Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Most Frightening Thing. Ever.

It’s Halloween weekend. We’re writers, and we do stories. It’s story time. So tell me: what is the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?

I have a number of candidates from which to choose. When I was a kid I walked into a spider web with my mouth open when the owners were home and accidentally swallowed one. It didn’t give me spider powers but I was crawling walls for weeks. I was almost carjacked in the French Quarter a few years ago. Sobriety and a 9 mm. enabled me to put a stop to that. I was almost robbed in the French Quarter at midnight, walking toward Bourbon from North Rampart on St. Ann Street, with the same result as the attempted carjacking for the same reason. The one incident that stands head and shoulders above the others, however, occurred when I was but a wee lad of twenty-one years of age in San Francisco.

I was a FM radio DJ at the time --- it was too much fun to call a “job” --- and one of the perks was that it enabled me to meet any number of attractive women. One of the most attractive was a Chinese woman who we will call “Mei.” I was smitten with her, in great part, alas, because she was able to tutor my body in ways that it has not been schooled before or since. There was one problem --- there is always at least one --- and that was that Mei’s brother, who we will call “Max,” was the leader of one of the Tong youth auxiliaries. The fact that his sister was dating a white man did not sit well with him. This bit of information was communicated to me one afternoon when I walked out of Tower Records on Bay Street and found Max and a few of his friends waiting for me. He told me that I wasn’t able to see his sister anymore. Being young and full of myself, I told him to perform an impossible anatomical act and walked away. I mean, I was on FM radio. What was he going to do? Kick my ass?

The answer to that question was a definite “yes.” That evening, I mc’d a concert at a new, small music club on the edge of North Beach, on Columbus Avenue just off of Broadway. The concert was an unmitigated disaster, an event in itself that I may describe another time. For our purposes, let it be known that after a number of small near-riots the show concluded at 2:45 am. I stumbled out of the club and onto Columbus Avenue, took a couple of steps, and noticed Max and a somewhat larger group of friends about ten feet away. I did what anyone would do. I panicked and started running down Broadway, toward the tunnel.
I had reached the tunnel mouth and thought I was in the clear when I heard shouting behind me. I threw a glance over my shoulder without slowing down and saw a group of figures running toward me. Max. And his friends. I picked up the pace --- I weighed exactly half of what I weigh now --- and pounded through the tunnel on the pedestrian walkway. I frequently used the walkway to get from my apartment on Russian Hill to get to North Beach and knew that there was an emergency phone about halfway down the tunnel. This was before the days of cell phones and 911 and even cordless phones, mind you, so this emergency phone was quite innovative. Pick it up and take it off its cradle, legend had it, and police would come. I never found out. As I approached the phone, I saw the cardboard sign underneath it, bearing the professionally lettered legend “OUT OF ORDER.” An unnamed but aspiring comedian had scrawled an admonition in crayon right below those words: “RUN FAST.”

I started crying. And kept running. I thought of my parents and my friends and women that I loved and that I intended to and my dog in Ohio and knew I would never see any of them again because these guys were going to catch me and kill me. That was their reputation, something which had seemed quite remote when I saw them on Bay Street, a painting of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin on the wall behind us. And I wasn’t quite as full of myself as I had been earlier that day, if you catch my drift. I ran faster than I ever had in my life. I came out the other end of the tunnel and turned left, ducking into an area known then and now as the Tenderloin. It was and is a colorful but horrible place, a spider’s nest of the crazed and the drugged, where pain is the chief currency and waking up intact in the morning is a victory. I ran down alleys and tripped over sleeping, God-forsaken souls and in a sudden fit of genius hid in a trash dumpster until morning. I spent three days on the streets, Turk and Eddy and Larkin and some alleys I’ve forgotten the name of. On the third day I happened to see a friend coming out of an adult book store and approached him and told him what was going on. He had a little street influence. He got to Max and communicated my apologies and assurances that I wouldn’t see his sister anymore. I was permitted to resume the life I had been living, or a semblance of it. But things had changed. And not all for the better.

I moved back to Ohio a month later and started law school. I have no idea what happened to Max or Mei, or if we would recognize each other if we were to have an accidental, casual encounter on the street. I still have dreams about running through the Broadway Tunnel, however, dreams where I can never quite reach the end of the tunnel and make that left turn.

10 comments:

  1. You spent three days on the streets of SF hiding from triads? Wow. Um ... I was in a car accident once?

    Seriously, how could anyone top that (short of combat experience)?

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  2. John, if the car was rolling, that would be the three days I experienced compressed into a few seconds. The terror, I would imagine, would come after things came to a halt, and the passenger slowly crawled out of the car, not quite believing that they were still on this side of the veil.

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  3. A bit off topic, but Joe's posts so often display that indefinable quality of a gifted storyteller.

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  4. High praise, indeed, Philip, particularly from a wordsmith of your caliber. Thanks so much.

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  5. Great stories, Joe! My own list would have to include wandering into a mine field while taking pictures near my airbase in Korea in l971 and having to back step my way out.

    Before that, during the riots in Kansas City following the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, I was attacked by several angry black men at the insulation factory where I worked.

    But the worse by far was just in September. I had open heart surgery for an aortic valve replacement and triple bypass, with the memory of my mother dying on the table during the same procedure a few years ago fresh in my mind.

    Then a week of complications where my kidneys failed to restart, resulting in several touch and go days of dialysis, holding my wife's hand and fearful I wouldn't still be with her.

    I'm recovering well, however, and enjoying the daily posts here with a whole new perspective.

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  6. Dave, I'm glad you are still with us. God bless and give you a complete and speedy recovery.

    You have me topped by a mile with that Korea incident. If it had been me, I would probably still be standing stock still in that field, forty years later. Thank you for your service.

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  7. So, it was Friday afternoon, and my husband and I stopped for dinner on the way to our kid's football game.
    Jason played tight-end his junior year, and Kim was into sports-medicine, part of the team-with- tape on the sidelines.
    It was an out-of-town game.
    Carl & I left the restaurant and drove the forty-five minute trek toward the grid-iron of high-school football Friday Night Lights.
    I was tired. I laid the seat back for a moment of snooze, then something prompted me to sit up. I watched as the Georgia pines whizzed past our new compact Chevy economy car.
    Traffic was light.
    A couple of cars tagged along behind us.
    We were in the lead of an almost deserted three lane highway.
    I saw him first.
    He started to veer toward us us.
    White. Big. Silverado Pickup. Late 1990's model. Half-ton, at least.
    Fifty-five miles an hour.
    At our speed, as he started to cross into his passing lane, I keyed on the angle of his descent.
    It was all wrong.
    He crossed the next lane, then the center-line.
    "Watch HIM!" I screamed.
    Carl saw it a half-second before I did, and angled our tiny left front bumper right into the marauding Chevy's left front bumper, corner-to-corner.
    The sound I heard boomed like Thunder.
    Spinning, spinning, spinning, so out of control, it felt like only God was in control of the spinning car.
    Whoosh of a half-second later, our tiny car landed in a six-foot deep ditch on the other side of the road.
    "Carl!" I screamed.
    He turned to look at me and blood gushed down his face. "Get out! Get out of the car! I smell gas!" he yelled.
    We scrambled up the embankment, dazed and disoriented, my hero covered in blood. I looked down and didn't have a scratch on me.
    Bewildered, I stared down the highway at the all the carnage.
    The Silverado had buried itself in the three cars behind us.
    The scariest part of the entire event was the Life-flight helicopter landing yards away from us moments later to take the seriously injured victims to the trauma center.
    The driver of the pickup wasn't drunk - only 18, he had a seizure disorder and refused to take his meds because they 'made him feel bad'.
    We walked away because my husband, my hero, a former high-school football player himself, really knows how to take a hit.
    That wasn't the scariest thing that's ever happened in the Millhouse family household, but it definitely rates up there in the top ten.
    Happy Halloween.
    Glad to be here to share that tale tonight.

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  8. I was attacked on the street once. I was 19 and just a few months out from knee surgery. Two “young ladies” (I’m having to work hard to be polite) decided that on this particular Saturday night they were going to steal my purse. Once distracted me with a bogus question while the other snatched. It all happened in super slow motion, just like in the movies. These two female type humanoids made two mistakes. First, they were smaller than I was (rule number one of street robbery: don’t pick on somebody bigger than yourself). Second, they pissed me off. While I may appear to be this mild mannered blonde if you piss me off I will go all Mr. Hyde on your ass. Weak knee be damned I chased these two down. They may have thought they had numbers but the prime instigator went into a brick wall with Jack Reacher force. Had we been fifteen feet further down this street she’d have gone through a plate glass window and I would have been good with that. I got my purse back, and I called the police. Someone had to, and it sure wasn’t any of the people I called out to for help. I cruised around with the police for a while, but we never found them. They were quite impressed that I went after them.

    During the post election riots in Kenya a few years ago a Luhya cab driver drove me through a Kikuyu area. (For those of you not familiar these tribes inflicted serious violence on each other during this time, and this particular area went to hell less than a week after this.) We turned down one street and there was the meanest looking Kikuyu patrolling with a machete. OMG if you want to feel you heart pounding! I had about 5K in camera gear with me, and there was the real possibility of intertribal violence and death. We were both shaking. After I finished up at my destination we had to drive back the same route as there was no other way. The machete wielding Kikuyu was still there. This time I smiled and waved at him. The machete came down and he waved and had the biggest smile on his face you’ve ever seen. Talk about relief!

    The one time that I seriously believed I might die was off the coast of Thailand. I did a liveaboard dive trip out to the Simalan Islands/Richlieu Rock. I got paired with a divemaster I didn’t like. One day the weather was rough, and I didn’t like the way the sea looked. I should have listened to myself. Without going into all the details of that ill fated dive when we got down 70-80 feet the currents was unreal. Holding onto a rock your body went out like a flag on windy day. There was no control.It was like being in a washing machine on the heavy duty agitate cycle. My reg got knocked out of my mouth numerous times. My hands got scraped to bits trying to grab and hold onto rocks. The divemaster never checked on me (or the others) and I got left behind. It was terrifying. I seriously thought I was going to die. I too had those feelings of how it would affect family and how I would miss my pets. When I finally got near the asshole, er, divemaster, I made the up symbol. I was not going to risk my life any further. I didn’t care if the others wanted to ascend or not (later the others told me they felt the same way I did, but they weren’t as comfortable as I was about contradicting the divemaster). After a few back and forth underwater hand gestures I forced our group to ascend. The yelling started as soon as we surfaced. It got even louder once we were back on board. Seriously, NEVER piss me off. I dove with a different divemaster the rest of the trip. I still shake when I think about that dive.

    Looking at this before posting I realize that in each of these situations I took control and changed the outcome. Hmmm. There must be something to that.

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  9. Paula, I'm glad you are still with us. "My hero" sums it up. As they say in Louisiana, someone like your husband is better than an oilwell. Make that two oilwells.

    Catfriend, thanks for sharing the stories and the lessons. Indeed, in an emergency it is the folks who take control, as opposed to waiting on rooftops for the intervention of a deus ex machina, who do the best. I support law enforcement personnel, but when seconds count, the police are there in minutes.

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  10. Thanks, Joe
    I'll tell Carl.
    He'll appreciate the Oil-well reference .
    Happy Halloween.
    Paula

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