Stuart Vail

The following accounts relate four separate incidents involving close calls—situations that could easily have killed me, had it not been for some higher hand intervening. Some call it Karma; some call it God’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t think it was my appendix since the pain was dead center. However, by that evening I was admitted to the emergency ward at Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital with an acutely inflamed appendix. I was taken immediately to surgery—there 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 death.

I spent 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 Boston’s 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, let’s 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, “Let’s then go to the police station.” He said that we couldn’t 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, I’ll 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 I’m 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 night’s terrible dream.

In May 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 each weekend.

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 night’s 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 helicopter—the very flight I had missed—had 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 inside.

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.

About two years later I was an arranger for Andy Williams. I flew to San Diego to discuss his new act with him—an 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 wasn’t quite working and he wanted something different. We talked after playing down each arrangement to determine how we could fix what he wasn’t 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 Andy’s frown that he still wasn’t 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.

Postscript I: 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 years.

© 2002 Stuart Vail

Photo of author © 2002 Joanne Warfield


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