A few weeks ago I mentioned a young high school student who stepped out into a raging downpour with an opened one pound can of sodium, a metal which if exposed to water explodes. In the case of that one pound can of sodium, given enough water the explosion would have been the equivalent of a stick of dynamite.
End of sodium, end of kid, end of story.
But it didn’t happen.
Listen to what that young man told my friend Jack Sell, a chemistry teacher, when he got over to Jack’s lab with the opened can of sodium casually covered by his hand.
“I just thought it would be a good idea to cover it.”
Did he know that sodium was explosive? No.
Had he been warned to keep it dry? No.
Was he cautioned at all? No.
But read that sentence again. “I just thought ...”
That’s what separates survivors from folks who depart the planet at an early age. To realize how true that is, just think back to the many, many times you’ve heard someone, who may have been swathed in bandages up to his ears at the moment, start a sentence with the words, “I didn’t think ...”
No, he didn’t!
Like the kid in our Boy Scout troop who kept ignoring the warning of our scoutmaster against wearing any type of jewelry while we were out on paper collection days.
Our troop used to go out on Saturdays twice a month and collect up newspapers that people put out for us.
We tossed them up on a big truck, took them to the dump, and used the money we earned to pay for some of the good works we did.
Ralphie Kitchens, the kid in question, had a large gold ring that he just could not seem to live without. So every Saturday he sneaked onto the back of the truck with the dumb thing on the ring finger of his left hand.
Then — inevitably — came the day that Ralphie jumped off the back of the truck, unknowingly having hooked his ring on a bolt head. Ralphie landed on the road, but his finger didn’t.
It stayed up there on the truck.
And no, they didn’t re-attach it. Not back in those days.
No matter. I suppose Ralphie put his wedding ring through his nose or his ear when he got married.
And then there was the kid I saw running his finger over the top of a v-belt on a jigsaw in woodshop at school. I was a senior at the time, in the woodshop to make a Chinese Chippendale table as my senior year project. When I saw what the freshman kid was doing I walked over to tell him to cut it out.
In the split second it took for the machine to grab the finger and run it between a fast-moving belt and pulley which had no room to spare between them, the machine cut the finger off, saving me the trouble of saying a word.
As I walked up to the poor kid he turned around, held out his hand, and said,
“I ... I ... I ...”
Then he passed out and landed on the back of his head with a thud that turned every eye in the shop our way.
Can you finish his sentence?
“I ... I ... I ...”
“... didn’t think.”
Or the basic trainee who ignored the fact that I told him and the rest of my troops that they were never, ever, to stand up on the top of the walls in the obstacle course. He stood up, slipped, and broke his back so effectively that my guess is that even today he is unable to move anything except his eyes.
And the time ... oh, well, enough of that. Let’s look at the other side of that coin. It’s less gloomy. And more instructive.
Some people have a sixth sense. They know when danger is coming, do a little side-shuffle, and waltz right out of trouble.
Like my friend Sammy Kline, who was ordered to stand in front of a fighter jet and observe as a crusty old tech sergeant worked in the wheel well and a technician worked up in the cockpit, both of them trying to find out why a missile, still mounted on the wing of the jet, hadn’t fired during a combat exercise.
Sammy later told me, “I took one look at that big old missile pointed right at me and decided that was one order that was made to be disobeyed.”
And he was right. The tech sergeant in the wheel well pressed the lock-out switch, which keeps missiles from firing while the aircraft is on the ground, at the same time the genius up in the cockpit thought it would be a good idea to press the fire button.
The missile wasn’t armed, so it didn’t blow up anything, but it went about six miles across the base, and would have taken a good portion of Sammy with it if he had been standing where he had been ordered to stand.
He tells me that the crusty old tech sergeant came running out of the wheel well yelling “Kline? Kline?” at the top of his lungs. And when he didn’t see Sammy because he was bent over in some tall grass picking up his hat which had blown off when the missile launched, the poor old guy nearly had a heart attack.
I’ve run across a thing or two like that in my life. I’ll never forget the night in Pakistan when I stopped my Jeep and sat there frowning at a line of two- or three-inch pebbles in my headlights, obviously strewn across the road by some idiot.
I started to drive over them, but stopped because something told me to get out and look around.
I did, and saw a sheer dropoff of 90 feet. It seems that’s how Pakistanis, lacking wood for barriers, erect a road hazard sign — a few pebbles casually strewn across a road.
Well, there are rocks in every road, I guess. Some people ignore them. Some don’t. Some stop and take a look because a little voice says to do it.
I just wonder. You know that ice cold knot in your gut when you’re about to do something really stupid?
Maybe it’s all those folks who are already up above yelling, “Hey, you idiot! Don’t do that! That’s how I got up here!”