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Just a split second from something

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I had an experience the other day that struck me as kind of profound.

Stopped at a traffic light, waiting for the little green arrow to come on and tell me I could make a left turn, my mind wandered off to one of those places minds have a way of going. It may have been prompted by whatever was happening on the radio, I'm not sure. I do know that I was still ruminating a bit on the motorcycle cop I'd just passed on the expressway, and the fact that it was a gray, drizzly morning had me feeling a little down.

Then I realized the light I'd been waiting to change was already green - how long, I don't know because there was nobody behind me to give a wake-up honk. Glancing off to my left where I intended to turn, I saw a big tractor-trailer rig waiting to get out on the main highway. I pulled out kind of slowly and then - zoom!

An old white beater of a car - a Buick or a Caddy, maybe - shot through the intersection and past my lefthand window a good 75, 80 mph. By the time I'd stepped on the brake, I could see him in my rearview mirror 100 yards away and shrinking fast.

It had never occurred to me to look up the highway to make sure nobody was running the red light. And, believe me, there was no way this was a late-yellow-changing-to-red. In fact, I'm convinced that if I had been primed and ready to bolt out as soon as the light changed (which I sometimes do), I would have beat the red-light-runner by a mile and would have made my turn and headed down that side street long before he rocketed through the intersection.

He was that late.

It was after I turned and was on my final approach to my office's parking lot that it occurred to me how close I had just come to being instantly killed. It also occurred to me that that very thing happens every day.

Unlike in my own little 'non-story,' I know full well that fate is constantly playing cruel tricks on people. Completely innocent folks get T-boned at intersections by drivers too drunk or stoned or young or stupid to understand how easily things like this can happen.

In my heart of hearts I know that people die all the time, from bullets fired haphazardly into the air, from airline waste jettisoned at 30,000 feet, from lightning bolts, from objects that accidentally touch high-voltage lines overhead, from all kinds of fluke happenings, and every one of them must cause the survivors of those individuals to marvel at the strangeness, the speed and the smallness of the ways we can exit this life.

If only I'd done this or that, they invariably say, through their grief and disbelief, after the funeral or the memorial. If only I'd taken the car keys away from him. If only I'd locked the gate leading to the pool. If only I'd taken a minute to go by and check on her.

The other survivors point out, quite rightly, of course, that we can't take responsibility for every little twist and turn life tosses at us. There are too many. And we aren't, after all, that powerful.

In my own case, after not being smashed by the big white car driven by the careless idiot, it seemed like maybe I'd been granted a second chance - some weird privilege of almost being dead, but not quite, so perhaps I was supposed to spend the rest of my life carrying some sort of special message to the people - or maybe I was just supposed to go get drunk and stay that way.

A few days later, my wife was run off Interstate 5 by another careless idiot who, even though he totaled her Honda Civic just on the downhill side of the Terwilliger Curves, left the scene like a coward who will almost certainly rot in hell unless it turns out there's no such thing.

The creepiest thing, in my view, is the fact that I came along a few minutes later and discovered her standing beside her mangled car, nervous and scared, lit only by the headlights of passing commuters, and I never felt more powerless and small.

This was the same week, by the way, that I managed to poke the forefinger of my left hand into the spinning blade of a table saw on a Sunday night.

All of these things we survived.

We'll get a new car, and the end of my finger, the emergency room doc pointed out, will grow back nicely.

No funerals. No crazy kicking ourselves because we should have done this or that. But I'm convinced that, if there is a God, he's either got a nasty sense of humor or he just doesn't like people.

Former editor of the Lake Oswego Review and former managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Mikel Kelly handles special sections for Community Newspapers and contributes a regular column.