I’ve come close to dying twice, and on neither occasion did I see any bright lights or hear the voices of departed loved ones. So I’ve concluded there is no heaven. Or maybe there is—but unfortunately I won’t be going there.
The first time I nearly died I was a mere teenager. I had a job working for a man named Art Waterman, proprietor of The Independent Dairy. Art, along with his wife Kate, ran the dairy out of their basement, where they kept a large walk-in cooler and a bottling machine and for all I know a couple of cows. My job was to load the milk truck and run bottles to and from porches along the delivery route. At the end of each milk run, Art would shift his considerable bulk, pull out his wallet and pay me one dollar and seventy-five cents. I had never seen such a fat wallet. It was the world’s fattest wallet.
Art’s other claim to fame was that he had once been mentioned in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not.” What Robert Ripley found hard to believe was that a man named Waterman had labored his entire life as a milkman.
It was on a bright, sunshiny Sunday morning in the summer of 1962 that the two of us came within a whisker of being crushed by a Denver & Rio Grande Western freight train. Around Carbon County, D&RGW was thought to stand for “Dangerous and Rapidly Growing Worse.” Hobos insisted the letters stood for “Drunk, Ragged & Going West.” But as Art and I approached the crossing that day, neither of us was thinking about trains. In fact, we didn’t see it until we were astride the tracks and the locomotive was bearing down on us full bore. Specifically, it was bearing down on ME! I was sitting on an upturned milk crate on the passenger side of the cab, facing sideways, transfixed by the sight of an enormous yellow diesel engine that was growing ever larger in my window frame. So close now that I could see the whites of the engineer’s eyes. From far away I heard the blast of an air horn.
I turned to look at Mr. Waterman, who had turned white as the ghost he was about to become. He was frantically fiddling with the gear shift of his 1948 GMC Huckster. At the last second he popped the clutch and the van lurched forward, rolling down an embankment onto US Highway Six just as the freight rumbled past our rear bumper, air horn still blaring, Doppler effectively.
I had always thought that if ever I found myself in such a spot I would open the door and bail out, the way James Dean did in “Rebel Without A Cause.” I sure as hell wouldn’t run back to retrieve a class ring—or even Mr. Waterman’s wallet. But it turns out that when a freight train is bearing down on you, you can’t bail out. You can’t move. You weigh ten times what you normally weigh, and the only thought in your head is disbelief. This…can’t…be…happening! If you are a hapless passenger, your last words will be “Oh God.” If you’re the driver—or say an airplane pilot—your last word will be “shit.”
For several minutes afterward, neither of us said a thing. We just continued on down the road, Art driving and me staring blankly ahead. Finally, Art cleared his throat. “Did you see that train?” he asked.
“Yeah. It was close.”
Today that particular railroad crossing has been closed, and the people who live nearby probably don’t even remember when it was open. They surely wouldn’t remember the day, forty-six years ago, when Old Man Waterman and The Menzies Kid and 236 quarts of milk were spilt and splattered all over Carbonville. No, we would have been long forgotten by now and no one would ever mention my name except perhaps at my fiftieth high school reunion, when an ever-growing list of names of fallen classmates will be read by a somber-faced Bobby Baca. Briefly, I’d be a lit candle. Otherwise, naught but a mug shot in an old yearbook, a teen angel with a skin problem and goofy hair.
Fast forward several decades. In November, 2007, I found myself in a hospital emergency room, about to expire from a systemic infection. My blood pressure was plunging and I was going into septic shock. Suddenly I seemed to be getting an awful lot of attention. Was I about to die? I wasn’t sure. I remember one nurse who was nudging me toward acceptance—even though I was still in denial.
“Do you want to talk to a priest?
From the ER, I was wheeled into Intensive Care and hooked up to a network of tubes and wires and sensors. In an adjoining room a team of doctors, nurses, technicians and accountants monitored my progress, and once each morning a whole herd of doctors and interns would file in and form a semicircle at the foot of my bed, murmuring and scratching their chins pensively. I was conscious, but somewhat detached. In order to stabilize my blood pressure, they had pumped me full of saline solution, so that I looked and felt like a water balloon. Whenever I closed my eyes, the people hovering round my bed became grizzled, bewhiskered pirates. The Celotex ceiling tiles liquified and the walls became waterfalls. My gurney became a raft and then a flying magic carpet. I flew through what looked to be a museum—or more precisely, a vast warehouse in which the mummified remains of every creature that had ever walked or crawled upon the earth or swum in the sea was stored. What struck me was how very few humans were on display compared to the number of animals. And many of the animals I didn’t recognize. They were prehistoric animals, and their numbers and variety were mind boggling.
Was it a glimpse into the afterlife, or just a drug and saline solution induced hallucination? I have no idea. What I can say is that it was interesting. An interesting place to visit, but I can’t say that I’m in any hurry to relocate.