Des Moines, Iowa -- John Feller is on his ninth life. He's survived cancer, a few drownings, a bad car accident and more, and he hasn't let any of it get him down. Now, cancer is back.
Feller recalled his many brushes with death.
Life One: The Indiana farm boy joined the Merchant Marines in the 1940s. His ship was docked one day and he wanted to take a swim. He didn't know how, so he put on a life jacket and jumped in. That went well. So he decided to take the life jacket off. That didn't go well. Luckily, as he was struggling and about to go down, a man on deck threw him a line. "I'd have been a goner," he said.
Life Two: One day a storm blew up at sea. That's when I interrupted. "Wait a minute. If you couldn't swim, what were you doing in the Merchant Marines (and a few years later, the Navy)?" He was enough of a convincing salesman already to find a way to pass the swimming tests, and if you went overboard way out at sea you weren't going to swim back anyway.
Feller continued: He was tying up barrels when the storm sent the ship pitching to port. The gangway broke loose and pinned him below the ship's bulkhead, under water. He thought, "Goodbye, Indiana." Luckily, someone noticed him pinned and made the rescue.
Life Three: A case of pneumonia and typhoid fever got him off the water but clinging to life in the hospital. "I'd have bought the farm," he said, "but every four hours they shot penicillin into me."
Life Four: He had moved to Des Moines, married and had a couple of children, and had been out late at the VFW telling stories. It was 1969. On the way home, his car rammed into an Oldsmobile and his head busted through the windshield. On the recoil, the glass laid open his skull. He lost a lot of blood and was down and out for a while, but 77 stitches later he was a car accident survivor.
Life Five: Lung cancer appeared in 1989. He was remarried by now and living happily and traveling the world, until doctors had to take half a lung. He almost died during five days of intensive care. He's still appealing to the government that it was asbestos from ship pipe coverings that caused it, but otherwise he hasn't missed a beat.
Life Six: Feller better learn to swim. He was at a family reunion 16 years ago, "playing cards and drinking," he says, "and I'm real happy." He thinks he can swim in the host's backyard pool. He can't. A partygoer plucks him from a watery, happy death. (Curiously, Feller installed his own backyard pool for his grandkids. "But it's only 3½ feet deep," he says, laughing.)
Life Seven: In 2003, he received 44 radiation treatments for prostate cancer and survived.
Life Eight: In 2010, he was diagnosed with facial cancer and survived.
Life Nine: In July, his prostate cancer returned. It has now spread. He hurts and can't sleep. Sometimes he bellyaches a bit to his wife, Jean, "and I hate myself for this," he says.
"You mustn't," Jean says. "You didn't ask for any of this."
Instead, he goes out and plays Abe Lincoln. He sings his old songs to groups. He recruits members to the VFW. He lives.
"You'd naturally like to prolong it," Feller says. "There are things I still want to do."
"Oh, Lord, what?" asks his wife.
"Learn to swim," he says with a laugh.
Seriously folks, he wants to do stand-up comedy. He figures he can put on a half-hour show without breaking a sweat with all those jokes he tells down at the VFW. He tried out a joke. I'll give you the abbreviated version:
Two men are washed overboard (this is familiar) and helplessly toss about on a life raft. When they come upon a genie bottle one of the men is granted a wish. "Turn the ocean to beer." The other guy is upset. "Now what are we going to (urinate) in?"
John Feller is charging forward with life number nine, though the doctors say it doesn't look good. He lets me in on a secret to survival.
"The only thing worrying does is cause furrows in your brow," he says. "Be happy. When I go out into the public, why be down? You might feel like (expletive), but why make everyone else down in the mouth?
"When you are happy, you are not sad. It's that simple."
Written By: Charlie Litchfield, Des Moines Register