Every now and then I like to tell a personal story from my days past.
Because I've kept a journal of my life since 4th grade ... I'm pretty much able to recall events as if they happened yesterday.
In the past, I've told:
The Worst Date Ever For An Apple Tech
(published in The Best Of Technology Writing 2007)
The Best Date Ever
An "F" With Two Lines Through It Is An "A+"
(nominated for The Best Of Technology Writing 2008)
Written Up, But Not Kept Down
Today ... my story is called "Eight".
I like the number "8" because it's a symbol for infinity but also because of my favorite comedy routine of Brian Regan [BELOW]:
In my Top 10 Looney Toons cartoons is Satan's Waitin'. This cartoon details the loss of Sylvester The Cat's 9 lives. As Sylvester loses each life ... they appear on a bench in Hell. [ see top picture] He finally gets to "Life #8" before he realizes that he just needs to be more careful ... so he locks himself into a bank vault ... that night; bumbling robbers use too much dynamite on the safe and Sylvester loses his last life anyway.
Not long ago ... a stray cat adopted my former residence - a condo complex - as his new home. I lived high up on the third of four stories. One day, this cat, who liked to sleep on the edge where the sun warmed the walkway, got startled when I opened my door. He fell three stories; hitting my car in the parking lot below. I tried to run after him to see if he was okay, but he bolted off with a limp. Two days after, he was in the exact same spot. I carefully opened the door to my condo. Right at the same time, my upstairs neighbor who was dog-sitting, let his dog out of his apartment - which quickly ran down the steps from the fourth story. This startled the cat, he got on his hind legs and hissed - then fell yet again. This time into a very hard branched Hydrangea. A day later ... the cat was back in the same "sunning spot". I asked a few neighbors if they knew where the cat was from or if it had a name. No one volunteered a name ... so I named him "Eight".
My story is about the "eight times" I feel I've avoided death. I like to joke that I'm on my last of nine lives ... already having used up my other eight.
As a child, I lived on a large piece of property in Clemson, South Carolina. There was always something to do - especially in the summer ... like weed, garden, pick up rocks and branches - typical small farm stuff.
In the summer of 1979, when I was five, my two brothers and I were gathering rocks from around the property to help build a retaining wall near the road.
I loved watching my brothers race. They were so competitive. I looked up to both of them and loved when it was just the three of us together. My oldest brother, Trey, is almost 11 years older than me. My next oldest brother, Buck, is almost 8 years older. The days when we were all under the same roof were few. I don't have many memories of all of us together.
My oldest brother, always drove my grandfather's Elec-Trak tractor - an all electric tractor from the 70's made by GE. The mower was located on the front of these tractors and raised and lowered to cut. My next oldest brother, drove a small Craftsman mower from Sears which we all called "The Pup". Each day, we would ride on the tractors to a destination on our property. Around noon, at lunch time, each day - my two older brothers would race the tractors back to the house. Each day, I would grasp the top of a flat bed trailer, near the trailer hook, being pulled by the Elec-Trak. I would hold on with my belly down and arms over my head and with upper arms covering my ears.
I would bounce wildly on the trailer bed as they approached 30 mph speeds hitting bumps in the field. One day, my dad saw this with me nearly losing my grip and falling off the trailer. He threatened my older brothers with
"You boys can't imagine what I'll do to you if I see that again"
"Rusty, I'm going to tell you this once. I won't be able to tell you a second time because you'll be dead.
DO NOT RIDE ON THE TRACTOR TRAILER LIKE THAT!"
So, the next day, when we were ready to head back towards the house ... Buck hopped on the Elec-Trak and told me to hop on to the flat bed trailer and hang on. He said,
"Today, My victory is silent! "
* The Elec-Trak - which my oldest brother normally drove was almost whisper quiet.
My oldest brother got a very angry look on his face as Buck and I drove off. He hopped on "The Pup" and turned the slider accelerator to "Rabbit". Buck and I hit bumps in the grass; I was wildly bouncing up and down on the flat bed tractor. I could see Buck looking behind him constantly to make sure he was still in the lead. Right as we started to head up a slight incline, I popped off the trailer, flipped in the air and landed flat on my back. My oldest brother ran completely over me with all four tires. The front and back left tires running over my clavicle and the front and back right tires running over my ankles.
I was crying ... but in the blur of my tears, I could see Trey and Buck coming toward me.
I heard Buck say ... "Oh God Trey ... what are we gonna do?"
Trey: "Well .. we need call 911. Rusty, don't move okay."
I kept trying to get up, but my back was very sore.
I weakly moaned to Trey ... "Why did you run over me?"
"Rusty, I didn't mean to."
Buck started running towards the house.
My father came in a few minutes; driving the car out into the field where I was laying.
I was placed in the back of the station wagon - an AMC Hornet - on a piece of plywood. I was carried into the hospital (which was very near by) on the makeshift plywood stretcher. I was x-rayed quickly. No broken bones. No bad bruises. Just a sore neck and sore ankles.
Trey and Buck were grounded for a month. Part of their sentence was attending to my every need.
I lost four lives in the summer of 1979 ... Life #2 happened just a few days after Life #1 was taken ...
A nearby neighbor had a swimming pool. I didn't know how to swim and had one the little kiddy swimmy donuts. I played in the shallow end of the pool under constant supervision. My father was constantly reminding me not to go past the the number 3 in the pool. (He was referring to the 3ft mark.) The pool was large with a very deep "deep end" that was 18ft. The pool had a high diving board. My brothers would cannonball into the pool. I would ask every five minutes if I could jump off the diving board the way they did. My dad refused and my brothers didn't even volunteer to make sure I didn't drown.
One day, just before lunch, everyone had gone inside to get a dish for our lunch. My dad, my mom, their friends, and my brothers were each pitching in - bringing out napkins, table cloths, plastic forks, drinks, chips, and other food. I was told that I could stay in the pool if I sat on the steps in the shallow end. Each time I saw a chance, I edged closer and closer towards the deep end. I remember getting a few smiles - no one noticing where I truly was in the pool. While everyone was inside, I lept onto the ladder at the deep end, grasping my swimmy donut. I ran to the end of the high diving board and jumped. I went straight through the center ring. I sank like an anchor to the bottom of the pool. Right as I was passing out, I saw our neighbor's wife swimming towards me in her moo moo; holding her breath, with her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk gurgling:
"Robbpppusty, pppbbboh pppbbobbgod"
(That's underwater talk for "Rusty, Oh God!")
I was pulled onto the edge of the pool ... the only thing I can remember is my dad smacking me on the chest and saying,
"I told him not to go into the deep end."
Just a few weeks later ... I was being babysat by the same neighbor's younger daughter Marla; who was 19. Marla had a daughter about 15 months old. She had her boyfriend over and I distinctly remember her boyfriend showing me how to build card towers from playing cards. Everything was fine ... I suppose just a day in the life. However, the next night, Marla's boyfriend shot and killed himself, Marla, and the baby. My father never let anyone but my brothers babysit me again.
A few days after ... my family had a reunion at a nearby lake called Twin Lakes. My family usually ate at around 11:30 - Noon each day. I hadn't had a snack and it was approaching 3 o'clock. Everyone was busy getting food ready or playing in the water at the nearby beach. I kept asking my dad if I could have a hot dog off the grill. He kept telling me to wait. I repeated my plea several times, until I got this reply:
"Rusty, you'll sit down, and you'll wait. We're all hungry."
So, I sat for what felt like an eternity. (An eternity to a five year old who's hungry is about two minutes.) I felt I had been patient enough. So, I went to the nearby wooded area. I found a log and dragged it over to the grill - which was a two foot wide, six inch deep basin supported by a single pole at the center. The grill was a good distance from the picnic area where everyone was arranging the food. I propped the log against the grill. I leaned over and reached towards the back for a good well cooked hot dog - I fell with my belly going directly onto the grill. I screamed. My dad came running and pulled me off. The grill grate was stuck to my stomach.
This happened in the days before cell phones, but luckily an emergency phone was nearby at the bathrooms. My brother called 911 while my mother and father consoled me - grill grate still infused to my stomach. The paramedic on the phone had told my brother if we had any butter to put it on my stomach and try to remove the grate carefully. My dad took a large handful of butter and rubbed it on my stomach. I continued to scream as loud as my lungs would allow me to. The emergency van rolled onto the beach. I was rushed to the hospital and treated for 3rd degree burns on my stomach and chest. Up until about five years ago, if I worked out or did a few dozen sit ups - my stomach looked very ripped - it was the "grill mark" scar still showing from this accident.
When I was 7 and lived in Clemson ... we had a large walk-in type refrigerator. It was a tedious process to open the door, walk in, get a drink, take it out, pour it into a cup, and take the drink back - opening the door, walking in, and going back out. An additional 30 seconds was involved. Usually, water was easier to get from the faucet. It also wasn't pleasant to be in there for long - especially in the winter.
My father insisted that no one pour a drink while in the fridge because several times the floor had become sticky from spilled drinks. He also got onto my brother and I regularly for guzzling directly from the orange juice carton.
My mother, a blonde by choice, had a weird concoction of clorox, lemon juice, and maybe some sort of dye to color her hair. Once a month, she would refrigerate such a concoction in the fridge with a clearly labeled pitcher that said,
My brother and I regularly made lemonade and what I called "cheesey chips" - potato chips with melted shredded cheese and green olives on it. One night, after finishing a plate of "cheesey chips" I walked into the refrigerator to guzzle some lemonade.
I placed the pitcher that was marked "Lemonade" and was the regular pitcher used for lemonade on my mouth and took a large gulp. Immediately my throat started burning and my scream made it hurt worse. My brother ran to see what was wrong. My mother,father, and oldest brother quickly came as well. My father called the doctor that said to get me to drink milk slowly. I went to the hospital to have my stomach pumped.
* I should make it clear that no one was purposely trying to poison me ... my mother had accidentally made her hair concoction in the wrong pitcher.
When I was 10, I moved to Six Mile, South Carolina - to a blueberry farm. The house was built on a high ridge, about 3 acres distance from the street. When we first moved in - we had a long gravel driveway. I had a black Schwinn children's dirt bike. Schwinn's child bikes have coaster brakes - a braking system where you push backward on the pedals to stop the bike. Just about every day, I would get on my bike - pedal really fast - build up speed and slam on the coaster brakes into a long slide digging a trail into the gravel.
After a few weeks of seeing this ... my father told me that I needed to be careful about doing that near the end of the driveway. He was concerned that I might skid out into the street. Then, one day I did skid into the street and my Dad came immediately out of the house and said with a very stern voice,
"Get up here! NOW!"
He quoted himself ...
"Rusty, I'm going to tell you this once. I won't be able to tell you a second time because you'll be dead.
DO NOT DO THAT ANYMORE! If I see you do it again, I'm going to take your bike away!
The next day, I skid back and forth at the top of the driveway for a little while. Each time; looking down the driveway and seeing all of the awesome skid trails I had made in days past. Suddenly I got the urge to just pedal as fast as I could. I was going to make THE WORLD RECORD longest skid trail. I even pictured myself on the pages of Guinness Book. I pedaled as fast as I could down the driveway ... I slammed on the coaster brakes. I heard a screech, a bump, I felt something on my hip and I saw sparks flying from underneath a car as I landed on the other side of the road.
I had been hit. The driver of the car got out and looked all around for me. He asked if I was okay. I said,
"Where's my bike?"
The guy who hit me, who was driving a corporate car from a roofing company said,
"I don't know, are you okay. God oh God ... just stay right there"
I saw our maid running down the hill. She stopped and kissed me,
"Rusty, are you okay baby?"
Then she looked at the roofing guy:
"What did you do? Why were you going so fast?"
I was trying to get up and the roofing man forced me by my shoulder back to the ground telling me I might have serious injuries. I could barely see behind me ... my Dad was running down the hill ... I started crying. (I wasn't really crying before this point.) I was worried what my Dad was going to do to me AND to the roofing guy.
My Dad's first words:
"Rusty, how many times have I told you to be careful on your bike?"
"Well you said you were only going to tell me once?"
He smiled a bit (In a kind of "Dammit boy, I Love You look), then looked at the roofing guy,
"What the hell is your problem? You know, I run every day and I've noticed your car speeding on this road quite a bit ... just look at your tread marks."
The roofing guy:
"You're trying to tell me this is my fault?"
"I'm not telling you, that 35 MPH sign right there tells you every time you go by here."
My Dad came over and asked if I was alright. Our maid gently helped me up and she and I went inside. A neighbor had called the police. The police came and I saw the police officer and my Dad walk over to the tread marks and measure them. The roofing guy was starting to hang his head.
We went to the hospital. I was x-rayed ... no broken bones and no major bruises or cuts. The doctor said I'd have a very sore hip the next day ... and that I did. It was very cool to go to school and tell everyone I had been hit by car and lived to tell about it.
The other details:
• The police report indicated that the tread marks showed a speed in excess of 55 MPH. The tread marks STARTED at my drive way. It showed the speed limit as being 35 MPH. A ticket was issued for speeding.
• The roofing guy tried to sue for the damage done to his car - a corporate loaner. My bike had been crushed underneath and done some under-carriage damage ... but the big damage and probably the most amazing detail to this story ... his windshield was shattered and he had a 4 inch wide 2 inch deep depression in his hood.
• My father replied to the lawsuit by mail:
"Mr. Rubber Roofer,
Go ahead and sue us. I will own your roofing company at the end of the litigation.
By the way, my son is alive.
We never heard anything else.
In late 1998, I bought my dream car - a Suzuki X-90. It was my dream car for many reasons. It was green - getting 35 miles to the gallon. It was unique - with a very distinct look. It was a convertible - with a removable t-top, it was a sedan, it was a sports car, it was an SUV, it was a 4x4. Being a person with no sense of direction - it came in handy - in the days before affordable GPS devices. I could call a client or friend or date and tell them to look for the ugly red car and flag me down.
I liked that it got as many double takes as a Ferrari - but people knew it wasn't an expensive car.
On the night of July 3, 1999 - my X-90 was broken into by shattering the driver side window - to steal the radio. Glass was all over the parking lot from where several cars in my apartment complex parking lot had been burglarized.
I cleaned up the interior of the X-90 and swept most of the parking lot. I discussed the break-in with police and neighbors. Then I went to get a friend so we could go to IHOP for breakfast 4th of July morning - which happened to be on a Sunday. We talked mostly about how I vowed to get justice. [more on that later]
While coming out of IHOP, after a filling breakfast, my back driver side tire blew. I wobbled into the center median. Broken glass shards were all over the tire. I opened the trunk, grabbed the jack, jacked the tire up, and put the emergency tire on. I put the blown tire into the trunk.
It always feels good when you can change a tire yourself; quickly. Well ... I did all of that perfectly. I went to get back into the car. I reached for the keys in my pocket. Right as I patted my pocket - I smacked myself on the head - I had left my keys in the now locked trunk. My car was sitting in the middle of one of the busiest roads in all of Greenvile. After waiting an hour and paying a double premium (for Sunday & Holiday service) ... my keys were retrieved from the trunk. Ughhhhh!
Anyone who knows Greenville, South Carolina well will tell you that a certain area called Garlington Road could practically be turned into a cemetery there's been so many deadly accidents. I had to travel down this road to deliver my friend back to their apartment complex. I also had to go back down this road to get back to my apartment complex.
On the way home, I came upon "the dead man's curve" ... there was a large Culligan water bottle in the middle of the road ... just before the curve ... I swerved slightly to miss it ... but the emergency tire turned my swerve into an out of control spiral ... luckily I regained control ... only to find myself in the wrong lane heading straight into a Ford Taurus. I swerved again ... this time flying off an embankment and flipping the car three times ...trunk over hood ... trunk over hood ... trunk over hood ... with the final flip hitting the nose of the X-90 very hard into an industrial park pond and then teetering over - leaving the car upside down in the water. The t-top panels had popped off on the first flip.
* This curve has since been straightened a bit and a guard rail added
Everything seemed to be going in slow motion - like the Matrix bullet time. Coins, the floor mats - it was almost like I was watching them freeze in mid air; then fall quickly onto my face. Water started to fill the cabin a bit, even though the pond was shallow.
A little bit of background:
A few years prior to this accident, I was lucky enough to attend a comprehensive (and very expensive) driving school. In this training, I learned that if you felt you were going to flip a car, especially a convertible ... it's best to lean into the passenger seat. If there is a passenger ... it's best for them to lean towards the driver.
Had I not been to this driving school and had I not leaned in - the roll bar that collapsed would have decapitated me. On the driver side, the roll bar was almost even with the top hood of the X-90. The broken roll bar stabbed into the cabin when the car came to a rest upside down.
I crawled out of the car through the broken window - into the water. I walked up the hill and looked down at the car. The tires were just coming to a stop.
Cars stopped and several people asked if I was okay. (Shaking a bit) I said,
I had no broken bones, no cuts, no bruises.
The police officer commenting on the accident in the accident report:
* Top half / driver side of car crushed to seat level
* Roll-bar on vehicle failed to maintain integrity
* Bi-folded hood, loss of front and rear bumpers, crumpled trunk
* Steering column separated from dash.
* Top convertible panels expelled from vehicle
* Emergency tire present on vehicle
* No other vehicles or persons involved in accident
* Driver completely unscathed / No passenger
* Driver is vehicle owner / Driver insured USAA
* Vehicle total loss
* Driver issued citation for driving too fast for conditions
* Other notes: This is not Suzuki model that was in lawsuit??? Worst accident this officer has ever responded to without serious or critical injury. Driver must know Jesus.
Earlier, I spoke about seeking justice because of my car being broken into ... well ... now I was going to make sure I received restitution. I followed up every day with the investigation on the car burglaries at my apartment complex. About two weeks after the incident - the suspects had been arrested and most of the radios had been recovered. I asked if I could be at the arraignment hearing. The police officer investigating agreed that I could. At the trial, I discovered that the three suspects; 2 teenage boys and a woman in her 40's had stolen from dozens of apartment complexes all over Greenville County. The teenage boys would give the radios to the older woman - in trade for sex. No exchange of money was made according to the woman.
The judge said ...
"It looks like here on the docket that we have a Mr. Philip Smith here to make a statement."
I stood up and said (after a swear-in) :
"I would like to tell you about a chain of events that the defendants should consider and you should consider in your sentencing as a charge for involuntary manslaughter. I also want to note that I am asking for full restitution of my car radio and the damage done to my car from the robbery. On July 3rd 1999, the suspects broke into my car by knocking out the driver side window. This glass got into my back tire and forced me to install an emergency tire. I could not sustain an emergency maneuver in traffic and flipped my car ( a one in 7000 make ). The car was a total loss and cannot be replaced. The insurance valuation was low because the car was purchased used for $5000.00 in 1998. I just wanted these kids to see what just a small robbery can cause - they need to understand that their actions may have led to accidents in the vehicles they robbed and possibly some of those accidents resulted in death."
The judge asked:
"It looks like you're okay, why should I consider involuntary manslaughter charges for a fender bender that you think was caused by these individuals?"
I replied in a sarcastic tone:
"Here's the accident report."
The investigating officer for my accident was present:
Your honor, if I may ... Mr. Smith is quite shook up over this. I have never seen an accident so bad and the person live. I consulted with Mr. Smith before the court appearance today. He asked me about mentioning attempted manslaughter charges. I advised him that the charges would probably not be considered, but I did want the defendants to hear his statement. I also wanted you to consider granting him his requested restitution because he was covered by state minimum required insurance. The insurance company deemed the accident Mr. Smith's fault and therefore did not compensate him for any part of the accident including the theft of his radio."
The judge granted me restitution for my radio and rejected the manslaughter charge. I received two payments of SEVEN dollars over the next two months and then never received another payment.
Three years later (in 2002) my car (a Suzuki Vitara) was broken into and the radio stolen. It was the same 3 suspects - with the same arrangement. This time, I was carrying full coverage insurance and chose not to pursue anything.
In April 2008, I was returning home with my wife and son from a great mini-vacation to see The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky ...
I had bought a Garmin GPS just before the trip ... I've had a number of GPS units over the years and I've found Garmin units to have a more preferable interface. It was nice to have a GPS to navigate while in an unfamiliar area. On the way back to South Carolina, we decided to stop in Nashville, Tennessee to look around and grab a bite to eat. This offset our arrival back home by almost 3 hours. Our new arrival time, according to the GPS, was going to be 2AM.
I was quite tired on the trip home. I was yawning every few minues. I had to stop to get gas once ... we stopped for a break at a rest area to sleep for a little while. I got in about 30 minutes ... then I was good to go.
While in my home area, I had always set my GPS units for "shortest distance" route rather than quickest - so I could try to save money on gas. Apparently, this isnt the right setting when traveling a long distance - as the GPS disregards terrain, stop signs, and turns. I had forgotten about this setting after leaving Nashville - leading us through a mountain pass that encompassed crossing three state's borders - Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina.
Somewhere, around the Mountain Rest, Georgia area ... I had an uncontrollable urge to go to the bathroom. I'm usually very good about holding it ... but I just couldn't any longer. I pulled off the road - which was a very steep and curvy mountain. I told my wife that I needed to pee and that I was just going to go right quick. I got out ... went to her side of the car and started to pee off the edge of a cliff. Almost done, I heard a rustle in the leaves like something walking ... something stalking ... then ...
It was like a hiss and a whine mixed ... and maybe a baby screaming mixed in. I've been around a lot of cats and I know what panthers and mountain lions sound like. This was like no other animal sound I had ever heard.
I zipped up and quickly went to the car door, opened it, and sat down. My wife said,
I said in a sort of panicky, out of breath, voice,
She started to laugh ... then very loudly and echoing off the rock of the mountain,
More rustling of leaves ... we both looked forward. I turned the keys, put the car into gear. I slammed on the gas (with caution) and sped off. I paid close attention to every curve in the road and kept looking in my rear view mirror just to make sure something wasn't running down the pass.
Start watching at 3 MINUTES 30 SECONDS on the YouTube video above. This segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie is called 'Nightmare At 20,000 Feet' and features the use of a devilish shrieking solo violin amidst a propulsive ostinato - combining into a full orchestra of violins. The music in this horror story really sets the tone well. This music is all I could hear in my head as we continued down the mountain. I didn't want to look out of the windows and I kept imagining a pale, two legged, fanged gremlin sort of thing landing on the car's windshield and chattering its teeth and hissing. The violins continued to play in my head. My wife and I were wide eyed ... turn and after winding turn down the mountain pass ... finally we made it into South Carolina and into familiar territory. We looked at each other and kind of sighed. We started to joke about it. We got home and I picked up my son (who was asleep) and took him inside and laid him in his bed. It was now 5AM. I slept, but lightly ... I continue to have the occasional nightmare ... my wife and I joke about the situation often just to calm our own psyches.
There have been times in my life where I have been completely terrified ...like the time I saw the movie Alien when I was five ... then when I got home my brother hid behind a door and slammed the end of a bat (dripping with water) out from behind - making a hissing sound - making me think Alien teeth were coming for my throat. Though all I have been through ... in all of the stories you've read ... I have never feared for my life as much as I did that night.
These accounts don't include the three times I was attacked by customers - one (the owner of a car dealership) threw 30 iBooks at me and told me quote, "Get these F%!#KING sissy computers outta here!" ... one threw a fireplace poker and their computer at me. Another tried to hit me in their car the following day when they spotted me at the flea market. It doesn't include the two other times that I drowned - passing out both times and having to be resuscitated. It doesn't include the death threats I was told about regarding a court case. It doesn't include the 5 or so deathly accidents that have literally happened to the cars right in front of me. It doesn't include the time I was shot at and just happened to be wearing impact resistant sunglasses - that I had just purchased the week before. It doesn't include the time I jumped nearly 200 feet off a railroad track. It doesn't include the time I was burned by battery acid. It doesn't include the time I was in the congressional building in Washington DC in October 2001 when they evacuated because of Anthrax. I could literally go on and on ...