Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken poignantly emphasizes the dilemma of life’s choices. Frost must have spent a great deal of time on this subject as another of his most famous poems, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, talks about Frost coming upon a fork in the road of life and having to choose one.
None of us needs Frost or anyone else to point out to us the games the fates play with us but it is handy to find a short form for our thoughts. I hope over the years if you have read Gavel Gamut, which originated in 1990, every now and then you have found a similar lodestone to hang on to. In that regard I plan to from time to time re-run some of the almost 700 Gavel Gamuts. Maybe you’ll catch them the second time round. Taking Leave (January 09, 2006) is one of my favorites. I hope it means something to you too.
(Originally Published January 09, 2006)
In spite of my natural inclination, thanks to my high school teacher, Mr. Burton, I actually learned a few things in American History class such as: The Second Amendment; the assassination of President William McKinley; the sinking of the Titanic; and the execution of Nathan Hale.
One cold Friday, Mr. Burton stood in front of us in a short-sleeved shirt and offered extra credit to anyone who could tell him why he had the right to wear it.
Of course, our minds were on that night’s football game, so extra credit was not in the offing.
Mr. Burton finally gave up hope for our education, via the Socratic method, and gave us the answer: The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, you know, The Right to Bear (Bare) Arms.
Unlike Paul Simon in his song, “Kodachrome”, my high school teachers did not interfere with my education. The raw material may have been lacking, but the high school refinery did its best.
Mr. Burton, also, portrayed President McKinley and Nathan Hale in class, and sank the Titanic in a washtub while we portrayed the passengers such as John Jacob Astor.
What Mr. Burton burned into our memories was the grace of President McKinley when he was shot in 1901.
The President’s wife of thirty years, Ida, had never recovered from the loss of their only children at ages one and four. The President was ever mindful of Ida’s fragility.
McKinley’s first words upon being shot were:
“My wife, be careful how you tell her. Oh, be careful.”
Considering that President McKinley had been a Civil War hero, a successful attorney, Governor of Ohio, the architect of the Open-Door Policy to China and the Commander in Chief during the Spanish American War, it was poignant that it was said of him:
“Nothing became his life so much as the manner in which he left it.”
I was reminded of the President’s selflessness when I heard news of the West Virginia miners’ last words, written while trapped in the coal mine this week.
At least one of the Sago Mine miners, Martin Toler, left a note to ease the pain of his wife, children, grandchildren and others.
Mr. Toler’s note was written with great effort just before he lost consciousness:
“Tell all I (will?) see them on the other side. Just went to sleep. Wasn’t bad. I love you.”
The President and the coal miner knew how to make an exit.
It is fortunate when there is opportunity for such character to be displayed. No self-pity, just thoughts to ease the pain of others.
Of the six billion or so of us who have already shuffled off this mortal coil, and the six billion or so of us who have yet to take our leave, most of us will not have any last words survive.
But wouldn’t it be comforting to believe we might show the courage and sacrifice of someone like John Jacob Astor who, in 1912, was one of the richest persons on earth and 48 years old when he gave up his seat on a Titanic lifeboat to a woman he didn’t know by saying:
“The ladies have to go first.
Get in the lifeboat to please me (to the unknown woman).
Goodbye, dearie (to his wife). I’ll see you later.”
There was one other thing that made it through the teenage fog during American history class, the last words of the twenty-one year old, Continental Army First Lieutenant, Nathan Hale, just before he was hanged by the British in 1776:
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Hale’s final thoughts of country before self were recorded for Hale’s family and history by another soldier, Captain Montresor, one of the British officers who was assigned to the execution.
You know you have done it right when those who would take your life, record your courage and sacrifice in leaving.
What William McKinley, Martin Toler, John Astor and Nathan Hale had in common were selfless courage, the opportunity to know death was imminent, the means of preserving their last words and the grace to ease the pain of others.
For most of us, such a confluence of elements will not occur. But, if the opportunity is given to us, it will be telling whether we choose to curse the darkness of our coal mine or to lighten the burden of those who are left to deal with the cave-in.