Whenever I’m around friends or family who complain about how tough things are, how nothing’s what it used to be, how the quality of life has diminished and life itself seems almost futile, I’m at times jolted to a higher standard of life appreciation by some immediate life-threatening event. Because no matter how bleak things might seem, bleak is always better than black, where The End is followed by Fade Out.
I was reminded of this recently when my wife and I were in our car. We were talking, waiting for a light to change, when a fancy Ferrari made a very sharp turn onto Wilshire Blvd, went into a skid, and came within inches of smashing into the driver’s side of my car. I could see the look of panic on the Ferrari driver’s face as he struggled to regain control. His car swerved right, then left, and in a flash I broke into a profound sweat, because I knew that my life was about to end, and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t step on the gas because there were cars in front of me; I couldn’t go into reverse because there were cars behind me; I couldn’t maneuver to my right because there were cars alongside me. We were trapped in our car, this Ferrari was coming at us at a crazy angle, and I didn’t have time for my entire life to flash before me. All I could do was shout an expletive and wait for the moment of impact.
By some freak stroke of luck, at the very last second the Ferrari straightened out and shot past us. We were spared the sickening crash of metals, the crippling injury to my wife, and the most certain end of my life.
My hands were soaking wet, my mouth was dry, the blood drained from my face—all in an instant. Then the light changed and the traffic began to move. “Did you see how close we came?” I asked my wife. I wasn’t even sure if she had been aware of what almost happened to my side of the car, it was that fast. “Did you see!?”
I could barely drive. I just wanted to pull over and walk on firm ground. I had just escaped death. We were on our way to see a movie, the weather was warm, we were talking about our daughters, everything was nice and peaceful, and the reckless behavior of this other driver trying to turn a corner at a high speed changed the complexion of the evening. By the time we were sitting in the movie theater, all I could think about was how close I had just come to being in an emergency hospital room instead. And that thought led me to think about other near-death experiences I’ve had over the years.
Along with this one, I counted six others.
The first occurred when I was seven years old and ran across the street where the old ladies sat in their folding chairs outside our Bay Parkway apartment building in Brooklyn. I slipped on the curb and fell just as a car was crossing the intersection and from the ladies’ and driver’s points of view it looked like the car had hit me. In fact, I found myself looking up at the underside of the vehicle. The driver had come to a screeching stop just over me. I didn’t stay under there very long—I was too frightened to show myself and be bawled out by these women, who knew my mother, or yelled at by the driver, who must have thought he’d be facing kid slaughter charges. I crawled out the rear end of the car and ran toward the apartment building, looking back to see the driver and the women checking for my remains under the car. I took the elevator to the sixth floor, where we lived, and ran straight through the living room to the bathroom, where I locked myself in. When the doorbell rang a few minutes later and two of the women who had witnessed what had happened told my mother that I had been hit by a car, my mother corrected them, saying I was in the apartment.
When I was fifteen, I convinced my mother that it was legal for me to drive her car in the daytime with my junior permit. I took her Rambler to a friend’s house on a cold day in February. The lawns and sidewalks in our Long Island neighborhood were covered with snow and the streets were icy. When I got back into the car to drive home, a friend, who had his license, challenged me to a race. I accepted and we drove like two hot rodders down the empty street until we came to a stop sign. My friend didn’t stop, but I hit the brakes and went into an out-of-control skid that swept me off the street and onto the sidewalk, plowing through the snow on someone’s lawn, right towards their house. I couldn’t steer and wound up with my hands off the steering wheel as I prepared to smash into the brick side wall. But then, miraculously, the car did a 180 degree turn and headed back towards the street, finally crashing into a tree. The car was damaged but I wasn’t. How I avoided that house though was something I’ve thought about over the years.
In the summer of 1966 I returned home from my sophomore year in college when James Meredith was shot and killed in Mississippi. My friend called me and said we had to fly to Memphis and join the civil rights march in protest of that killing. That was a very hot summer and we were given salt pills to compensate for what we sweated out as we marched. It was also a very angry summer in Mississippi, where Stokely Carmichael introduced the phrase “Black power” (as in: “What do we want?” “Black power”), and Martin Luther King spoke to us about civil disobedience in churches during the evenings. But where we came close to being killed was when we all camped out in large tents in open fields each night. There were as many as a hundred tired marchers in each tent and one night some uncivil rednecks decided to open fire from a distance. Bullets tore through the tent we were in, whizzing past us like deadly insects. No one was wounded that night, but we all felt like sitting ducks, huddled inside a white canvas tent, being used as target practice by those who felt our presence was disturbing their peace.