Everybody has a couple dozen “times I nearly died.” Most of them are uninteresting. For example, this one time I was walking home, didn’t realize a light had just turned red, and nearly got hit by a bus. It missed me by about six inches. But so what? Everybody has a couple dozen stories like that. (Or is dead.)
But my good “time I nearly died” story is from when I was eleven. I have previously mentioned how, when I was a kid, our annual family vacation was two weeks at the Maine coast. Kennebunk, Ogunquit, Saco – but eventually it became Old Orchard Beach, every year like clockwork. Walt Disney World was often said to be “sometime in the future.” I have never yet been. Moral: parents will lie to you to preserve their twisted vision of your innocence.
But do not let the lack of Epcot bring you down: Old Orchard was a pretty great place to vacation. I generally got tired of the beach after three or four days and would go exploring around town. Luckily, Old Orchard had plenty of neat stuff. It had a decent and charming little library, with giant scholarly tomes on the history of Blondie and Popeye, and a pretty decent – if eclectic – comic books section. I read The Dark Knight Returns for the first time at that library, and also Chuck Colson: Born Again, the infamous Archie Comics propaganda piece about the douchebag Nixon conspirator who found Jesus right about the time he went to prison for being a douchebag. Except in the comic book, it was all a big misunderstanding!
It had a church which played movies every night for a lousy dollar admission, and not shitty old movies that no thirteen-year-old would want to see but seriously good movies, like The Princess Bride and Who Framed Roger Rabbit!? and Driving Miss Daisy and Beetlejuice. I saw Glory on the big screen for the first time in that church, and it blew me away. (Still does. If you have not seen Glory, what the hell is wrong with you?)
It had an old-timey ice-cream and penny candy emporium, much like the gay thing Taylor Doose had in Gilmore Girls, except that this one wasn’t fake and old-timey for the sake of being old-timey. It was old-timey because it was old, and care had been taken in its upkeep. The owner was a bitter old man who hated children, and it was not until our third summer there that I discovered, thanks to a local kid, that this was because he had not realized that his candy stick assortment was right underneath the always-open window that he could not see while he was serving customers. If you went in and bought a chocolate bar, with a little planning and an accomplice it was incredibly easy to swipe half again the bar’s value in grape and cherry and lemon candy sticks. To this day, I am undecided if the old guy was genuinely not aware of this and blamed all his problems on a plague of shoplifters, or if he knew about it and put his cheapest candy under the window in order to drive up sales of everything else.
It had a gigantic amusement park and fun-pier with several enormous arcades. This was, to me, well worth the trip alone; in later years and later vacations, I became a pinball fanatic and could get an hour’s worth of play out of two dollars on some of the machines. My favorite was the Bally Midway Doctor Who pinball machine, closely matched by the Data East Star Trek and the Midway Star Wars – some of the greatest pinball machines ever made. I’m not nearly as good now, when I see a pinball machine gathering dust in a bar somewhere. Nobody is as good at pinball as they are before they turn twenty.
It had a Catholic church. I know this because my mother, on any vacation we took, could unerringly find a Catholic church so that we would not miss Sunday mass. This seemed staggeringly unfair to me.
It had tons of Quebecois kids, whom one could play with quite reliably despite the obvious language barrier of them barely speaking English and me barely speaking French. Every summer I would befriend one Quebecois kid about my age, and we would hang out, intuitively building sandcastles or dams (there was always a river or creek leading to the beach that was worth trying to dam, although as one might expect, we never entirely managed it) or setting off water rockets or fireworks. When I was ten I discovered the M-80, which in my adulthood I figure were purchased and sold by the local general store illegally, as they had been illegal for over a decade before I ever saw one. It is testament to my uncanny skill with explosives that I never blew my face off with one of the damn things.1 In any case, the Quebecois kids never stopped me from doing any of this. It’s entirely possible that they tried to but the language barrier got in the way; mostly we used our bilingual mothers to translate for us when needed, and we’d never tell our mothers we were playing with firecrackers.
It had strange brands and franchises who were of course surely mundane, but whose unfamiliarity to my Canadian upbringing made them seem exotic and special. It might seem ridiculous that a Laverdiere’s or a Waldenbooks could seem special, but they did. I always insisted that, when on vacation, we get several Stouffer’s french-bread oven pizzas. I had seen the ads for them while watching The Cosby Show. Similarly, I demanded that we try Lender’s frozen bagels, which sparked a lifelong adoration of the (non-frozen) bagel that has not ceased.2 My father was more interested in the local delicacies: lobster, birch beer, lobster, crab cakes, lobster, and lobster.
It had Shaw’s, one of my favorite grocery store chains ever. Shaw’s had the most fantastic jumbo cookies, which by themselves were great, but then one summer we came back and I asked to go along on the initial grocery shopping trip (as I always did), and Shaw’s had gone to the devil well of pure inspiration: no longer were their cookies packaged in the standard twist-tie paper sacks, but instead were arrayed flat on upside-down Frisbees and Saran-wrapped in place. Thus, you bought the cookies and you got a free Frisbee! (And it was really a free Frisbee: the cookies weren’t any more expensive.) My mother was possibly more impressed than I was; my mother has always had an innate love of anything she can consider a bargain, and a free Frisbee definitely qualified. I am dead sure that if I went to my parents’ house right now and rummaged through the “outdoor sports equipment” bin, I would find three or four of those Frisbees.
But ultimately, I would get bored with everything else and go back to the beach, because when you are a kid the beach is pretty awesome. I was old enough to know not to fuck around with the riptides around the rocks that would drag you out quickly. I knew not to poke the jellyfish. I was eleven, and I knew what was what, so my parents generally let me roam while paying attention to my younger siblings. This was a mistake, for although on the surface I seemed smart, I was of course a spastic idiot.
How spastic an idiot was I? Well, let me put it to you this way: I decided to float on an air mattress in the water. Fine and good. But, I reasoned, the waves wouldn’t let me float properly, they’d keep getting seawater in my face. So I pushed the air mattress out beyond the wave breaks (I was up to my chest in water at this point), hopped on, and just lay back and relaxed for a while.
I have no idea how quickly I floated out; I lost track of time. What I do know is that at some point I decided it was time to go back to the house and get a cookie, so I flopped off the mattress
– and promptly sank down about five or six feet before I was able to start splashing my way frantically back up to the surface. I didn’t touch bottom. I don’t think I could have managed to touch bottom at that point even with sustained diving effort. It’s hard for me now, as an adult, to judge how far out I was, but I’d guess probably about three hundred feet or so. To a kid, it seemed like a couple of kilometers. (The metric system in Canada took, but only fitfully. We measure a person’s height in feet and inches; short distances in feet; the distance from home to the cottage in kilometers.) The point was – even though I wasn’t endlessly far away from land, I was a long way out. In retrospect it is actually kind of amazing that the lifeguards didn’t notice me or do anything.
Suddenly I regretted reading all those ZooBooks.3 Especially the one about sharks. Yes, I reasoned, it was unlikely that a great white shark was anywhere nearby, because great white sharks didn’t hang around the Maine coast so much. Then again, I had to admit, it was awfully unlikely that I had managed to get out here in the first place, and yet, here I was. This was not a day to mess with the odds. The odds were not my friend.
I was so worried about sharks as I began slowly paddling back to shore (fitfully, afraid of sharks hovering below the surface wanting to bite off my hands) that I didn’t realize that clouds had swept in overhead while I was relaxing. Big, dark clouds. The lifeguards on shore were waving people in now. It wasn’t raining, but you knew it was going to rain, and soon. But the rain wasn’t the issue: the problem was that the storm-swells, the giant waves, had already begun in advance of the rain, because this storm was coming in from offshore. The storm itself would last the next day and a half, absolutely drenching the whole of southern Maine in typhoon-quality downpour, and would eventually prove to be very cool to watch. But that was later.
The waves started getting bigger and bigger, and I wasn’t near the breaks yet, and I didn’t yet know that the breaks were already six feet high. All I knew is that the swells were getting bigger and I was going up and down, it seemed, more than I was going towards the beach. I started paddling harder, figuring that the sharks had probably taken off for someplace calmer at this point.
I’m not sure when I hit the breaks, but I know what happened: I was overtaken by a particularly massive wave and swept to shore. I swallowed about half a gallon of seawater and my eyes stung like motherfuckers. In later days, I would dramatize the situation to my friends by claiming that what actually happened is that the swell rocketed me up into the air, and I grabbed both ends of the air mattress and glided down, using it like a parachute. (I even drew a picture of it for art class, when we did our “what we did on our summer vacation” art projects. My self-depiction was quite magnificent.)
Of course, that was total bullshit. What happened is this: I nearly drowned, lost all sense of direction on the way, and in fact when the wave deposited me on the beach spent several seconds trying to crawl back into the surf because I thought I was headed for drier land. I am pretty sure a lifeguard saw me as he cleared people away from the disaster-level waves, but since he never tried to save me I can only assume he thought “well, at least his death will improve the gene pool.”
Eventually I managed to get enough breath to get to my knees, only to be smacked in the face by another six-foot wave. If I had been prepared for the wave, getting smacked by it would have been fun. However, I was very obviously not prepared for it and was shoved back onto my ass, choking down yet more seawater and possibly a small crab. Luckily, though, this time I was shoved backwards enough that I was now out of the breaks. My air mattress was behind me, having been blown to safety quite some time previous.
At this point, my mother came along, dragging one of my younger siblings and carrying my baby brother. “Chris, come on, what are you waiting for?”
“I nearly drowned just now, Mom.”
“That’s nice, dear. Come on, it’s raining.”
“Really, Mom. Lucky to be alive.”
“It’s raining, dear.”
Top comment: I think the time I most feared for my life was when I was on a class trip to France and me and a couple friends thought it would be a good idea to sneak up the back side of a Benedictine monastery so we wouldn’t have to pay to get in, but it was on the edge of a cliff in the mountains. So we were climbing around on the edge of the cliff trying to find a break in the fence, when suddenly I realized that I was one misstep away from a very terrifying and painful death, and was like, “I am retarded! Get me out of here!” and climbed down and paid the 5 euro or whatever. — Karen
- If MythBusters had been around then, I probably would have used the M-80s to imitate Adam and Jamie in some manner. “Can an M-80 blow up a car? Let’s bust that myth!” [↩]
- Unlike my love of the french-bread oven pizza, which I have since learned to be crap. [↩]
- Aside: the modern ZooBooks lack a certain sense of dignity. My Zoobooks were old-school ZooBooks, with the big, blocky, Roman-esque font. Like this one, except not in Spanish. [↩]