A bullet had found him
His blood ran as he cried
No money could save him
So he laid down and he died
Ooh, what a lucky man he was
Ooh, what a lucky man he was
–Greg Lake, from Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake & Palmer
For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
–Lou Gehrig, from his Farewell to Baseball speech, July 4, 1939
Life is precarious. That’s for sure.
You can be lucky enough, according to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, to acquire white horses; ladies by the score, all dressed in satin, and waiting by the door; white lace and feathers making up your bed; a gold covered mattress on which you are laid…
…but along comes one single bullet!
You can be lucky enough, as baseball legend has it, to survive growing up during the Great Depression in a poor family like the Gehrigs — alcoholic epileptic father, a maid for a mother, two sisters dead from measles and whooping cough respectively, a brother who died in infancy — you can go on to attend Columbia University; you can be recruited to join the New York Yankees, aside the legendary Babe Ruth; you can become an All-Star seven consecutive times, a Triple Crown winner once, an American League Most Valuable Player twice, and a member of six World Series champion teams; you can accumulate a career .340 batting average, .632 slugging average, and a .447 on base average; you can hit 493 home runs and produce 1,995 runs batted in; you can earn the nickname The Iron Horse for your durability, exemplified by an, at the time, unheard of streak of 2,130 consecutive games played…
…but along comes a terminal diagnosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS, which would become known in North America as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and you’d be dead in less than two years at the age of 37.
Independence Day never meant all that much to me.
But on July 4, 1939, 81 years ago today, Lou Gehrig stood before a sold-out crowd in Yankee Stadium to say farewell to the game and his fans, and he made the now-famous declaration that, despite the tragically premature ending of his extraordinary career, despite a greatly abbreviated life expectancy, he still considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Per my last Owl Journal entry, consisting of brief musings on pros & cons as a decision-making process, I wonder if Lou Gehrig might have listed out all the things in his life that he felt were indicators of luck. Rather than Pros & Cons, perhaps his two columns might have been Good Luck and Bad Luck. No doubt, judging by the details of his life mentioned above, the Good Luck column would certainly have contained considerably more items than the Bad Luck column. But, all items on the list are not equal, and even if the weighted Good Luck items still far outnumber the Bad… Luckiest Man On The Face Of The Earth? Really?
Ever since I was diagnosed with ALS, I’ve thought of Lou Gehrig often, and as I wrote elsewhere on this website, in my memoir I, Too, Heard The Owl, I have striven for equanimity and peaceful acceptance in the face of my terminal illness, mostly to no avail. I point out, for instance, that were I to die tomorrow, even at the regrettably young age of 55, I would still feel that I had lived a great life, not the luckiest on earth, but a truly rich and full life, filled with love, friendship, a helluva lot of fun, adventures large and small, marriage, fatherhood, fruitful creative pursuits in music, writing, and photography, etc.
No, for me it’s not about life coming to an end. Rather, it’s how it’s coming to an end. ALS is brutal and feels like one of the unluckiest things imaginable.
Still, I’m trying, Lou.