By Darrell Winfrey
To those invited to partake in the telling of this story, I must issue a warning. The title does not bring with it the typical events and emotions that normally accompany similarly titled stories. This one focuses on one of those experiences that many have never experienced. It is one of a few near death experiences that my father had as a young man, before any of my brothers and I were born. While this one doesn’t fit all of the classic characteristics of a near death experience, there are enough similarities, especially the part about being near death.
This is probably one of the most remarkable stories my father told us as we were growing up. It is also one of the ones that must be told in his own words. Whenever I heard this story, I always felt like I was right there with him as the events unfold. Perhaps you will join us for a spell.
The old Community House Restaurant was always a focal point. It was owned by one of my best friends. Shirley, my young son’s (not born at the time of this incident) mother, worked as a waitress at the Community House at night. I had come at 10:00pm to pick her up and give her a ride home. It was a focusing point for me and all of the deacons from the church. It was even run by one of the deacons. We would sit and drink coffee. Plus as an insurance agent, I was blessed to write a lot of insurance policies out of the Community House.
This was Christmas Eve night, and the whole atmosphere was one of gaiety. The restaurant closed at 10:00pm exactly. Looking at the clock, Dr. Scott and I sat there. We noticed it was about five or ten minutes till ten.
He said, “Well, young man. It’s been such a pleasure to sit here, drink coffee, and talk with you. In this day and time, to find young people who seem to have their heads screwed on straight is really a treasure. I’m going to be up and on my way, but before I go there is one thing I’d like to do.”
He stood up, reached for my hand, and he took it and squeezed it. Dr. Scott then said, “I want to wish you a very safe Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
“Oh no, Dr. Scott, you mean a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year don’t you?” I asked.
“No. Sometimes these holidays can become so dangerous. At the present time, it is almost impossible to get through one without God’s help.”
“Well Reverend, you’re absolutely right.”
“Now I must be on my way,” Dr. Scott concluded, and out the door he went.
I turned for a moment and looked at all of them. I think at that point, Shirley turned to me and told me she had a ride with one of the other waitresses, Jesse Mae or one of them.
I turned to them and said, “Let me wish you all a very safe Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
That walk that I took from those seats at the bar to the door seemed like the longest walk I ever took in my life. All my life, I had been trained as a person who lived alone a lot. I had hunted and fished in the wilderness. When this vacuum presents itself, take caution. It’s just a natural feeling I have and it’s a code I live by. I told it to Nuckey and Harvey many a year about the snakes down at Duessen.
“Daddy, how do you find them? How do you see them?” they would ask.
I even ran into big rattlesnakes in Galveston; some big as my leg. That’s always been the way. Always. It still happens. I’m warned and forewarned by God Almightly, or some other unforeseen force. There is no other that could warn us in that way other than maybe some of us who have gone on. But God would have been behind all of this.
Anyway, that was the longest walk I took in my life. The car was parked right– not on the street, but on the sidewalk right by the window. All I had to do was come out the door and walk around (to the other side of the car).
Now, I had theorized within myself that this was going to be a day that I wasn’t going to disturb any members of my family. I was going to go and spend the day fishing for white perch (crappie), fish I love to catch up on Lake Livingston. I had, two years before, purchased an aluminum boat down at Clear Lake where the astronauts all lived. It was called a Washitaw. It had a big beautiful picture of an Indian head on the front, and this boat was about ten feet long. I had a Buick LaSabre, I forget the model. It had a luggage carrier on top. When I bought the boat, they showed me how to tie it down to this luggage carrier where I could travel with it to the lakes and places I had to go.
I had also bought a 5 gallon tank from Montgomery Ward. It would carry 5 gallons of boat gas which I would mix in oil with the gas. I knew before I could make this trip, I had to make sure that tank was full, and the closest place to us that sold this gas was way over on Wayside, about 6 or 7 miles away. They would be surely closed that time of morning at 3 or 4am when I would wake up to head up to Lake Livingston. So I theorized that I must hurry home, get my tank, my 5 gallon bucket, and go get that gas.
I made the drive home. I lived right below TSU, the school, and just above Mr. Timber’s Liquor store. It was right there on the corner of Wheeler and Tierwester. I lived in a second story room (studio apartment). I remember there was a lady who lived up there and had a little girl about your baby’s age (my daughter was 3 at the time of this dictation). This was an exceptionally cold day, one of the coldest days of the year.
I was dressed in warm attire. I had on what was the common dress at that time. I had on a big wool sweater which was covered by an imitation leather vest. The pants I had on were very lean. They were big bell bottom pants made out of rayon. When I stepped inside the door, I had a space heater in this room. I had never run my space heater. There had been no need to, and I doubt if would have thought of it anyway, except for this particular day. As I stepped in the door, I was rubbing my hands together. The first thing I did was light the space heater without giving it any thought.
After I lit the heater and got settled, I thought to myself, oh, let me go and check that closet behind me; see just what I have in that tank. The tank sat above a white 5 gallon bucket. My boat motor was out in the trunk of the car. My step-mother let me keep my boat in her back yard, but she would never let me keep my other stuff over there.
Not thinking I had just lit that space heater, I started to slowly unscrew the top of the tank with the gas in it. As I looked in it and shook it, a blue flame ran as quick as it could right by me dead into that tank.
It made that big sound. The next thing I knew, the whole room was burning, me included. I was kicking and stomping. I cried, “Oh, Lord. I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die, Lord. Please, I’m gonna die. “
It was at this moment that it seemed like a kind of quietness came over me. If you call it a peace in the middle of something like this, this is what I would have to characterize it as. The next thing I knew, I was rolling. There was one window and two little beds that sat side by side near it. I was being rolled in them, which was extinguishing the flames from my body where it was burning into my legs. It was not burning into my chest yet, or any of my other cavities. It was burning severely on both legs, particularly the right one.
Within an instant, I was up on my feet, kicking that window out. Out that window I came because there was a banister that sat right outside the window. It was kind of like a porch; not big. I was on this thing, swinging down to the ground and screaming for them inside the liquor store to call the fire department. The fire department (station) was right around the corner on Blodgett St. It sits there even today; about a block and a half or two block distance. They were there as quick as they could get there. When they got there, the flame had gutted my room and was starting to burn itself into the hall.
Quickly, the firemen were able to extinguish it. I was down stairs on the sidewalk next to my car, dazed and walking amongst my rubble. These two Caucasian gentlemen came up to me and introduced themselves. One said he had been the arson inspector for 27 years. The other one said he had been the chief for 26. Together they had 53 years experience, and they said never on this earth had they seen or heard of (something like this). They said three miracles took place. They told me to hurry and get to the hospital because of the nasty burns that I had on my legs. They also told me, tonight, to consider myself the most blessed man on God’s earth.
In fireman language, not one, not two, but three miracles had taken place. The number one miracle being the fumes. They should have overcome me and killed me instantly, but they did not. Number two being the flames burning into my flesh. I should not have been able to think rationally and get the moment of quietness. Whatever happened to run me across the beds and get those flames off my body gave me enough time to kick the window out and come out. The third miracle was the greatest one of them all. The composition of air, oil and gas in that tank was enough to blow up not only that room, but the apartment (building) and half that block.
For many years afterward, I would get a letter from one of the big churches on Main. I wish I could remember which one because they favored writing people who had miraculous experiences. They considered me as someone who had been miraculously pulled, like Shedrach, Meshach and Abedenego, from the burning flame.
My brother Cochise and my brother Buster were renting a place down the street on Cobb, about six or seven blocks down. I got a room behind them. The Red Cross gave me a $6 kit. I was going to school at MDTA (Manpower Delovely Training Academy?) to learn a trade. At this point in time, I was learning air conditioning and refrigeration. They took up a big collection for me down there. They were so nice to me. It allowed me to get back on my feet along with the donations from the Red Cross and so forth.
We were trying to determine the exact year this happened, but my dad couldn’t remember any other specific events that happened that year. He believes that it was a 2-3 years before I was born, so that would put it around 1969-70. I plan to search the fire records and hopefully find a few photos to post.
I remember the first time my dad told me this story. It absolutely terrified me. Although I don’t have much fear of fire itself, I do have a very real fear of burning alive. The fear might have something to do with the burns I have on the back of my hands that are still visible now. No one in my family knows how they got there, and I do have a picture of myself at age three with bandages on both hands. I would occasionally have dreams of being trapping in a fire. Even in the dream, the feeling of shear panic is overwhelming, so I can’t imagine how my dad managed to escape with his life.
He always told this story with the idea that people would take from it whatever they needed. Having lived this experience, he always believed that God brought him out of that fire. If he hadn’t made it out alive, it is possible that several other people would have died from an eventual explosion. In the end, they all were able to wake up on Christmas with the gift of life as their most precious gift of the day.