IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH?
“You wanna know what I would do if they’d asked me for my I.D.?”
The question came from the man next to me at the bar I was sitting at. He was in his late 40’s and an obvious redneck in the classic sense of the word. He was white, slightly inbred looking, and had a southern drawl that went way beyond how normal folks spoke in Knoxville, Tennessee. His head was shaved except for a rat tail in the back. And because his head had no hair on most of it, it was easy to see how deformed it was. There were big dents all over it and a scar that crossed over his crown just above the forehead.
Chester was his name and he was reacting to my curious encounter with the bartender who refused to serve me a beer unless I could show some “I.D.” proving I was 21. It was curious because being a man in my fifties it was hard to imagine anyone thinking I was underage. But that was the rule at this bar and rules are rules. So I was forced to go out to the car where I had left my wallet.
Chester had been watching this whole scene unspool in front of him and when I finally got my beer he offered to toast and we clanged our glasses together in some sort of silent ‘fuck you’ to the bartender. And that’s when he asked me the question.
“Sorry?” I asked not sure what he was saying.
“I said, you wanna know what I would do if they asked me for an I.D.?”
“Yeah, sure, I said taking in another sip of beer.
Chester pointed to the front door where a gigantic Harley motorcycle could be seen parked just outside. “I’d get on my hog out there, drive it right through the fuckn front door and say, ‘You wanna know who I am? That’s who I am!”
It was a fun thought and judging from the dings to his head, he probably already did it a few times. “I’m sure that would overcome any doubts,” I laughed.
Chester then said, “You don’t sound like you’re from around here. Where you from?”
“Los Angeles,” I said. “My wife is from Knoxville so we’re down for a visit to stay with my brother-in-law and his family.”
“What’s his name?”
I told him my brother-in-law’s name but it didn’t ring a bell with Chester. He admitted he didn’t know many people in the downtown area because he was from South Knoxville, “where all the hillbillies live.”
Chester and I ended up sharing three beers together and became familiar enough with each other so that I felt comfortable enough to ask him what was really on my mind.
“So dude, what happened to your head anyway?”
Chester looked at me for a second. His face twisted up just a bit and then he said, “I hit a concrete abutment under the Interstate going 50 miles par hour.”
“Holy shit,” I responded. “You hit support column for a bridge? On your motorcycle?”
“Nah, I was in my pickup truck. I went straight into that sucker. Flew through the windshield and hit it head first.”
“Wow,” I said. I couldn’t imagine how somebody could survive something like that. “It’s a miracle you are still alive!”
“Yep. I technically died twice.”
“What do you mean, died twice?”
“I was dead. No pulse. No breath. Heart stopped. The whole nine yards. The paramedics had to bring me back twice with the electric paddles.”
I stared at Chester for a second. There was a look of pride on his face about all this. It was like a man who had been to the top of Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt. He had done something very few people have done and lived to talk about it. He had visited death and come back to life.
Chester went on to tell me how his skull was broken into pieces and they had to cut his head open to put it all back together. But I already had a new question forming in my head. I had spent more time than I like to admit as a cameraman on some pretty hardcore medical shows like “Trauma Life in the ER” and “Paramedics.” I even followed the Pittsburgh Deputy Coroners around with a camera once for ABC’s 20/20, taping them as they picked up dead bodies from all over the city. I had recorded so many gunshot victims, suicides, car accident fatalities, and heart attacks that it changed my views about life. When people started asking me what I learned observing all that mayhem, my answer became pretty simple. “That thin line that exists between life and death is much thinner than you think.”
But now, seated next to me was someone I never encountered in my days videotaping blood and guts. A guy who might have some insight into the question that witnessing so much medical gore made me curious about. Is there life after death?
“So let me ask you this, I said carefully. “There are some people out there who have experienced what you experienced. And these people claim that there is a white light that appears when your body dies. Did you see anything like that when you were technically dead?”
Chester looked at me like he had just discovered I was a tree hugging buddhist granola eater of some kind. His face contorted itself into a suspicious grimace and he leaned in close to make sure he was hearing me right. “See what?” he asked.
“The white light people talk about,” I answered.
Chester looked over at the bartender for a second, then back at me. His face turned slightly red as some deep passionate emotion built up inside him. Then suddenly, in a voice that was loud enough for the entire bar to hear, he yelled, “Anybody who tells you there’s a white light is a LIAR!”
Chester sat there staring at me waiting to see if I was going to argue with him. But I decided not to pursue it. There really wasn’t much else he could tell me. He made his opinion very clear and it was just as valid as the smartest scientists & philosophers out there. He had been closer to knowing the truth than 99% of the people on this planet, including the clergy. So I decided to just put his answer in one of my mental x-files and drop it.
“So what kind of work do you do,” I asked.
Chester took another draw from his beer and regained his friendly demeanor. “I’m a professional truck driver now,” he said with a sarcastic smile.