Mike Wilson: Some famous (and almost fatal) last words

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, February 22, 2024

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The most dangerous two words in all the world have nothing to do with hunting. You likely won’t find them on a construction job or even at school. Instead, these words are often spoken in backyards, on playgrounds or anywhere else where common sense can leave us. 

I am, of course, talking about “watch this!” Consider that summer day just at dusk when I saw some bats darting about the streetlamp at the foot of our driveway. I called the kids out and said…of course.. “watch this!” (fatal last words). I had learned at Boy Scout camp to throw up a pebble that would attract the attention of their “radar” and bring them swooping to check it.

The first three small ones didn’t exactly work, so I chose a nice hefty piece of limestone and flung it straight upwards. Too straight, as the knot on my head soon confirmed. (Which reminds me of my government rocket scientist friend who “had to go” to Hawaii for several weeks each winter for “vertical launch tests.” He never even deigned to reply to my yearly admonitions to avoid making them too vertical…)

I also decided one day to take a shot at a very high incoming mallard to test the range of a new Ithaca Mag-10 I had acquired. Sure enough, the lead BBs put his lights out, but my joy soon evaporated: as I watched him fall, I realized I was about to become a Victim of Physical Laws. I had a split second to decide whether to try to catch him like a football or duck and accept a glancing blow. A four-pound duck gets up a good bit of momentum falling 180 feet, and my sore shoulder reminded me of that for a good while.

I started referring to these things as Identified Flying Objects (IFO), which are clearly more dangerous to me than their celebrated counterparts of the UFO variety. 

Take, for example, the king-size mattress we ordered a few years ago from IKEA. The $99 delivery fee sounded outrageous in comparison to the price of the mattress itself, and I began to reason: I have a pickup. It’s only 35 miles. The forecast is clear. What could go wrong? 

It seemed well wedged into the bed and securely strapped down when I got onto I-85. A couple of miles down the road, I saw something shift a little in my rearview mirror. “Just adjusting itself to the wind,” thought I. And suddenly in that same mirror I saw a great white mass all trussed with green and red ratchet straps fly into the air and, with an impressive sidespin like a thrown playing card, bounce its way onto the grass median. I meant to thank the Lord for guiding me into the left lane right before that launch. I am really glad it was still in its heavy plastic cover. Back slowly down the left shoulder, reload sheepishly, and take the back roads home a bit more slowly…

The IFO that looms largest to me was a baseball. I was playing third in a harmless church-league baseball game the summer of my fifteenth year when the batter showed bunt twice. The coach motioned me up and he swung away instead; I had no chance to get my glove up. I remember the base runner (nice guy!) jumping over me as I groped around for the ball, but this one stopped play. At first it just seemed like a major shiner and 40 fine eyebrow stitches, but I soon discovered I had also suffered an irreparable macula hole, which pretty much killed my dream of being a Navy pilot in a heartbeat. I even had the appointment to Annapolis lined up with my district congressman already!

I have no regrets that I grew up to be a Spanish professor at Hampden-Sydney College. In fact (and perhaps I have read too much Borges), I dreamt a couple of years ago that I awoke one morning at the age of fifteen and the whole baseball accident and the half century since had all been a dream. I grew truly frantic: I wanted my life, my wife, my kids, my friends, and all my experiences back!

I guess that’s the sign that things worked out the right way.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.