In those quiet reflective times I sometimes play the game in my mind: What If?
Many people don't know that just before the Civil War broke out there was a bill in Congress that would have made Cuba a state. The Northern Congressmen fearing that the South would use it as a military base to break blockades and fight the coming war ended up killing the measure. What If? There would have been no Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, no Bay of Pigs invasion, no Castro thumbs his nose at the U.S., no Cuban Missile Crisis.
In my own life, I was working for a paper in Fort Lauderdale a few years out of college and was driving back from a South Carolina vacation on a recently completed interstate heading south. For about 30 minutes I had been driving in the fast lane with no cars anywhere around. There was a hill ahead and for some unknown reason I pulled over into the slow lane just as I approached the hill. Don't ask me why. I didn't think about it. I just did it. Within five seconds, I swear, not 10 and not eight, a car going the wrong way on the interstate crested the hill and whizzed past in the lane I had just been in. I blinked my lights, stupid since he had already passed. I found a place to pull over and sweated as the reality sunk in. The Colgate shield of invincibility all young people have was peeled away and then a few minutes later it returned.
Since we were both going about 70 miles an hour, the crash would surely have killed both of us. Some people occasionally ask me if I hate getting older, if I fear death. I say that every minute since that early 1970s episode in my life has been free time given to me as a gift for some unknown reason.
I worked in my teen years in the local newspaper's mailroom. In case you don't know, that is the place that all supplements, comics and advertising circulars are inserted into the regular paper. The foreman of the mailroom was a former U.S. bantam weight boxing champion by the name of William Henry "Pappy" Gault. All of the guys liked him a lot. He would occasionally buy you a meal after a hard night of working or he would teach those interested how to spar as the big mailroom was turned into a boxing ring. Earlier in life, Pappy had fought in Australia for the world bantam weight championship. This was a time when titles meant something because there was only one title. Normally, they had a three knockdown rule, but for some reason they waved it for this championship fight. Gault came out smoking and knocked down his opponent three times in one round. But the woozy guy got up and somehow recovered and ended up beating my hometown's hero. What if they had kept the three knockdown rule? He would have been the world champion.
By the time I knew him, Pappy had a wife and two kids, but also had a demon that consumed him gambling. He would sometimes stay out all night gambling, would sleep on a stack of mailroom canvas bags used to ship papers to the post office and would wake up in time to go to work again. But for all his obsession, Pappy never won. He played gaming cards and cards, but he was a consistent loser. I got a call from home one day while I was working in Fort Lauderdale. Pappy had hooked up with a high stakes poker game in town and had won lots of money. I never knew home much but it was thousands. One of those losing at the game was a former con who had served time in prison for killing a man. When the game was over he asked Pappy to drive him somewhere and along the way pulled a gun and forced him to drive to a deserted area where he shot him to death. I remember flying back home for the funeral and all of the policemen in town stood at intersections with their hats off and some were even crying because everybody loved Pappy and he always had time for everybody.
Life is strange that way. You finally win and you end up losing.
Two small news stories at papers I have worked come to mind. One was a suburban family in which the mother kept telling her husband to put another nail or two in the basketball goal hanging on the garage because it was loose. He kept putting it off. One day the young son was playing basketball and the goal came loose, hit him in the head and in seconds he was dead. Another story was also in a suburb. The family had the station wagon loaded and the husband was across the street asking his neighbor to collect the mail while he was gone. The young son saw him and ran across to see dad and was hit by a car and killed.
I don't mention this to depress you. I guess in my reflective mood as I turn a year older, my point is that life is fragile. All the What If's would take us in a road not taken. But with no control over it all, just sit back and enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.
Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.