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No. 2077:
Last Words

Today, the last word. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Among the least reliable and most informative historical records are the last words people utter before they die. Nothing is so easily turned into myth. Yet nothing is as revealing of how we view our dead. Wikipedia has now posted long list of "famous last words." Or maybe I should say "last words of the famous."

Oddly, some of the "last words" that we know most clearly are those uttered by people about to die momentarily. Mussolini reportedly told his firing squad to aim for his chest. IRA combatant Erskine Childers told his to "Take one step forward, lads. It'll be easier that way." And Marie Antoinette, who accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner, said simply, "Pardon me, monsieur." 

But what was said depends on who reports it. Did Che Guevara say " Shoot, you're only going to kill a man," or did he say "Don't shoot, I'm Che Guevara and I'm worth more to you alive than dead."? 

Another category is the last reaction to sudden death. John Lennon simply said, "I'm shot." Not very dramatic, but wholly plausible. The great RAF ace, Irish pilot Paddy Finucane said on his Spitfire radio, as he went down in the English Channel, "This is it, Chaps." One that I've remembered all my life was the WW-I pilot whose airplane crashed and burned. As he lay dying, he tried to save future fliers by saying, "Tell them when they crash to turn off the switches." Alas, I now find that I remember that so clearly because I heard it in the 1938 movie, Men With Wings.

But that's how these things work. Death is an occasion so primary that it transcends objective telling. When they were old and dying, both Thomas Edison, and the first Black pilot Gene Bullard, were heard to say, "It's beautiful over there." 

I spoke to my own mother by telephone at her hospital, hours before she died, and she said to me, "I'm going home tomorrow." She may have spoken to others after that, but those remain her last words as far as I'm concerned. Since she always had a fine subtle sense of studied ambiguity, I especially cherish that remark.

The great wits are credited with all kinds of pithy remarks. Oscar Wilde's, "Either the wallpaper goes, or I do." George Bernard Shaw supposedly said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Voltaire snapped back at a priest who asked him to renounce Satan. "Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies." And who can top Groucho Marx's last words, "Die my dear? Why that's the last thing I'll do."

In a way, I suppose all this is unjust. We spend our lives trying to say what we mean -- or trying to mean what we say. But whatever slips out of our mouth at the last moment, or whatever people think they've heard, becomes our ghost -- hovering there to haunt the living. At least there was no calculated bid for immortality in John F. Kennedy's last words. Mrs. Connolly had just remarked that Dallas loved him and he replied, "That's very obvious."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

I'm grateful to attorney Stephen Hamilton for calling to my attention, the intriguing website:

Wikipedia article about Paddy Finucane

The audio of the Dies Irae theme is from Franz Liszt's Totentanz (Danse Macabre). Bryon Janis with the Chicago Symphony, The Reiner Sound, RCA Victor 61250.