Last Saturday, June 5, I came close to getting seriously injured or killed. Not only me, however, but Embry and the three immigrant children whom we were driving home from a concert in a neighboring suburb of Washington and who were riding in the back seat of our car. But Saturday was only one of many close calls that I have had over my 80 years on the planet Earth. I suspect other 80-year-olds can recall many close calls as well.
The decision I had to make was whether to turn right or left out of a narrow side street onto a busy, four-lane highway. No traffic was coming from the left, and I preferred to make a left turn to take the kids home. We were near the top of a hill, however, and on a partially blind curve, which did not allow a good view of vehicles approaching from the other side of the hill. When Embry reported that the cars coming from the right would soon clear, I glanced to the left, saw no cars, and made an instant decision to choose the left turn. I stepped on the gas. Almost immediately I heard a loud car horn blast. To my horror a white car was headed right towards us and going very fast. Where did he come from? I slammed on the brakes. The white car swerved in front of us, horn still blowing, and cleared us by inches. Trembling, I completed the left turn. Embry commented, “Whew, that was a close one!”
And if any of those children in the back seat had been injured or worse….Oh, my goodness! The very thought of it is unbearable.
We were lucky. Very lucky.
This close call prompted my memory about several other close calls I have had over the years. In the summer of 1981, when I had just started my consulting practice in affordable and seniors housing, the head of a community development corporation in the Bronx, which I was assisting, had volunteered to give me ride to a convenient spot where I could take the subway to LaGuardia Airport to catch a flight home. She had a small Toyota. I was seated in the front beside her, and three of her employees were squeezed into the back seat. As we drove along a 12-lane expressway through the Bronx, the skies suddenly opened, and rain began to pour down so hard that it was close to impossible to see the road ahead of us. Nevertheless, she persisted, maintaining a speed of 65-70 miles an hour, passing other cars right and left. My heart started to beat fast, and I clutched the seat as we sped by one car after another.
Then it happened. The car spun out of control as it started to hydroplane. We were on the inside lane of six lanes. The vehicle made a full 360 degree turn, putting us in middle lane as cars continued to speed past us on both sides. How could they have missed us? It was at this point that I was convinced that I was going to die. I was certain that there was no way we could keep from getting hit. I remember seeing a mystical picture of my entire life swirl before me. Everything was in slow motion. It was as if I were having an out of body experience, viewing the experience as a spectator. The time it took for the car to complete a second 360-degree turn seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly, bang! We came to an abrupt stop. The car hit the guardrail on the outer edge of the expressway. We had crossed five lanes of heavy traffic in a deluge, made two complete 360-degree turns and had not been hit by another car. No one said a word.
The driver then turned off the expressway at the next exit, ordered everyone out of the car and, trembling, said she was driving home. I was able to get a cab to the airport. The others headed for the subway.
The third close call was on a U.S. Airways flight headed to San Diego in 1986 where I was attending a seniors housing conference. As we approached San Diego, the voice of the pilot announced that there was a “slight problem” with the landing gear and that the landing would be delayed by a few minutes. That got everyone’s attention as concerned passengers gave each other puzzled looks. About fifteen minutes later, his voice came on the loudspeaker again and provided the details: The landing gear was stuck and would not come down.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “We will be circling San Diego until we deplete our fuel supply to avoid an unfortunate situation when we land.” I interpreted this as meaning he did not want the plane to blow up when we crashed.
Suddenly a chill came over the cabin. I heard a female voice moan “Oh, my God!” Flight attendants then moved in to take the seats of all the passengers seated by the exits. All passengers remained silent. Everyone, that is, except the age 50-something lady, who was a realtor seated next to me by the window. As we circled the city for about 30 minutes, she nervously pointed out the roofs of every house she could identify that she had sold in the last 20 years.
Then the captain’s voice came on again. “Well, folks, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that finally we got the landing gear deployed. The bad news is that our instrument panel shows that it is not secured. If the instrument indicators are working, that means the wheels will collapse, so you will want to hold on tight. Could be a bumpy landing. We are going to make one more circle, this time flying very low, past the control tower, and I have asked them to look at the landing gear and tell me if they think the wheels are locked in. Then we will do one more circle and land the aircraft.”
As we flew past the control tower, I counted six fire engines, over a dozen ambulances, and several trucks with local TV crews. The runway was covered with foam.
The realtor asked, “Well, since the plane is running out of fuel, it probably won’t blow up, right?”
We were then instructed to go into the tuck position.
As we approached the runway, I counted down the seconds until we would land, wondering if these would be my last. Five, four, three, then bang, our wheels hit. I held my breath. The wheels held! Thunderous applause!
The last close call I will describe here was a sailing incident, and I have had several sailing close calls. This one, however, was the most serious.
In the early 1990s I was on a long cruise from the Chesapeake Bay up to New England and back. I was skippering our Alberg 30, “Amazing Grace,” as we reached the Chesapeake Bay Canal, connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware Bay, around three in the morning. My son, Andrew, and his friend, Adam, were asleep, and my friend, Kenton, was on watch. A dense fog had set in as we approached what I assumed to be the first bridge over the canal. All we could see were the lights on the bridge which we could barely make out as we motored toward it. (This was before anyone had a GPS, requiring a good bit of guessing as to where you were.)
Suddenly, we heard the first of five thundering horn blasts. What we thought was a bridge was actually a giant container ship! When you hear five blasts that means get the hell out of the way. They see you, but they can’t stop or maneuver. But which way to turn? Right or left? I turned right. Another horn blast. Wrong way! Sharp turn back to the left as the giant ship ghosted past us, with no more than a few yards between us. If it had hit us head on, there is no telling what would have happened, but it would not have been pretty.
Life is indeed a matter of inches. A few inches closer and the white car would have collided with our car on the driver’s side going probably 50 miles an hour. An inch or two closer on the Bronx Expressway would surely have meant a collision with one or more cars. And an inch or two on the landing gear apparatus would have meant we would be landing without wheels. Surely, a few inches closer to the giant container ship would have destroyed our boat—and probably us.
Every now and then I think about guardian angels. Embry is sure she has one. I think I must too. How else do you explain escaping these close calls? Some would say that it is all luck. Maybe so, but why are some people lucky and some are not? And if there are guardian angels, why are some so much better doing their job than others? Another one of life’s unanswerable questions. I am just grateful that after 80 years of close calls (most due to my own mistakes) I am still alive and kicking.
Thanks, Guardian Angel!