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Near Death

I should have died. Have you ever had one of these kinds of experiences? A recent driving episode made me recall some past events similar to some things you might have gone through. Last week I drove home from work and the front end of the car seemed a little shaky. The next morning I drove away from the house on the way to work and a throbbing sound was now more noticeable. I pulled over a few blocks away and walked around the car. Nothing looked unusual. As I proceeded on to work I thought something was definitely amiss. Accelerating the vehicle produced a pulsation accompanied by the throbbing sound. Braking stopped both symptoms and felt very firm and proper. Higher speeds felt a lot better. Slowing down made the sound and pulsation return. I thought that the front brake caliper on one or both sides might be loose, though braking was normal. I had just changed the brakes for the third time in the 1990 Cavalier's 105,500 mile life just a week ago. Or maybe a tie rod was loose or going bad. Maybe a ball joint was coming apart. Maybe a wheel bearing was drying up and about to freeze. So many possibilities went through my mind as I arrived at work.

I looked at both front wheels after I exited the car, I pushed the car to see if anything would wobble. All looked fine. Driving the twenty mile drive home was the same only a bit worse maybe. High speeds didn't exhibit the symptoms much so I thought I might make it home but I also thought that I might die any number of places along the way. Maybe I'd just run off the road and have a fatal single car accident. Maybe I'd lose control and run this guy over on his bike and kill us both. I made it home and backed the car into the garage as I normally do and changed into my working-on-the-car-clothes and proceeded to take off the front right wheel. Everything looked solid, all the tie rods, the caliper, the steering mechanism, it all looked and felt fine. I put the tire back on and moved to the left front tire. Three of the 5 lug nuts were loose, and turned easily in my fingers. I took off the tire anyway just to make sure there was nothing else wrong. It was just the lug nuts. That and I was two quarts low of oil, but that had no affect on the steering. But I had to check everything anyway and that included the transmission fluid and engine oil. So it was the left wheel shaking and vibrating as I drove the car and fortunately it didn't come all the way off and kill someone, namely me. After tightening them up well enough, a test drive confirmed that was the entire problem. Discovering the low oil was just a bonus. But like I said, it got me thinking of past near death events.

I recalled one late summer's night around 1971 and I was driving back from an outdoor concert in Cleveland Stadium. A rock concert. I can't even remember now who we saw. John Neph, John Mackowski, (part of the collection known as "the 4 Johns" if John Perkovich was with us) and Gary Kiester were in the car as I remember. I was driving my 1971 Cyclone, banana yellow, 351 CID, 4 speed, no air conditioning. After a long drive to Cleveland, over a 3 hour haul, an evening made longer long sitting on a baseball field partying and listening to loud rock 'n roll, we had decided to make the drive back that night to Detroit. To Inkster, really, which was another 30 minutes further. I was driving north on Interstate 75 just the Michigan side of Toledo when found myself I opening my eyes after hearing the sound of gravel under my tires. I was travelling about 60 miles per hour or more and was within inches of the concrete median barrier. Everyone else in the car was asleep. They continued to sleep as I pulled the car back into the left lane without slowing down the car or my heart! I had been up a long time and I was not very well succeeding in staying awake. John Mackowski slouched beside me riding shotgun, napping. Neph and Kiester were asleep in the back seat. A couple times Macko asked me if I wanted to let him drive. Both times I had declined. But the second time I opened my eyes to the same scenario after they had been closed for how many seconds I knew there was no way I would make it all the way home. And I did want to make it, alive. So I nudged him and Macko permitted me to trade places and I tried to find some comfortable way to sleep in the passenger seat. But I look back now and know there was very little that kept me from ending my own life and that of three of my friends that night. Except for a gracious God. It would have been so easy to have hit that wall going freeway speeds and that would have been that.

I described an event somewhere inside the summer of 1971. It was after I bought the '71 Mercury, but before I left for the US Army in April of 1972. While in the Army, stationed at fort Lee Virginia, the other event occurred. It wasn't quite as dramatic but just as scary in its own way. Fort Lee is just outside the small town of Petersburg, the site of a large Civil War battlefield. All I had to do was cross the road where my barrack was and follow a path that entered the National Battlefield through a thick, rich forest of mainly Southern pine. These trees were so plentiful and their needles dropped to the forest floor in such abundance covering it so completely as to make a very soft carpet to walk on. So much so that it is the only woods I ever walked through barefoot. And I did so a lot. It was a magnificent forest to traverse, with a myriad of paths to follow, streams to cross or walk in, there was a log cabin that served as an example of a general store for the battlefield. It sold souvenirs to the tourists and was locked up at night. My friends and I managed to bypass the lock and help ourselves to some of the treats therein, candy, old fashioned smoking pipes that we'd fill with our own kind of tobacco.

One glorious spring Saturday morning we headed across the perimeter road from our barracks and walked down the wide path into the battlefield. I was out front the other 4 or so trailing behind. I was barefoot as usual. We had just entered the woods, had walked maybe less than a hundred feet or two, with everyone talking and joking. I was ahead of the group by a few steps and I happened to look down ahead of me on the path. I moved my gaze from the surrounding glory of the forest to a point a few feet directly in front of me. My gaze met a lazily reposed copperhead. The snake, not the politician though the country was noted for both. Two more steps and I would have stepped barefoot right on it to the accompaniment of fangs in flesh. It doesn't take too much imagination to visualize the scene. I know I have no trouble picturing it even today. A poisonous snake, no matter in what position would easily strike against its attacker with jaws wide and fangs bared dripping of venom. I don't think my pals would have been the kind to think very clearly regarding any recovery strategies once the poison started coursing through my veins. Maybe they would have been helpful. I struggle to give them the benefit of the doubt. But before taking those final two steps I froze. This sudden halt alerted my buddies that something was up and each one of them fully appreciated the gravity of such a pause. But I came so, so very close. How much time would it have taken for these guys to get me to the hospital on that Saturday morning? Would it have been in time? It would only occur to me later that I didn't consider myself ready to die. Just like the story above, I wasn't ready to, but I certainly could have. I very easily could have. But for the grace of God again. Others would just say dumb luck. I now know better.

A couple months ago it happened, only this time it was Melissa's turn. On a clear day, slightly cloudy and warm, on a clean road, just freshly resurfaced with blacktop maybe a week ago, with no other driver within fifty feet of her, driving 1998 Ford Contour, Melissa surprised herself by getting in a single car roll-over accident. She didn't have her seat belt on, her airbag didn't go off, the car rolled over onto its roof after the driver's side window smashed totally apart spreading little beads of "safety glass" all over the car and road, and skidded the last twenty feet on its roof into the side ditch. I can't say she didn't walk away without a scratch, but the miracle is that all she had was a scratch; and that was resulting from crawling out of the car, crawling on the inside roof of the car, over the beads of glass, getting a couple pieces into her knee. She could easily have died. Or have been horrible maimed. But she wasn't. Held in God's hand again? What else could it have been?

Thinking about times like these, especially when they happen to yourself, tends to make one pause and consider life and those around you in a different perspective. It may not at first be entirely noticeable, but perhaps some time later your mind considers the "what ifs." What if I went a few more inches outside the left lane? What if I continued looking at the birds in the air or the trees or the sky and not the path in front of me? One shudders at the possibilities. And considers a very large Grace.

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