If You Live Long Enough You Can Be All Wrong

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Back in 1943 I discovered O. Henry, a writer famous for his surprise endings. I was just 11, and I liked his stories a lot. In fact, I started out to read every O. Henry book in the library.

Then I changed my mind ... One of his stories was just too doggone ironic for me; it soured me on his stories, and ever since then I have insisted that life is not like that. Or is it?

I don’t remember the name of the O. Henry story that turned me off, but it was about a tramp named Soapy. Cold and miserable on Christmas Eve, he tried to get arrested so he could spend a warm night in jail and enjoy the good meal they always served on Christmas Day.

It was a good story, but I hated the ending. I liked reading how Soapy kept trying to get arrested for some minor offense, but just couldn’t seem to manage it. But then, having given up trying to get arrested, Soapy passed a church, heard some music, listened to the voices, felt they were speaking to him, and made up his mind to turn over a new leaf.

And I knew exactly what was going to happen. Don’t you? 

You guessed it! A cop came along, asked Soapy what he was doing, didn’t like his honest “Nothing” for an answer, and arrested him.

“Uh-uh!” I told myself. “No way! Sure, someone might want to get arrested to get out of the cold and get a decent meal, but that ending is just plain dumb.”

A lot I know. Check this Associated Press headline.

“Man said to be homesick for prison gets 3-1/2 years.”

What did he do to get arrested? Did he answer “Nothing” when a cop asked him what he was doing?

Uh-uh! He had a better plan. He didn’t make Soapy’s mistakes. Soapy’s mistakes were fun to read. First he fooled a restaurant into serving him an expensive meal by cleaning himself up a bit. They fed him all right, but they just let him go when he couldn’t pay.

Why? It was Christmas Eve, after all. 

So Soapy tried it again at a cheap diner, figuring the owner wasn’t the forgiving type. Which he wasn’t. He had Soapy tossed out in the snow.

That plan wasn’t working, so Soapy tried breaking the plate glass window of a fancy shop, but when a police officer came charging up, guess what he did? He went running off after someone else.

Then Soapy got the idea of making eyes at a young woman and getting pinched as a “masher.” But when he tried it, he got a big smile and a come-hither look that scared the pants off him.

Soapy made up his mind that next time he tried something he was not going to fail. He would do something that was too simple to fail. Right in front of a cop he grabbed some guy’s nice new umbrella. And the guy just walked off without saying a word.

Then came the part where he got religion, but got arrested for doing nothing, which was too contrived for me.

However, our man — the one in the headline who was homesick for prison — wasn’t taking any chances. A 74-year-old ex-con, he made up his mind he would do something we don’t often forgive. He robbed a bank — in Chicago no less. 

They don’t appreciate that over there in the Windy City.

And then, just to be sure he got what he wanted, he pleaded guilty and told the judge that the place he calls home is — you guessed it — prison. The judge obligingly sentenced him. 

End of story? Uh-uh! That doggone O. Henry irony sneaked in, no doubt just to make me feel like a fool because I said things don’t happen that way.

Guess what our ex-con hero did next? He asked to make a statement after he was sentenced.

The judge said OK, so the ex-con walked up to the podium with a limp and a cane, both suitable for a perfectly logical ending to the story. (He feels at home in prison because he can’t make it on the outside.)

But what did he say? 

Get this, Johnny! 

“I don’t want to die in prison.”

What? At age 74? Living with the prison gangs? Eating all that lousy prison food? You ain’t got a chance, bubba! Your goose is cooked!

Why couldn’t he have just said something sensible?

Like what? How about, “Ah! Home at last!”

Did we have to get another ironic ending?

Don’t you hate it when you’re wrong?

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