Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2.5 near-death experiences in vehicles I’d been driving (hopefully that’s over)

Those of you who know me well, or who’ve read my chapter in Truly Alive: 5 Near-Death Experiences - Before, During, and After, know I’ve had several close calls – three of them near-drowning experiences as a child and teenager. Since that book came out in 2010, I’ve added one and a half more near-death experiences. All three took place with me driving. The first incident, described in the book, involved drunk driving in 1991; the second was a car crash on a freeway in 2012; and the third, in 2015, involved a parking lot crunch with a rented moving truck and some very angry young men who looked ready to kill me.

What’s behind all that? A drinking problem in the first one, distracted and risky driving in the second crash, and deficiencies in my ability to drive a large moving truck in the third.

But the same person was driving all three times.

No. 1: It’s early April 1991. I’m living with my parents after moving back to SoCal from the Bay Area. My family had gone to Palm Springs and I stayed for work.

I’d been doing a good deal of drinking that night, all alone in the house. I ended up blacking out late that night, deciding to go for a drive during early morning hours. I ended up jumping my car over a curb on Redondo Ave. near the PCH intersection in Long Beach – and plowed into two palm trees in a V-shaped divider on the curving road. I’d bashed my head into the windshield and folded the steering wheel into the dashboard with my chest. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

I came to sometime later that morning in the emergency room of a hospital. It took me hours to fully wake up. Once I did, the intensity of the ER woke me up. Somebody nearby had been badly injured and was being treated by doctors and nurses, while yelling out. All the while, a police officer stood at the entryway with his arms folded, looking blank.

I wondered if the cop was there for me. Maybe I’d killed somebody during my drunk driving and I was going to prison; and I wasn’t going to be able to live with it. I kept asking the nurses if they knew why the cop was standing there. They kept telling me that they weren’t allowed to talk to him, and they had no idea why he stood there with his gun belt.

It turned out he was there to arrest a gang member who killed somebody during a Latino vs. Cambodian gang fight. That was the person near me being treated in the ER who was stirring everything up. I was the drunk who could have killed somebody and now had to deal with a DUI.

How did I get here? I wasn’t a daily drinker, or somebody waiting for the dive bar to open at 6:00 a.m. Wherever it all started, it hadn’t been my first blackout or dangerous and bizarre experience.

It was the emergency that had opened my eyes about what I’d been up to heavily for the previous three years. Within a few weeks after that crash, a friend took me to a meeting to hear a speaker talk about the drinking problem. Years ago, the speaker had been drinking heavily with his girlfriend at a joint on Long Beach Blvd. He’d been driving back to their apartment, when all of a sudden, they were in a car crash and she was killed.

The speaker said he had to learn the hard way that once you cross a certain line in your life, you can never go back.

It was almost like he’d shot a bullet out from his mouth right between my eyes. Time had stopped in that meeting room, and I didn’t tell anyone about it for a long time. He was telling my story that could have been, and I wouldn’t have been able to live with it.

No. 2:  It’s December 28, 2012, three days after Christmas. I’d picked up a friend that evening, named Greg, to go to a support group meeting. As we accessed the freeway, I was telling him how stressful the holidays had been for me. I took the curve over the onramp on PCH, heading northbound on the I-710, a bit distracted and annoyed while telling my story.

It was one of those times when big-rig trucks, loaded with cargo containers from the ports, owned the Long Beach freeway. It was so jammed that night, I couldn’t find a place to enter the right lane. I crept along gradually on the right-side shoulder as truck drivers refused to let me find open space to access the slow lane.

One of the truck drivers kept honking at me as I moved forward, struggling to find a gap of space to enter the freeway lane. Later on after the crash, he didn’t explain to me why he’d been honking and I didn’t ask. Maybe he was telling me to stop on the right shoulder and let the trucks go by. He would have been right about it, looking back.

Boy, was I pissed off. “Come on, guys, let me get on the freeway!”

Greg would later tell me how much he’d cringed inside, knowing I was taking a huge risk.

And then it happened. I surged into the slow lane, and got hit in the left rear bumper by a truck following behind. My Honda Element was snapped into a hard curve as if I was making a U-turn into next lane on the left – just in time for another big-rig truck to ram head-on into my car. That truck was big, fast, and heavy enough to send me, Greg, and the Element gliding sideways about 25 feet to the right.

Have you ever talked to somebody who’s been right near an explosion and lived to tell about it, or made it through a firefight during a war? I’ve been told by a combat survivor that, momentarily, times seems to stop.

As we went soaring sideways to the right, I had one of those stopped moments. At first, we sailed in an arc, and right before the car caromed off the freeway and glided across the asphalt, everything went into very slow motion as if time were stopping.

After that frozen moment, we bounced and slid several yards toward the right bank.

Once the car slid to a stop, my mind started coming to. I was hanging from my seat belt strap, looking down at Greg pinned in at the bottom against the passenger-side door. He was still alive, and so was I.

I had a puffed-out airbag in my lap, and we both had shards of broken windshield glass pelted to our clothes. We didn’t have any severed limbs or broken bones, but I would be feeling the impact on my head and neck in the days ahead. Greg was firmly stuck in the car.

We could hear voices outside the car. I shimmied my way out of the driver’s seat and belt, and climbed out of the side window frame. There were four people standing outside waiting, and they helped me down.

Two of them had been the men driving the trucks that hit me in both lanes. One woman seemed to be the spouse of the driver who’d honked at me and nudged me out of the right lane. Another woman seemed to have been following close behind in her vehicle, and had been quite concerned over whether we were still alive.

We watched highway patrol officers sealing off the freeway lanes to the right with flares, only keeping the fast lane open on the left side for vehicles to pass by. We also waited for the paramedics to make contact with Greg and assess the situation.

The paramedics had to use “jaws of life” to bend the metal back and pull him out. One of my friends later told me he’d been listening to a local news radio station, when our crash and Greg’s rescue had been reported.

Greg seemed to be alright. Years earlier, he’d suffered a stroke and was limited in his posture and mobility. The crash didn’t seem to make it any worse, but like me, he was pretty shaken up. He stood leaning with his left hand on my shoulder. We watched the emergency crew sweep away broken glass and chunks of metal so that the lanes could be opened up.

The second driver, who’d hit us head on in the second lane over, never said a word to me. As the paramedics and highway patrol did their jobs, I saw him walking away with several of the CDs that had been thrown out of my car.

Later on, I found out that the highway patrol crash report never mentioned the second driver and his truck. There was only one truck included in the report, and the driver and his spouse stayed to answer questions and reported the crash to their insurance carrier. I brought this up while being interviewed by his claims adjuster, and told that story to my insurance company. One claims adjuster eventually acknowledged that it had happened with the second driver, but the insurers weren’t going to pursue that part of the incident any farther.

Ever since that day, I’ve been a more careful and boring driver.

No. 2.5: Careful and boring didn’t completely transfer over to driving a large and rented moving truck.

During the summer of 2015, my girlfriend Susan moved into my house with one of her sons, Tim; her other son, Jonathan, would occasionally stay with us during school breaks. Read more about it in “How the Man Cave was invaded and desecrated.”

We’d rented a moving truck to get their furniture and boxes moved from her townhouse apartment in Orange County over to Long Beach. That morning, I picked up the cutaway van with a long storage bed.

My first episode was minor – pulling out of the home driveway with Susan and Tim in the moving van. I scraped the rear left corner of a small car while making a wide turn, not having been realistic about the radius needed for that turn.

I got out of the car and checked the damage; there were plastic brake cover chunks in the street from the scrape. I cleaned that up and put a note on the car’s windshield with my contact number. I did get a call later that day from the car owner, where we traded auto insurance information.

I was more careful after that incident, and we went through the day making moving trips between homes.

By about 7:00 that night, we needed a break and were hungry for dinner. Susan and I decided to stop at a fast food joint down the street from my house prior to making another trip to her previous home.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I curved right to pull into an open parking space. Right as we pulled in, we could hear metal scraping from the rear right end of the truck. I’d collided with a white pickup truck.

Susan and I looked at each other, unable to speak for a few seconds. I suggested we get the hell out of there, and she agreed. We didn’t dwell on it, but I suppose we were overcome by fear – and fantasy that it would just magically go away. Temporary insanity, I suppose.

I backed out and headed for the other end of the parking lot. As I turned out onto the street, I could see a group of young men running for us, as mad as hell.  There were probably five of them in the group, but my memory is a bit blurred.

That’s where the 0.5 near-death experience came in. Were these dudes going to pull me out of the truck and beat me to death?

I decided to deal with it, and asked Susan to roll down her window. The pickup truck driver did the talking. I played dumb for a little while about the crash, and agreed to pull around the corner and into the parking lot.

He showed me the damage done to his truck, and we took a few pictures and exchanged insurance information. He’d calmed down quite a bit at this point, and his friends never said a word.

My moving truck had met up with his pickup’s rear left end, and the damage was more than just surface level. That pickup’s panel was crunched in. The moving truck looked a bit scraped up, but it was hard to determine what was new and what had already been there.

We parted ways on good terms. It worked out much better to be honest and deal with it.

I took the moving truck back to the rental company the next day, and called my insurance carrier. I had to clarify, more than once, that there were two minor collisions that I’d caused. Nobody lectured me about it, and they didn’t really need to do that.

Lessons learned: don’t drink and drive; pull over to the side of the road if you're pissed off at other drivers, especially truckers; and hire starving artists to do the moving. 

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