunately, that has not yet happened to me. I say not yet because we can never know really is in store for us.
I guess the takeaway from all this is that you should reduce the chances of your death as best you can. Some things are unavoidable and just appear. Other things are by your own choice. Certainly, it is not a good idea to increase any risks you take. So, if I have done learned one thing in my older age, it is to minimize risks. However, there is a strange aspect to risk. It is often quite exciting and often you feel most alive when you are closest to death. Going down a whitewater river, riding dangerous waves in the ocean, climbing a high mountain are all risks that people take of their own volition. They do so because they find it exciting, even though sometimes they are just minutes from their death.