Sunday, April 26, 2009


The first time I was in a hit show, the playwright walked in one day with a newspaper review panning a play opening across the street. He was thrilled, uttering a Broadway adage I was hearing for the first time -- "Nothing makes success sweeter than the failure of a friend." I know he was only repeating a much repeated phrase, but I lost all respect for him that night.

I've never understood celebrating the failure of somebody else. But then I've never understood the value in shorting stocks or betting against your home team either. I know those practices have made some people rich or famous. To me, they're just inadmirable weasels.

Great success usually means you took a chance on something. So does failure. And win or lose, taking a risk adds value to your life that is not only special in the moment, it's special forever after, no matter what the outcome.

Because in the end, Life always fails. Nobody gets out of here alive. But those who took chances have less to regret in the final moments.

Last week I had the honor of accompanying my father to an Air Force reunion. There wasn't a man there under the age of 85, guys who had been Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, once young men who had flown Hurricanes over the Jungles of Burma, boys who had taken Lancasters deep into the Heart of Darkness.

They arrived walking with difficulty, wheeled in chairs or moving slowly because of old war wounds or growing frailties. But the moment they entered the Mess Hall that was their meeting room, they transformed, becoming 18 and 19 again, full of purpose, defiant of authority, laughing and drinking and telling bawdy stories and exaggerated tales of combat.

Several had been shot down. Some more than once. Several had been wounded. Some more than once. One had spent so long in a Japanese prison camp he still can't buy anything made in that country. All had lost a few friends back then, and all but a few of them by now.

But they had never admitted defeat, which is the only time you truly are defeated. How often you fall doesn't matter as long as you get up just one time more.

I tried not to look shocked as they described their growing frailties to one another. A kidney removed. A heart re-circuited. Eyes that had winked out. Ears now fitted with hearing aids. As the Bartender pulled pints, one turned to me and said, "The Brits used to put Saltpeter in our beer to reduce our libidos." He smiled. "Unfortunately, it's starting to work."

I started to wonder how I might feel if I reach their age. What will keep me able to laugh at my infirmities, the loss of strength or perception or dignity? And then I realized the answer was all around me.

At some point or another, all of them had dealt with horrific failures. But they'd had the courage or simple forethought to believe their path was the right one, to pick themselves up and refuse to be broken by what had happened.

The courage to take a risk had rewarded them with the courage to go on. When you don't quit, give up, give in or knuckle under, there are no regrets. Then, there is only success.

Enjoy your Sunday.


Riddley Walker said...

Hear, hear.

Ken said...

Nice post, Jim. Certainly lessons to live by contained in those great men.

Mona said...

So true!