Thursday, November 24, 2016

Near Misses

            On a recent drive to Traverse City as part of our moving process we experienced three near misses:

            Driving into town at night I almost ran a guy down. He was wearing dark clothes crossing the street on an unlit corner. I was driving about 35 mph (30 mph zone, I think) and slammed on the brakes. The car stopped inches from him. He stepped back the way he came with an annoyed shrug, almost into the path of the car swerving to avoid me.

            On the way back south, this time in broad daylight, we were following a large semi. He braked for a red light and, in a sudden burst smoke and sparks, a large metal pipe fell off the bottom of the truck, along with a smaller piece about the size of an orange. They bounced to the side of the road, just missing our car. The truck was able to ease off the road and we were on our way. I wondered aloud what the driver was going to do now. Kim suggested that I just pay attention to my driving.

            A couple of hours later we were on an expressway in the dark, which comes early in northern winters, when I saw a car pulled onto the shoulder with its flashers blinking. I moved to the passing lane, to be safe, and suddenly I saw the dead deer in the road and then heard and felt the thump as it passed under the center of the car. I checked the gauges and steering for the next few miles, but everything looked OK.

            What do we make of such near misses? What if I’d hit that guy? He would have died, almost certainly, and even if it were “not my fault,” it would have been terrible for me (worse for the guy, not that it matters). Kim suggested it might have been worse for us if he had not died but tied us up in litigation for years. Our whole future – the next few weeks of moving and starting our new life as well as our years of growing old together – would change in ways that I can’t even imagine.

            I’ve written about a previous near miss, when we almost drowned in a canoeing accident in Canada, on a travel blog Kim and I kept at until Apple stopped supporting it. You can read about it at (While you are there, you might want to check out more of Kim’s photos at some of the other postings.)

            It reminds us how fragile is our lives are, as if we are tightroping along, without even knowing it. BANG!!!!!!! can happen any time.

            Near misses also can happen in less dramatic ways. Think of the person you almost married – and it would have been a disaster: a near miss. And think of all the near misses that we never become aware of . . ..

            There is, of course, another side to near misses. Remember that conversation with the doctor where you learned that your odd mole was, in fact, malignant melanoma, or that the lump in your breast that was probably only a benign cyst turned out not to be so benign after all? These are all near misses, but what we missed were our escapes. In a sense, we had a near miss of a near miss, and we got hit.

            What’s the lesson here? I don’t really know. I think about how many of my high school students acted as if they felt they were immortal, whether in the way they drove cars or started smoking or whatever. When I’d ask them about their future, they’d answer about the coming weekend, or perhaps the summer. But now that I am older (not quite old, thank you, but oldER), I am aware of how fragile our lives are, even in relatively protected America. No, not as fragile as the lives of people in Aleppo, for example, but fragile. It’s a tightrope, perhaps more so because we usually aren’t aware of it.

            What do we do with that sense of fragility? I remember vividly my feeling of appreciation after the canoeing accident. If you have seen the movie version of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” you may remember the scene where the protagonist is standing on the bridge, rope around his neck, awaiting his execution. He experiences moments of intense noticing – trees, flowers, etc., with everything in slow motion, and then an even more intense remembering and imagining. I suppose that if we all realize that we are living with a rope around our necks, we, too, will notice and appreciate more intensely.

If you have comments or your own near misses to share, please email them to me at

From Jim George:

Three near misses that stand out in our lives:

The first was on our trip to Italy several years ago. We had flown into Nice and rented a car there four our tour of Italy. We had just left the rental agency in the center of town. As we approached the first intersection, going much faster than we should have been because I wasn't used to the responsiveness of the car, I noticed a crowd of pedestrians in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and they all managed to jump out of the way as I came to a halt halfway across the cross walk. I hadn't seen the stop lights, which were located low on the corners, not overhead where I was used to looking for them. We came within a hair's breadth of ruining our whole day!

Then there was the time, on a canoe expedition in British Columbia. We weren't in a canoe, but on a narrow, winding mountain road. It was one of those roads where the mountain goes straight up on one side and straight down on the other with no guard rails. There was a bus behind us that we later learned was probably carrying workers to mine farther up the mountain. Anyway, it was clear that the driver wanted to pass us, there was no place on the road without curves preventing anyone seeing oncoming traffic. I was driving as fast as I dared, but not fast enough for him, and suddenly he pulled out to pass in spite of not being able to see around the next curve. Sure enough, just as he was alongside us, a truck came around the bend from the other direction. To avoid it, the bus driver simply pulled into our lane, forcing us off the road. Fortunately for us, this was the one spot where there was a bit of shoulder where some heavy road building equipment was parked, and that saved us from going over the edge.

On our recent sailing trip down the Intracoastal Waterway bridges were always exciting. The bridges were all supposed to clear 65 feet above mean high water, and our mast reached up 64 feet. Bridges were supposed to clear 65 feet, but some didn't quite meet specs, and though most had gauges where you could read the amount of clearance based on the tide, the one below Beaufort, South Carolina, didn't. There happened to have just been a full moon which created an unusually high tide when we left Beaufort. (Normal tides there averaged 7 feet). As we approached the bridge, I could see that the water covered the base of the bridge stanchions. I asked Angie whether she thought we could clear. She wasn't sure, and neither was I. I consulted the waterway guide, which assured me that the bridge met specs and cleared 65 feet. I said, "I'm going to go for it," and headed for the bridge, but at the last minute, I thought better of it and wheeled the boat around. There was a small marina at the foot of the bridge, and I radioed them to see if they had any information on clearance. "We've been watching you," they replied. "Right now there is about 63 feet." Then they told us how to gauge the height of the bridge by the wooden fenders under the bridge. We headed back to Beaufort and waited for the tide to recede enough so that we could clear. But if I'd followed my first reckless impulse, we would have been dismasted and possibly sunk our boat.

I fully understand what you are saying about moments like that making you value the little things that make life pleasant. Passing the 80 milestone helps, too.

I'm thankful to be alive, to have been born into a fairly peaceful and prosperous country, to have found a partner who can put up with my darker side and love me anyway, to have a few good friends, to have found things to be passionate about   . . . and so on.

From Bill Schildnecht"

I enjoy riding a motorcycle. I'm not certain why I enjoy it as much as I do. I know it has something to do with the selection of beautiful roads, the attention required, and the ability to see, hear and smell all that's around me.  I weigh all that against the numerous risks and have told myself I would prefer to die up against a tree or telephone pole rather than in a bed of tubes. But sitting now in my favorite chair in the winter, I wonder if that's still the case. 

Anyway, my enjoyment has been riddled with near misses as you might expect. I think I am a sissy rider. I won't ride in the dark; I won't ride in the rain, or cold. The only rain gear I carry is an umbrella. If it rains I stop, open my umbrella and sit out the rain. 
I think I am a good and safe rider, but I have friends that tell me otherwise. I lost concentration three years ago on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Tennessee. It has no shoulders - I touched the gravel and hit the ground at about 30 mph. I nearly missed going over a cliff and into the treetops had I hit that gravel ten more yards down the road.  At first, I was upset because I damaged my beautiful motorcycle. Later, because I damaged myself. But in time, we were both repaired. 

On another ride, on the way home on Rt 77, I thought a driver I was passing had spilled coffee on his lap. He swerved sharply towards me to his left and I had to react quickly to avoid him. It was only when I caught up and he did it again that I realized he was trying to run me off the road. That made me think about carrying an accessible brick while riding, but I never quite figured out how to do that. 

Then there was the time that a tire blew out on a boat trailer in front of me. Had to brake fast to avoid flying rubber and a swerving trailer. I always speed past those trailers now - a large percentage are stored outside in one place all winter causing the eventual disintegration of the rubber contacting the cold ground. 

And returning from my daughters house one time, on a highway divided by a large green strip, a car went out of control coming in the opposite direction and, luckily for me (but perhaps not for its driver), it turned sideways in the slick grass and rolled towards me, but stopped abruptly before entirely crossing the medial strip. 

A few others, not as scarey, but I still ride and it could be that my "enjoyment" might also have something to do with the fact that I'm pleased to have survived my near misses and believe that I'm lucky enough, that everyone is lucky enough, that "near" misses won't occur too, too often. They haven't yet. 

November 2016 at Lake Okeechobee. 

Sent from my iPhone

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