Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

I’ve come to the conclusion that, for most of us, untimely death is most likely to strike when we least expect it. “Of course it is,” you say to yourself, “it is untimely after all.” But what I mean by this is that we are more likely to come to harm doing routine, seemingly innocuous activities, rather than those that are more traditionally thought of as dangerous. It’s the oft repeated adages that you are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the beach than get attacked by a shark once you’re there, or most car accidents happen within a mile from home, most dangerous place is your very own home. Sudden death often strikes under the cloak of ordinariness.

My theory has held true for nearly all of the people I have known who have come to a premature end. My first friend to die in this manner was performing a favor for a friend of his mother. A pine tree was dripping sap from a branch that overhung the driveway and making a mess on her car. She needed the limb cut off and my friend was eager to do a good deed for this lady whom he called aunt (though she wasn’t “blood”) all his life, who had fed him many cookies over the years, and had loved him like a son she had never had. That morning he grabbed the chainsaw and extension cord from the garage and waved goodbye to his Dad, who yelled out to him as he got in the car to “be careful with that damn thing.” Those words haunted him for the rest of his life.

Sawing off the offending branch of the pine tree didn’t look to be too much of a problem, but the tree was thickly limbed and he had to position himself carefully between the limbs so he could get to the branch he needed to remove. Once he was carefully braced and secure on the ladder he turned on the chainsaw and began cutting into the limb. Suddenly a huge noise and explosion rocked the entire neighborhood. An acrid, ozone smoke covered the driveway area. His mother’s friend ran out of her house, and so did the neighbors. My friend lay on the ground, smoking, the horrible scent of burnt hair and flesh.

When his chainsaw reached the sap within the limb he was attempting to sever from the tree, more than 15,000 volts of electricity was transmitted to his body. Unseen by him, hidden deep within the upper branches of the pine tree an electrical wire passed, the tree had grown around it, making it nearly invisible to the untrained eye. The sap conducted the electricity through the tree. The chain saw was the catalyst. The electricity had to go somewhere and it did, right to his heart, through his body and out through the shoes that were found nearly fifty feet away. An ordinary task on a late summer day, you’re 19 years old, and then you’re dead. One second you’re alive and the next, you’re not.

Personally, the closest I have come to dying was similarly not doing what I would consider a high risk activity. It happened over twenty years ago in Newport, Rhode Island. My boyfriend and I were working on a little Dutch motoryacht, it was mid summer and we were in between trips with the owner and chartered guests, and were taking a much needed little break. Newport is always very busy in the summer and nearly impossible to get a slip on the “town” side, unless you know someone, or are willing to tip very well. Consequently we were docked over on Goat Island, which is nice enough but requires a taxi to get to the other side, a lengthy walk over the bridge, or the use of your tender. This night we had entertained some friends on the boat and enjoyed cocktails and snacks on our aft deck before going to town for a much anticipated night out. Anxious to make our dinner reservation we left our glasses on the table on the aft deck, and jumped in our Boston Whaler, which had been tide astern and zipped across the harbor. It was a clear night and easy to safely maneuver through the many yachts moored in the anchorage. The lights reflected onto the water like multicolored gems and mingled with the scent of fishing boats and the far off sounds of laughter bouncing off the inky water.

Dinner was terrific and a great night was had by all of us. Yachties work hard and play hard, and though we can be a little demanding of our waitstaff, few are more generous tippers than we. After a leisurely stroll down cobblestoned Thames Street and a brief visit to Zeldas, we said goodnight to our friends and made our way to our tender, motored back across the harbor to Goat Island and our boat. We were tipsy, but not falling down or even silly drunk, lots of great food had mitigated the effects of the cocktails and wine. We had no trouble tying off our tender to the stern cleat on the swim platform that extended outward about three feet or so from the stern, and there it floated just a few feet behind us. It had to be tied up rather short in the marina so that it wouldn’t impede the boat traffic that passed behind us. We climbed up the ladder to reach the aft deck, put on some music and poured ourselves an after dinner drink. Grand Marnier is my guess. Somehow we ended up arguing about something silly, can’t even remember what it was. He waltzed off, gave me a wave and toddled on down below.

I was annoyed and wide awake. There were still a bunch of glasses, cocktail napkins and ashtrays, a general little mess, littering the table and I decided it was best to clean it all up now, after all who wants to look at that the morning after. We had a wet bar on the aft deck but the sink had abysmal draining properties, and I avoided using it much at all. So I took each glass, tossed the straw in the trash and proceeding to toss the dregs off the aft deck. Oh, did I tell you there was a gate that swung open when you needed to descend to the swim platform? Well there was, and it was still wide open from when we’d returned to the boat. Anyway, I was emptying the glasses and had developed quite a rhythm. I got to the ice bucket that was quite a bit heavier than the average high ball and proceeded to heave the melted ice over the side, only my rhythm was a trifle energetic and as I brought my arms forward my body followed the momentum carrying me forward, and suddenly I was on my way off the boat, sailing head first, following after my ice bucket headed right toward our tender. Bad enough to take a dip in the cold waters of Newport Harbour at 2 or 3 in the morning, even worse if you’re trajectory is not into the sea but the unforgiving, hard fiberglass bottom of a Boston Whaler.

It is true about time seeming to slow down. In the space of what must have been a mere second or two I sensed what was about to happen, was happening, and used my right arm in a desperate, superhuman effort to push the dinghy to the side. And I swear that in that split second I thought of Natalie Wood, and that something like this was how she must have died. My head and shoulders made it to the water, but my hip and left thigh got banged up pretty good. I’m very lucky I didn’t break my pelvis. I didn’t feel a thing until the next day.

I’ll never forget the shock of the cold water and the realization that I was okay. Of course no one saw or heard me at that hour. If I had entered the water the wrong way, knocked myself out, I would have been a gruesome discovery in the morning. And if I had landed in the tender, headfirst, I might have survived, but likely moving around on two wheels not walking on two legs and lucky to remember my own name.

The cold water was a shock but a good one. I swam back to the boat, pulled myself onto the swim platform and sat there for a moment, a bit in shock, before I climbed up the ladder to the aft deck. I grabbed a beach towel from the basket I kept back there and I finished cleaning up believe it or not, then I crept below and took a hot shower. It wasn’t till after I crawled into bed that I began to shake, not from the cold, but from how close I had come to dying, and what a stupid way to die that would have been. Close, verycounter for wordpress close. datetime=”2009-03-06T23:33:21+00:00″>