Moments in a Life: Living Dangerously
The Years of Living Dangerously
That is to say, all of them. When is life not dangerous? Only after you're dead, and then it doesn't matter, does it. As Richard Feynman once wrote, “you only live one life: you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do—and that's the end of you.”
Through the eyes of a child
I was born on the 24th day of October 1931 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Seems like a simple enough statement, doesn’t it? But few things in this world are simple, and even this innocent-looking fact requires some explanation. My parents, Gordon Nutter Thayer and Doris Margaret Nicholas, were married in a Congregational church in Montclair, New Jersey on January 17, 1931. They rented an apartment at 189 Liberty Street in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where they set up housekeeping. Bloomfield is two towns east of Montclair, and Glen Ridge lies in between the two. The hospital closest to where my parents lived is Mountainside Hospital, which is located in Glen Ridge. Hence that is my birthplace.
My parents’ apartment on Liberty Street was very small, so shortly after my arrival in this unsuspecting world we moved to a second-floor walkup at 156 Orange Street, still in Bloomfield. The first floor of this building was occupied by a small grocery store at the time (it has since been converted to an apartment). The location was only one block away from Bloomfield Avenue, a major east-west thoroughfare. I have no memories that I can place in that apartment. When my mother became pregnant again, she and my father began looking for a bigger place to live. They found a first floor for rent in a house at 212 Hillside Avenue in Glen Ridge. We probably moved there in the summer of 1933, since my brother Richard was born January 21, 1934. I was not yet two years old when we made this move, so it’s no surprise I can’t remember anything that happened at the Orange Street place.
The oldest memories I have are of times when I was crawling, not walking yet. My mother tells me that I first walked at the age of seven months but fell and hurt myself badly enough that I refused to try it again until I was over one year old. Apparently I was fond of reverting to crawling even well after walking became my principal form of locomotion. In any event, I believe that my earliest memories go back to when I was not quite two years of age.
The school of hard knocks
A number of my earliest memories are real humdingers. They involve moments of severe pain. Such experiences are, of course, more indelibly etched in our memories than any others. There is a survival value in remembering things that really hurt. No doubt some of the experiences I am about to describe will surprise you. In this day of agencies like OSHA and EPA, when Big Brother is practically breathing down your neck every minute of the day and thousands of laws and regulations exist to protect you against both the actions (or inaction) of others and things you do yourself, these memories of mine may seem nightmarish. But just look at what the future could bring! You may yet see, in the words of Art Buchwald—I think it was he who said this, or was it Mike Royko?—the day when everything that is not prohibited is mandatory. Think about that for a while!
In any event, the world I grew up in was wilder, much less regulated, and vastly more dangerous than the world of today. In those days the electric outlets in houses—at least the one we lived in—were placed in the baseboard very close to the floor. And they contained not a receptacle for a plug or two, but a receptacle for a screw-in socket, such as those for light bulbs. In order to plug things in one had to screw in one of those little doodads that have a plug receptacle and threads like a light bulb. Then one plugged the appliance into the doodad. Of course, if one removed the little screw-in plug it left an open light bulb socket right at floor level, complete with live 120-volt electricity just waiting for the unwary. This dangerous contraption was also right where a baby crawling along the floor could stick his fingers in it. And that’s exactly what I did one day. I was crawling along when I saw this opening right in front of me. There was a shiny little something right inside it, so naturally I poked my finger in there to see what it was. What I got was a shock that damned near shook me to bits and pieces. You’d better believe I never did that again. And you can also believe that my parents were henceforth much more careful about leaving one of those outlets with nothing screwed into it.
When I was a little older, but still given to crawling around on the floor a lot, I had a similar experience. My father had built a radio which he put into a rather nice cabinet. The cabinet had legs holding the main enclosure about a foot off the floor. In the wooden bottom of the cabinet holding the radio there was a cut-out, through which it was possible to see some of the guts of the radio receiver itself. Through this cut-out dangled a thick wire wrapped in black friction tape (this was before electrical tape had been invented). The end of this wire had been snipped off, and the cut off ends of the two copper conductors looked like the bright little eyes of some kind of snake that was hanging through the cut-out. But it was a “snake” that never moved.
For months—or was it weeks?—those two eyes fascinated me. Many times I looked at them but was afraid to find out what they were. One day I finally got up the courage to reach out and touch those bright little eyes. I got a terrible electrical shock for my trouble. Dad told me many years later that there were 250 volts D.C. across those conductors. I know—I found out the hard way.
Then there was the soldering iron. One day when my father was working on some project, he left his soldering iron lying across an ash tray—or something similar—on the floor. I came crawling along and saw it. The shiny molten solder on the tip looked interesting to me, so I reached out and grabbed for it. The pain was instantaneous and horrible. That was another thing I never did again. I can still remember lying in bed for many days with my burned hand dangling in a pot of cold water. I would call my mother to refresh the pot with ice whenever the water got warm enough that the pain returned to my hand, which it did with relentless regularity. My mother still remembered this in 1997. She said, “I felt so sorry for you.” I guess it made quite an impression on her, too.
The ice, by the way, Mom got from a genuine ice box. We didn’t have a refrigerator then. Every couple of days the ice man came, a big hairy fellow who lugged in a big block of ice he held onto with large, sharp-pointed iron tongs. He wrestled this block of ice into the top compartment of our icebox. There it melted slowly, cooling the lower compartment of the ice box where we kept our perishable foods. It was a crude system, but it worked. To get ice cubes you chipped some off the block with an ice pick. I don’t remember what happened to the water from the melting block of ice.
From this sort of thing came the expression “the ice man cometh.”
As Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story.
The scary world outside
Not long after I burned my hand on the soldering iron I began venturing outdoors. The world outside was, I soon discovered, a scary place. The first scary thing I encountered was Billy Foley. The Foleys owned the house at 212 Hillside Avenue and lived in the second-floor apartment, which had a separate entrance from the front porch. As I recall, the father was a football coach for a school in some other town, such as Verona. Billy was their little boy. He was about six months older than I and considerably more physical. He soon took to bullying me and frequently chased me around our backyard, which was not much larger than a postage stamp. My mother tells me that she used to root for me from the kitchen window and that one day I finally did turn on him. She says he was one surprised little boy. Sad to say, the lesson to me did not sink in.
I have only the vaguest recollections of Billy Foley, certainly none I could put a face to. My mother told me that once when we were visiting the Foleys in their upstairs apartment, Billy fell down the stairs leading to their first-floor entrance. When the two mothers arrived on the scene, they found me standing at the top of the stairs laughing and Billy lying on the bottom landing bawling his head off. No one knew if I had pushed him or was just enjoying his bad luck. He required a number of stitches in his scalp after this incident. What my complicity was in this I’ve no idea, but I have my suspicions.
Not long after this I began exploring the world outside my back yard, which I found was even scarier. There were kids out there who made Billy Foley look like a saint. These were bullies—and wherever I went during my childhood there never seemed to be any shortage of them—who, seeing in me an easy victim, always made short and brutal work of me. Soon I found that there were also girls in the neighborhood, who were non-violent and safe to be with. They were fun to play with and never wanted to beat me up. (No, I don’t remember if we ever played “doctor.”) So I started mostly playing with girls. This I eventually discovered was a huge mistake. It marked me as a sissy, although at the time I had no idea what sissies were. I guess I should have put up with the frequent poundings. But that’s hindsight, and at the time my course of action seemed highly preferable to the alternative.
There was another boy in my neighborhood who played with the girls a lot. His name was Richard Russell, and he soon became my first real friend. He lived right next to Central School, the elementary school that was half a block from my house. I guess the other boys thought he was a sissy, too. I know that he and I were the only kids to cry when our mothers left us on the first day of school in kindergarten—in both cases because our mothers had deceived us into thinking they would be with us all day. I don’t know what became of Richard because his family moved away sometime during the first two years of school (kindergarten and first grade). I don’t think he was really a “sissy” any more than I was. Just a kid who, like me, was not very physical and was unsure of himself. Richard Russell, wherever you are, I hope you’ve had a good life. You were truly a kindred soul.
It wasn’t until some sixty years later that it suddenly occurred to me one day that perhaps this first day in school incident was, at least in part, responsible for my having developed a very strong sense of independence while I was still very young. The confidence that this sense of independence engendered sometimes got me into trouble, but more often it resulted in meaningful gains in my life. The realization of this probable connection finally dispelled the resentment I had long felt over this incident.
Also during this pre-school period I made an even worse mistake than playing with girls. There was this little Italian kid who delivered newspapers on our block every day. He may have been about my age but he was somewhat bigger than I was (as were almost all the boys my age). He probably lived in a nearby section of Montclair called “Little Italy.” In those days we called Italian kids “ginneys” or “wops.” Prejudice was a way of life back then and practically nobody questioned it. The wops probably had their own word for us Caucasians, and I’m sure it wasn’t very nice. No doubt something like the modern Black term for Whites: “honkies.” I used to play at that time with a boy who lived across the street a few doors down from my house. His house had a large front porch enclosed by a wooden railing, like the one at our house but bigger—it ran the full width of the house. This friend of mine and I got to teasing this paperboy as he made his rounds. Then one day the kid got tired of our teasing, dropped his bike in the middle of the street and headed for my friend’s porch, where we were standing. We ran for the front door, but my friend got in first and slammed and locked the door on me. I pounded on the door to no avail. I was trapped. I retreated to the end of the porch. The paperboy walked up to me purposefully, smashed me a good one in the nose, and left looking satisfied.
I had a glass nose when I was young, which was another reason I was no good at fighting. All the other kid had to do was land one punch on my nose and it would bleed like a stuck pig, which made further fighting impossible. This was the first time I found out what happened when I got punched in the nose, and needless to say I didn’t like it. Years later in thinking about this incident it occurred to me that my friend’s mother probably put him up to slamming the door in my face. He probably convinced his mother that teasing the paperboy was all my fault, even though he got into it as much as I did, and she thought it would teach me a good lesson. Regardless of the truth, I had made an enemy of this Italian kid, and he would be the scourge of my existence for years afterward. I never knew his name. I always called him “the bad kid.”
Henceforth I hid every time I saw The Bad Kid. Trouble was, sometimes he saw me before I saw him. Then the result was always the same: a bloody nose. He would walk up to me without saying a word, punch me in the nose, and leave. Once I was climbing a tree down by the railroad crossing with a friend named William Trimmer. The Bad Kid came riding by on his bike, saw me in the tree, got off the bike and prepared to assault me. Fearing he might throw me out of the tree, I decided to climb down and face the music. Trimmer got down from the tree first, and The Bad Kid prepared to paste him one. “Not me, him!” yelled William, evidently having no more taste for a bloody nose than I had. The Bad Kid quickly changed targets and nailed me again.
Once I managed to get away scot-free. The Bad Kid cornered me and instead of punching me out he told me he wanted something of mine, I don’t remember what. Somehow I convinced him to let me go home to get whatever it was. Of course, I never went back. After fifteen minutes or so The Bad Kid came riding by and seeing me looking at him from the back of my house gave me a knowing look that said, “You got away with it this time, but I’ll get you yet.” And I knew he would. This was after we had moved to 61 High Street, about a block and a half away from the Hillside Avenue house.
The last time I saw The Bad Kid was after we had moved yet again, a mile or so away to a house at 2 Inness Place. We had been there maybe six months to a year when The Bad Kid came riding by one day and happened to see me standing on the sun deck over the garage. He gave me that knowing look that said, “Okay, sucker, I know where you live now. I’m gonna get you one of these days.” To my eventual surprise I never saw him again. Perhaps his family moved away to a better place, or perhaps he died of some childhood disease. I don’t know; I only know I was glad not to see him any more.
But The Bad Kid was far from being the only bad guy in my young life. There were lots of minor baddies, but one of the worst was Wally Sikes. This kid was like evil incarnate. The very first time I ever saw him I found out he was bad news. My little brother—whom we called “Dickie” then—and I were playing in the big sandbox on the south end of the Central School yard. In those days the school yard gates were left open all the time, instead of being chained and locked when school was not in session as they are nowadays. I happened to look up and saw this kid walk through the gate nearest us. To my astonishment he immediately bent over, picked up a good-sized stone, and hurled it in our direction. I watched it as it sailed through the air, making a slow-motion arc against the blue sky. I turned my head as it passed over me only to see it hit my brother in the temple with a horrible “thwack,” sending him sprawling in the sand. For a split-second I thought he was dead, but to my relief he got up and started hollering bloody murder. I managed to get him home where my mother applied first aid. He started blubbering that I had thrown the rock at him, but fortunately for me Mom didn’t believe him. There was nothing she could do about it, though, because I had no idea who the kid was. But I remembered his face, and before long I found out his name. It was not one I’d soon forget.
To school, perchance to learn
I started kindergarten in September 1936 at the tender age of four years and eleven months. Back then you were admitted to kindergarten if you turned five years old before October 31st. I made it by just seven days. As a result I was the youngest kid in the class, a situation that followed me all the way through high school. This fact, combined with my skinny, small-boned physique, made me the runt of every class I entered, which further exacerbated my victimization by bullies. Nowadays a child must have turned five years old before the school year starts in order to be admitted. Had such a rule been in effect back in 1936 I would have had to wait another year to start school and would have been one of the oldest in my class. My whole childhood might have turned out differently. On such small details have kingdoms been lost and kings beheaded. I was only a small pawn in a big chess game, but you will surely understand that I took the whole thing quite personally.
After my disastrous first day, during which I even lay down on the floor so I could peek under the door of the girls restroom—in those days we called it simply the “girls room”—to see if perhaps my mother was in there before giving up and bawling with Richard Russell, things went from bad to worse. One day I talked my mother into letting me go to the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Hillside to “watch the trolleys go by.” What I really did was try to get one to stop for me so I could go for a ride. None of them did, and even if one had happened to stop in order to discharge a passenger, I’m sure the driver would not have allowed me on board. The trolley and bus drivers knew how to handle brat kids who were too big for their britches. During all of this, unbeknownst to me, my kindergarten teacher had been watching me. After school the next day the teacher, a Mrs. Buchanon, cornered me. “Yesterday,” she began, “I saw a little boy standing and standing on the corner, trying to catch a trolley ride. If I ever see him doing that again, he’ll be sorry.” I went home in a huff. What right had she to berate me about something I had done when school was not in session? The nerve of the woman!
Mrs. Buchanon was, however, the least of my worries. I don’t remember much about those early school years, and perhaps that’s for the best. I do remember once in the first grade when the teacher asked if any of us drank coffee. Seeing a chance to make an impression I raised my hand and volunteered that I drank two cups every day. It was, of course, a bald-faced lie, for which I soon paid the penalty. After school several of the boys in my class bushwhacked me and beat the stuffing out of me. “There,” I remember one of them saying, “That’ll teach you to drink coffee every day.” Seldom, I think, has a lie been so promptly rewarded.
The worm turns
All of this pounding I was taking at the hands of others was beginning to have a profound effect on me. With the hindsight of maturity I believe that my impressionable young mind was learning something from the beatings I was getting: that in this world the strong take the weak and that there might be some satistfaction, perhaps even some enjoyment, in doing so. This was a sad lesson to have learned and was to have a great effect on my behavior throughout the remainder of my childhood. I soon found opportunities to exercise what little power I possessed to the detriment of those few weaker than myself, even if that weakness were only the result of a given situation.
The earliest such incident that I can recall was probably not a result of the above lesson, but seems to fit here and is interesting in its own right as an example of the power of non-verbal communication. It dates back to when I was perhaps five years old and my brother, about three.
The house where we lived on Hillside Avenue had a smallish front porch, the floor of which was about three feet above the surrounding yard. There was a wooden balustrade about three feet high running around this porch. Every house on our block had a porch like this, although some, as I have mentioned, were much bigger. The porch on the house next door was easy to see, since there was only an alley perhaps six feet wide separating the two houses. And you thought they were building houses close together nowadays!
One fine day my brother and I were playing on this porch with some new toys. These were cars or trucks of some sort. Soon one of our neighbors, a kid we knew as Petey, came over to play with us. Petey lived across the street from us and could be a pain in the neck sometimes. This was one of those times. In no time at all we found he was monopolizing our new toys. While he was engrossed running one of our trucks along the top of the porch railing next to the alley way, Dickie and I looked at each other. Somehow, each of us knew what the other was thinking. With a knowing look at each other and a nod of the head, we turned in unison, grabbed Petey by the ankles, lifted him over the railing, held him for an instant hanging over the alley, and then dropped him on his head. He went home bawling. I don’t remember what punishment was meted out to us for this incident, but I suspect it wasn’t pleasant.
This same kid Petey was the victim of my first real power play a couple of years later. A bunch of us were playing hide and seek in the school yard of Central School. Petey was “it,” and he sat down on a large rock to count. This was on the north side of the school, where the land had been left pretty much the way it must have been when the whole place was just a vacant lot. There were lots of trees and bushes and large rocks all over the hillside. I hid behind a nearby bush but soon realized that Petey did not really know how to count. For some reason—and I don’t think that even then I had any idea what that reason was—I picked up a piece of iron pipe and began to sneak up on Petey from behind. I thought surely he would finish counting before I reached him and open his eyes and see me. But he didn’t. I got closer and closer and the stupid kid just kept trying to count. Finally I was right behind him and the moment of truth had arrived. Without thinking I brought the pipe down sharply on his head. Fortunately, I wasn’t very strong or I might have killed the boy. He fell over, then jumped up and ran screaming for home. I decided to retreat up the hillside and go down High Street and Bellville Avenue in order to reach the safety of home. Alas, halfway down the block on High Street I encountered none other than Wally Sikes, who proceeded to terrorize me for about twenty minutes. By the time I got home my nerves were already worn to a frazzle. Then my parents jumped me for what I had done to poor Petey. I imagine they tanned my hide good and proper. I found out later that Petey’s head had required something like eleven stitches to repair. In those days the severity of most injuries was gauged by the number of stitches they required. These days they just count the bullet holes.
For some reason Petey avoided me like the plague after that.
You might think I would have learned something from this, but if I did it was only that it wasn’t a good idea to hit other kids over the head with an iron pipe. (Back then we called them “lead pipes,” but they weren’t made of lead, of course. If that one really had been made of lead I probably wouldn’t have even been able to lift it, let alone hit Petey over the head with it.)
Another way I devised of gaining an advantage over others was to outsmart them by persuading them to do something that would either get them in trouble or cause them to be exposed to danger. Once, in a fit of jealousy, I tried to get rid of my brother by telling him to ride his tricycle across Belleville Avenue, which was a busy street. Fortunately, he was smart enough, even though two years younger than I, to see that this was a dumb idea.
1938: Another year of living dangerously
You will understand, I hope, that I refer to the school year that began in 1938. Youngsters tend to see it that way, the school year overshadowing the calendar year decisively. It started out with a hurricane. On the 21st day of September I emerged after school into pouring rain. Much to my surprise, there was my mother come to get me with an umbrella. As we walked to the house in the wind and rain I asked Mom what was going on that she should come to get me. She replied, “Your father said something about a hurricane.” It was the Great New England hurricane of 1938, and while my mother and I were walking home in the rain, it was wreaking incredible destruction on our beloved Fire Island.
For the last few years we had been going to Fire Island for a two-week vacation, renting a small cottage in the little resort village of Kismet Beach. Kismet Beach was owned lock, stock, and barrel by a nice Jewish couple named Weiss. They were still living there when the hurricane struck without warning that afternoon. Years later I chanced to overhear my parents telling some of their friends what happened that fateful afternoon. It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Weiss had another couple they knew over to play bridge. Suddenly there was a loud noise outside as the storm surge from the hurricane overran the island. Mrs. Weiss, who was something like six or seven months pregnant at the time, went to the front door to see what was the matter. When she opened the storm door, the wind snatched it out of her grasp and blew it away. Terrified, she grabbed desperately for the iron railing that was anchored in the concrete front stoop. At the same time water began rushing over the stoop, threatening to sweep her away. She hung onto the iron railing with grim determination. As the water rose swiftly, the little house shuddered and was suddenly carried off, leaving poor Mrs. Weiss clinging to the railing in the raging storm. For some two hours she held on, until the storm finally abated. When the Coast Guard came looking for survivors, they found her still holding onto the iron railing, nearly incoherent. The entire village of Kismet Beach was gone—swept into Great South Bay. All that remained were the shattered remains of the amusement hall where they used to have dances in the summer, its roof blown off and sticking up out of the water like some derelict. The bodies of her husband and their two friends were never found.
Remains of the Rec Hall After the Hurricane
Photo by Gordon Nutter Thayer (my father)
When we went back to Fire Island in the summer of 1939, we stayed in Saltaire, a larger village located about a half-mile north of Kismet Beach. We could see the roof of the dance hall still jutting out of the waters of Great South Bay. We found that where Kismet Beach used to be, the storm had cut a channel completely through the island, making it impossible to go any farther in that direction. The eye of the hurricane must have passed right over the place. This meant we could no longer walk to the Fire Island lighthouse. It didn’t really matter, though: so ferocious was the storm it had cracked the famous lighthouse, so visitors were not allowed up there any more. (They have since repaired it, and it is once more open to the public.)
While my brother and I were digging in the sand of the bayside beach one day, we struck something hard about six inches below the surface. We decided to dig up whatever it was. It turned out to be the front door from a 1937 Ford. Just the door, nothing more.
Thus was the power of a hurricane impressed upon me at an early age.
This episode was even stranger because automobiles of any kind were prohibited on Fire Island. There was only one vehicle on the island, a flatbed truck with side rails that was used to pick up the trash. Where that car door came from is very much a mystery.
At about the same time that the hurricane struck, my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. The doctors said he had only a short time to live. Recognizing that my grandmother and aunt would be in severe financial straits after Grandpa’s death, my parents rented a house at 61 High Street where there would be room for the two of them to move in with us for a while. High Street was a very short block up Belleville Avenue from Hillside Avenue, and the new house was just a half block north of Belleville Avenue. So our new home was only a hop, skip, and a jump from our old one. We must have moved in October of 1938.
One day in late October 1938, the four of us—Mom, Dad, Dickie, and I—went to Mountainside Hospital to say goodby to Grandpa. Of course, we kids didn’t know that was what was happening, but it was. Dad went in by himself first, while Mom stayed with us kids—in those days children under the age of twelve were not allowed inside a hospital. After Dad returned, we stood there for a while, and then Grandpa appeared in the third floor window of the hospital and waved to us. They must have wheeled his bed down the corridor so he could be by the window. It was obvious even to a little kid like me that it took a great effort on his part to do this. After waving bravely to his grandchildren, poor Grandpa fell back in his bed as though all of his energy was gone—which it probably was. It was the last time we ever saw him.
When Dad told us sometime later that Grandpa had passed away, both Dickie and I cried. We were very sad because Grandpa was a great guy and was always nice to us kids. We missed him a lot. He died on the second day of November 1938.
Then, just before Thanksgiving, I came down with scarlet fever. In those days it was considered a dangerous, communicable disease. An ambulance was summoned to take me to the Essex County Isolation Hospital—called “Soho”—which was in Nutley. I remember being embarrassed when the ambulance driver sounded the siren so he would not have to stop for the traffic signal where Bellville Avenue crossed Broad Street (in Bloomfield).
I was in that hospital for two entire months—it seemed like an eternity to a seven-year-old. I missed both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but at least I survived the scarlet fever. Not all of the children in the “Soho” hospital were that lucky. I remember there was a little girl in a room down the hall from mine who sounded like she was gargling continuously. The nurses told me that her throat was being irrigated in an attempt to control the scarlet fever. Then one day the gargling stopped. When I asked a nurse what happened, she replied with a tear in her eye that the little girl had died.
David was the son of the man who was the mayor of Glen Ridge during World War II. I suppose he felt that this gave him the power of a deputy sheriff or something like that. In those days I used to play with a boy named Blaine Luce. Blaine lived in a house on Snowden Place that backed up to the south side of the DL&W railroad right-of-way, just east of the Glen Ridge station. There was a six-foot tall iron picket fence running behind all the houses on Blaine’s side of the street, to keep people from trespassing on the railroad right-of-way. In the back of Blaine’s backyard there was a hole under the fence big enough for young boys to wriggle through from one side to the other.
One day Blaine and I were playing around on the railroad property. We walked down the platform, which ran all the way to the next cross street, Hillside Avenue, which went under the tracks. There were stairs running down to the street for the convenience of passengers who lived in that area. There was also a street light under a green metal shade, which we could see from the railroad overpass. Blaine and I dropped stones on that metal shade until we finally broke the light that was underneath it. At that point we heard a boy’s voice yell “Hey! Don’t do that!”
It was David Minasian, who was about a year older than we were. When he started coming up the stairs to the railroad platform, Blaine and I turned and ran like hell. Blaine made it under the fence to his backyard. I didn’t. Minasian dragged me down to the Glen Ridge Station platform, where he held me hostage for about an hour. Every time a train went by, he acted wild and crazy, but he never let me go. Finally he announced that he was going to have to sock me for having broken the street light. He asked if I wanted it “on the chin or in the stomach.” Well, getting socked in the jaw didn’t really appeal to me, so I said, “In the stomach.” Minasian hauled off and punched me a good one right in the solar plexus. It knocked the wind completely out of me. For about a minute I could not catch my breath; I thought I was going to die. Of course, I didn’t. But you’d better believe I didn’t fool around in David Minasian’s neighborhood again.
What a nerve that kid had! A self-appointed, 15-year-old deputy. Vigilantes—ugh!
Earlier I described some terrible events I went through as a very young child. Strange to say, this sort of thing did not end as I grew up but continued unabated throughout my life. In time, I became accustomed to these happenings and hardly gave them a thought. In fact, there have been so many such narrow escapes from death that I’m sure I cannot recall all of them. Therefore I shall recount as many of them as I can remember. My readers may draw their own conclusions from these episodes. (Some of them involve my wife, Retta, whom I married in 1956; she passed away from pulmonary fibrosis secondary to scleroderma in August of 2011.)
One of my early close calls was when I was in summer camp in 1943. This was Camp Kaaterskill—“The Green Mountain Camp for Boys”—near Pownal, Vermont, Mr. Herbert W. Lorenz, Director (my mother kept some letters my brother and I wrote from there on camp stationery). I had been selected to be the coxswain for our cabin in a boat race, undoubtedly because I was too skinny to make a good oarsman. The night before the race I was wakened rudely about midnight. I was told there was a tradition that coxswains were thrown into the lake the night before a race. I was stunned. It was a death sentence. I knew with a terrible certainty what was going to happen. They would take me to the end of the dock, where the water was over my head, and throw me in. I could not swim, and in the darkness and confusion I would surely drown. I felt the pit of my stomach fall down to somewhere around my ankles. But I was not about to say anything. Instead, I let them carry me over their heads, out of the cabin and down across the broad expanse of lawn that led to the lake and its fateful dock. I found myself strangely calm for a small boy who was going to his death. I think that something deep inside me knew it was not going to happen. Suddenly an adult male voice cut through the blackness of the night. ‘‘What’s going on here?’’ I’ll never forget those words as long as I live. It was Mr. Lorenz, the camp director, and he quickly established that, tradition or no, there was going to be no dunking of anyone that night.
It was obvious from what Mr. Lorenz said that he had not been aware of any such goings on in the past, although he had been director of the camp for a number of years. Much later in life I would reflect on how strange it was that this midnight dunking had gone on for years, only to come to an abrupt end just in the nick of time to save my poor hide. Truth must surely be stranger than fiction.
I almost came a cropper anyway. During the so-called races there came a point where I was supposed to transfer from my boat to a small cabin cruiser. I don’t remember why any more. At any rate, I didn’t jump far enough. I fell in the water and just managed to grab somebody’s hand as I was about to go under. In the confusion, I didn’t have time to be scared. I had no life jacket. Can you imagine in this day and age a bunch of kids out in a lake with no life jackets? It would be unheard of today. Back then, nobody thought anything of it.
A hail-covered road
In the late 1950s, when we were returning from a trip to Missouri to visit Retta’s mother, we ran into some really bad weather in western Kansas. While traveling through a particularly violent thunder storm, a bolt of lightning struck our car. We knew this because the entire landscape around us was lit up by a blinding flash, but no lightning bolt was visible. We realized it had struck the roof of our car. This was not, however, a “narrow escape” because the inside of a car is one of the best places to be in a lightning storm. The metal body acts as a Faraday cage, and electrical fields cannot easily penetrate into the interior. Subsequent to this lightning strike, we drove through an area where there were hailstones the size of hens’ eggs caught in tumbleweeds along the side of the road. Finally, we came to a stretch of the highway that appeared to be clear, with no storms nearby. While driving along about 60 mph, we topped a rise and entered a small valley. Instantly, the car began sliding sideways. The entire road surface was covered with small hailstones. There was nothing I could do but hold the steering wheel in a death grip and pray. I remember saying to Retta, “We’re not going to make it.” Then, just as we were almost off the left side of the road, the tires suddenly gripped again and I was able to straighten the car out and get back in my own lane. If that had not happened, we would surely have ended up in the ditch on the left side of the road. And had anyone happened to have been coming in the opposite direction, well….
The doomed station wagon
Again, about 1960, also when we were returning from a trip to Missouri, we were coming into a small town. We were both getting tired, so when I spied a motel along the road with a “Vacancy” sign lit up, I suggested stopping for the night. Retta quickly agreed. As I pulled off the road into the motel parking lot, a station wagon that had been behind us for some time passed by and continued down the road. We checked in and as we were moving the car to the parking space in front of our room to unload our bags, we heard sirens and saw a couple of emergency vehicles roar by in the same direction we had been traveling. We thought nothing more of it.
The next morning I bought a local paper to read while we were having breakfast. On the front page there was a big article about a bad automobile accident. It seems that a car was hit head-on by a semi that was in the wrong lane, just a mile or so west of where we were staying. Everyone in the car had been killed. At the top of the page was a picture of the wreck. With a shiver of horror, I recognized the station wagon that had passed us just as we had pulled off the road the evening before. I showed the picture to Retta, and she turned white. We both knew that if we had not pulled off the road to stay at the motel, it could have been our car that had gotten hit by the semi. What if that motel had been displaying a “No Vacancy” sign?
We thanked our lucky stars and continued the drive back to our home in Boulder, Colorado.
Danny and the aneurysm
When I heard that awful thumping sound and felt the vibration in the steering wheel, I knew instantly what had happened. One of my front tires had developed an aneurysm. My mind flashed back to the time about four years before when I first discovered what an aneurysm was—not the kind you get in an artery that can burst and cause all sorts of medical problems, most of them serious. No, this kind of aneurysm develops in automobile tires. Some kind of weakness in the sidewall of the tire suddenly lets loose and allows a bulge to develop in the tire. The first time this happened to me I was driving a 1949 Ford coupe that belonged to my brother and me. I was alone in the car when the front end abruptly starting thumping and vibrating. I slowed down, but the thumping continued. Finally, I got out and inspected the front tires. To my surprise there was a huge blister on the inside of the right front tire. I tried to limp back to the Ford dealer in Montclair, where I knew I could get the tire replaced, but it was several miles away. When I was almost there, I had to drive past a construction zone. Just as I cleared the work zone, there was a loud “bang” and the front end of the car settled. The aneurysm had blown out. I pulled over and was contemplating using the jack to change the tire when I noticed a pickup truck pulling a trailer on the other side of the road. As he pulled even with me, one of the tires on his trailer blew out. He stopped and looked back out of his window, at which point his left front tire also blew out. We must have been in some sort of evil zone, like the Bermuda triangle or something. We just shook our heads at each other and went to work changing the tires on our vehicles.
Back to June 1954, when a bunch of us had just been discharged from the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, and were driving back to our homes in the New York-New Jersey area in my little 1941 Ford coupe. We were traveling in a sort of “convoy” with a car full of other discharged GIs in the car ahead of us. As we drove along the Turner Turnpike in Oklahoma between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which at that time had an 80-mph speed limit, disaster suddenly struck. One of my front tires developed an aneurysm. I blew my horn, trying to alert the guys in the car ahead of us, but they were too far away and didn’t hear it. I stopped on the shoulder and inspected the front tires, since I knew the awful thumping I’d felt meant one of those front tires had an aneurysm. Sure enough, the inside sidewall of the right front tire had a bulge about an inch and a half in diameter. I got back in the car and started driving very slowly, hoping to get to Tulsa before that tire blew.
One of the guys riding with me was Danny Segal, who lived in the Bronx. Danny was a pretty nice guy, but he was big and had a rather nasty temper that could explode without warning. After about 15 minutes or so of putting up with me grousing about our bad luck while I limped along the turnpike nursing the bad tire, Danny suddenly lost it. He demanded that I let him drive, and his tone of voice told me I had better not argue with him. “Don’t get me mad!” he said. Well, I certainly knew better than to do that. He got behind the wheel and began driving like a man possessed. He soon had my little Ford doing 80 mph on a tire that was threatening to blow to smithereens at any moment.
I was petrified with fear, and I believe the two other guys in the car with us were too. (One of them was a really nice guy we called Dino Oranges—Oranges was his surname, but I think Dino was a nickname. I forget who the other guy was.) We drove like that for about 30 minutes while Danny covered the last 40 miles to Tulsa, hunched over the steering wheel with a look of grim determination on his face. The rest of us probably looked like we’d just seen a ghost or something. That half hour seemed to take forever. Every minute I would think, Well this is it. That tire’s gonna blow right now, for sure. But it never did. We made it to Tulsa in one piece and quickly found a place where I could buy a new tire. The rest of the trip back to New Jersey and the Bronx, where we dropped off Danny, was relatively uneventful.
But I will never forget that terrifying 30-minute ride with a madman at the wheel and a tire threatening to blow us all to kingdom come any second. Our guardian angels must have been working overtime that day. Don’t try this at home!
The attack of the semis
If you don’t know what a semi is, don’t bother reading this one. (These days, it seems, everyone is so ignorant that the media feel obliged to call them “semi-trucks”—a stupid term. What does it mean? Half a truck?) This story dates back to roughly the same period as the one about Danny and the aneurism. I think it happened on my first trip from New Jersey to White Sands Proving Grounds in my 1941 Ford coupe.
When I started out for New Mexico in September of 1953, I had no idea how the call of the open road would put a spell on me. But driving along the old National Road—then U.S. highway 40—I felt a yearning for the West that I had not expected and could not really define. There was something strangely nostalgic about driving over the brick-paved section of road in Zanesville, Ohio. And the hazy horizon seemed to beckon to me as if it were an old friend I had somehow lost touch with over the years. As I drove through Indiana and then southern Illinois, the scenery gradually expanded into the prairie landscape that prevails for hundreds of miles farther west, until it finally runs into the almost barren ridges of the High Plains, a region so desolate that it was once called The Great American Desert by those who traversed its vastness by covered wagon.
It was somewhere in the prairie region of southern Illinois where I had my run-in with the semis. I was tooling along a nice straight stretch of two-lane macadam when coming around a bend just ahead I saw two semis coming at me. To my horror I saw that they were side by side, occupying the entire width of the roadway. Neither one was gaining on the other, and the one in my lane showed no evidence that it was going to slow down and drop back into its own lane—none whatsoever. So I did the only thing I could do: I drove off the road onto the dusty shoulder, which thankfully did not have a deep ditch as it did in some places.
I watched the two racing semis go roaring past me, shook my fist at them in total impotence, and swore heartily. Then insult was suddenly added to injury. A large dust devil, which I had not noticed in all the excitement, came across the road and ran right over my little Ford coupe. My car rocked back and forth, and I was choked with so much dust I could barely spit it out. This time I really cursed, probably enough to have made a sailor blush. It took me several minutes to calm down, sort myself out, and continue my journey.
The rest of the way to New Mexico went without many incidents, certainly none to compare with this one. The high point of my trip was when I made a side excursion to the Palo Duro Cañon outside of Amarillo, Texas. As I walked to the edge of the precipice, I became aware of the gentle sighing of the breeze in my ears. It was so quiet I could hear it clearly for perhaps the first time in my life. I can still remember the moment today.
Quiet like that is a rare commodity nowadays. Whenever I am bedeviled by all the noise that seems such an inescapable part of life in this twenty-first century, I think back to that day at the Palo Duro Cañon, and other days like it in New Mexico, when the sound of silence first became real to me.
No, this wasn’t the kind of driving school you were probably thinking of when you saw the subtitle. This was a racer’s driving school conducted by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) to qualify drivers for actual racing events. I was driving a race-prepared Austin-Healey Sprite owned by my friend, Mike Allison, at CDR (Continental Divide Raceways) near Castle Rock, Colorado. There was, however, a problem. Mike warned me not to exceed 5,000 rpm because every time he did, the oil pump would fail. Much later Mike discovered that this was his own fault—he had cross-threaded one of the bolts that held the oil pump in place. This would cause the pump’s shaft to shear off if the engine was revved too high. Considering that normally the race-prepared engine would have had a 7,000-rpm redline, this was quite a handicap to drive under.
Nevertheless, I proceeded to tool around the 2.2-mile CDR race course trying very hard to observe Mike’s 5,000-rpm redline. I had driven several laps—perhaps as many as a dozen—when after going through turn six (see “The racer’s edge” for a description of this turn) and driving through the serpentine turns seven and eight leading to the final turn and the half-mile-long main straightaway, I saw the oil pressure suddenly fall to zero. I immediately backed off the gas, switched the ignition off, and coasted to a stop on the track shoulder. Soon one of the stewards came over to find out what the problem was and got me a tow back to the pit area. (Mike told me later that there was only a small amount of damage done to the engine by this mishap.)
While I was sitting in the pit area brooding about my bad luck, another driver came up to me and told me that he had been right behind me when the oil pump quit. He said he came within inches of hitting me. The whole thing had happened so fast that I never had time to give the normal signal a driver gives when he has to stop for some reason. This was a close call that I was not even aware of until well after it happened.
That night we tried desperately to get a roll bar fitted to Retta’s Sprite, which had been race-prepared by the fellow who sold it to us—Elvin Kronquist. But the roll bar had been removed and the one from Mike’s car would not fit the attachment points used by the one Elvin had removed before selling us the car. We finally gave up and went to bed, defeated.
I never did get my SCCA competition license.
The mountain pass
This was a close call that wasn’t really close at all. It happened back in early 1954 when I was driving over the San Augustin Pass in southern New Mexico. The road over this pass, U. S. Highway 70, was then a two-lane road, not four-lane as it is today. It climbs from the desert floor around what was then called White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range) at an elevation of about 4,400 feet up and over the pass, elevation 5,719 feet, and then descends into the Mesilla Valley at roughly 4,000 feet. Our destination that day was the small town of Las Cruces (now the third largest city in New Mexico).
My little 1941 Ford Coupe could keep up a steady speed of exactly 60 mph up the rather steep incline leading to San Augustin Pass. If, however, I allowed the speed to drop below 60 mph, I could never regain it until the summit of the pass. Somewhere around 55 mph was all I could make once my speed had dropped below that magic 60 mph mark. So every time I drove over that pass, I made every effort to keep going at 60 so I would not have to drop down to the lower speed.
On this particular day I had two or three other GIs in the car with me. As we steadily climbed toward the summit at that magic 60 mph speed, I saw another car just ahead that was going at a slightly lower speed, perhaps 57 or 58 mph. I had just pulled into the opposite lane to pass the other car when I saw another car coming toward me around the bend, which was a good distance ahead—around a half mile away I would guess. I put my mental calculator into high gear and quickly determined that I would just be able to get past the slower moving vehicle before it was too late. So I kept going, determined not to lose my head of steam.
The others in the car began to sound very, very nervous. The closer the oncoming car got, the more nervous they became. Finally they all just held their breath and prayed (I suppose). I finally got by the car I was overtaking and pulled back into my own lane of traffic. A few seconds later, the oncoming car, which had never slowed its pace so far as I could determine, whizzed by. The other guys all heaved a big sigh of relief.
All I said was something like, “What’s the matter with you guys? I knew I could make it!”
Frankly, I don’t think they shared my confidence one bit.
The pass—déjà vu
Some ten years after the incident where I passed a car going up San Augustin Pass in southern New Mexico I experienced a repeat of the same sort of thing—but this time I was one of the passengers, not the driver. It all started innocently enough. I was attending some meetings at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, with some colleagues. We were scheduled to depart the next morning on an Allegheny Airlines flight from Asheville to Knoxville, Tennessee. No problem? Big problem! Asheville is located in the midst of the highest mountains in the eastern United States—the southern Appalachians. The Black Mountains lie to the northeast, culminating in Mt. Mitchell—at 6,684 feet the highest peak east of the Mississippi—some 22 miles northeast of Asheville. The Blue Ridge lie to the southwest with several peaks in the 5,000-ft range. To the west are the Great Smokies, with Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet a close rival to Mt. Mitchell. Asheville itself lies in a rather small bowl-like valley at an elevation of 2,134 feet. As a result, it is often fogged in or otherwise “socked in” during early morning hours—precisely when our flight was scheduled to take off.
The hotel people warned us that if the weather should deteriorate, we would be awakened at about 3:00 a.m. and taken to Greenville, South Carolina, to board the same flight, which was scheduled to stop there before Asheville. Sure enough, we were rousted out of our beds that morning and hustled into a limousine for the ride to Greenville. That ride was a nightmare. The entire route was on a two-lane highway, and the traffic was heavy for such an early hour. At length the limo driver found himself stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle. He looked for chances to pass, but there were few straight stretches and the few he encountered were cluttered up with oncoming traffic. Finally he saw his chance and pulled out to pass. The heavy limo was weighed down with so many passengers that it made very slow progress in passing the other vehicle. Meanwhile, oncoming traffic showed no signs of slowing down to allow our limo to pull back onto the right side of the road. At this point I must have felt a lot like my long-suffering passengers that day my little 1941 Ford struggled to get by another car under somewhat similar circumstances. But now the shoe was on the other foot.
After what seemed like an eternity, our limo finally cleared the other vehicle and the driver pulled back onto the right-hand lane just as the oncoming vehicles began whizzing by. Everyone in the limo—save the driver—breathed an audible sigh of relief. When our driver suggested making a quick coffee stop shortly after that incident, everyone in the car instantly agreed.
The rest of the trip to Greenville passed without incident. But the irony of the whole affair was when our Allegheny Airlines Gooney Bird (i.e., a Douglas DC-3) passed over Asheville later that morning and we saw the entire city laid out below us—clear as a bell. There would have been nothing—nothing—to have prevented a landing and takeoff at Asheville that morning.
Such are the vicissitudes of life.
Danger in eastern Oregon
On Wednesday, October 8, 2003, Retta and I were returning to our home in Salem, Oregon, from a road trip that took us to Ouray, Colorado, and Rio Rancho, New Mexico, where we had visited our son and daughter-in-law. We were driving on Oregon State Highway 58 between Burns Junction and Burns (about a 90-mile stretch) and there were some prairie fires burning off to our left. The wind was blowing smoke toward the road we were on. We were tooling along through patches of filmy white smoke when without warning dense dark brown smoke blew across the road. In a second or so we were totally enveloped by it—and I couldn't see anything at all. The road disappeared and I could barely see the hood of the car. I pumped the brakes frantically and slowed to about five miles per hour, but I didn’t dare stop because there was a car behind me—somewhere. He was evidently more used to this sort of thing than I was and had already slowed down quite a bit. There was also a large truck not far ahead of us. I thought we were dead. If the truck ahead had stopped in the smoke, or the car behind us did not stop, there would be a collision. Several people were killed in a 17-car pile up on Interstate Highway 5 just south of Salem about 10 years earlier under similar circumstances. Fortunately, the dense smoke cleared after we had gone about 50 feet, and we managed to escape unscathed. This was definitely an unnerving experience—to say the very least.
A close call with a drunken driver
This narrow escape dates back to 1960 (47 years ago as of this writing). On New Years’ Eve, December 31, 1959, we had moved into our first new home, a “four-level tri-level” (a tri-level with a basement under the main living section) built by Williams High Country Homes (a tract builder) on Fuller Court in Boulder, Colorado. I used my G.I. Loan entitlement to purchase this house. It was one of only two houses that we ever bought and moved into that were brand new. But I digress.
Sometime in a late spring or early summer evening of 1960 we—Retta and I and our two children, Danny (born in May 1959) and Jennie (born in July 1957)—piled into our 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, a black and white two-door hardtop (a car without pillars separating the front and back side windows). This was a stick-shift car with a 265-cubic inch pushrod V-8 engine. Anyway, we drove to the Safeway super market, which was located in a shopping center about a mile away at the corner of Arapahoe Avenue and 28th Street. There was a parking place vacant near the east end of the store, so we pulled into it and all got out to go inside the store. As we were walking toward the entry door, which was maybe 25 feet from where we had parked our car, we heard a strange noise. We quickly realized that it was the sound of an automobile engine revving about as fast as it could go—and it was getting rapidly louder. Peering around the corner of the store to see what it was, we saw a Studebaker Lark (a small sedan) making a beeline across the parking lot. It was coming from the direction of the Harvest House Hotel, just to the south of the Safeway store, and it was heading straight for our Chevy. We watched transfixed as the car drove straight into the side the car we had vacated only seconds earlier, throwing it into the air and sideways into the car that was parked next to it.
The Studebaker was thrown back about 10 or 15 feet by the force of the impact. Then I heard something I almost could not believe. It was the sound of the car’s starter motor, vainly attempting to restart the damaged engine. I could hear the fan blades striking the radiator core. The idiot was trying to start his car and get away! With hardly a thought I strode the short distance over to the Lark, opened the driver’s side door—which oddly enough, worked—and grabbed the arm of the driver, attempting to pull him out of the car. At this point an older man walked up to me, pulled me away, and took over. He was an off-duty police officer as it turned out, and when I told him the guy driving the Studebaker was drunk, he said, “Yep—he’s DWI all right.” (In those days they called it “Driving While Intoxicated”—DWI—instead of “Driving Under the Influence”—DUI—as they call it nowadays.)
The fellow was charged with driving while intoxicated, but what became of those charges I never found out. I do know that his insurance company paid to have our Chevy repaired, which cost a pretty penny, even back then. Sadly, our wonderful little Bel Air was never the same again. We soon traded it in on a 1956 Oldsmobile Super 88. Retta learned to drive in that Oldsmobile, so we both have fond memories of it, too. She got her drivers license later that year, and to this day—some 50 years later—she has never had an accident, received a traffic ticket (“citations” they call them now), or even gotten a parking ticket. Few drivers can match that. And since she has now given up driving (because of her medical problems), that record will stand forever.
But every now and then I recall that mild evening in 1960 when we got out of our car and only seconds later saw some idiot come barreling across the parking lot—flat out in first gear and drunk as a skunk—and slam into our car with the force of a battering ram. Talk about luck! Had we arrived at the store only seconds later than we did, we would likely still have been inside our Chevy when it was hit broadside.
Who knows what injuries we might have suffered in such a collision?
A nearly fatal bite
This close call happened sometime between 1973 and 1977 while we were living in Boulder, Colorado. One evening we were eating some kind of meat, probably steak. Evidently it was a bit on the tough side (the steak we could afford usually was) and I must have tried to swallow this particular bite before it was ready to go down. And it didn’t. I felt it stick in my throat, and although I’m not sure how I knew it, I somehow sensed that it was poised just above my trachea. I knew that if I drew in a breath with any kind of vigor at all, the bite would block my airway and I would choke. This was way before the Heimlich Maneuver became well-known; in those days one might never recover from such a choking episode.
So I did the only thing I could do. I drew my breath in very, very slowly and carefully until my lungs were nearly full. It seemed to take forever to accomplish this. Then I blew all that air out as explosively as I could. Sure enough, the bite was dislodged and came back up into my mouth, where I chewed it until it was properly ready to be swallowed. But I can tell you that the sweat broke out on my brow when I realized how close I had come to disaster. No one who was at the table with me knew what was happening until it was all over.
As they say, all’s well that ends well.
About 1974 I was attending a conference in Fresno, California. I had a GSA (General Services Administration) car to drive while I was there. One evening I let a fellow attendee talk me into driving down to Visalia to meet his girlfriend and double-date with her friend. Visalia is about 45 miles south of Fresno, most of the driving being on California highway 99. The evening was uneventful, but my friend decided to stay there over night, leaving me to drive back to Fresno in the wee hours of the morning. I had not driven far when I ran into one of those legendary California night-time fogs. I had no choice but to continue.
It was a grueling two-hour drive to Fresno, most of the time with only the center line of the north-bound lanes and the striping along the shoulder to tell me where I was. There was almost no other traffic on the road that night. I passed through a couple of underpasses that loomed up in the night like mouths of giant caves. Then came one that strangely seemed to recede as I approached it. I noticed that it had a couple of red lights, one on each side of the roadway. At almost the last second I realized that it was not an underpass but the back of a semi I was about to run into. Prompt application of the brakes averted the disaster, but after that I was a lot more careful, believe me! In fact, I followed that trucker at a discreet distance, his taillights helping to guide me, until he finally pulled off at a truck stop.
I pushed on, hoping to reach my motel room before I fell asleep at the wheel. When I finally got there, I was totally exhausted. Never again, I told myself. It was about 3:30 in the morning.
Pride goes before a fall
In June of 2010 I was suffering from a lingering back problem caused by herniated discs in my lumbar region. I was still taking quite a bit of pain medication on top of zolpidem (generic Ambien). One night around 3:00 in the morning I was awakened by back pain. After taking some hydrocodone I was making my way back to bed by holding onto furniture for support. While using my dresser for support, I evidently fell asleep standing up. The next thing I saw was the floor rushing up to meet me as I fell over sideways. My head cleared the footboard of the waterbed by perhaps half a foot. Had I struck it, there would have been hell to pay. But even worse, had I been a scant 10 or 12 inches farther back when I fell asleep, I would have hit the little wooden chest of drawers that stands at the foot of the bed (because there is nowhere else to put it right now). If that had happened there is a very good chance that I wouldn’t be here to write these words now.
As it was, I fell on the soft carpet and was barely bruised, let alone hurt in any serious way.
Idiots on the highway
I had a rather close call the night of November 19, 2011, on my way back from dinner at a local restaurant. I was driving in the middle lane of a six-lane divided highway (three lanes in each direction) and needed to get in the left-hand lane to turn left at an upcoming intersection. I saw a line of cars approaching in the left lane and thought I’d better move over while I could. So I put on my turn signal and pulled into the inside lane just before coming to a minor intersection. Some idiot who did not like my pulling in front of him blew his horn and passed me by driving in the intersection where there was no median. He cut me off getting back into the driving lane (or he would have hit the median divider where it resumed on the other side of the intersection). He just barely made it without hitting me. No sooner had he gotten back in the driving lane but he turned on his right turn signal, cut off the car in the lane next to mine, and went zooming off into the distance, going way over the speed limit.
He came so close to me when he pulled back in that I don’t think a sheet of paper would have fit between his vehicle and mine. I swallowed hard and continued my drive home. With morons like this guy on the loose, it’s a wonder any of us survive.
My mother’s take on all this
After I had given my mom a copy of this document (as it was in early 2012), she made the comment that “a lot of the episodes seem to involve cars.” Well, yes, they most certainly do. Automobiles are inherently dangerous pieces of machinery, and they have been a ubiquitous part of the American scene since the day I was born. In fact, out of the fourteen incidents that comprised this section when my mother read a copy of it, eleven of them involved cars. Only three did not.
Jack’s dad has an accident
When I was in high school, we—my best friend Jack Dempwolf and I—often got rides to school with his father, who worked at the Walter Kidde plant in Bloomfield. On this particular day the roads were snow-packed with large piles of snow made by the plow when it went through. The date may very well have been in January 1948, after the monstrous snow storm of December 26, 1947 (see “Two and a half feet of snow flurries”). Jack’s father, Charles, had the same first name as Jack, which is why Jack went by his middle name, just like me. His father was only 56 years old at the time (assuming it was in the winter of 1947-48), but he looked older than that and was already very hard of hearing. A proud and stubborn man, he refused to wear a hearing aid (which were admittedly rather primitive back in those days). He drove a 1941 Oldsmobile, which he said had a spring steel bumper that would withstand just about anything.
On this morning Jack and I were waiting for his father to back out of the driveway so we could get into the car. Jack was across the road, near the end of the driveway, while I stood on the opposite side of the street in front of the snow bank, watching. The road sloped downhill in front of me, from my right to my left. As Jack’s dad began to back out onto the street, another car suddenly appeared (going too fast for conditions); it was heading straight for the Oldsmobile. Jack yelled “Dad! Watch out!” at the top of his lungs, but his father did not hear him and continued backing out. The result was predictable. The other car hit the right rear of the Oldsmobile, bounced off, and slid across the street.
It all happened so fast I had no time to react. The other car came to a stop with its front fender almost touching my waist line. Had it approached in a straight line, the front tire would have run over my foot. It was that close. I had the weird impression that the car had materialized right in front of me. This is as close as I’ve ever come to being struck by any vehicle.
And yes, this is yet another narrow escape that involved an automobile.
Somebody throws a rock at me
Sometime while I was in junior high school (1942–1943) we were all on lunchtime break. There was a steep, wooded hillside on the east side of the high school building, where it fronted on High Street. A retaining wall held the hillside in place at the bottom. I was walking through the woods (the trees were very small then) when suddenly I heard a sharp whizzing sound and saw a rock streak past in front of my face. I didn’t really get a good look at it, since it was going so fast, but it was fair sized, probably two by three inches and maybe three-quarters of an inch thick. As I said, it passed so close to my head that I could hear the whizzing noise it made as it sailed past me. It must have missed my head by only and inch or two at the most. What would have happened had it hit me in the temple (which is where it would have struck had it hit me)? There is no telling how serious the injury could have been.
Of course, I immediately turned to see who had thrown the rock at me. But although there were half a dozen other boys in that direction, they all looked innocent as newborn babes. I never did figure out who did it. Had Wally Sikes been among the other boys, I would have suspected him immediately. He was evil incarnate. When I heard he had died of pneumonia a year or so after this event, I was secretly glad. He would not be around to do evil things anymore. I have never even felt guilty about thinking that way. That’s how much I hated that despicable boy. A “bad seed” if ever there was one.
Highway to hell
Okay, it wasn’t really a highway, just a suburban road: Mt. Prospect Avenue in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. It had a really steep hill that we discovered was fun to ride our bikes down. We would start out coasting (holding the pedals in one position). The bikes back then had coaster brakes, so the only way you could stop was to reverse the pedals—pedal backwards, in other words—at which point the brakes would engage.
The problem with coasting down such a steep hill was that you got going really fast. My brother’s bike had a speedometer on it—a luxury in those days—and he said after one wild ride down the hill that we had attained a speed of 50 mph. That’s very fast for one of those old rickety bicycles. And the biggest problem was that inevitably somewhere during the ride down the hills the pedals would get away from us and would begin spinning so fast that it would have been suicidal to have tried to stop them. So we had no brakes, in effect.
At the bottom of that hill the road leveled off for a short stretch—too short to make much difference in our speeds—and then it came to a tee-intersection. On the other side of the crossing there was a big lawn that rose up in front of us. The cross road was just about in the bottom of the valley. We would get to that cross road and zip across, praying that no one was coming from either side. Fortunately for us, it was during the war—the Big War—and with severe gas rationing, nobody did much driving. You only used your car if you absolutely had to. So traffic was exceedingly light.
We flew across that cross road more than once, without a prayer of stopping, and came to a stop on the grassy hill on the opposite side of the crossing. The last time we did this, one of us noticed an automobile coming our way along the cross street, only seconds away from the intersection. I’ll bet that driver was startled to see three kids on bikes go zipping across the street right in front of him! It cured us, though. We never coasted down that road again.
A narrow escape for Missy Mouse
This is one in which I was not the one who had the narrow escape. Instead, it was my younger daughter, Laura, who had been given the nickname of ‘Missy” when she was very little, because she was so cute. Later, her friends started calling her “Missy Mouse” for obvious reasons. She evidently liked “Mouse” better than “Missy, since to this very day she refers to herself as Mouse. This episode, however, took place back in 1965 in Boulder, Colorado, when she was about three years old.
The previous year we had purchased a 1965 Ford Mustang with the High Performance package. It had a 289-cubic-inch solid lifter engine that pulled 271 horsepower with a 7,000-rpm redline, four-speed manual transmission, Firestone ST-170W high performance tires, and really good brakes. When we ordered the car, we had a choice of two types of brake linings: fade resistant or wear resistant. Since we planned on running the car in competitive events such as autocrosses and hill climbs, guess which choice we made. This Mustang was capable of easily pulling one g under heavy braking; the tires were so sticky that it was almost impossible to lock up the wheels no matter how hard you hit the brake pedal.
One fine spring day in early 1965 I was going to pick up some things we needed, and Laura asked to come along. She was riding in the back seat, on the passenger side. The Mustang was a two-door notch-back sedan, and the front passenger seat folded forward—whether the car was moving or not. The only safety features it had were seat belts (lap belts) for four people (the back seat was a bit narrow for seating three). I told Laura to put on her seat belt, but she flat refused to do so. I should have forced her to, but I didn’t.
As we were driving down an access road alongside 30th Street, some friggin’ idiot abruptly made a left turn right in front of me. I had no choice but to hit the brakes—hard. Poor little Missy was thrown against the back of the front passenger seat, which promptly folded up allowing her to slide over it and directly into the dashboard. Her left eye must have missed the tuning control for the radio by maybe an inch. She started crying, of course. I said to her in a rather stern voice, “Now will you wear your seatbelt?” ‘Yes, Daddy,” she replied in a sheepish little voice.
She never pulled a trick like that one again.
A close call from lightning
We had a close call from a violent lightning stroke in Salem, Oregon, in the early morning hours of Thursday, April 23, 1998. On Wednesday, about 11:20 at night, I heard some thunder rumbling in the distance when I went out to exchange rain gauges (I have an ancient aluminum rain gauge set that I use as a backup to the digital rain gauge in my weather station and weather computer setup). This was not terribly unusual, so I thought nothing more of it. About twenty minutes later I stepped out on the back porch to check on the weather and found that nothing was happening. We then went to bed and to sleep.
We were sleeping soundly in our room (with the drapes drawn tightly) at 12:48 a.m. when we were both rudely awakened by a blinding flash and the sound of an explosion. I saw this flash in my sleep through my closed eyes and it was very bright. My wife, Retta, was lying with her head down in the pillow, and she said she could see the flash through the pillow and her closed eyes. The flash and the tremendous boom woke both of us instantly. My first thought was that a nuclear weapon had exploded over us, but there was no evidence of that. Then I thought it might have been a meteor exploding, like the Tunguska explosion that flattened thousands of square miles of forest in Siberia in 1907. But no—the heavy sound of thunder gradually fading away disclosed that it had been a lightning bolt that had awakened us both. All of these thoughts occupied perhaps one second of time, although it seemed much longer. For a moment it was as if everything were moving in slow motion.
Our hearts were both going like trip hammers. It was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. Some of our cats bolted with tails like wire brushes, others stood as if paralyzed with fear. Baby wouldn’t move until I reached down and petted her, whereupon she seemed to revive and walked slowly away.
It took us a long time to get back to sleep. I’ve heard lots of loud thunder and seen bright lightning flashes before, most of it either in Colorado or New Mexico, but none of them held a candle to this whopper. It must have been the granddaddy of all lightning bolts.
In the morning I went looking around the property for evidence of where this bolt had hit, as I knew it must have been very close. I soon found it. Amongst our neighbor’s fir trees there was one very tall one (about 130 ft) that had a dead top. Hawks, merlins, great horned owls, and other large birds liked to perch on it. It was simply gone—lock, stock, and barrel. It wasn’t lying on the ground; I couldn’t even see any pieces of it from our side of the fence. It was simply gone—vanished without a trace. The lightning bolt must have vaporized the whole darn thing. If it hadn’t been for the heavy rain shower that immediately followed, it would probably have started a fire. We were lucky. There was no damage to any of our electronic equipment, computers, my weather monitoring system, or anything else. I don’t know how we managed that.
Cayman (our black Lab mix) could hardly be coaxed out of the garage in the morning, but Kitty Kat (who lived in the garage with Cayman) was outside in the morning and seemed afraid to come into the garage. I finally got her in by holding the pet door open so she could see it was okay to come inside. Her tail was still puffed up—and this was more than six hours after the lightning strike.
I decided not to brag any more about how we didn’t get violent thunderstorms in Oregon like the ones we used to have in New Mexico.