My Harrisburg column for next week.
By Bob Quarteroni
Being obsessed by what life ultimately means, or doesn’t mean, I’ve long collected the last words of famous people on the theory that – if they’ve learned anything at all about the great question on their long, strange trips – they would share it with us on their deathbed.
Nice theory, dubious results. More like clueless coming in, still clueless going out.
Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t enlightening in some truly weird, often humorous and always original ways to hear the last thoughts of those on the brink of the leap into what someone called “the great maybe.”
You might have been cowed by the often impenetrable insights of Henry David Thoreau in “Walden,” but when you hear that when he lay dying in 1862 and was asked by a bedside companion if he had made his peace with God, he replied calmly that he was not aware of ever having quarreled with God and uttered his last words: “Moose, Indian.”
More matter-of fact was one Dr. Fidge, a visionary man who had had a boat converted into a coffin and stored under his bed, suggesting to his nurse: “Just pull my legs straight and place me as a dead man; it will save trouble for you shortly,” and then he died.
Stephen Crane, author of the “Red Badge of Courage,” said, “When you come to the edge – that we all must go over – it isn’t so bad. You feel sleepy – and you don’t care. Just a little dreamy anxiety, which world you’re really in. That’s all.”
While Heinrich Heine figured he was set: “God will pardon me – it’s his profession.”
Carl Panzram, who was convicted of murdering 23 people: “I wish the whole human race had once neck and I had my hands on it.”
James Rogers, executed in 1960 in Nevada, was asked if he had any last requests as he stood before a firing line. “Why, yes,” he said. “I’d like a bulletproof vest.”
And William Palmer’s last words, as he stepped on a gallows trap in 1856, were “Are you sure it’s safe?”
Always the comedian – or already halfway to some other world — Lou Costello, who died in 1953, said: “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.”
While poet Alexander Pope amiably told his doctor: “I am dying, sir, of a hundred good symptoms.”
Rabelais uttered what I consider one of the greatest of all exit lines: “I am going to the great perhaps.”
Some final words will leave you shaking in your boots, as those of humorist James Thurber: “God bless…God damn.”
And the saddest of all sad partings, from Elizabeth I, Queen of England, died 1603: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
Fighter Max Baer’s last words are the all-time scariest. “Oh, God, here I go.”
But for each weighty last phrase there are dozens of mundane or humorous statements which I find soothing.
Dominique Bouhours, a philosopher and grammarian, was concerned with correct sentence structure to the very end. “I am about to – or I am going to – die: Either expression is used.”
And listen to the inspired words of Georges Leopold Culver, the French geologist and zoologist, who said to his nurse as she was applying leeches: “Nurse, it was I who discovered that leeches have red blood.”
Writer Joel Chandler Harris was asked if he was feeling any better on his deathbed and got really specific: “I am about the extent of a gnat’s eyebrow better.”
Gambler Arnold Rothstein, when asked by the police who shot him, remained true to gangster ethics: “My mudder did it.”
Drinking – spirits – play a large part in the last words of those entering spirit land.
Humphrey Bogart’s last words were: “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis.”
Legendary gambler John Henry “Doc” Holliday was dying of his many overindulgences. Emerging from a coma he took a glass of whisky and said: “This is funny.”
And writer Dylan Thomas famously said: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies…I think that’s a record.”
Writer Torlogh O’Carolan asked for a cup of Irish whiskey, saying: “It would be hard if two such friends should part at last without kissing.”
And even on their death beds, some had egos as large – or larger – than Donald Trump.
Georg Wilhelm Hegel, German philosopher, said: “Only one man ever understood me…and he didn’t understand me.”
Auguste Comte, philosopher and writer, certainly didn’t suffer from low self-esteem: “What an irreparable loss,” were his last words.
But my favorite of all, for many, many reasons, are the last words of General John Sedgwick, Union Commander, who uttered his farewell in response to a suggestion that he not show himself over a wall during the Battle of the Wilderness.
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist. . . .”
Bob Quarteroni, a frequent PennLive Opinion contributor, is a former columnist and editor at the Centre Daily Times. He lives in Swoyersville, Pa. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His nature blog is http://www.bobqnature.com.