Dodging Death

After football practice a week before our family was scheduled to return to the states in October 1956, our eight-person carryall broke down a few miles from Yokohama. The engine flooded and the smell of gasoline made me nauseated. I had to get outside and breathe fresh air. Our Japanese driver called the Navy base for a replacement and said, “New van arrive forty-five minute.”

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Having been YoHi football team’s quarterback for two years,  every teammate formed a habit of following my directions. While standing outside the vehicle after looking around, I leaned in and said, “Come outside now."

They scrambled out, books in their athletic bags, and looked in the direction I pointed, “See those tracks running around that hill? If we follow them, they’ll lead to a train station. We can catch one to Yokosuka and walk to the Naval Station almost an hour sooner than if we wait for another van.”

“Sounds good,” said Tex, a tough first-team tackle.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

I told the driver, “We go to find nearest train; Diajobu des ne? OK”

“Abunaio! Be careful. Kiotsketi kudasai. Take it easy, please,” the driver said looking at me with  mouth open and wrinkled brow.

Seven athletes between the ages of fifteen and seventeen followed my lead. We scrambled over rough brush, and found a pathway up the slope. After ten minutes we reached the two sets of tracks. As we rounded the hill, a narrow tunnel appeared that resembled a black hole.

Tex said, “This looks dangerous. These trains race through the tunnel with little room for us.”

“Don’t worry. If a train comes on one track we can jump to the other,” I said.

Our fullback, Ron, said, “Yeah that’s right.”

Two others nodded in agreement and the rest followed.

Running toward the tunnel, the setting red sun sent a glow behind us. The inside of the tunnel was barely visible.

After racing  into the tunnel, everyone followed at my heels. We had a foot of clearance on each wall in the dark cavity, and two feet between the tracks. Dank darkness quickly enshrouded us. It seemed we had fallen into a black soup as I slowed to avoid stumbling on the wooden planks now in utter blackness.

When we had advanced a third of the way, I sensed danger.  A swift-moving train whizzed around the corner at us. A water droplet fell from the moldy ceiling into my eyes. After  brushing it away, the flying mass of steel zoomed toward us. A looming light grew rapidly larger and a roaring rattling rumble followed.  “Jump right!”I shouted. The blast of the train drowned out my voice. The train’s light revealed seven moving forms.

The steel thunderbolt's warning bell changed from a high-pitched sound to a descending tone DING DING DINg DINg DIng Ding ding ding din din as it passed us with a  deafening clattering clamor at over ninety miles per hour.

Another booming train streaked at us on the opposing track! A horn howled and screamed as it approached. Its warning bell grew louder ding ding, Ding Ding DIng DIng DINg DINg DING DING! Both trains doubled the blaring racket. My heart pounded; my breath heaved; I almost panicked. Fear of death grabbed me around the throat, and stabbed my heart. A heavy weight choked me. A voice within told me I never should have urged my friends to enter the tunnel. Racing on the right track careful not to trip, the hurtling train from behind had nearly reached us. Finally, the first train passed with a WHOOSH.

“Jump left!”I screamed.

Could they hear me?! The new train increased its explosive reverberation. It’s rotating light fluttered over our leaping forms. The unexpected steel blur jolted past at blazing speed and threw a forceful blast of hot muggy air at us.  Expecting the worst,  I gazed back as all jumped in time to avoid disaster. The cars bumped and clattered as the steel wheels clickity-clacked and the wind rushed by our sweating faces.

Breathing an enormous sigh of relief, I grasped our good fortune. We had dodged death. Tomorrow's  headlines flashed in my brain: “Eight YoHi Football Players Killed by Trains in Tunnel.” How could anyone tell the parents of these strong young men how this tragedy had happened? How could they explain that these once happy football players on their way home from practice in a normal daily routine somehow decided to take such a foolhardy chance of entering a train tunnel in Japan? Having led them into a very real death threat, my mind created a scene of bloody carnage, and the screams of my friends. The terror of my body smashed and shredded against the powerful hot steel, and the following silence played like a newsreel in my imagination.

We raced toward the sliver of light signaling the other entrance of the tunnel. In a mad dash for the growing light towards safety and life, panting, sweating, I emerged and faced my friends.

Tex and a few others stumbled out after me, exhaustion all over their faces. Sweat ran down their foreheads into their eyes and cheeks. They gasped for breath and stumbled toward me.

Tex rushed up to me with fire in his eyes, “Jesus! What the fuck! Lavery, you almost got us killed!”

Ron said, “Holy Shit! How did we make it?”

“I’m so sorry!” I uttered with fear written all over my face. “I never should have led you guys into that tunnel!” We walked towards the station a few blocks or so away, and huddled together glad to still have a life. “Hey guys. Please don’t tell anyone about this. Our parents won’t understand.”

Tex and the others gradually agreed. We all shook on it.

On the train back, I closed my eyes, “Dear God. Thank you for protecting me and my friends from death.” The tunnel  train dodging jumps affected me deeply as it made me consider death and made me appreciate life’s gifts we seem to take for granted. With my one life left after my extreme luck, it made me consider how I might dedicate my future to serve humanity. Maybe I could become a minister in college and help others lead productive lives. Coming close to death not once, but twice in seconds,  made me feel I must live more wisely. My thoughtless actions nearly killed eight young men. Having acted as if I could risk my life and the lives of others, the experience awakened a new feeling of responsibility.

That moment of awareness heightened my senses. Out the window streaks of red and purple glinted off clouds from the sunset's ending. The automatic train doors banged and the clatter of passengers settled into their creaking seats. The high-pitch of the announcer’s voice on the station microphone pierced through the rattling of the train picking up speed as we departed. The woman in front of me had a distinct aromatic perfume wafting jasmine, which made me think of my home in Miami, Florida where it thrives. My hands felt the red satin seat cover’s smooth texture. I clasped my hands together, sensed the warmth of each finger intertwined, and listened to my heartbeat in a heightened consciousness. Time seemed to slow to a standstill when I listened to my breathing. I was so glad we are all alive!

I remembered the words of my earth angel, my grandmother Ruthie. Having noticed me rushing around as a teenager confused and full of anxiety, she said, “Slow down, Danny. Smell the roses, search for harmony in nature. Life is precious.” Finally, I understood her words.

My final departing memory of this extraordinary adventure took me back close to Yohi. I looked back over the bustling city of Yokohama from our airplane headed for Hawaii. Beyond the rooftops and above the rolling hills in the distance, I caught a final glimpse of magnificent Fujiyama.

She majestically pierced the sky rising above all contenders for a goodbye view. I recalled the cold and grueling trek ascending her rugged craggy winding cliffs and the splendid colorful and luminescent sunrise. The red-orange disc gradually dropped in the west sending golden beams rippling on the water in a spontaneous ever-changing pattern depending on the wind, currents, and a ship’s wake. I whispered sayonara to Japan that had helped   me develop my mind and body, awakened me to nature, race, divergent beliefs about divinity, and my inner struggle to mature.

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This entry was posted in Non-Fiction, Sports, Writings and tagged , , , , by Daniel C. Lavery. Bookmark the permalink.

About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

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