Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

Jack D. Hunter’s Blog

19 January 2008

Getting Killed for a Living

I thought of Charlie the other night when, because I had so many useful and constructive (and therefore even more boring) things to do, I was watching TV. His wan face, with its oddly forsaken look, came to mind as I watched the bad guy, hit in a climactic shootout with the good cop, fall backwards through a window, roll down a shed roof in a cascade of glass, hurtle over the eaves, and drop with a crash onto some trash cans in the alley below.

Charlie was a Penn State classmate, circa 1942, who had been classified 4-F and was therefore ineligible for military service. He was withdrawn and bashful anyhow, but he saw his physical excommunication as the most humiliating of the rejections he’d suffered from the baffling world around him. In a time when it was de rigueur to be a soldier, Charlie — an intensely patriotic fellow who yearned to avenge the world's downtrodden — was forbidden to carry a gun. In days when female hearts fluttered at the sight of a uniform, Charlie was consigned to the melancholy limbo of pullovers and porkpie hats.

In watching the Hollywood stuntman’s spectacular fall, it was natural for me to think of Charlie. Charlie’s specialty was falling down, too. And he was very good at it, because it was the only thing he ever did that got people’s attention.

He discovered his talent one dull, oppressively warm spring day. It was during a change of classes, and a bunch of us were taking a break on the shaded steps of Schwab Auditorium before attending Professor Banner’s lecture on Newspaper Management (Journ 337, 2 hrs., 1 credit, 0 practicum, req. BA) across the way.

There was a sudden stir in the throng on the Mall, and a circle of people formed around a postrate figure on the sidewalk. We ran to investigate, and it was Charlie, sprawled in apparent lifelessness, his head cradled in the lap of a deeply concerned coed named Becky Something (Home Ec. 5'6", 34-24-36, 16 hrs practicum with Sammy G., vars. ftbl, 0 credit).

When somebody suggested calling an ambulance, Charlie sat up, grinned, and said it had all been a joke. He was bored, he explained, and to stir up a little excitement, he’d decided to “drop dead right there, in front of all you other bored jerks.”

The experience had been satisfying to Charlie, apparently, because he went on to greater, more sophisticated falls in the next semester. Moreover, probably due to his heavy patronage of the Errol Flynn war movies so popular at the time, he became expert at imitating the sound of a ricochet. Popping his lips and emitting a screech from somewhere in the depths of his adenoids, he sounded for all the world like a .30-caliber bullet bouncing off a boulder.

He introduced this act on the steps of Old Main during an October noon hour. There was this terrible screech, and Charlie staggered, clutching his abdomen and groaning a fearful groan. Then, as the crowd stood in frozen horror, he turned slowly, sank to his knees, and rolled sack-like to the pavement.

Initially there was much consternation, of course, what with students shouting “Sniper!” and diving into bushes and all. But because college kids are so willing to laugh at themselves (at least they were in my day) and to forgive anything truly zany, Charlie — once he’d proved to be joking again — was given a round of appreciative applause.

This taste of fame must have been intoxicating, since Charlie was soon seen all over town, having heart attacks, being shot, falling off bicycles, strangling on poisoned milkshakes, and even rehearsing — with an indulgent friend who owned a Model A and a “C” gas ration card — being struck down by a car.

He was banned for a month from a local saloon after he staggered one evening from the men's room in a slouch hat and cape, clawing at a stage-prop knife stuck in his chest and pleading in agonized foreign accents for an interview with President Roosevelt.

Charlie finally went pro.

He found himself devoid of beer money — a condition which is, of course, the ultimate torment for any worthy undergrad, anywhere. Since it was against his code of honor to work for money, Charlie weighed reasonable alternatives. After some ruminating, he announced to the fraternity membership that on the next Friday night at 7 o’clock he would have a heart attack at the top of the Great Room stairway. To witness this tragic event, all the brothers had to do was pass a hat for whatever beer money they could spare him.

The upshot: the frat house’s denizens gathered in the Great Hall at the foot of the Grand Staircase, where, arrayed in a boisterous, cross-legged semicircle on the carpeting, they dumped all uncommitted coins into a battered fedora passed among them by a freshman shill.

At the appointed time, there was a crashing roll of theatrical chords on the piano, and Charlie appeared at the top of the staircase, pale and cool and noble in a Leslie Howard kind of way. Amidst enormous cheering, Charlie, without a change of expression, launched himself down the stairs, head-over-saddle shoes, in the godawfullest, thundering, creaking, smashing, grunting, and crunching tumble. It seemed to take forever, and there wasn’t a man in the room who wasn’t convinced that, for his 17 cents or whatever, he had just witnessed the demise of one of the campus’s all-time, guaranteed-authentic, never-been-equaled kooks.

We all rushed to where Charlie lay, face down and still and as shapeless as a castoff rag doll. As we tuned him over, gingerly and in deference to his ebbing life, he gazed up at us from wobbling eyes. In the hush we strained to hear what were probably to be his last words:

“Make mine Bud. And order me a side of peanuts, eh?”

Later I asked Charlie confidentially why he risked his neck in all those crazy stunts.

“Risk?” he said, his reedy voice bleak with self-contempt. “What’s to risk? ‘He who is down need fear no fall’.”

So last night, half dozing through Die Hard 23 or whatever the heck it was, I thought of Charlie. And I found myself hoping that he was indeed still living and was now out there in Hollywood, selling at outrageous prices what he used to sell for beer and peanuts.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.