At the time of the Tucson rampage some bystanders were killed and others wounded. Several commentators said, "Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time." Those words got me to thinking about the deaths-and near deaths-in my life.
When I was ten, one of my best friends, Billy W., was killed when his older brother, climbing over a fence with his new .22 rifle, accidentally pulled the trigger.
When I was fifteen, some friends and I went to visit Nick S. as he was closing up his parents' drive-in. When one of my friends asked, "Nick, you're here all alone--what would you do if someone tried to rob you?" Nick said, "But I'm not alone." And he pulled from beneath the counter a loaded pistol. One of my friends grabbed the pistol saying, "Let's see that!" The next thing I knew, a bullet whistled past my forehead so close I felt the wind it made.
The following year in California I was at the beach with a group of friends for spring break. One of the friends owned a beautiful new convertible. He asked me to join him and three others for a ride home. I declined because I wasn't packed to go. Just ten minutes into their ride, they took by accident an uncompleted off-ramp. The convertible flipped over and landed upside down in three feet of standing water. Two of the passengers were thrown clear, but the driver and the other passenger drowned under the car before help arrived.
When I was in college I lived in a very old dorm with fifteen students to each floor. At the end of the month we would run low on grocery money, so we would pool our funds and share meals. One evening as I was cutting tomatoes for a salad, in walked Terry G., a gigantic, All-State, freshman, football player. His idea of fun was to have mock sparring matches with anyone near him, and this night he chose Dick S., a mild-manned, older student.
Terry and Dick sparred with each other for a minute, and then I heard Dick go "Ooof," and drop to the floor gasping for breath. His faced turned a pasty white and then beet red. One of us ran next door to the college infirmary for help. But it was too late. Dick died in a matter of three minutes. A mandatory autopsy revealed that he had a congenitally defective heart valve. The blow just over Dick's heart made the valve stick. Terry, the boy who struck him, dropped our of college, went into a deep depression, and was hospitalized for a year.
After college I got married in the fall, and the following spring I suggested to my wife that we go out to dinner on Memorial Day. She declined and told me her reason:
a few years before on Memorial Day, when she was nineteen and just home from her first year in college, she went joyriding in the Mojave Desert with seven friends in two cars. She was sitting behind her brother, who was driving his parent's new car on a Learner's Permit. They came to a place along the two-lane, asphalt road called the Rolly Coaster, with many dips that threw fast-moving cars up in the air. The car my wife was in hit an oncoming car and then was struck by their friends' car from behind. The car my wife was in then flipped on its side, leaving my wife's face resting on the road. Two of the high schoolers were killed and three injured. It took my wife many years to stop dreaming of that accident.
My middle son's best friend in high school was given a new car by his father for making top grades and graduating high in his class. That night, just a block from his home, he was broadsided by a drunk and killed instantly.
At the college where I taught for some years was a very disagreeable teacher who carried a loaded pistol in his trunk because he was sure some day someone would need to be "taken down." This man's son was very different from his father. The son was amiable and trusting, but his father teased him about being a "softie."
One day the son came home in the middle of the day, took his father's rifle from the closet, lay down on his father's bed, and shot himself. In the following week the father acted as though nothing had happened.
Two friends from my youth and also my brother died at night asleep in bed of massive heart attacks. One friend was in his fifties. The other friend and my brother were in their sixties. Their wives all reported hearing a sigh, and then nothing.
On a trip to Southern California a few years ago I went by the house of my former office mate, a very old friend, now retired. At nine in the morning I knocked on his screen door and he called "Come in!" He was watching television. He tried to get up to shake my hand but he could not stand. I sat down. He offered me a glass of wine from a gallon jug beside his chair. When I said "It's a little early for me," he said, "Nonsense, it's never too early for a drink." We had a desultory conversation and I left. Within a few months he was dead from cirrhosis.
A few years ago I received a note from the wife of my best high school buddy, Lewis B. He was sick and in need of comfort. The two of them had had a good marriage, with two grown up and hardworking, decent children. My high school buddy, a school administrator, had in his twenties shrewdly bought empty lots along the California coast. Many of his lots appreciated by tenfold, and now he was a very wealthy man. I visited them in their beachfront home on the Coronado Strand.
Lewis was dying from cancerous mesothelioma. His wife explained to me before I saw him, "You know he was on the Arctic Patrol in a cutter for two years in the Korean War. Just beside his bunk was a heating duct lined with asbestos. After forty years, the disease showed up. He's one of thousands of men who fought in ships and contracted this disease." I visited Lewis for a couple of hours and then left. I never saw him again.
Some people seem to race toward death as though they could hardly wait to be gone. Others seem to be, like the bystanders in Tucson, struck down haphazardly-in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who-or what-decides the time and the place?