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Eight (and a half) People Whose Jobs Actually Killed Them

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We've all made those offhand comments: "This job is killing me," "I'd rather die than go to work this morning," and my personal favorite, "This job is sucking my will to live." But sometimes people's jobs really do kill them. I'm not too worried about myself; there probably aren't a whole lot of freak writing accidents (fatal writer's block? Paper cut to the wrist?) But racecar drivers, rock stars, baseball players and jockeys are all rather hazardous professions that sometimes cause on-the-job deaths. So next time you compare work to dying a slow death, think about these guys and remind yourself that your job isn't so bad.

1. Frank Hayes, Jockey

Hayes got the last laugh when he beat 20-1 odds to win at Belmont Park in 1923. At least, he would have gotten the last laugh if he was still alive when the race was over. Hayes was not a jockey by trade - he was actually a stablehand who managed to talk the owner of a horse into letting him ride. Sweet Kiss, the horse, came in first, but Hayes had a heart attack and died during the race. He was strapped on to Sweet Kiss well enough that he stayed upright right across the finish line. Even though the horse was a proven winner, no one wanted to ride it after that, nicknaming him "Sweet Kiss of Death". To date, Hayes is the only deceased jockey to win a race.

2.Les Harvey, Guitarist

In May 1972, Scottish band Stone the Crows lost their guitarist Les Harvey during a concert when he was electrocuted by a microphone onstage. His hands were wet and the microphone wasn't grounded. This makes Harvey part of the 27 Club, which you can read up on in my previous post on curses that seem to be working.

3. Jane Dornacker, Traffic Reporter

jane.jpgPoor Jane Dornacker survived one helicopter crash in 1986, only to be killed by another one six months later. Dornacker was a traffic reporter for WNBC Radio in New York City. In the first crash, her helicopter landed in the Hackensack River and both she and the pilot were able to swim to shore. The second crash, however, proved to be fatal. The copter stalled in midair, plummeted, struck a chain link fence and ultimately ended up in the Hudson River. It sank in 15-20 feet of water, where she and the pilot were trapped for nearly 15 minutes. She died on the way to the hospital. The pilot survived. Before Jane's days as a reporter, she was a rock star, comedian and actress.

4. Ray Chapman, Shortstop

chapman.jpgImagine being hit in the head by a 100 mph fastball, no helmet. Yeah, not good. That's what happened to Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman on August 16, 1920, when he was beaned in the temple by a spit ball thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. He actually tried to walk to the clubhouse on his own, but collapsed before he could make it.

Surgery revealed that his brain was damaged on both sides - both from where the ball hit, of course, and also from when the force of the impact made his brain hit his skull on the other side of his head. Chapman died a few hours after the surgery. The 1920 Indians went on to win the World Series.

5. J.G. Parry-Thomas, Race Car Driver

Everyone knows about NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt's untimely death at the 2001 Daytona 500, but Welsh driver J.G. Parry-Thomas predated him by about 65 years. In 1927, Parry-Thomas was trying to break the land-speed record of 174.22 mph. Around 170 mph, a exposed chain on the car snapped, pretty much decapitating him. Although there are varying reports, from what I gather, he set a personal speed record but did not beat the world record.

6. Tiny Tim, Singer/Ukulele Player

Tiny Tim almost died on stage "“ he had a heart attack during a concert in Minneapolis on November 30, 1996. He had been warned earlier that year that his heart was in a very fragile condition and that he should no longer perform, but he kept playing concerts anyway. He died later that day at a local hospital after doctors had attempted to resuscitate him for more than an hour.

7. "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, Guitarist

dimebag.jpgYet another musician who died on stage in recent years is "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, Pantera's lead guitarist. Although it wasn't the job that actually killed him, it was the fame that came with being part of Pantera that caused a crazed fan to gun down Dimebag Darrell during a 2004 concert. The man who shot him was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed that the band could read his mind and was stealing songs from him.

8. Joe Burrus, Escape Artist

Before David Blaine, there was Joe Burrus. Burrus was an escape artist who idolized Houdini "“ fitting, then that he died exactly 64 years after his hero. On Halloween in 1990, Burrus was chained and handcuffed inside a clear acrylic coffin seven feet below ground. The coffin was topped with dirt, followed by concrete. The concrete had not quite filled the hole when suddenly it dropped by about two feet, making it clear that the plastic coffin underneath had broken. By the time rescue workers pulled Burrus out of his self-made grave, he was already dead. Hopefully David Blaine takes this lesson to heart.

Not quite "on the job" but worth a mention anyway:

8.5. Thomas Midgely, Jr., Inventor

Thomas Midgely, Jr., was a celebrated inventor and chemist, who, among other things, discovered Freon (that stuff used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems). When he was diagnosed with polio and left disabled in 1940, he just couldn't suppress his inventor's spirit "“ he built a pulley system to move him in and out of bed. Unfortunately, it was this system that did him in "“ he accidentally strangled himself with one of the cords.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
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Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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