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I could have been a contender
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I could have been a contender

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I’m almost ashamed to admit that I take great pleasure in reading about the annual Darwin Awards. Every year there’s a new crop of stories detailing some poor yokel’s death by miscalculation. There’s even a category for survivors.

What draws me to these stories is the affinity I have to the poor schmucks, bless their hearts. I read once with great interest about a couple of fellows who blew a fuse in a pickup truck. Having no spare fuses handy, they replaced it with a .22-caliber bullet. I nodded as I read, thinking, “That makes sense; they’re about the same size.” The inevitable happened — the round heated up and fired, killing one of the men — and the story ends with a Darwin Award.

While it’s not something I aspire to, I fully expect to be among a group of Darwin winners eventually.

One of my earliest memories involves peanut butter and pain, and set the stage for a lifetime of misadventure. I was a toddler, I believe, and had toddled my way into the kitchen, grabbed a jar of Jif from the cabinet and climbed a shelf to reach into the silverware drawer and fish around for a utensil, winding up with one of Mother’s good forks. As I sat on the kitchen floor raking peanut butter on my tongue, I noticed that about a foot up the pine-paneled wall was an off-white rectangle with two sets of two vertical slots. I scooted over to investigate, and poked at one of the slots with my greasy fork.

What came next is a blur. There was pain, crying, and my hysterical mother. Some might call it a teaching moment, but I apparently didn’t learn anything except that sticking a piece of metal into an electrical outlet is a bad idea. I would reprise this electrifying discovery some years later while dissecting a bedside alarm clock. Having disconnected the power cord, I wondered what would happen if I plugged it in and then touched the two bare wires together. I came to on the other side of the room with numb, burned hands.

It wasn’t until I got together with other kids that the real fun began. I grew up as the middle child and only boy in the family, but I had a friend with two older brothers in an adjacent neighborhood. Their milieu was a wonderland of potential doom, and our mischief was limited only by our imaginations.

It’s a true miracle that any of us survived to adulthood. We fashioned zip guns out of bicycle spokes, birdshot, and kitchen matches, and fired them at each other. Someone strung a metal cable across the backyard from about two stories up an ancient tree, and we’d climb to dizzying heights and hook an old pair of bicycle handlebars over the cable and jump, sliding down at the speed of light before slamming into the ground. We’d play along the railroad tracks, and throw half-pound chunks of granite railroad rocks at each other with the velocity of a minor league pitcher. One of the brothers flung a railroad rock at a mockingbird on a telephone wire one day and hit the bird so hard it disintegrated into a cloud of feathers.

Surprisingly, my only injury from those afternoons of misadventure came from one of the reedy weeds that covered the vacant field behind the Fullers’ Dixie Dandy store. I was running through the field — probably to evade a volley of granite from the older brothers — when one of the reeds stuck into my leg and broke off about an inch into the flesh. That story ended in the General Hospital emergency room with stitches and mercurochrome, but what I remember most is that they shaved my whole leg.

While these episodes don’t rise to the level of a top-shelf boneheadedness competition, they honed my skill in preparation for what would have been my greatest shot at Darwindom.

Some years later, I was working with a group of guys in a warehouse when some of us were sent to a property outside of town that the company had recently purchased. It was farmland where we would eventually plant an orchard of trees, but first there was some cleaning and clearing to do. We were going through an outbuilding filled with various junk, and I wound up in a wooden loft, clearing out boxes. The last box, back in the corner, was reinforced waxed cardboard covered in dust. There was some writing on it, but it was dark and I could not read it. It was heavy and we’d be throwing it away, so instead of trying to carry it down a ladder, I pushed the box to the edge of the loft and dropped it to the ground. Then I climbed down, picked it up, and took it outside where the other guys were resting.

“Hey, check this out,” I said, holding up the 50-pound box. The bottom half was covered with what looked like granulated salt. One of the guys’ eyes grew to the size of saucers. His voice went high and the blue string of profanity roughly translated to, “Be careful with that!” The fellows scattered like a live hand grenade had been tossed among them.

Everything I knew about dynamite, I’d seen in Wile E. Coyote cartoons. A case of dynamite was supposed to be a wooden crate with big red DANGER words written on it. And Wile E. Coyote never explained the nuances of volatility, and how improperly stored dynamite will degrade, and nitroglycerin can leach out and crystallize, becoming unstable and sensitive to friction or shock. A little jostle and ka-BOOM.

But I had no reason to know any of this, or that the box in my hands was indeed an old cardboard case of degraded dynamite. So when the guys started running, I dropped the box and started running, too.

There was no ka-boom, but you already know that; otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. I missed my shot at a Darwin Award, at least so far. There’s always next year.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of The Dothan Eagle. E-mail: bperkins@dothaneagle.com.

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