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