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Close calls for Fair Oaks residents

Each year I dip into the Darwin Society Awards to see what inventive ways individuals have found to die or almost die, in some creative way. Last year a fellow wondered how many gas-filled weather balloons it would take to carry him in his lawn chair aloft. I don't think we found out because he is still up there, wouldn't you know it?

The Darwin Awards were created by scientist Wendy Northcutt to recognize those who have "contributed to human evolution by exceptionally negative ways, sort of an thanatology" (study of death).

Another guy, a young Canadian, searching for a way of getting a cheap drunk because he had no money to buy alcohol, mixed gasoline with milk. The concoction made him sick. When he vomited into the fireplace in his house it resulted in an explosion that burned his house down, killing both him and his sister.

Not quite the same, an idea set me to wondering how many folks under our big roof had almost died, or been told they couldn't make it, but were still among us, thank goodness! Ever present pad and pen in hand, I set off down on of the long halls in my favorite institution to find out.

Our resident attorney, Carl Peltoniemi, was standing guard on LST 946 off Iwo Jima when there was a Kamikaze attack. He didn't think they had a chance, definitely time to jump into a bunk and pull the sheet over your head. Later, when the sheet came off, they were still there.

Neither Helen Wallace nor Stan Windels were expected to make it when they were young and had pneumonia. Norbert Ament was in a car accident in the middle of Wadena years ago. His brother-in-law was thrown across the street where he hit his head on the curb in front of Brink's Jewelry. Norbert's wife went through the windshield. Her face was cut up. They could have been killed.

Our Lorraine Brill was told by her doctor that her cancer was terminal; her time was short. She was to do whatever she wanted with the time she had left. Her brother, Lloyd, who was an over-the-road semi driver, invited her along on a trip with him, to see the country, to stop in Nashville to take in the barn dance on their way home.

Lorraine knew it would be a hard trip, but what the heck? She was dying anyway, wasn't she? The barn dance was great! She saw Dolly Parton, Minnie Pearl, Eddie Arnold and many more. She ate whatever she wanted, didn't try to sleep until she was tired, they had a blast.

That was in 1988. Today you will find Lorraine under our big roof embroidering dish towels, one after the other, reliving those fun times when she was supposedly living her "last days." My next storyteller was Vicki Pankratz, and what a story she has! Hang loose.

Vicki Pankratz, 39, a single parent, wheelchair bound, living with her teenaged children in Verndale was on her way home from having coffee with friends on this unseasonably warm Dec. 6, 2005 afternoon, headed north across both train tracks and U.S. Highway 10, which run parallel to each other.

In Vicki's words: "I was heading home after a pleasant afternoon when it seemed a Burlington freight train was right there. I hadn't seen it. Then when my motorized wheelchair chose that moment to short out, stop halfway across the tracks, I couldn't believe it. I froze.

"Lights were blinking, bells and whistles screaming, it was bedlam. With only seconds left, I tried to rock the chair but it wouldn't budge. The front of that train was high as a house and straight up. This was it. I knew I was going to die.

"Then someone gave my left leg a mighty yank that jerked me a few inches ahead. I was thrown into the ditch as I heard the train demolish my chair inches behind me."

From his car traveling on the highway, Norman Hines saw what was happening and was over side of Vicki in seconds. He grabbed a leg giving her body a mighty yank. Now the train was on top of them. She was barely off the tracks but the train's vacuum was trying to pull her back under, he said, "It almost got both of us."

An epilogue is that Vicki suffered cuts and bruises as well as a broken leg that has never healed. Burlington bought her a new motorized chair, and Hines was awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal of Honor and $3,500.

So, Wendy Northcutt of Darwin Awards, we think our story beats any of yours because we still have Vicki. She came to live with us in 2004.