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Short Stories: My First Brush With Death

1970 Nova SS, I bought it in 1975 for $600

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

When did you first realize that you were not invincible? As I attend baseball and softball games this summer, I can’t help but notice how full of life the players are, ready and willing to face all the challenges that come their way. I, too, remember a time when I thought I had the world under my thumb, bending it to my will. I was fearless, arrogant, and full of life, taking on risks that this older version of me would never undertake. From narrowly dodging a semi-truck with my bicycle to climbing under a stopped freight train on a dare, I was known as a boy who loved to push limits, with no thought of what might happen if I miscalculated and came up short. As daredevils know, every successful dare makes one more brazen and willing to push beyond limits. On one hand, such people often accomplish great things, but they are also those who, when coming up short, find themselves needing medical treatment or bail money to get out of jail. There’s a fine line between foolhardy carelessness and taking risks in hope of great reward. Even after successfully making it to age sixty-three, I readily admit that I am not always sure where that line is. I suspect that my tombstone will say, He Died of One Stupid Decision Too Many. There used to be a television program titled, 1,000 Ways to Die. This show detailed the numerous, sometimes humorous, and often foolish and bizarre ways humans have met their ends. Some of my foolish stunts would have made for a great episode or two.

In the summer of 1975, I turned eighteen. I had returned to Bryan, Ohio, from Arizona, and moved in with my mom. I quickly found employment at Foodland, a local union grocery store. To avoid providing me insurance and full-time benefits, the grocery scheduled me to work forty hours one week and thirty-nine hours the next week. I didn’t care. Who needed insurance and benefits, right? My job as the dairy manager was just a means to an end — providing the money necessary for me to keep my car running and spend every night and weekend running around with my friends. My mom rarely saw me. After work, I was out with friends until late, and weekends were often spent doing group activities. Having recently had a bitter breakup with an Arizona college girl whom I was certain was going to be my wife, I had no interest in dating, so group social activities with my friends provided a balm for my hurting emotions.

After moving back to Ohio, I bought a 1960 Mercury Comet — black with a white top — for $200. Over the course of the summer, I put thousands of miles on the car, traveling all over the tri-state area. One Saturday, a bunch of my friends and I decided to go Clear Lake, a nearby body of water in Indiana. I drove, packing eleven friends in a car meant to hold five or six. With nary a thought for safety, off we went to the lake, spending the afternoon swimming and engaging in non-stop horseplay and flirting. Soon it was time to return home. I deposited each of my riders safely at their homes until only a boy named Kenny and I were left in the car.

Kenny was a couple of years younger than I. I knew Kenny through our attendance at First Baptist Church in Bryan. As we were headed towards Kenny’s home, he asked if he could drive my car. Now, I knew he didn’t yet have his license, but the fact that Kenny had grown up on a farm had, I thought, provided him with the necessary skills to drive an automobile, so I said yes! My car had a six-cylinder motor — 144 cubic inch displacement. Top speed was seventy miles per hour. Off we went with Kenny behind the wheel. As Kenny pulled the car onto Williams County Road 15.75, it began to fishtail a bit in the loose gravel. I thought, at the time, no big deal, Kenny will straighten out the car. Instead, as the car increased its side-to-side motion, Kenny panicked, lost control of the car, and drove it headlong into a ditch bank, rolling the car over twice. In a split second, everything around me turned upside down, and when the car finally came to a stop, Kenny’s head was sticking out of the space once occupied by the front windshield and I, having been thrown from the front to the back seat, found myself with the detached seat lying on top of me. Both of us were, surprisingly, unhurt, though I was so disoriented from the crash (perhaps I had a concussion?) that I went to a nearby farmhouse and walked in without knocking, asking if I could use their phone to call the Highway Patrol. Outside of a few scratches and bumps, Kenny and I were unscathed. Unfortunately, my car was totaled.

When the patrolman asked who was driving the car, I, knowing I would get a ticket for letting Kenny drive, lied, telling the officer that I was behind the wheel. This lie, along with four speeding tickets I would accrue in the coming months, caused my insurance rates to rise to $100 a month. Not only did I have an accident and four moving violations on my record, my replacement car for the Mercury was a 1970 Chevrolet Nova SS — 350 cubic inch displacement and 375 horsepower. I went from a car that couldn’t go faster than seventy miles per hour to a car in which I buried the speedometer needle on more than one occasion at one hundred and forty miles per hour.

This accident was my first real brush with death — at least the first one that impacted me psychologically. The car didn’t have seat belts, so Kenny and I could have easily been ejected from the car. We were lucky to have escaped serious injury. Of course, at the time, our luck was attributed to the providential care of the Christian God. I have often wondered what might have happened if I had let Kenny drive while ten other teenagers were beside us in the car. I can only imagine how much carnage there would have been had the car been stuffed full of happy, I’ve got the world by the tail teens when it rolled over twice. Imagine how much differently this story might have ended had everyone who had gone to the lake still been in the car. Fortunately, they weren’t, and all of them graduated from high school, married, and had children (and now grandchildren) of their own. This would not be my last brush with death, but it was my first — that moment in time when all of us come to realize for the first time how mortal and frail we really are.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Ah, the car culture of the Midwest in the 1970’s… good times. And a Nova SS?? (Wipes away the drool.) Between muscle cars and riding in the open bed of pick-up trucks to various swimmin’ holes, it’s a miracle any of us lived to become actual adults. Too bad you don’t still have that Nova… it’s worth about $50,000 today if it’s in good shape. That is if you could bear to part with it.

    My first husband (in 1976) had a Mercury Comet with a manual transmission and worn-out clutch so he ‘slap-boxed’ the gears as we went careening down miles and miles of rural gravel roads. My own first car was a 1964 Corvair I bought for $50 from family. That worried my grandparents because my uncle had put his head through the window of a 1965 model resulting in 247 stitches to sew his scalp back together in the late 60’s. His was red but mine was actually tan though I told people it’s color was mud-and-rust and that I didn’t dare wash it for fear the mud and rust were the only things holding it together. I put it on two wheels a couple of times, in spite of the fact I’m a girl. Top end was only about 80 mph but damn, would it get there fast!! I loved that stupid car and drove it until the welded-in shelf the battery sat on rusted out. The old battery had died and when I dropped the end of the new battery those last 2 inches, it ended up on the gravel driveway, the shelf still underneath it. Evidently I was more right about the mud and rust than I knew.

    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane and I’m glad that not all the joys of growing up near ‘lake country’ were forbidden to you.

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    Not a brush with death, but naive teens and a car crash anyway: When I was 16, my best friend (also 16) was dating a girl (18). We were going somewhere, and my friend was insistent that I should drive her Ford T-bird, so the lovebirds could cuddle in the back. His girlfriend finally agreed, and I got behind the wheel of this big boat. We came to a spot where the road jogs at a “T”, and you have to stop, turn right (onto a two-lane one-each-direction road), and then turn left again to continue.

    There was a car coming, but I thought I had the 45 m.p.h. road judged correctly. It was probably some combination of my misjudgment, plus the fact that this guy had been drinking and was likely speeding… but his alcohol-fogged brain decided that the right thing to do was to pass me on the left before I completed the left turn for the jog. I didn’t quite make it and he clipped the back bumper.

    As with your story, nobody was hurt… but the minute we were all three out of the car, a very wide-eyed, green-faced girlfriend looked at us both and said, “I WAS DRIVING. GOT IT?” Of course the other guy had his own amount of panic… “Hey, it’s all good, we don’t need to involve the police or anything… I’ll call your dad and pay for the whole thing, OK?” As an adult I would NEVER have agreed to this, but all of us had reasons not to call the cops, so that was how it turned out. I fervently hope this guy didn’t go on and kill someone else.

    It’s a wonder more of us don’t die from inexperience as teens.

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    Nova SS? what memories! That was the car that my boyfriend who got my virginity owned. Oh, sorry, TMI…….. That brought back some good memories (he was a safe driver, BTW – in more ways then one ;-)_

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    What a great story. When I was 16 I used to jump my Chevette on one of the rural hills on the way to my house. I only did it after dark, assuming oncoming traffic would be revealed by their headlights. (I watched too much Dukes of Hazzard as a kid) it did require a reattachment of one of the front shocks, but like you I’m in awe of how I could have done something so stupid. A better story is my Grandmother walked around the circumference of a grain silo at age 6 on a dare.
    I would have let Kenny take the blame for his own mistake. If you had to lie, lie and say you assumed he had a license. After all he did total your car, I mean there is a limit to being Mr. Nice Guy. (If you didn’t have the car fully insured there was no reason to call the cops at all really.)

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Bruce Gerencser