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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

Feeling Lucky?

Posted June 22, 2012

Consider the seaman apprentice who was working in a main machinery room and had to move a string of temporary lights out of his way. Although the lights were energized, there was an unlit portion of the string. He reached for the section, where out there was (the mishap report said) “unfortunately a socket without a light bulb.” He stuck his finger into the socket. Brrrzzzaaappp!

Or consider the Navy flight student who was helping neighbors get rid of yard debris from a hurricane. He decided to burn the pile, despite the fact that a burn ban was in effect, specifically for all the limbs and leaves blown down by the storm. He dumped gasoline onto the pile and applied a grill lighter. Foon! One highly predictable fireball, producing first- and second-degree burns on his right arm, leg, shoulder and back. He “unfortunately learned his lesson the hard way,” the report said.

“Unfortunately”? Really? Do you think the Sailor and the flight student were simply unlucky? Do you believe that a powerful, mysterious factor plays a role in the daily events of humans, determining whether (on the plus side) your scratch-off lottery card pays you $10, or whether (on the negative side) when you drop your morning piece of toast, it hits the floor jelly-side down?

I don’t think that luck has much to do with mishaps. Nevertheless, a search in the Naval Safety Center’s mishap-report database turned up 173 reports that mentioned some version of the words “luck” or “fortune” (including the two examples at the top of this blog).

The root of the word “fortunately” goes back to an ancient Roman goddess named Fortuna, often represented by a ship's rudder and a cornucopia (the idea being that she’d be able to steer you to good things, assuming you gained her favor). All I know is that as far as an actual rudder goes, you can’t just ignore it and see if the tide and wind take you onto a shoal. And I know that if you make a habit of trusting to luck when it comes to hazards, your cornucopia is going to be full of bandages, splints and medical bills.

 Goddess of Fortune

A few years ago, a pro golfer got arrested and charged with drunk driving. He’d been going 59 mph in a 35 mph zone, driving one of the tournament courtesy cars. His B.A.C. was 0.09. Speaking to reporters, he described the event as "an unfortunate incident."

He was guilty of both poor decisions and poor description. What he did had nothing to do with luck. “Bad things happen to you,” he said. Maybe, but not this time. Too much alcohol wasn’t magically transported into his stomach, and then his body wasn’t ditto behind the wheel.

Regarding the concept of things just happening, stay tuned for a later blog called “Putting the Who in It.”

Meanwhile, here are a few more mishaps in which luck played no part. A Sailor tripped playing Frisbee and injured her wrist. “Luckily she will fully recover,” the report said. No, she will recover thanks to medical care and physical therapy.

A motorcycle rider got hit at an intersection. The report said, “This mishap is a case where a qualified rider was doing everything right, but was hit by a motorist who failed to yield. Luckily, he is recovering and will return to work.” It wasn’t all luck—he was wearing all of his PPE.

A snowboarder was cut off by another snowboarder, fell and broke his wrist. “Luckily, I am an experienced snowboarder so the crowd factor was not as big of a problem as it could have been,” he reported. Being experienced isn’t a matter of luck, it’s a matter of time and energy.

A drunk Sailor got overly aggressive at a bar and caused a ruckus. “Luckily other command personnel intervened to take him back to his residence,” the report said. No, having bystanders willing to intervene isn’t a matter of luck, it’s a matter of their training, character and willingness to do the right thing.

An E-5 fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a concrete divider. The vehicle rolled over several times. The Sailor crawled out the passenger window. “Luckily he was wearing his seatbelt and only had minor injuries,” the report said. Wearing PPE isn’t a matter of luck, it is a matter of obeying clear rules and recognizing how important and effective it is.

And sometimes, there’s more to the story. One report described a motorcycle rider’s “unfortunate case” where he “did everything right and still lost.” He had attended the required training, wore his PPE, “appeared to be riding within his ability, was riding with the flow of traffic, and was not riding recklessly.”

It turned out that he had only two months of experience, was going 20 mph over the speed limit and passing cars on an interstate in the dark when slammed into the back of slower traffic. None of that was a matter of luck, either.

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