Thinking on their feet

One of the few qualities I have - not in abundance - is a small talent for the clever comeback, what the old-timers called a riposte.

Probably because I can count on coming up with a quick comeback only about every 10th time I need one, I've always ad-mired those historic figures who, to fashion a horribly mixed metaphor, are credited with being light on their feet, verbally speaking.

Since Thanksgiving is nigh, I thought I'd express my thanks publicly to a few witty and quick-thinking folk.

Starting with the unnamed astrologer to the court of Louis the 11th, a spoiled, violent monarch who ruled France from 1461 until he died at the age of 60 in 1483.

His Royal Highness believed fervently in astrology and was deeply impressed when the court astrologer correctly foretold the death of a lady of the court down to the exact day.

The more he thought about this feat, though, the more nervous the king grew. So he decided to have the astrologer killed - that's what kings and presidents (see Saddam) sometimes do. The king told his servants to throw the astrologer out a castle window at a prearranged signal. He then invited Mr. Stars to the royal apartments.

"You claim to understand astrology and even know the fate of others," the king said.

The astrologer assented to this summation of his powers. At which time the king said: "So tell me at once what your fate will be and how long you have to live."

The court hangers-on, thinking they knew the astrologer's out-the-window fate, began snickering.

Not so Mr. Stars.

"I shall die just three days before Your Majesty dies," Mr. Stars said.

The king, in no hurry to be defenestrated, gave the man some coins and bade him live long.

Often, right after I've put my foot in it with a potential employee or bedmate, I think with envious longing on that starry-eyed man of history, who I'd credit with thinking very, very fast when such a skill was required to stay alive.

I don't know his name, it's lost in the mists of times past, but I do love Mr. Stars.

Usually, the men running things don't possess such a quick wit. Used to being obeyed by toadies, most world leaders are, like our current president, only inadvertently funny, as when they misuse grammar, garble history or just make dumb pronouncements such as "I never read newspapers," thereby making themselves less informed than even the pierced and tatted clerk down at the corner record store.

But Winston Churchill, the hero of the Battle of Britain (along with the pilots who went up every day and fought the Luftwaffe during the early days of World War II, and the British people, who absorbed the relentless death and destruction raining down upon them night after night), was a genuine war hero and a classically educated man who didn't suffer fools gladly, if at all.

My favorite Churchill anecdote took place years after his heroics as a prime minister. He was an old man, in his late 80s. He was still a member of Parliament but no longer an active force in government.

One day as he sat silently in one of the back benches, a younger member noticed that Winston's fly was unbuttoned. He quickly passed a note to Churchill via others in the chamber.

Churchill looked at the note, turned it over, wrote something, and passed it back. Without buttoning up his fly.

Churchill's note read: "Don't worry, old birds never leave the nest."

Before the Battle of El Alamein, Churchill called in his Eisenhower, Gen. Montgomery, and advised the British military man to study logistics.

Montgomery demurred, doubting such technical knowledge would aid his tactical skills. "After all, familiarity breeds contempt," he said.

"I would like to remind you," Churchill replied instantly, "that without a degree of familiarity we could not breed anything."

Not that we don't have our own humorists in the ranks of our former leaders.

Abe Lincoln was a witty fellow who liked to get off a witticism or two even during the darkest days of the Civil War.

Everybody knows Lincoln's irritated comment when told that Gen. U.S. Grant (his only successful general early in the war) was a drunk: "Find out what he drinks and send a case of it to each of the rest of them."

Another time during the war, when things weren't going well, an angry woman bearded Lincoln and complained that her son wasn't being commissioned an Army colonel, as she desired. She angrily told Lincoln about her grandfather's service at Lexington and how her father had fought in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. She concluded by telling how her husband had been killed during the Mexican-American War.

Lincoln waited her out, then said, quietly, "I guess, madam, your family has done enough for the country. It's time to give somebody else a chance."

Her son didn't get his commission.

George Washington, the first president, isn't renowned for his wit. The George story everyone knows has do with a cherry tree and allegedly never telling a lie. Such twaddle reeks of anecdotal piety and false patriotism. But Washington wasn't above humor.

Once, during the Revolutionary War, Washington was sitting at dinner when the heat from the fire behind him grew more and more intense. He moved away from the hearth, and one of the guests teased him, saying it was only right that a general should be able to "withstand fire."

"Yes, but it doesn't look good if he receives it from the back," Washington said.

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