“I have cheated death before,” my uncle said to me.
He pulled what remained of the small piece of wood he had been chewing since we lit the campfire and spat a gob of spit to the ground before returning the wood back to the corner of his mouth. The embers of the flame lit his face in a revolving glow of yellow and orange, making him out like a ghoul out of a nightmarish dream. The flame highlighted every ridge, crevice and wrinkle line on his feature, especially his eyes. His eyes were grave and distant. He was gazing at me across the fire but his eyes seemed to gaze beyond me . . . into the past, or wherever it was they transported him.
“Four times I have cheated death. The first time happened forty-three years ago far from here, in Vietnam,” he scratched an itch on his cheek. His voice sounded hollow and strange. “That was another time. I was young and like plenty like me, too dumb to know what we were fighting about or to care. I remember that day. There I was driving my squad truck back to base in the morning when I caught a flat tire. I was three miles from the camp and in the middle of nowhere. Nothing all around but green foliage that went for miles. No one out there beside me and all the things you hear out in the woods. I should have been scared—that’s just how dumb a fellow I was back then— but I wasn’t thinking any of that. All I wanted to do was change the goddamn tire and haul ass to camp before I got my ass chewed out and pull KP duty.”
My uncle stopped to look at me as if he assumed my attention had wandered. Nothing regarding his tale could have made me think different.
“I heard rustling in the bushes behind me,” he continued. “But I never heard it till it was too late; the whole time I was working the jack handle to get the tire out. Then the world exploded around me. I heard something zip past my ear, sounded like a bee on a jet pack, then came puncturing sounds in the body of my truck. I looked up and saw holes, three of them, about five inches from my head, and then the fear hit me like a brick in my gut and I knew I was in a shit of trouble. The rustling noise in the bush was getting louder. I turned around and at that moment I’d never been so scared in my life when I saw two . . . no, three Viet Cong guys aiming rifles at my ass. I ducked face-forward and rolled under the truck. Felt like it happened slowly like time had quit moving. The guys kept on spraying bullets at the truck; till this day I’m surprised none of it landed on me.”
My uncle paused in his narration.
“What happened after?” I asked.
“What happened was there was a group of Marines who were in a motorcade coming behind me, also heading to the camp. They got to my rescue in time. But the Congs melted back into the bush like they’d come out of nowhere. That was the most exciting time I had while in Vietnam. I had countless others, but none topped that.”
He picked up his small bottle of rum that was beside him and took a swig from it then muttered a sigh.
“Second time I almost died I was caught out in a blizzard back in ’82. I was working for a hauling company back then out in Chicago. Cold fucking day that was; so cold and windy you couldn’t see anything but white. The wind was rough, I tell you. Fool that I was, I thought I could make it across town in record time ‘cos I was on a deadline to deliver the goods I was carrying. I could barely make out anything in front of me. Just like that, I rammed into some truck caught in a ditch and some lengthy pipe tore through the windshield and stopped three inches from slamming into my face. I stepped so hard on the brakes my head bumped against the wheel and I definitely saw stars. I could barely move, and I was bleeding from a cut in my head. I probably would have remained there and frozen to death if a cop car hadn’t been patrolling around. The cops came to my rescue; I ended up with a couple of stitches afterwards. Spent the rest of the week hauled up in bed fighting off frostbite,” he chuckled.
“But if you think that I had that one coming, the third one was the scariest. This happened in the late eighties—’89, I think it was. I had quit Chicago by then and was back in New Jersey where I grew up. I was doing plenty of maintenance in my old home. There I was at a traffic stop waiting for the light to turn green. Nothing wrong was happening; it was another typical spring afternoon and I had plenty of stuff doing then. Anyway, the light did turn yellow then green . . . except for a moment—couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of seconds—I didn’t move.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not going to believe me when I say this, not that I expect you to, but you know me well enough that I’m never the sort who likes to waste time at a red light. Once I see that light turn green, I’m off like a rabbit. Except this strange time that didn’t happen. What I heard was some voice speak in my ear telling me to wait . . . just wait. And wouldn’t you know it, just when I was about to hit the gas, a car came speeding from my left and almost knocked out my side mirror. The car cut across mine and drove on like a demon into the opposite lane. I must have shut my eyes for a second, my hands gripped the wheel tight and stomped down on the brake, ‘cos what I heard next was metal hitting against metal. I opened my eyes and saw the speeding car crashing into a Toyota that was coming from the other lane. Truth be told, had I not listened to that voice, had I been myself and just driving on, I’d have caught in that mangled mess. I know, it sounds strange, especially coming from a dumb old fart like myself. Call it whatever you like – luck – for me, I knew what I heard, and it was a voice. Where from, I don’t know. Glad I never got to hear it since then.”
The fire was gradually dying down. I picked up two logs of wood and threw them into the pile and in no time, the fire built back up again. My uncle removed the stick from his mouth and spat a couple more times into the fire before resuming his chewing again. A flock of bats screeched above our heads into the branches of the tall trees around; twilight was nearly upon us. The wind was getting stronger and colder. I hugged myself and drew as close to the fire as I could. My uncle though seemed impervious to the cold, though. His eyes were still staring beyond me into the approaching night.
My uncle’s voice grew sombre when he spoke. “My fourth experience, well, you could say I probably had that one coming. Not something I could have dodged, not in my age, but thinking about it, I’m surprised it took so long for it to happen. But I’m glad I lived through it.”
“What was it?” I asked, too eager to hear. My uncle gave me that wan smile of his I’ve always cherished. His feature seemed to warm against the camp fire unlike when he’d earlier begun his tale.
“I had myself a heart attack.”
He said it like it was something cute and ordinary, and then he laughed. I didn’t know whether to laugh with him or not. I sat there baffled by his action and simply watched him break his chuckling fit into a cough and then he hoicked and spat into the flame.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “Anyway, yeah, that was what happened eight years ago—a fucking heart attack was what I had. It was the last year I spent in New Jersey, month of February. I was out shovelling snow out of my driveway, just another typical winter morning. My neighbour, Morgan, came out with his snow-blowing machine which I wanted to borrow from him. He was saying something except I wasn’t listening. There was this tightness in my chest that was growing inside me. It felt like someone exploded a hand grenade inside me and I was burning from inside. I remember clutching my chest . . . I so badly wanted to scream but couldn’t do that. The pain didn’t seem to want to go away. I tumbled on the snow and saw Morgan race into the street. That was the last thing I saw before I passed out.”
He removed the stick from his mouth and threw it into the fire.
“What happened when you came to?”
“Opened my eyes and saw myself in bed in St. Peter’s hospital, that was what,” my uncle said. “That was two days later. They’d operated on me and put a heart packer in my chest and the whole time I was out of it. Your mother was there as with two of my kids. She kept saying I was lucky; if only she knew.”
“But you are lucky, uncle. Four times. That’s great coincidence.”
“Well, I’d say two of those were coincidences. The one of me hearing that voice, you might put that under supernatural; the fourth one is just . . . I don’t know like it was bound to happen, I guess. There’s plenty of things out there that can kill you, boy. Out there and in here,” he jabbed a finger at his body. “Doesn’t matter what. When your time comes, that’s it, you’re done. End of story.”
I couldn’t think of anything to counter that with. Not that I had anything else to say. My uncle was usually a taciturn fellow; this was this first time I’d heard him talk so long and I wanted so much to treasure the moment.
He raised his head and stared at the night’s sky that had pretty much crept upon the world.
“When it’s your time to go, you go,” he said. “But until then, ain’t no use thinking about what should and shouldn’t be. Just keep walking, my boy. That’s what your uncle has been doing since. It’s what I’ll be doing still.”
I smiled at that and said, “Happy birthday, uncle.”