Having luck on your side after some close calls

There have been a number of instances in my rather long life after which I was apt to remark, “Well, from now on I’m living on borrowed time.”

Two of these harrowing events occurred fairly recently in the Warren area (one actually at our cabin on the Allegheny River north of Tidioute) while another took place many years ago in San Francisco.

One of the two that occurred locally involved a highway close call.

I was driving north along Route 8 on my way to our river cabin having just left that highway’s intersection with Interstate 80 at Barkeyville.

That section of the highway consists of four lightly traveled and well-separated lanes. As the road heads north, there is a long descending slope leading to a bridge over Sandy Creek. The highway then rises as it enters the Titusville area.

I was driving north late one afternoon at close to 60 mph on the downward slope area when I noticed a slower moving truck some distance ahead of me.

I had just decided to move over into the passing lane when another car passed me at a speed sufficient enough to shake my vehicle. Even at my relatively high speed, I was “crawling” compared to that driver’s rate, who must have also startled the driver of the truck ahead as he (the driver was male, I believe) blew past.

Since there was so little other traffic, I hadn’t given much if any thought about just easing over into the passing lane.

However, if I had inadvertently done so just a second or two before that driver passed me, I’m not too sure that I would have lived to reach our cabin that day. (Or if the speeding driver himself would have lived.)

And what would have been the toll if I had had my wife and one or both of our sons with me in the car?

I have related my second harrowing event before in which a variance in my movement of just a second or two could have been drastic. I was pulling my kayak up from the river, and had reached the flat space between my car and our cabin.

A limb from high in the linden tree which towers over the cabin came crashing down, striking along the length of the kayak and missing my head by inches … or less.

The crash was loud enough that our neighbor, Ron Morocetti, ran over and cried, “What happened?”

We agreed that I indeed had a close call.

The end of the branch which had just missed me was no thicker than a police officer’s baton, but given the speed at which the branch itself was traveling and its heft, it could have given me a serious injury or even fatal blow. I hate to think what the result of a very brief pause in my hauling the kayak could have been.

The date of a third close call that I well recall was May 7, 1959.

I was living in San Francisco in an apartment located atop a hill which overlooked the shore of the city’s bay which stretched north to the famed Golden Gate Bridge.

About halfway to the bridge there was a small strip of sand below the seep bluff above … Baker Beach.

It was there in the afternoon of that warm early day in May that there was a fatal attack on a young swimmer by what was later determined by bite marks to have been a large great white shark.

The victim was Albert Kogler, 18, who was a freshman at San Francisco State College.

The youth and his girlfriend, Shirley O’Neill, also 18 and also a freshman at the same college, had been cruising in the area in a convertible when they decided, given the day’s warmth, to stop at Baker Beach to swim.

The water off the beach where Albert was swimming was about 15 feet deep. He was savagely mauled by the shark and was still being attacked when his companion went to his aid.

She managed to pull him to the beach where he died shortly thereafter due to his massive injuries.

There were many others on the beach at the time, but no one went to the couple’s aid until they were in wading depth.

Shirley was later awarded the Young American Medal for Bravery by President John F. Kennedy.

As an experienced salt water swimmer due to Navy service, I had tentatively planned to go to Baker Beach that same warm afternoon. If I had, I probably would have entered the water in the same area where the youth was attacked, and at very close to the same time.

But I decided against going, possibly deterred by the thought of how cold the bay’ s waters were … or perhaps even by some sort of premonition.

The news of the attack and the young girl’s bravery dominated that evening’s news and beyond.

But there was one radio station that had the extremely bad taste to frequently play Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” which has these lyrics:

“Oh, the shark babe has such teeth dear, and it shows them pearly white. Just a jack knife has old MacHeath babe, and keeps it out of sight. You know when that shark bites with its teeth babe, scarlet billows start to spread …”

An intensive hunt for the shark linked to the Baker Beach attack was held but failed to find the animal, which after an autopsy on the victim’s body and an examination of bite marks was estimated to have been about 4.5 meters in length.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.


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