Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY JAIME RIOS FROM OUT­DOOR LIFE

It’s the Satur­day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, 1 a.m., and my choco­late Lab, Stormy, and I are headed for a duck blind a few hours north. The weather fore­cast calls for the pos­si­bil­ity of fog, but the drive down In­ter­state 5 is clear. Along the way, I stop off for gas and lock Stormy in the camper shell be­fore go­ing inside the sta­tion. It’s a habit I started af­ter I met a sad old hunter look­ing for his Ger­man short­hair, which had been stolen from his un­locked camper shell at a café.

Back on the road, as I ap­proach the marsh, the fog be­gins to build. At a curve, I hit a soft shoul­der and lose con­trol of the truck. I try to cor­rect, but it’s too late. With a clang, the back of the pickup goes over a steep bank. The truck slides back­ward and down, then a splash. There is a se­ries of flashes, clicks, and whirs be­fore all lights and elec­tron­ics go out. I pray that the wa­ter isn’t deep.

At first, the scene seems peace­ful, al­most beau­ti­ful. In the dim light, I can barely make out that I’m in a large canal float­ing gen­tly down­stream and spin­ning slowly in the cur­rent. I try to open the door, but it’s locked. The wa­ter has shorted the elec­tri­cal sys­tem. I re­mem­ber that I have a glass breaker. It’s in the cen­ter con­sole. I clench the tool and give the pas­sen­ger win­dow a sharp hit. The breaker merely bounces off. I hit it again, with the same re­sult.

I try a two-handed swing but only man­age to scratch the win­dow. With each failed at­tempt, the ur­gency of my sit­u­a­tion builds. Wa­ter gath­ers at my feet. I lie down on the seat and try to kick out the win­dow, but my feet just bounce off. By this point, the truck’s ex­te­rior is mostly sub­merged and the wa­ter is push­ing against the win­dow. The wa­ter level in the cab is crest­ing over the seat, and cold wa­ter soaks my back and neck.

My tool­box is be­hind the seat. If I can reach a wrench, surely it would break the win­dow. In order to get to the tool­box, I need to dive for it. I go un­der but can’t pry it loose. I come up for air and go down a sec­ond time. In my de­scent, I be­come aware of ob­jects float­ing around me: a squeegee, a fold­able wind­shield cover, a small pil­low. The inside of my truck cab has be­come a gi­ant snow globe, and I’m a cap­tive within it.

While wrestling with the tool­box, my hand bumps against my fire ex­tin­guisher. I grasp the han­dle and cylin­der and use it as a bat­ter­ing ram. The ex­tin­guisher, too, merely bounces off the glass. The wa­ter level has risen, so I’m now swing­ing the ex­tin­guisher

un­der­wa­ter. My only hope is to weaken the win­dow through re­peated im­pact. By this time, the wa­ter level is about four inches from the cab ceil­ing, and I have to gulp air, sub­merge, and take as many swings as my breath will al­low. My fear has grown to the point that it’s now ap­proach­ing panic. A part of me just wants to give up ra­tio­nal be­hav­ior and scream at the top of my lungs.

They say that in a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence, your life flashes be­fore your eyes. Ev­ery thought I’ve ever had, ev­ery feel­ing I’ve ever felt, rushes in. I think of all the peo­ple I’ve known, the ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve had, and the ex­pe­ri­ences I’ll never have. It takes all my re­main­ing willpower to put those thoughts and feel­ings aside and con­cen­trate on the task at hand.

But then an­other thought comes to mind, a plea: “God, please help me.” An in­ter­nal voice re­sponds, “You have a lit­tle more time. What will you do with it?” It’s then that I re­al­ize the wa­ter level has stopped ris­ing and is hold­ing at two inches from the ceil­ing of the truck. “I’m go­ing to try harder,” I re­spond.

I con­tinue tak­ing gulps of air, sub­merg­ing, and swing­ing the fire ex­tin­guisher as hard as I can. With each cy­cle, the air be­comes thin­ner. It’s dark and cold, and I’m ex­hausted. I con­tem­plate giv­ing up; then I re­mem­ber that Stormy is un­der the camper shell. I con­tinue swing­ing away, and sud­denly the im­pact feels dif­fer­ent. I

ex­tend my left hand and feel a hole in the win­dow. I’m go­ing to live! I use the fire ex­tin­guisher to break away the rest of the glass and swim out the win­dow. Once at the camper-shell door, I twist the han­dle and am sick­ened by the re­al­iza­tion that it’s locked. I pry my fin­gers un­der the shell door and lift with ev­ery­thing I have. The door locks break, and Stormy swims out.

I swim for shore and try to climb up the side of the canal, but the sides are smooth, wet con­crete, sloped at a 45-de­gree an­gle. I go back to the truck, sit on top, and rest. When I pull Stormy up, I no­tice that my hands hurt. The tips of my fin­gers have worn off, I have mul­ti­ple cuts from rip­ping the camper­shell door open, and the glass breaker punched a hole in my right palm all the way down to the bone. I can’t feel or move the mid­dle and in­dex fin­gers.

I take the time to think things through. The canal sits be­low the road and is screened by a wall of cat­tails, so I can’t count on help from a pass­ing mo­torist. But con­crete canals usu­ally have lad­ders ev­ery few hun­dred yards along their banks. The fog and dark­ness pre­vent me from see­ing farther than ten yards. I must wait for bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity to con­firm the ex­is­tence of a lad­der. I en­tered the wa­ter at ap­prox­i­mately 5 a.m. It will be a long, cold, and painful wait.

I spend the hours un­til day­light kneel­ing against Stormy to con­serve body heat. The sun fi­nally peeks over the hori­zon, and at about 8 a.m., the fog lifts. About 70 yards up­stream, I see what ap­pears to be a lad­der. I must be sure. If I swim that way and there is no lad­der, I won’t be able to make it back. Then move­ment catches my eye. A small flock of black­birds is drink­ing along the wa­ter’s edge, near what I’m hop­ing are the lad­der rungs. I men­tally plead for one of them to give me a sign that con­firms my hunch. As if on cue, a bird flits up and perches atop a rung one foot above the wa­ter.

I step into the wa­ter and onto the truck bumper. The cold takes my breath away. I push off and start to swim. I’m hy­pother­mic, ex­hausted, and my legs are cramp­ing. When I reach the lad­der, I’m too tired to grab the rung just above the wa­ter, so I reach for one that I hope is sub­merged be­neath it. When my left hand finds it, I know that Stormy and I will be OK.

Though em­bar­rassed about los­ing con­trol of my ve­hi­cle, I’m pleased that I didn’t panic as I went through the prob­lem-solv­ing process. I also rec­og­nize that I had some divine help: lit­tle birds to show me the way and the gift of more time—not just in the sub­merged truck, but also to live.

The canal is screened by cat­tails, so I can’t count on help from a mo­torist.


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