By Sean Dietrich

New Year’s Eve always reminds me of an elderly man in town who everyone called “Bug.” He was bad to drink, but nobody ever called Bug a drunk. Our parents simply warned us not to light a match within two feet of old Bug.
Whenever you’d see him out and about, red-faced, he’d always be the happiest guy you ever met. His claim to fame was that he had already chosen his life’s last words so that when he was on his deathbed he wouldn’t say something stupid.
Almost everyone in beer joints between here and the county line tried to coax Bug to reveal these words. Some even offered to pay big bucks. But nobody could make Bug say it.
One New Year’s Day, after Bug had been out all night celebrating—and this is how I heard it—Bug started having chest pains. His wife drove him to the emergency room. They hooked him up to wires and tubes.
Bug was in the bed, moaning in pain, and when his final moment came, he motioned for his wife to come close. He whispered his last words, which would become locally famous:
“They say you only live once, but believe me, it’s a great ‘once.’”
Thus satisfied with himself, Bug closed his eyes. They say he smiled. And a few moments later, doctors told Bug that he was only suffering from gas pains and he would be perfectly fine once he pooped.
Bug opened his eyes, cussed the doctor, and lived 20 more years.
I wish I had something clever to say like Bug. In fact, I’ve been thinking about what to write all night. But I just can’t find anything. Because I’ve never been good under pressure.
Do you remember when you were a kid and everyone would play highly pressurized backyard games like football, hide and seek, or Pin The Tail on the Redhead? Do you remember when the team captain would choose teams using the same high-pressure looks often worn by SEC National Championship coaches?
Well, I was never chosen first for a team. Never. There were two reasons for this: (a) I choke under pressure, and (b) I was built like a buttermilk biscuit.
But this all changed one Fourth of July.
Several kids got together to participate in an activity that is a cherished part of American life. A pastime that is considered by many historians to be the most important contribution our civilization has made to the world. I am of course talking about Red Rover.
In this game, children form two lines, hands linked together, standing about thirty feet apart. Then they shout: “RED ROVER! RED ROVER! SEND CHARLIE RIGHT OVER!”
Then, little Charlie bolts from one line to the other, knowing full well that his entire boyhood reputation rests upon this pivotal moment. If Charlie breaks through the kid-chain, his future is sealed, it’s Ivy League schools for him. But if Charlie cannot break the chain, he can expect to clean porta-johns for a living.
That Fourth of July was hot and humid. The mosquitoes were out. And somehow, call it divine intervention, call it dumb luck, I was chosen first by our team captain.
It was the greatest honor of my life. The captain was Larry Walters. Larry was like the Joe Namath of the second grade. He was taller than everyone else, wider, and more experienced. If you were to line up the entire second-grade class side-by-side, Larry would look like Mark Spitz towering over a bunch Cabbage Patch dolls. Rumor had it that on weekends, Larry dated college girls.
Looking back, I realize that Larry chose me because, when it came to Red Rover, a chubby kid had the advantage.
So we all linked hands and formed our respective lines. The opposing side shouted, “RED ROVER RED ROVER, SEND SEAN RIGHT OVER!”
Time stood still. I ran like the wind. My feet kicked up dirt clods, my lungs were burning. This was my moment. Some men wait a lifetime to get their moment. Many never get it at all. But this was mine.
And I could see my future lying beyond the horizon. They would celebrate me for years to come if I played my cards right. Maybe even a bronze statue.
My strategy was to aim for the weakest link. Sara Gilliland and Hattie Rogers. Two girls. Girls! What a plan! Girls wouldn’t stand a chance against my speed and agility.
My body launched toward Hattie and Sara like a derailed Amtrak car. I only prayed that I didn’t cripple them for life because I was running hard. When I reached them, I rammed my body against their clasped hands as hard as I could and…
They decapitated me.
I’ve met cinder block walls that were more forgiving than Sara Gilliland and Hattie Rogers. I fell onto the grass and almost went unconscious. And while I was lying there, staring at the sky, I realized something important. Namely, you do not mess with girls.
I also realized that life doesn’t always work the way I want. And sometimes it downright hurts. But even though it’s hard sometimes, even though it looks bad, even though it stings, I’m still here. And if you’re reading this, you are too.
Larry Walters stood over me and said, “Oh, no, I think he’s dead.”
Hattie said, “Speak to us, Sean!”
To which I said, “They say you only live once, but believe me, it’s a great ‘once.’”
Because I believe old Bug was right.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.