Let us discuss, as if our lives depended upon it, stubbings of the toe. But wait a minute! How likely is it that our lives could ever depend upon a stubbing, or stubbings, of a toe, or toes? There is, I suppose, the possibility that we might be arraigned before a firing squad, blindfolded, wearing a white shirt, its top buttons undone, hands bound behind our back, jaw jutting in revolutionary or irredentist defiance, and at the moment when the moustachioed Capitan is about to give the order to fire, he stubs his toe, and instead shouts “Ouch!”, and the firing squad, disconcerted, lowers its rifles, thus winning us a reprieve from death.
I can immediately think of two problems with this scenario. First, upon what nature of object, likely to be encountered on a ground suitable for the assembly of a firing squad, could the Capitan stub his toe sufficient to cause him to cry out, given that his toes would be encased in sturdy military boots? We might posit a block of iron, inexplicably left lying around just where the Capitan is standing, but why, at the point of issuing the order to fire, would he think to move his foot, and even if he did, would he not notice the iron block? All toe-stubbings are accidental, and the accident here imagined is beyond the bounds of common sense. It is true that some men rise to the rank of Capitan though they be fools, or wet behind the ears, or otherwise lacking in nous, but even so…
A second objection is that, having stubbed his toe, and shouted “Ouch!” instead of “Fire!”, and the firing squad having been disconcerted, the execution would be cancelled entire rather than merely postponed. Indeed, it is probable that it would not be postponed for very long. A toe-stubbing is, by definition, a sharp and instant trauma, and though the toe may throb for a goodly length of time, the shock itself quickly passes, and one has one’s wits about one within seconds. Thus, having unexpectedly said “Ouch!”, the Capitan, if he is at all worth his Capitan’s salt, will brush off the accident and proceed with his proper business, which in this circumstance is the order to the firing squad to bring about our destruction under a volley of bullets.
A third problem has just occurred to me, which is that the firing squad, tensed up and ready to fire, might well respond to any barked exclamation from their Capitan, and not pause to discriminate between “Ouch!” and “Fire!” or indeed any other noise that issues from his mouth at that precise moment.
The general point here is that the stubbing of the Capitan’s toe does not become a matter of life and death, because however we consider the situation our death is inevitable. Whether or not it is just, in view of our revolutionary or irredentist credentials, need not concern us here.
But what about a wholly different circumstance where, say, we are a passenger aboard a locomotive, chugging at high speed across a high bridge, and the engine driver, in the necessarily confined space of his engine driver’s cabin, and in the course of the necessary physical manoeuvres of his engine driver’s duties, stubs his toe on the kind of hard metal panel or protuberance inevitably present in such a cabin at the front of such a locomotive? Now I am wholly unacquainted with the ins and outs of the engine driver’s art, but it seems to me that in a situation such as the one described there is a very real danger of the brief and temporary shock of a toe-stubbing leading to much greater disaster. If we consider the Capitan again for a moment, we should note that he has but the one decision to make, that of ordering the firing squad to shoot, and is at leisure to choose the moment. He may pause to preen his epaulettes, or to smoke a cigarette, even to offer a last cigarette to us as we await death. But for the engine driver, in control of a huge machine rattling at high speed across a high bridge, there is no such opportunity for relaxation. He must be ever alert, and the momentary loss of concentration entailed by the stubbing of his toe could well lead to him losing control of the engine and the locomotive being derailed and plunging off the bridge to crash into the river rapids far below, causing mayhem and destruction and, yes, death not only for himself but for all the passengers aboard the locomotive. Even the strongest of swimmers among us are likely to be too seriously maimed by the fall and impact to be capable of safely reaching the riverbank, in the unlikely event that the wild currents of the rapids did not dash us against jagged and treacherous rocks.
It is fair to say, then, that there are indeed circumstances where the stubbing of a toe can be a matter of life and death. Bear that in mind when next you prepare to go out of your house, as you consider which socks, which boots, best meet the possible perils of the day.