Cheating Death—Why Was I So Lucky?

I’ve been to the edge, and there I stood and looked down. I lost a lot friends there baby, I got no time to mess around – Van Halen – 1978

I’m going to give you another glimpse into my soul.

As I’ve written before, there are at least a dozen experiences that should have killed me. Today I’m going to share one.

(FYI, I began writing this a couple of weeks ago)

This has been one of the coldest weeks in 20 years. And here in Minnesota it gets really frickin’ cold. This morning it was -26 F and it’s been below zero every morning for about a week. Life is difficult when it’s this cold. Things break, cars don’t start, the roads are hell, and traffic comes to a stop. Whenever you go outside you’re weighed down with heavy clothing, mittens, boots, hats. Everything takes longer and requires more energy. The cold aggravates Christine’s arthritis. A week or more of this stuff drains you.

But I’m grateful for the cold, and the colder it gets the more grateful I become. Let me explain with a flashback.

21 years ago, in January of 1988, we were just coming to the end of a frigid Minnesota cold snap. It had been -20 for days.

Let me set the scene, it’s 2 AM, the moon is full, and let’s just say, for the sake of brevity, that I was driving a car that didn’t belong to me down this road…

I probably had an Old Milwaukee longneck between my knees, a Marlboro in my mouth, and Kill ’em All blasting on the tape deck. I had a beautiful 16yo girl riding shotgun and I was doing over 100 MPH. Well, I can’t be sure because the digital speedometer blinked as I accelerated past 85. She had her feet up on the dashboard, painting her toenails, uninterested, as if she rode with psychotic juvenile delinquents everyday.

In an instant, I felt a sense that I had lost control. I don’t know what happened. The next few seconds are gone from my memory. I probably hit some ice or a pothole and lost control of the car.

The next thing I remember, I was upside down, the roof crushed. I squeezed out of the shattered window, and looked at the car. It was flipped, headlights beaming into darkness, taillights glowing red against the ice of the Minnesota River.

This is near where we landed.

Shit, I was on a river! Where was Shannon? I ran to the other side of the car shouting, “Shannon! Shannon!” I got down on my knees and peered through the slit that used to be a window. She shook and cried in terror as I helped her crawl from the wreck.

We couldn’t find her shoes, so there she stood on the ice, bare feet, in -20, a mile from the nearest traveled road. I was a selfish arrogant SOB back then, some people said I was black inside, that all the lights were out, many had given up hope, but I must of had some soul left, because I took off my shoes and gave them to Shannon. We left the car upside down on the ice, and climbed the 30 foot embankment back to the road.

The cold tasted like steel as the moon lit up the snow. Shannon whimpered as we walked. I told her we were going to make it because we had no other choice.

My memory of us walking down that empty road, her in my big floppy shoes, and me in my stocking feet, plays like a black comedy.

I never recalled the actual accident itself, even in the moment immediately after the crash. I know neither of us had seat belts on. We sailed off the embankment right between to ancient cottonwood trees. If we would have hit one of those, we would have been hamburger.

The part that really gets me is… not 200 yards from where landed, this power plant dumps hot water into the river…

And the river was open… as it was today…

When we got back to safety, Shannon’s mom picked her up. I expected anger, screaming, hatred, maybe violence. I’ll never forget her mother’s reaction when she saw me, because it surprised me so. She hugged me and kissed me with tears in her eyes, and said, “I’m so grateful you two are okay.”

I still wonder what happened in that instant. I can’t remember. My mind conjures up ideas like…

Was it just dumb luck? Why was I so lucky? I have two friends lying side by side in a nursing home room, vegetables, from a similar accident. Other friends are six-feet under because they caught a bullet being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maybe God stopped time, and this wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Maybe he guided the car with a giant ghost like hand, between the trees and set it gently on the ice.

Or maybe, the moment hasn’t ended, and I am still in that moment and the life that could have been is flashing before my eyes, like some real life replay of An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge and at any moment I am going to wake up, with the crash of the car smashing through the ice, and the 33 degree water filling my lungs.

But I don’t believe any of that. They’re just crazy thoughts. The fact is, I don’t know what happened or why we lived.

I can’t even explain why I didn’t get frostbite. I walked two miles in stocking feet that night. When a man finally picked us up hitchhiking, my feet felt like stumps, but I still have my toes.

But I do know that that ice wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been -20 for a week. So today, when it gets that cold, I don’t bitch. I thank God for it.

And when I commute past that powerplant everyday.

I’m reminded to be grateful for every moment, for the gifts I’ve been given, and to give back more than I take.

If you can’t get up again — or you’re dead — you’re done.

I’m not done yet – Daniel Brenton


I will not die! – Dereck Coatney

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11 thoughts on “Cheating Death—Why Was I So Lucky?”

  1. Steve —

    Thank you for sharing this. And thanks for the link.

    Let me ask — in looking back at this event, would this be one of those “significant emotional events” — or maybe the event — that was the “seed crystal” (remember that from Junior High Lab Science?) for the person you are today, someone who sees the need to consciously add value to the world?

    The fact that you are here — that we are here — is proof enough to this curmudgeon that Life is not done with us.

    You know I’ve been there.

    Speaking only for myself, I believe there is a Hand in these kind of events, something that may extend from our Higher Power and our own innate sacredness.

    And I speculate that we may not have come through these kinds of situations as well off as we did, if there had not been some likelihood that we would gain some fundamental understanding through them.

    (It goes without saying: I’ll be linking to this one in my next “Gratitude Watch.”)

    All the best,

    — Daniel

  2. Daniel,

    It isn’t THE event. One of many and it took me a long time to understand the significance of these events. I talked with an old friend yesterday, one I haven’t spoken to in about 30 years. Found him on facebook. And he had some words of wisdom for me. One was “This stuff happens for reason, it’s our job to figure out the reason.”

    I agree with him. There is some reason for this. Something in the circle of life. Something needs to happen. Something needs to be created. Something needs to be communicated.

  3. The reason you survived is simple. You’re alive because you’re supposed to be. The real question is why are you supposed to be alive. Was it something you did or going to do or say? Why are other people passed and I’m still here? I’ve had a few people in H.S. that passed from drunk driving and car accidents. Back then it seemed like a long time ago but looking back and realizing how quickly life passes us by it won’t be long before we all meet again.

  4. “Maybe God stopped time, and this wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Maybe he guided the car with a giant ghost like hand, between the trees and set it gently on the ice.”

    Maybe you were just lucky and there’s no god. Or else, explain why people better than you die? Why does god hates africa?

  5. Anon,

    Explain why you’re here. Explain what reality is. Explain intelligence and where it comes from. Explain where the past goes. Explain where the future comes from. Explain consciousness. Explain emotion. Explain your ability to create. Explain life. Explain why you’re afraid to put your name on your comments.

  6. Steve,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s interesting that many of us need to go through traumatic circumstances to become truly grateful. I’ve had a few instances in my life which caused me to thank God or the universe for every gift that I have.


  7. Steve, thanks for sharing life that touches again many hopeless hearts. We all have encountered accidents in due times. But your experience is a clear-cut example of a second life including your daughter. But the big reasons why you’re still alive is your ultimate purpose. You have nothing to lose in this world Dave because you have lost it since that accident happened. Therefore, what are you doing now is the thing that matters. Grab that ultimate purpose and don’t lose it. It was given neither to me nor to anyone else. Something extra-ordinary must be done with rest of your life. You need to discover and dig more maybe a lot of gems are stored in you that we need to know more and be inspired for triumphant living. I learned some meaningful ways from kamja, on how i can dig my life to the fullest just to unleash a lot of hidden reasons and purpose of living. Good luck!

  8. I don’t listen to Van Halen, let alone read the lyrics of his songs, but it sure can’t be any better than that story, my friend. Thanks for such a well told tale. It would be interesting to see what has happened to your guest. How did this impact her life, if, seemingly, it has done so at all.

  9. Marc,
    I haven’t spoken to Shannon in almost 20 years. I heard she had a baby. That’s about all I know about her life. Maybe she’ll pop up on facebook, everyone else seems to be.

    I appreciate your comment and your time. Thanks for reading.

  10. Steve, wow some story it hits very close to home. I can ask myself the same question ” how am I alive?” I don`t need to go into detail on how and when, but I have experienced a similar situation. thanks for sharing. another Steve Olson

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