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Open Features: Near Death Encounters

Ed Hootstein of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has stared death in the face so many times its amazing he has survived to celebrate his 70th birthday!

Ed today tells us of some of his adventures - and misadventures.

Settle down for a long edge-of-your-seat read.

Suddenly a powerful current clutches me. I swim wildly toward the beach. A fierce undertow hurls me deeper way out over my head. A rip tide carries me toward jagged rocks below a cliff. The roaring waves muffle my screams. I’m terrified. I’m going to drown.

I scream with all my might, “Help - Help – Help. Save me. Please help save me. Here – Here! I need help.” I am crying and shivering.

I keep thrashing and screaming. I can’t drown. I don’t want to die. I’m only nine. I don’t believe in God, but ask for his help. Why doesn’t he help me? I’m so scared!

I can’t see or hear my friend Mark, a tall strong guy like me. He’s definitely nearby or drowned. We were just playing a really fun game called, “Lobster,” in shallow water with choppy waves … and now I’m choking and losing my breath.

I’m really far away from the water’s edge – about half a football field. The current is sucking me down. I scream again and again, “Help – Help!”

I am going to die. Why am I thinking about that stupid game when I’m drowning? I’m going crazy. I scream my loudest.

Fog blankets the ocean. No one can see me through the fog or hear me from the beach. I cry out desperately again, “Help me – help, please save me. Dad, come get me.”

And then, a miracle happens. A man swims toward me and calmly shouts, “Everything is okay now.” He is big and hairy. He puts me flat on his back and shouts “Hold on tight.” He glides through the water.

My eyes close. I see my girlfriend, Diane. She has a seagull’s body, and she swoops down and gently lifts me with her claws. Of course, I try to hug and sneak a kiss. “I want to be with you, Diane.” She gracefully sets me down in the shallow water. “See you at school, Eddie. You are okay.”

I awake on the sand to smelling salts and artificial respiration. The rescue man whispers, “You are okay. You’ll be fine. My name is Leonard. You’re a brave boy.”

“I don’t care about being brave. I have to kiss Diane. She’s a seagull today.”

Leonard yells to the man hovering over my friend Mark, “This kid may be in shock - hallucinating. He’s been mumbling about kissing Diane the seagull!”

I hear the other man say maybe I’m horny. I don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t sound good.
I hear my wailing mother running toward me. “Oh Eddie, Eddie, are you all right? What happened?”

I’m too weak to respond. Leonard tells her I’ll be fine and explains what happened. His words don’t slow her weeping. I hear sirens over her nonstop crying. She begs me, “What happened? Are you all right, Eddie?” I turn my head toward the road and see two trucks - fire and rescue. Three guys in yellow slickers are running toward us.

Leonard runs toward them and yells, “Everything is under control. We rescued some drowning boys, and they are fine.” The men turn and return to their trucks.
I have my breath back now and struggle to my feet.

I turn and run to catch up with Leonard, who is packing up his stuff to leave. I hug him as hard as I can. He hugs back. We don’t say anything.

My mom takes my hand and we walk on the bridge over the water. It’s like she can’t stop crying.
“Mom, don’t cry.” I feel like crying again too.

The next day, my dad is home. “Eddie,” demands my mom, “Tell us what really happened. Your dad, as you can see, is speechless. Charles, make Eddie tell us what really happened.”

I look up at him, and just his serious expression makes me know I was bad and have to be more careful next time. I always obey when he gives me that expression or just talks in his deepest voice. Sometimes all he has to do is say, “Ed.” He never yells or hits me like some other fathers. I really respect him. I know he played football in college. I want to be as big as him when I grow up.

He asks calmly, “Ed, why were you out so far in the water?”

“Well,” I say all embarrassed, “Mark and I had fun playing our silly games earlier like hand tennis, plastic horseshoes, water flops, and racing backwards. We talked about needing a new game. There were no other kids to play with, just about twenty-five wandering grownups.”

“We made up this game – “Lobster.” We backed into the ocean on all fours, like you know on our hands and knees. The real strong waves beat us and slammed us into other waves. I dug my “claws” into the hard sand. I did the “lobster” to a new position and then I was way over my head and almost drowned.”

My dad is shaking his head. Mom looks sad and tired. She puts her hand on his.

I don’t get lectured by my parents. There is never grounding or any kind of punishment. When I see other moms and dads, I know I have the best.

At the door, my crazy Aunt Sadie shouts, “I’m here. Shalom!” She got even fatter than last time. She wears those weird pink sunglasses, tons of makeup, and bad smelly perfume. She sits near mom.
Then my mom hands me the Gloucester newspaper. The big headline in huge capital letters is ‘Boys Saved from Drowning.’ A photo shows the angry-looking surf. There is also a photo of Leonard receiving an honorary life-guard patch for his bathing suit. And the main photo is these three guys running onto the beach to save us. “No photo of me,” I complain to mom. My dad smiles at me.

I get back into bed, and mom shovels chicken soup into my exhausted body. Aunt Sadie nudges my mom aside, grabs a chunk of my cheek, and says in her shrill Yiddish accent, “So oy vey, why don’t you stay at home to read and become a doctor like your Cousin Harry?” She kisses my sore cheek with stinky, moist lipstick. I almost scream, Help – Help, please save me. I’ll read more. I’ll go to college. I will.”

Bend, Oregon

Years later, at 29 years old, I park my truck at Dutchman Flats near Mount Bachelor (9,068 ft. elevation). I’m an avid cross country skier, and I feel fortunate to be standing here. It’s in the low 30s with a dark blue sky, wispy clouds, and a gentle breeze. I gaze in awe at the massive mountain.

I remove my gear from the truck bed - skis, poles, boots, and a back pack containing water, trail mix, cheese, and a tightly rolled Mexican joint. I usually do these preparations with my close friend Gene, but he is ill back at the inn. The snow is powdery, so I sit on my bumper and apply glide ski wax.

Although it’s unusual to enter the wilderness on a solo adventure, I’m a spirited guy. I think I’m a hippie with my shaggy beard and tie-dye shirts. This area is familiar, so I’m okay. I turn around as usual to remember the perspective of the mountain behind me, so I’ll know exactly how to return. It’s 10:00 a.m., and I’ll be back in the truck at 3:00 p.m.

There is no existing trail, so I make my own trail. I begin briskly skiing from a meadow toward the woods, and just before entering the forest, I look back at the mountain again. Ahead of me are dense fir and pine with light snow falling from branches. I’m feeling great, it’s beautiful, and I’m an excellent skier.

At noon I find an ideal place, a log near under some fir trees next to a frozen pond. I have snacks, water, get some rest, and smoke a joint. I begin skiing again, and I’m immediately aware it’s absolutely silent except for the tapping sound of my poles and the whoosh of my skis. The colors are more intense, and I feel the breeze gently caress my face. I stop to gaze at super-puffy cumulous clouds. I’m already hungry – good pot.

I continue for about ten minutes and see a fork in the trail with Forest Service signs on trees. I turn right and almost immediately take another trail to the left. I think I’m heading toward Swampy Lakes Trail near Tumalo Creek. I have mastered difficult turns and hilly places and feel like I could ski all day.

Twenty minutes later, the sky begins to darken with nimbus storm clouds. It feels colder and snow flurries are beginning, but I’ve experienced more difficult conditions – heavy snow, icy trails, and a sprained ankle. I feel safe. I have a master’s degree in psychology.

I ski until 1:30, rest and turn back toward the meadow. All of a sudden, I have the horrible feeling that I don’t know how to find about my way back. I stop at a fork. I don’t know which way to ski, and because I’m so deep into the woods, I can’t see the mountain. I keep going but things seem unfamiliar. I return to the fork and take a different direction. I’m getting nervous about the time. I’m lost! I can’t see the mountain. I could freeze to death.

I recall that as a child my screaming kept me from drowning, so I yell many times, “Help! Help! Please save me.” I search for berries to eat and a place to sleep out of the wind.

After about twenty minutes, two long-haired, shaggy hunters in a rusty red jeep with a deer slung over the back drive up to me. The driver, laughing, says sarcastically, “Where the hell are you going, sonny?” He’s a short, skinny guy with scraggly gray hair and lots of nose hairs hanging from his big red nose. He slurs his words, and his head moves in all directions, but especially toward a beer on his lap. He has definitely had a few.

The other yokel is a good-looking, huge blond guy with piercing blue eyes, a few yellowish teeth, and bread crumbs in his beard. He could win a Mr. Scandinavia contest after a dentist visit.

“We heard your shoutin’! You want a beer?” I decline. “You a lucky guy we’re out here, man.”

“You freeze your ass off with the storm comin’ up. I’m Zeke and this here driving is Swede. What are you doin’ skiing this late? Where you from? Bears in these here parts would have you for dinner. Hop in the back with your gear.”

“Thank you so much. I’m from Portland,” I reply with a serious expression.

“Figures, city boy,” mumbles Swede. He slaps the dashboard and says, “Let’s get going. Get the city boy back home. Zeke, can you gimme another beer?”

I think, thanks for the comfort, Swede. I decide it’s best to be quiet.

Back at my truck we shake hands, and I thank them. “Sonny, now you get careful next time. Bring a compass,” advises Zeke. I hear them laughing and the words, “city boy.”

After they drop me at the truck and drive away, I store my things away. I sit shivering in the truck. Of course my truck doesn’t start. I flooded the engine. I meant to get it serviced. I can only pick up bad country music on the radio while I get ready to crank it again. Actually, I took a powder puff mechanic course at the community college a few years ago. It starts after three more tries. I’m not telling anybody about today’s insanity. On the way to the inn, I laugh about those guys, but more importantly, I picture myself with a big glass of tequila. I’ll never talk to anybody about my fiasco.

When I park back at the inn, I turn on the light inside the truck. I talk aloud to myself and stare in the rear-view mirror. I say aloud to myself, “Ed, grow up. You almost drowned once. You could have frozen to death here. Now what? Play it safe and be an academic, semi-sedentary guy.

No way. I am crazy and love it!”

New York City

Later in my mid-30s, I’m with my wife, Deborah. I met her by sprinting after her on the beach in Mazatlan. It’s ironic that a white man meets a black woman in Mexico. We married three years later. We are an interracial couple and have a baby coming soon.

Deborah was poor growing up. She comes from the ‘projects’ on the Lower East Side of New York City. She is a beautiful woman – dark, shapely, and with a tantalizing smile. Her family lives in a 12-story drab, gray building enlivened with colorful graffiti but also black paint with the language of men’s public bathroom walls. Apartment doors are metal; iron bars protect lower floor apartments.

It is Christmas day and eleven of us are crowded into my in-laws’ apartment for gift-giving and dinner. They like to drink and carry on. There’s constant laughter. The exchange of gifts increases the mirth. I remain sober, because I’m feeling claustrophobic.

It’s a sunny day, and I must get outside. “Excuse me,” I say apologetically, “I need to stretch my legs and go for a walk. Be back soon.”

Deborah nods her head toward the kitchen. We hug there, and then she asks me what’s going on.
“You know me – restless and can’t sit for long after dinner. I’ll be back in about an hour.”

“Enjoy,” Deborah says with a grin. We hug again. “My family likes you and thinks you are funny and good to me.”

I sneak into our room to change into my multicultural outfit – black tee, black jeans, burgundy beret, and black and white sneakers.

On the way out I notice six black guys hanging around the building where I saw them earlier. I wave, and say, “How you guys doing?” I turn away and move quickly before receiving a response. I walk with long, fast steps and try to appear confident. I’m just a quiet white guy, kind of paranoid.

A guy yells after me, “Want some tootsky, man - finest coke around?”

I turn and politely decline. “I’d go for it, but I have this bad cold - stuffy nose. Thanks, maybe next time.”

I walk briskly and within a few blocks, I’m in fascinating neighborhoods – Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Orthodox Jewish. People are busy and talkative.

In Puerto Rican neighborhoods, folks are expressive everywhere – laughing, singing, and yelling, “Ay-ay-ay.” Music is loud, and they dance the salsa and meringue.

Over blaring salsa music, a beautiful senorita taps me from behind. “Yo tengo danza, senor?” She shakes her butt. I think she wants to dance with me.

“Dolor de cabeza,” I reply holding my head. “Head ache.”

Next, I notice every word in the Jewish neighborhood is accompanied by a gesture – flailing arms, stomping feet, and odd contortions. Where are the women? I just see men with beards and black hats. I heard that these Orthodox Jews don’t use electricity on week-ends. I know, because at the Cohen’s orthodox bar mitzvah, men carried an old woman up and down stairs. No using an elevator on Saturdays.

A short, broad-shouldered man approaches me in the Chinese neighborhood. He’s dressed in a light blue polyester suit with a bright yellow handkerchief neatly arranged in his coat pocket. He smells like herbs. He whispers, “Chin can get you anything – make you happy – cheap prices.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just dropped in from out west.”

“Ah, Hollywood,” he says with a smile.

“Yup,” I respond. “Hollywood is so much fun.”

“I can get you pretty women here too.”

“I’m sure you can. Thanks Chin and maybe tomorrow,” I say as I’m walking away. I wave good bye. I think – an Asian pimp. How can that be? I’m stereotyping. I think I’m a multicultural man with friends in different cultures, a proud member of a multiracial organization in Portland, but sometimes I feel like a phony and can’t explain why.

I decide it’s best to keep moving at a faster pace. No one looks at me, so I feel relatively safe. And being a nature-lover, I know it’s time to see the East River. I need to be with trees and grass.

It seems peaceful on the grassy area by the river. A chocolate lab snags a Frisbee and runs back to a black guy who plays a miniature trumpet between throws. Two young Asian women push carriages. Three Jewish guys with skull caps and long beards are in a heated discussion. A blond white man plays catch with his young son.

I stroll away about thirty yards from them to get closer to the river. As I reach down to gauge the water temperature, I feel a sharp pain in my neck and blood dripping down my back. When I hear a deep voice say, “Move away with me quietly, man,” I feel the knife pressuring my spine. I am terrified!

He tells me in an insistent low voice that I should walk in front of him away from people. As I rise up, he presses the knife into my back again. I tell him it’s a pretty place and ask, “Do you get here very much?” He tells me to stop the small talk and shut up. Did he see me earlier? He could kill me. Will he?

With his other arm on my shoulder, he demands, “Your wallet, man. He pushes the knife harder into my spine. I feel more blood dripping. Of course, I hand him the wallet containing $65 and assorted plastic. He stuffs the cash in his pocket and drops the wallet. The Asian women see us and turn away.

He tells me, “Gimme the ring too. He doesn’t find it humorous that the ring is stuck on. At this point, I have no sense whether he’ll hit me, stab me, or run. One thing is certain. He hasn’t showered recently. He continues behind me. “You got anything else, man?”

“No,” I try to reply courageously.

He whispers, “Now I’m gonna walk away. Don’t turn around when I leave. Don’t shout and just keep walking. I’ll kill you if you don’t follow instructions. Forget this happened.”

My heart is pounding. I’m trembling - both hands are shaky. I fall to my hands and knees, gasping for breath. After three minutes, I sprint away from the area. I think, now what? Tell a cop. How can that help? I’m lucky to be alive.

As I approach my in-laws’ building, I think that those guys outside the projects will smell my fear like a dog. I turn. I’m coming back later. I walk briskly to the Jewish neighborhood and figure Einstein’s Bagels is a place to relax. Jews don’t physically fight. The worst that may happen is some guy may swear at me in Yiddish.

And, it happens when I say to the big-nosed guy with the skull cap behind the counter, “Hey schmuck, “Where’s the free pickles with my coffee?” I feel so much better now.

He yells and waves, “Gai kaken oifen yam!”

Gai kaken sounds bad, so I wave my fist too. In my best French, I calmly reply, “Pourc laid sourd-met,” meaning you dumb ugly pig.

As I enter my in-laws’ apartment, I smell turkey and other delights. I quickly announce, “I need to hurry to the bathroom.” No one says anything about my shirt. I remove it and turn toward the mirror to examine blood stains. Two bloodied areas look awful, so I throw my shirt into my empty suitcase. I don’t have time to apply hydrogen peroxide and band-aids to my wounds. I put on a sweat shirt.

I return to the living room smiling, and I see my relatives laughing, snacking, and having drinks. I head immediately to the liquor area. I quickly drink a double scotch and pour another. I sit on the couch to relax.

Eugene, Deborah’s father, comes over, sits down next to me and asks, “Did you have a good walk?”

Smiling at him, I quickly reply, “I had a wonderful walk on the streets and a jog by the riverbank along the East River. He rises and hovers over me. He’s 6’6” with a deep voice and grew up in North Carolina. He glares at me.

“Y’all know that a man was murdered where you walked by the river just three days ago in broad daylight.” My wife looks aghast.

Her mother firmly says, “Eugene, sit down will ya. You’re scarin’ Ed. Actually, I’m worried that Deborah may know I’m lying.

I confess my naiveté to Eugene. He knows danger. His job is counting money for the Federal Reserve. I explain to him that I got carried away, and I’d be more careful next time.

He turns to his equally tall and muscular son and says, “George, y’all are Ed’s chaperone. Take him out and shoot some hoops. Have some fun and relax.” He notices my shaking hand, so I put it in my pocket.

Great – George just returned from drug treatment – heroin overdose. “Okay George, I’ll show you how we play ball on the left coast. You better go out and warm up,” I say jokingly. I’m trying to be cool as if nothing happened to me. I hear gunshots from one building away. I just completed a distance education sociology course from Stanford, so I feel “street smart.”

On the plane back to Portland, I think to myself, was being mugged a near death encounter? It was not as scary as almost drowning or freezing to death in the forest. Perhaps this is useless reflection. Maybe it is. Near death encounters didn’t stop me from bodysurfing in the ocean or skiing in the woods.

My closest friend Leonard says during our New Year’s Eve party, “Well, you learned some lessons this year about being more careful where you walk.”

“No Leonard! Mugging could happen to me here in Portland. But I did learn to avoid the East River on future visits.”

Hillsboro, Oregon

Now I’m almost forty. There have been no near death experiences for awhile, but I wonder if I seek danger unconsciously. Am I some kind of weird daredevil?

I spend my birthday learning how to fly a glider. During my lesson, the pilot says I can land the glider. I do well except during the landing, fear causes me to vomit all over myself. As I hurry to exit the glider, I ram my head above the door, causing a large gash. I was later diagnosed as having a minor concussion. That’s it for gliding.

Mazatlan, Mexico

My next scary time involves a parasailing incident on the beach during a vacation. Two wise guys in the boat crash-land me into a palm tree. They laugh and yell, “culero.” I don’t know much Spanish but I do know culero means asshole. Hey I manage to hold on to my tequila drink
.
Maui, Hawaii

Now I’m 50, and I’m really fortunate to be teaching a graduate course in Maui. I’m in awe of Hawaii’s beautiful surf. The first day there, I rent a car. I’m cruising along, gazing at the somewhat calm ocean. After about an hour, I see two surfers out deep. I leave my car parked on the shoulder and walk down a steep trail to the beach. Moments later, wearing a wet suit and body-surfing flippers, I back into the emerald water. I’m backing in again as I did at nine years old; try walking foreword in flippers.

For me, bodysurfing is third after sex and eating, but after five minutes in the wild surf, I’ll settle for dog paddling with my kids in a calm lake. (Unlike their father, my kids are sane.)

I get caught almost immediately in strong currents moving me rapidly toward slamming into a breakwater of huge jagged rocks. The waves become massive. They pummel me as I try to swim ashore.

I exert all my energy and finally collapse on the sand a few feet from the rocks while trying to calm my breathing. After getting back into my car I say aloud, “You jerk. The ocean will kill you. Make better decisions. You have a Ph.D. You should make good choices.”

The next afternoon, I teach an outreach educational psychology course to six graduate students who lack access to a master’s program. When I assign home work, they look at me with wild eyes and crazed expressions. Lanky, blond Surfer Joe tells me, “Dude, I have an extra board. C’mon out after class. It’s Maui, man. Be loose. We don’t do the homework thing here. Be real.”

I yell at him, “Here’s real, Surfer Joe. Where were you yesterday when I almost drowned?” Students leave the classroom quickly without looking back. “Oops,” I say to the smart board in the classroom. “I’m losing it.”

Portland, Oregon

Now I’m 70, and my closest friend Al calls me one day and asks, “How about a one-week trek in New Zealand? I’ve done the research. Ed, it’s gorgeous. It’s my treat.”

“I know it’s incredible there,” I reply, “but can’t we rent a jeep at the Oregon Coast and maybe do something a bit less strenuous?”

“Where’s your spunk?”

“I’ve had my adventures. You know about those scary experiences in my past,” I respond proudly.

I confess that now when I’m on a beach, I walk slowly or splash and laugh with little kids near shallow water. I gave up skiing – too cold. I don’t walk around big cities. I take cabs. There are no more near death encounters. I just completed a CPR class.

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