As I think back there were at least six legitimate times I could have died. The first was when I was grocery shopping with my mom at old man Troller’s grocery store in Palms, when three masked robbers came in. One of them found me in the back of the store where I was hiding. He took me up front to join the others and made us lay face down until they left. I guess I was about nine.
Another time, in my twenties, I was hanging with my best friend on a Saturday night. He said wait in the car and went into this nice house in a very nice neighborhood to do some “business.” I got tired of waiting after about 30 minutes so went to the door and knocked. When nobody answered I tried the door and it was open so I walked in. Some hopped-up lunatic with gun in hand swan dove at me – off the deep end – and now has his gun to my head screaming things like “who the fuck is he?” In a fit that seemed to last 30 minutes, but was probably 10, before he finally put the pistol down. I guess some guys shouldn’t be dealers, huh?
There was the day just west of Tres Rios, Mexico where the riptide took me into a washing machine that I will never forget. I left Acapulco and headed north for a private day on the ocean. Hammocks, dinner, bananas for the ride home, etc. The folks who lived on that beach – so restricted that one has to park the car and honk so the guy can cross a lagoon to pick you up and take you to it – warned me not to go in. It was “muy peligroso” that day. I assured them I was a very strong swimmer, as they were shaking their heads. A few minutes later two of their children were pulling me out of the churning Pacific. They put me down on the beach where I collapsed from exhaustion. I’ve been in some tides, but nothing like that. I literally was knowing, this was death.
There were commercial flights, too, that ran into near catastrophe with me aboard. One was over upstate NY heading toward La Guardia. Suddenly the pilot announced “will be running late, as we have a minor problem.” It turns out the problem was the landing gear. The 55-minute flight took 3 hours, and in the end one of the pilots literally had to climb down into the avionics to hand crank the gear. We landed, but you can imagine what the mind is thinking during that third hour . . .
I’d forgotten about this until my friend, Margo Jones, engaged my thinking. I was on a flight from LAX to JFK about 1984. Weather on the east coast was disastrous with thunderstorms with intense crosswinds as we were nearing the flights’ end. We went from near JFK to Philadelphia. Hold in crowded pattern for about 45 minutes. By then, Philly was closed. Philly back to JFK and it was closed again. Back to Philly as it was reopened. Now, 30 minutes later it was closed again. Hold, hold, hold. Back to JFK on a “heavy” about eight hours into this five-hour flight. Just over the Atlantic, maybe 2 minutes to final approach, the jet ran out of fuel.
You never want to hear what the screams in that cabin sounded like. We were in crash position. The stranger next to me grabbed my hand. aas she cried, “God Bless You, friend.” … All you could hear was crying, screaming, and prayers. With 30 seconds to landing, my head between my legs, I could feel the attitude change and looked to my left out the window. I could see the ocean, maybe 100 feet off the wing, as we were at a 45 degree angle, seconds before hitting the runway. (This is making me cry.) … We bounced down at a crab angle and did not have enough fuel to get to the gate. EMS, Fire, Police and the FAA greeted us out on the runway, as JFK again closed the airport – this time for the rest of the night. They brought a mobile bus out to greet us, the type they use at Dulles (an airport in Virginia), they has hydraulics that bring the bus to the plane’s exit door. They put some passengers in a hotel until the next day and some went to the hospital for trauma.
Then there was the day of my first elaborate cross-country solo flight. It was clear when I took off from Bolivar (TN). Shortly thereafter aloft, I encountered some weather. As the weather intensified, I had a choice to fly the tin box or navigate it.
Shortly thereafter, I was lost in a soupy mess over some mountain range I wasn’t familiar with. Below, I could see I was nearly scraping forest treetops, that couldn’t have been more than 500 feet beneath me. Above, black clouds no more than 500 feet above were flickering lightning and it was getting tougher to maintain my attitude as I was watching the false horizon on my panel. It wasn’t looking good.
I would have ridden it out, but I had less than an eighth in my main tank and I’d seen enough. I mean, I was scared shitless.
I did the unthinkable. I squawked for a DF (Dumb Fuck) steer. DF actually stands for “Directional Find.” The US Air Force tracks your position and takes your flight plan over, by giving you specific vectors. Then they guide you in to landing at a specific airport. Over the radio from far away (Oklahoma) came a voice asking me to squawk a particular band. The stranger informed me I was over east-central Mississippi, near the Alabama border. He asked if I smoked and when I told him I did and was, he told me to extinguish my cigarette.
About 12 minutes later, up ahead through the clouds I could see a giant concrete nuclear power plant’s smokestack, rising up over a river. As he directed me almost directly into the plant, I was told to turn 75 degrees to a specific heading. It was clearer here and I he told me to VFR down the river to where I could see an airport. He had already ordered the runways closed, so I lowered my flaps and prepared for an extreme crab-angle landing with severe cross winds and head winds. I took out the landing lights on the knoll left of the runway and ended up steering into a giant hay bale about 15 feet high. Wiith God as my co-pilot, I walked away from that June 5, 1985 folly.
Then, there was the day I was scheduled to be on Pan Am Ft. 103 on December 21, 1988, the day it was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. My girlfriend and best friend, Petals, and I had flown over on mostly business and to do one story. She awoke on the morning of the 20th with a severe fever, and had the flu. I drove out to Heathrow later that day to change our reservation for Ft. 103 on December 23. You know the rest of that story.
I guess if I over-think it, I could come up with some other less intense days, where I wrecked a car or saw a shark. I was on a friend’s catamaran that capsized about five miles offshore. But never mind that . . .
The point being, I guess my work isn’t finished here. Maybe God (of my understanding) has a better plan for me. I doubt he’s needed a DF steer.
I wrote some notes about my thoughts and feelings after the solo flight. The title of the poetic piece below is the symbol for an upward pointing arrow.
Two days dead.
Where is my funeral?
What about my wake?
Must have been a mistake.
Yeah, must have been a . . .
My time to turn,
Must be a new day to learn
Each time I seek my own council
Where is the clarity?
What is this they call charity?
I can feel my heart beating hard and free
Torn from my chest
with this bass and little treble
Invincible-Teflon from trouble
I pray two words, “Thank you!”