The burst appendix episode unfolded over a longer time frame, but most of our close encounters with death come suddenly. For instance . . .
In My Taxi
I drove taxis in New York City for two years, usually four nights per week. We tended to stay in Manhattan, because any block, at any time, could produce a ride. My company used the old Checker cabs, purpose built taxis made by the Checker Motor Company using General Motors pick-up truck fames and engines and a flimsy body made by Checker. Additional background: Manhattan is laced with underground steam trunks that provide heat for many of the buildings; these often vent through manhole covers and can create quite a cloud of steam.
Driving through those steam clouds could be a blind faith kind of experience, since you had no idea what was on the other side. One night I was going down Fifth Avenue and I decided to turn left on 72nd Street, a big two-way cross street. I was probably heading to Park Avenue, where there would be more potential fares. I didn’t see the steam cloud until after I had turned. It covered the entire street in front of me, curb to curb. Building to building! As usual, I gutsed it and kept going. I was almost to the cloud when two cars emerged from the steam. One was in the oncoming lane, some kind of private car, and one was in my lane. The oncoming car was one of those tricked out Cadillacs that were popularly known as Pimpmobiles, and it was coming directly at me, fast. He was passing the other car blindly, which is never a good idea. I just had time to push back in my seat and widen my eyes before he swung back to his own lane, missing me by about a foot.
It was one of those times when thousandths of a second are the difference between life and death. If I had been going thirty-two miles per hour instead of thirty-one, let’s say, I would have been killed. No seat belt; air-bags hadn’t been invented yet. Just a dead guy in some twisted wreckage. Those early 1970s Cadillacs were solid automobiles, not the kind of thing you want to ram head-on at a combined speed of about seventy-five miles per hour.
So, that was a lucky break.
Boulder on Malibu Canyon Road
Malibu Canyon Road connects the 101 Freeway with the Coast Highway somewhere north of “downtown” Malibu. North also of Pepperdine University, where I attended law school. In my third year I had a part-time job clerking for a family lawyer (that’s the euphemism for a divorce lawyer) over the coastal mountains in Woodland Hills. This made me a regular on Malibu Canyon Road, often over and back on the same day.
It’s a very pretty drive. The canyon has very steep sides and it is very deep, with a small creek running down in the bottom. The road winds its way along the north side of the canyon. It’s got one of those snake-like signs every hundred feet or so, because the road is always describing an “S.” It’s fun in a fast car, and it’s even more fun on a fast motorcycle. You do need to be careful, though, for two reasons. One, no one wants to go over the side, what we called “taking a flying lesson;” and two, it gets a lot of police activity. (More on the first subject in an upcoming installment of Death Watch Funnies.)
Something else happens on Malibu Canyon Road, something that can be very exciting if you time it right. One afternoon at about 4:30 I was traveling back to school from the office. I had a class that evening. Just another California day, lots of sun, blue sky, mild temperatures, very light traffic. From the freeway to the coast takes about fourteen minutes. Halfway down there’s a tunnel. On this occasion, right before I got to the tunnel, I saw something to my right. It was up on the steep side of the canyon; I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was a boulder that was substantially bigger than a basketball. It was somewhere between a basketball and an easy chair. As I turned my eyes to focus on it, it became airborne and came straight for the road. Exactly, it appeared, to the space that I would be occupying at the same point in time.
It was another lucky bit of time management for me. The boulder hit the road less than a hundred feet in front of my car, took a huge bounce (leaving a nice little pile of debris), and sailed down into the canyon. Here too, I just had time to widen my eyes in amazement, no time even to formulate a response involving the brakes or the steering wheel. And here too, if I had gotten to that spot in seven minutes and fifteen seconds, instead of in seven minutes and seventeen seconds, I’d have been creamed.
That’s enough thrills, chills, and almost spills, for one day. Tune in for the next installment, which will feature an actual catastrophe in which many people died.