My father nearly died a couple of times before he actually did.
He got arsenic poisoning once and nearly died another time as a by-product of alcoholism.
He may have had other near death experiences in Europe when he was there in the last part of World War Two, but he never talked about his war experiences.
Annie and I had been instructed from as early as we could remember not to go near our father when he was asleep.
Mommy said he would hurt us if we woke him up.
We never tested that assertion.
The time that he almost died that stuck with was an event about which I knew nothing. It stuck with me because of what he said had happened to him while it was occurring.
He told me that he was in a long line of people all dressed in white robes and queuing up to board a huge white hospital ship. The image of the huge white hospital ship captured my imagination because the way he described it, it looked just like the Helgoland, a German hospital ship that was moored in the Saigon River during my time in Saigon. It wasn’t possible to go to the Me Khan, or anywhere else on the waterfront without being overwhelmed by the Helgoland’s looming white presence gleaming in the sun.
My father said that the line had moved forward and on to the ship fairly quickly. He himself was just about to board when an attendant said, “that’s all for today; no more passengers.” At that point, so his story goes, my father woke up and began to improve rather than continuing to sink toward death.
My father was an atheist and drew no meaning from this occurrence other than as far as he was able to see, it actually happened.
Near death experiences have been a fairly frequent part of my life.
They have ranged from ones that happened to me, but were subject to interpretation as to whether they were really bona fide near death experiences, or whether I just thought that they were - the latter included a taxi to Nha Bey and a night on the toilet in Saigon waiting for the Viet Cong to break into my room – to ones that actually happened to me and were unarguably near death, to ones in which I observed others narrowly avoid death.
There was the time at the Ranch House Grille in Page Arizona. Mysti and I had been on a several week tour of the South West which had included a six day bike tour around Santa Fe and Taos. After the tour we were taking the long way home and found ourselves at the end of one of those days in Page. We had stayed at a Marriott Courtyard. Marriott Courtyards usually bring a thin veneer of civility to life on the road so I always lobby for us to stay in them when they appear in our path.
That was why we were in Page at all.
Morning came and we were leaving the Marriott Courtyard for another day on the road on our way back to Seattle. We had learned by that time that if you were in a town with restaurants in the morning it was wise to choose one of them for breakfast rather than waiting for later on the road.
Later on the road often became much, much later.
The AAA guide that had been a key architect of most of our activities for weeks had said that the Ranch House Grille on Navaho Street was “where the locals went”.
We decided that since it was a favorite of the locals we would no doubt love it.
So we went to the Ranch House Grille.
We were ushered into a rather large dining area with some booths along the window looking out on the parking lot and with a number of tables scattered around the interior of the room. The locals seemed to be evenly divided between Anglos and Latinos and Native Americans. It kind of reminded us of the Safeway we go to in south Seattle. We were just ahead, waiting at the entrance, of an apparently Native American family: a man a wife, a little boy of four or five and a baby girl who was probably about two. The little girl was somewhere between cute and beautiful. She had giant black eyes, a round little face bordered by glistening black hair and a kind of pensively interested expression on her face that seemed to indicate that she didn’t miss anything going on around her. I was pleased that the family had been seated at the table next to us and that the little girl had been seated at the corner of their table across from me, so I could look up every now and then and see what she was doing. Everybody in the place seemed to know one another, including the servers who were in the process of taking orders from our fellow diners.
We had arrived just as a small wave of locals had decided to go to breakfast.
There was a table in the corner of the room just down the back wall of the dining area from us. There were four or five people seated at that table. Between them and us were the little girl and her family. At a forty five degree angle from me out in the room a little way from the table in the corner was another table with two people at it. One of them was wearing some kind of a summer uniform that looked like it might be for a fire department, but he was wearing a baseball cap with no insignia or official name on it.
Maybe he just had unusual dressing habits.
The food had begun to appear – the table in the corner had gotten their order – when somebody said something.
At least that was what I thought I remembered afterwards.
At the time I don’t think I really heard anything.
I was hungry and I was examining what the locals were getting in the way of breakfast so I could assess if having gone to breakfast where the locals go had been a good idea.
But Mysti said something also: “The ceiling is going to fall down.”
I looked up and saw some dust or slight debris apparently falling from the ceiling.
Mysti continued. “They said that the ceiling was going to fall,” she said apparently referring to the table of four or five in the corner.
I scanned the area and looked at the other people but nobody seemed to be doing anything about getting up or out of the way. The people with food were happily eating it and talking and drinking coffee, even though it seemed that they had been the ones who had said the ceiling was going to fall.
Things quickly settled into a normal breakfast at the local diner sort of order. Our order had just been brought and I was looking with great favor on two beautiful boneless pork chops, two eggs over medium, rye toast and lots of hash browns.
I was about to ask Mysti what she thought of her breakfast when there was a huge crash.
It takes immensely longer to describe the next few seconds than to have lived through them.
There was a mix of gasps.
The air was filled with dust and junk.
I looked over at the table in the corner and saw a disarray of plates and dust and junk.
I looked at the table with the guy in the uniform and saw a similar jumble.
Several locals had just had their breakfasts ruined with falling dust and debris.
I looked into the floor space between the corner table and the table with the guy with the uniform and I saw a large pile of debris including a large chunk of what had recently been the ceiling.
There was a guy struggling to cling to a rafter, hanging out of the gaping hole in the ceiling.
He was yelling for someone to help him get down.
As I scanned over to the table with the little girl I saw two things.
In addition to the large chunk of ceiling and its attendant debris something else had fallen. And it had landed about an inch or two behind and to the right of the little girl.
It was a piece of some kind of ductwork. It was square and was about three feet on a side and about three feet in depth. It was sheet metal and it had sharp edges. It was a piece of the metal ductwork from the heating and cooling system.
The ductwork was the first thing I saw.
The second thing was the little girl.
She wasn’t making a sound.
She had an even more pensive look on her face than she had had previously, and she was covered with dust.
I have always wondered if her parents ever told her how close she had come once, in the Ranch House Grille in Page Arizona to not being at all anymore, just when she was beginning to be.
It took days before I was able to subdue a grisly alternative image of the situation to the image which I had actually seen; it will, I have decided, take my own death to extinguish it entirely.