As you might imagine given my job at “48 Hours,” I spend a fair amount of time thinking about death. So I was surprised the other night on the road when a cameraman brought up the subject while we were, er, unwinding after a day’s shoot.
“So,” he said apropos of nothing to the small group, “have you ever nearly died?”
And so it began. The stories of how each of us had nearly bit it in one situation or another. Honestly, it was kind of an interesting discussion and better than talking about what was on the agenda the following day. A couple of us — me included — nearly met our end by drowning. The cameraman turned interviewer wanted to know the details. I can’t swim, not really, if you know what I mean but the way most people jump into water with the greatest of ease sometimes makes me think I actually can swim….until I realize that I can’t.
And so it was that I nearly drowned in that most idyllic of places, Yosemite National Park, in the Merced River. Everyone was tubing and I thought, that looks like fun. Might as well try it myself. And so I did, and the tube immediately flipped over and I found myself trying to swim upstream — a very bad idea — while sucking down mouthfuls of water. I actually saw a newspaper headline flash before my eyes of my own death (I’m not kidding) and somehow, that made me realize that floating downstream was my better option. I stopped fighting the current and drifted over to the side.
So that was my story but the others around the table were infinitely more interesting. One guy had a heart attack, knew he was having a heart attack and luckily wound up at the ER in time to be saved. The cameraman who started the discussion was on a free airplane ride in a two-seater shooting some footage with the door open when the pilot lost control of the plane. It turned sideways and went down in a forest but incredibly, neither man was hurt. The cameraman was conscious and carried out the pilot before the plane went on fire…or so he thought. The plane did not go on fire and they were able to use the radio to ask for help. Imagine the poor producer who convinced him — against his wishes — to take that flight. So much for a free plane, right?
As with all these types of stories, there is a fair amount of bragging about escaping death and gallows humor for having narrowly missed the ultimate experience. And that’s the way it went until the last participant told his story. He wasn’t laughing or bragging — he had, we quickly realized — come much closer to death than any of us. He’d had cancer and it wasn’t the disease that nearly killed him. No, he said, it was the chemotherapy. “It nearly killed me twice,” he said.
He was choking up as he said that. The chemo had been years before but it was clear he could still feel it and the cancer had subsided but, for him, this was no academic discussion. Death had come calling. He’d just hadn’t answered the door.