by Burt Prelutsky | Los Angeles
I have long been intrigued with the final words uttered by those on their actual or figurative deathbeds. The trouble, of course, is that you never know if the words were spontaneous or rehearsed, whether they were really spoken aloud or were conjured up after the fact by someone who hoped to gain for himself a piece of anonymous immortality by acting as a giving-up-the-ghost writer.
While I have no way of vouching for their authenticity, I regard the following farewells as among the most memorable.
Henry Ward Beecher said, “Now comes the mystery,” although I would have thought “Now comes the solution to the mystery” the more appropriate assumption on the part of the notable preacher.
Heinrich Heine, a rather presumptuous fellow even for a German poet, insisted, “God will pardon me. It is his trade.”
Humphrey Bogart mused, “I should have never switched from Scotch to martinis,” although a wiser decision regarding his vices would have been to kick the nicotine habit before it kicked him.
Luther Burbank, the noted horticulturist, might have been expected to come up with something a little more flowery than “I don’t feel good” if he had only known how just far from good he really felt.
Dylan Thomas, who seems to have been a rather competitive sort of fellow for a sot, boasted, “I have just had 18 whiskeys in a row. I do believe that is a record.”
Robert E. Lee, a military genius who never wasted ammunition or words, took his leave with the brisk “Strike the tent.”
Another Civil War general, John Sedgwick, while commanding Union forces at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, put southern snipers in their place by telling his cowering troops, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” a moment before they put him in his final resting place. It was Gen. Sedgwick’s misfortune that the Rebs didn’t happen to be hunting elephants that day.
Oscar Wilde confessed that he and his wallpaper were fighting a duel to the death and “One or the other of us has to go.” Alas, the wallpaper won and got to hang around a while longer.
When a French priest urged Voltaire, a committed atheist to renounce Satan, the old philosopher replied, “This is no time to make new enemies.”
A very witty line, but in strictly practical terms, it’s hard to beat convicted murderer James W. Bridges, who, when asked if he had a final request before facing a firing squad, replied, “Why, yes, a bulletproof vest.”
Still, when it comes to send-offs, you’d have a go a long way to top the one that Charlotte McCourt’s family came up with recently. After the passing of the longtime Nevada resident, her children published an obituary that read: “We believe that mom would say she was mortified to have taken a large role in the election of Harry Reid to the U.S. Congress. Let the record show that Charlotte was displeased with his work. Please, in lieu of flowers, vote for another more worthy candidate.”
In my own case, I plan to get to work immediately on some amusing, yet profound and touching, final words. My greatest fear is that before having the opportunity to deliver them, I will slip in the shower and in that nano-second prior to fatally conking my head on the porcelain, I will take leave of the world with an inexcusably trite “Whoops!”
copyright 2010 Burt Prelutsky
Television scriptwriter, former humor columnist for the L.A. Times and a movie critic for Los Angeles magazine.