Lucky Man | People & Places | Smithsonian

Lucky Man

A stroke of astonishing good fortune that even the author's skeptical father might embrace

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My Irish-born father was quick with a story, unselfish with his tears and never bashful about singing an answer to the musical question "Who Threw the Overalls in Mistress Murphy's Chowder?" But by one signature measure, the Celtic stereotype fit him no better than a Dublin suit. ("Long in the arms and tight across the shoulders," he liked to complain.) When the subject turned to luck, he was a stone sober skeptic. "If the Irish are so lucky, there wouldn't be so many of us living everywhere else," he told me with rare solemnity after I let my older sisters dress me as a leprechaun for my first Halloween. "You're better off trusting to hard work."

So instead of luxuriating in the luck that was forever being assured us by aunts and uncles whose brogues over their decades in America grew no thinner than the aforementioned soup, my five siblings and I were nightly harnessed to the Readers Digest's vocabulary column, preparing like prizefighters for the year-round campaign of spelling bees.

In letters to my father after I left home, I would often describe some example of great luck—the lost wedding ring recovered from the stomach of a shark, a chance reunion of brothers separated by 50 years and two world wars. He would write back that someone had to win the lottery, and, to be sure, a fellow might survive the fall from Damnation Cliff, but wasn't he unlucky to stumble there in the first place?

The only time he stopped trying to refute me was when I became a sportswriter, and I regaled him with tales of luck-crazed stars. He loved the games and especially the athletes, who carried the hopes of cities on their backs like the heroes of antiquity. Did he know that one of Jim Palmer's superstitions (not luck, but a bribe to attain it) was to eat pancakes for breakfast every day that he pitched for the Baltimore Orioles? He didn't, but was Mr. Palmer as nice a man as he appeared on television? And if Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs ate chicken for lunch each day of the season, who was my father to scoff? He just wanted to know if something of the man's greatness could be seen in his eyes.

It has been 25 years since my father died, and it has taken that long for me to find a lucky story I believe he might have embraced. It began one Monday last December when my friend Hamilton Loeb, who is 53, was talking on the phone at home and fell to the floor. His heart had stopped in mid-sentence. No apparent luck in that, except for the presence of his 17-year-old son, Max, who was home only because he'd been suspended from school for some mild shenanigan. Max, like all the students at his school, had been taught CPR, and set to work reviving his father until the ambulance arrived.

What stopped Ham's heart was a viral infection, in his left ventricle, and a stubborn siege it was, causing his heart to quit four more times before doctors could stabilize it. They were not optimistic about Ham's chances, though they said he was more likely to survive than to recover full brain function. In what appeared to Ham's friends and family as a desperate measure, the doctors put him in a virtual deep freeze, lowering his body temperature more than ten degrees for 24 hours. That new treatment, which can limit damage to the heart and brain after such an injury, has been described as the equivalent of rebooting a computer.

When he finally woke, tubes running into and out of his body, the first thing he saw on the television above his bed was a scene of devastation caused by a tsunami. Where is that? he asked his doctor. "Thailand." Where in Thailand? "Phuket." The footage showed a beach where Ham and his family would have been sunning themselves at the very moment that the tsunami struck—the hotel was booked, the airline tickets at his home in a drawer—if not for his heart failure. "You are a lucky guy," the doctor told him.

I asked Ham how the experience had changed him. "It softens you," he said. "Two or three times a day this window opens up and I feel so emotionally deep. The other day I was in New York at Grand Central Station, riding a rickety escalator. I looked down at the crowds of people and thought, 'Isn't it wonderful?'"

My father would have appreciated Ham's story, and I'm nearly certain this was a species of luck my father could endorse—a gift not given but earned, by 24 hours in a deep freeze, by his family's heroic action. I'll be sure to put all of it in my next letter to him.

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