The most amazing thing about history is how ridiculously close things came to turning out differently. An inch here, a second there... that's the only difference between the world we live in now and an alternate universe where it's all Nazis and dinosaurs.
For instance, there are some great men who we take for granted, not realizing how close they came to getting snuffed out like Tupac, forever changing history as we know it.
#6. George Washington
It should go without saying that pregnant women should stay clear of bolts of lightning. This is especially true when they are pregnant with the guy who is destined to invent the United States of America and get his face on the one dollar bill.
Came Within Inches of Death When:
Mary Ball Washington, mother of the future father of the USA, was enjoying a dinner party and sitting next to the fireplace. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning exploded down the chimney, zapping a girl sitting right next to her with enough gigawatts to fuse her fork and knife together and kill her to death.
Accidentally creating the useless knife-fork combination.
Mary got badly jolted, but not enough to scramble the infant Founding Father currently floating around in her belly. The party was understandably ruined.
Predictably, Washington was later attacked by the T-1000 on his 12th birthday.
If she'd been sitting a little closer, if her chair had been a little better at conducting electricity, if any one of a million variables played out the other way... no USA.
We don't think we're exaggerating, either. An American Revolution without George Washington--and an early America without him as president-- would have made this whole operation infinitely more difficult. Especially considering historian David McCullough described the Revolution as a near-failure on its own, and Washington biographer Thomas Fleming mused than an American Revolution commanded by Major General Horatio Gates instead of Washington would have "ended in a whimper."
Also, if we simply remove George Washington from the Revolution, his role would most likely have been filled by a seven-star General of the Armies of the United States named... Benedict Arnold. You know, the guy who, halfway through the war, changed his mind and joined the British.
#5. Hernan Cortes Almost Has His Heart Torn Out by Aztecs
Cortes is the guy who is the reason they speak Spanish in Mexico. He showed up there in the 16th Century with just 600 guys and took on the Aztec Empire, and famously began his assault by triumphantly sinking his own ships the instant they arrived in Mexico, a tactic most military advisors would describe as "catastrophically retarded."
"No joke, I sank every fucking one."
Of course he eventually came out on top, utterly changing the course of history in the Western world.
Came Within Inches of Death When:
When Cortes' crew finally showed up at the Aztec island-capital of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish discovered that the Aztecs were #1 on the continent for a reason: They were the baddest motherfuckers in the jungle.
Cortes and a good chunk of his men were ambushed and dragged off kicking and screaming to be sacrificed atop the city's Great Pyramid, high enough for the Spanish camps to see them. According to The Immolation of Hernan Cortes by historian Ross Hassig, the Spanish were "made to dance before a statue of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and then, one by one, they were sacrificed... their hearts were torn out and their faces and hands flayed so they could be tanned and sent among the wavering towns as a warning."
Afterwards, there was a Pot Luck.
Fifty-eight Spaniards were sacrificed that night. When the Aztecs grabbed Cortes to carry him up to the heart-ripping table, a member of his crew named Cristobal de Olea decided he would intervene as best he could. Presumably feeding his balls spinach to make them grow to astronomic size, Cristobal attacked and killed the four Aztecs carrying his captain, freeing Cortes at the cost of his own life.
"FOR CRISTOBAL'S BAAAAAAAAAALLS!"
Had Cristobal not stuck out his skin that night to be flayed, Cortes would have died just like everyone else on the pyramid that night, and with him the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. After all, Spain wouldn't find out about any of it until whenever the fuck news reached the other side of the Atlantic by word of mouth, since Cortes sank the fucking ships.
#4. Kurt Vonnegut
Known by too many of us for his cameo in Back to School, he also happens to be one of the most influential writers of the last 100 years.
He accomplished all of this despite the fact that his own military dropped many, many bombs on him.
Came Within Inches of Death When:
After being pinned down, surrounded and captured during the Battle of the Bulge, aka "the bloodiest battle in American history," Private Vonnegut of the 106th Infantry volunteered to be the spokesperson of the POWs, just so he could tell his German captors "what [he] was going to do to them when the Russians came." Considering how this was when the Wehrmacht were executing prisoners even when they were not cracking jokes about the single most sensitive subject in the Third Reich, it's amazing that Kurt and his entire division weren't killed on the spot.
The Nazis would put up with shit like this for all of five fucking seconds.
The knee-slapping Vonnegut and his comrades were instead led off to POW life in the German city of Dresden. If you know anything about history or World War II, you just said, "Oh, shit."
For Dresden was about to become the worst place in the entire planet. For two days the U.S. and Britain firebombed the everloving Buddha out of the city with enough payloads to be considered a war crime, killing tens of thousands of civilians in an incendiary, revenge-fueled fuckstorm.
Most of the POWs were killed along with them. But not Kurt, thanks to an arbitrary decision made by his captors. They stuffed him and some other prisoners in an ad hoc detention facility: Schlachthof Funf, or Slaughterhouse Five. It was an underground meat locker that turned out to be the perfect spot to survive a bombing.
And work out.
Thus, after surviving the bloodiest battle in American history, captivity by the Nazis, a firestorm that reduced a city to (as Vonnegut described it) "the surface of the Moon" and hard-labor digging mass-graves for the Germans at Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut returned to the U.S. to receive the Purple Heart for what he described as a "ludicrously negligible wound," and eventually wrote a dark comedy about the whole episode.
It's all so fucking hysterical.
Not only does the book that resulted--Slaughterhouse-Five--remain one of the most game-changing works of science fiction and dark comedy ever put to paper, but Vonnegut himself became such a noted anti-war figure that Fox News had no choice but trash him during his obituary.