following accounts relate four separate incidents involving close
callssituations that could easily have killed me, had it not
been for some higher hand intervening. Some call it Karma; some call
it Gods Will; some, blind luck. Decide for yourself.
I was 16 in the summer of 1967, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early one morning, my friend Oscar came to pick me up for a camping
trip. We had planned to ride our bicycles to the foot of the Sandia Mountains, take the tram to the top, hike along the Crest to the North Peak, and pitch camp before it got dark. We had done it
once before and had the time of our lives in the wilderness. The view from up there is spectacular: it is 5,000 feet above the city.
However, when Oscar arrived, I wasnt feeling entirely well, as I
had developed a slight stomach ache. I really wanted to go and thought
that maybe the pain would subside at some point. Common sense finally
prevailed and we postponed the trip.
During the course of the day, my stomach pain increased. I didnt
think it was my appendix since the pain was dead center. However, by that
evening I was admitted to the emergency ward at Albuquerques Presbyterian
Hospital with an acutely inflamed appendix. I was taken immediately to
surgerythere was no time to spare.
Something influenced the right decision that day in 1967. If I had gone
to the top of the mountain, I would have died a most cruel and agonizing
January through March of 1976 driving around southern Europe on a motorcycle.
The original plan was to spend the winter months in the south and move
northward as the weather improved; however, my money ran out after three
months and I returned to the States in the beginning of April. I was fortunate
to have been granted a leave-of-absence from my job teaching at Bostons
Berklee College of Music. I had gone straight from college to the teaching
job and I was rather burnt out by then, so the time abroad was just what
I needed at that time.
This was my first experience on a motorcycle, and traveling the wet cobblestone
streets of Paris in winter was quite a challenge. I spent January in France,
February in Spain, and by the time I got to Italy I was a seasoned biker,
with a few spills and scrapes under my belt. Nothing, however, could have
prepared me for what awaited me in Florence along the River Arno.
I had found a tiny prix-fix ristorante which had room for only
four picnic tables with benches. As soon as the place filled up, the doors
were closed and pitchers of wine were served. The room quickly became
one big happy party. A tiny sixty-year-old woman and her grown son were
not only the proprietors, but also the staff, the waiters, cooks, and
dishwashers. Before each of the five courses, mother and son brought out
a large tray laden with what they were about to prepare. As one can imagine,
we ate and drank long into the night.
And, as one can imagine, I was rather tipsy as I left that night to return
to my pensione. I fired up the bike and drove the two-lane, one-way
street along the river through the city. Traffic was surprisingly heavy
that night. The river was on the right, and I was in the left lane with
nothing between me and the old plaster buildings but a very narrow sidewalk.
Behind me was a city bus and immediately to my right was a taxi. As we
approached a left-turn intersection, the taxi sped up a little bit and
began to turn left, right across my path. With a speeding bus on my tail,
I could not stop. It had to have been the wine that night that gave me
the guts to gun the throttle as much as it would take. I soared past the
taxi like a shot out of a cannon, but not fast enough to escape contact.
As he pulled into my lane, the right-rear turn signal on my bike scraped
a two-meter gash in his left fender and door. The combination of my speed
and the nudge from the taxi was enough to launch me and the bike into
the air in an Evil Knievel-style jump over the intersection, landing me
and bike upright on the narrow sidewalk. I screeched to a stop (I have
no recollection of where the bus went) and inspected the bike for damage.
The only evidence of contact was a coin-sized circle of yellow paint on
the turn signal housing.
I ran back to the taxi, which had stopped in the intersection (again, what happened to the bus?!). The driver stood in the street looking at the gash in the side of his car. He began yelling in
Italian that it was going to cost me 13 million lire to fix it. I started yelling in Spanish that it was all his fault, and we began to go nowhere fast. I then said, OK, lets call the
police, He said they would never come. If I would just pay him 1.3 million lire, everything would be fine. I said, Lets then go to the police station. He said that we couldnt
leave the scene of the accident, and how about 130,000 lire? All this time, mind you, there was a passenger waiting patiently in the back seat of the taxi. I then said, Wait, Ill pay
for everything, and ran back to the bike to get my insurance papers. I returned to the taxi, unfolded about four feet of forms in triplicate, and said, We just need to fill these out.
At that point, the taxi driver smiled, shook my hand, got in the car, and drove away.
I said earlier that nothing could have prepared me for that, but Im
sure that the wine soothed my nerves and got me through that incident
in more ways than one. Without it I would have been shaking terribly.
Two months later I visited my parents in Washington State, and this is
one of the stories that I related to them. As I told it, my mother began
to turn pale, and at the end she told me that around that same time she
woke up crying from a nightmare in which I had been in a terrible motorcycle
accident, and was lying in the street with one of my legs severed. She
asked me if I knew the date of the incident. I had kept a journal and
was able to look it up. We determined that my accident and her nightmare
had occurred on the same night. There is a nine-hour time difference between
Florence and Seattle, but she had already become alarmed because all my
mail home had suddenly stopped about two weeks earlier. I had written
every day to various people, including my family, my girl friend, and
friends, but as soon as I hit Italy, my mail fell into the black hole
that is known as the Italian Postal system. It took weeks for it to finally
surface, even long after I had returned home. The point is, no one knew
if I was dead or alive, and somehow on that fateful day my mother received
a message that influenced that nights terrible dream.
of 1978 my pregnant wife and I moved to Los Angeles for me to begin a
new career in the music business. Through a contact, I was able to get
a job as a music copyist for the John Davidson Singers Workshop on Catalina
Island for the months of July and August. Fifty singers studied with vocal
coaches, arrangers, and dance instructors, and every week each sang two
songs at the Avalon Bowl with a band. It was my job, with the help of
one other copyist, to write out the 100 arrangements that were to be performed
Every Tuesday morning I flew in an antiquated sea plane from San Pedro
to Catalina Island, then took a shore boat up-island to the camp where
I worked for three solid days and nights. On Friday morning I took the
shore boat back to Avalon to catch the sea plane to L.A. The flights left
every 45 minutes, so if I missed one, there was another one soon after.
One Friday morning, after a grueling three days of work and a previous
nights party that left me with very little sleep, I was late getting
to Avalon. As I walked up to the landing area I saw my flight just taking
off, except that it was not the regular sea plane, but an army-style,
double-prop transport helicopter. I had ridden over on one of those once
before and did not like it a bit, so I was glad to wait for the next flight,
which turned out to be the normal sea plane.
Once we were in the air, about halfway across the channel I noticed a
small white speck in the water far below. Right at that moment, the plane
did a steep bank and we make a quick descent. The pilot informed us that
the helicopterthe very flight I had missedhad gone down and
we were going to try to help. We descended, circled, and landed, and I
saw the round white underbelly of the helicopter as it floated in the
calm sea. Some people were in the water, hanging onto whatever they could
grab; a few others would suddenly submerge as they went underwater and
then appear again. They were obviously trying to get at someone trapped
It was an eerie scene, especially since I realized that any one of them
could have been me. There was really nothing we could do. A coast guard
boat was rapidly approaching and radioed to us that they could handle
it, so our pilot started the plane and we took off. Later that night the
Evening News reported that the helicopter had suffered engine failure
and had dropped like a stone. It had not been flying very high, so no
one was seriously injured except for the female co-pilot who was unconscious
and trapped inside. Hanging upside-down, her body pressed too tightly
against the seat belt and the crew had to wait until water filled the
cabin enough to make her more buoyant. She had inhaled some water mixed
with fuel during the ordeal and died the next day.
two years later I was an arranger for Andy Williams. I flew to San Diego
to discuss his new act with himan act he was to perform at the Las
Vegas Hilton two weeks hence. He wanted various tunes from his book reworked,
some made into a medley, and he also wanted a few brand new arrangements.
We discussed each tune in great detail and I took copious notes. All in
all, there was a lot of work to do, so I immediately flew back to L.A.
to begin. It took every minute of the next two weeks to get the job done,
with a crew of music copyists preparing the parts for each arrangement
that I finished.
Andy was scheduled to open his act on a Friday night. He booked the orchestra
for Thursday and Friday to rehearse. I took a very early-morning flight
to Vegas, with plenty of time to get to the hotel, check in, and take
all the music to the stage for the first rehearsal. I had not planned
on the flight being delayed, the hotel losing my reservation, or the hotel
bell boy disappearing with the cases of music. When I finally got to the
stage, Andy was fuming, the orchestra was in place with nothing to play,
and the clock was ticking. This was a union orchestra that strictly adhered
to the time frame of a double three-hour rehearsal session, with scheduled
tens every hour. They had already begun with three tens.
The bell boy finally appeared from some back service elevator. He must have stopped somewhere for a smoke. I had no assistant, and no one offered to help, so I had to pass out all the music as the
forty-five-piece orchestra just sat there. It went downhill from there.
With each tune, Andy decided that it wasnt quite working and he
wanted something different. We talked after playing down each arrangement
to determine how we could fix what he wasnt happy with. Again, I
took copious notes. I knew that I was going to be up all night rewriting
and copying out all the parts by hand, since I had no copyist with
me. I had had very little sleep during the last two weeks and had been
looking forward to crashing into bed that night. Sleep would have to wait.
That night seemed to last a week. I rewrote three arrangements, copied the instrumental parts for each player, and ordered lots of room service (I was determined to use up every penny of my per
diem). There was one problem with the parts, however. The orchestra had twelve violins, six violas, four cellos, and two basses, but I wrote out only one part for each section and had to find
a way to duplicate enough parts for all the players. The rehearsal was at 10:00 in the morning. I finished at 8:00, took a cab to a copy place that could handle the oversized parts-paper, went back
to the hotel to tape all the pages together for the three arrangements, and finally got to the stage with not a second to spare.
After passing out the new music, I collapsed into a seat to watch the
rehearsal. Again, it went downhill from there. I could see from Andys
frown that he still wasnt happy. I went up on the stage to see what
was wrong. Andy decided that he really liked the way the arrangements
were before. (Why was I even here, I asked myself). By then I was
too tired to care. I threw up my hands and said, Fine! Do it the
old way! and walked off the stage. Andy was due to open the show
that night and I had planned to go to bed at the first possible moment
once the rehearsal was done; however, in spite of being completely drained
and utterly exhausted, I could not stay another minute in that town. I
went straight to my room, packed, and took a taxi to the airport.
My plane was in line on the runway, waiting to take off. I was about thirty
seconds from deep slumber when the stewardess announced that we should
look out the windows on the right side of the plane. The Las Vegas Hilton
was on fire. From the eighth floor on up, the tower was engulfed in smoke.
My room had been on that side of the building, on the fifteenth floor.
In my haste to get out of Las Vegas, I had neglected to call my wife.
A neighbor who heard the news on the radio informed her of the fire.
She could not get through to the hotel, so she called the airlines.
While they were not allowed to say if I was on the plane, they at
least did tell her that someone was in fact occupying my seat.
Postscript II: I was sure I would never hear from Andy again. However,
after about 3-4 months he called me for some new arrangements, as
if nothing had ever happened, and I worked for him for another two
© 2002 Stuart Vail
of author © 2002 Joanne Warfield