Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Getting It Right

One thing that I always admired about my dad was that he never seemed to take the easy way out.  He never made excuses to avoid doing something or, as he termed it, to let himself off the hook.  He viewed anything that he wasn't naturally good at or that scared him (or both) as a challenge.

Of course, there are countless examples that I could give of this trait involving athletic pursuits.  But one obstacle that he had to work to overcome that didn't involve physical tenacity is something that may surprise some of the people who knew him, maybe some who even knew him well:  Dad had a fear of giving speeches.  At one point in time, having to talk in front of a group of people made him very nervous, and until sometime around the time that he took the job that would become his last, he sometimes let this fear get the better of him.  In fact, one of the details I remember most clearly about my wedding day is listening to my dad rehearse his "one line of the day," as he called it, over and over, and watching him stress out about potentially making a mistake when it was time for him to speak during the ceremony.  As usual, when he was nervous, he made jokes, and those of us around him during that time heard lots of entertaining renditions of what he jokingly hoped out loud he wouldn't say in error when the minister asked him his Big Question in front of everyone at the wedding, "Who gives this woman to be married?" 

"What if I freeze up?" he asked me, "or what if I accidentally say something like 'Me and her momma' or 'Her momma and me' or 'Your momma'?"  We laughed because we knew that he knew the proper etiquette of what to say.  But the more he kidded around about what he hoped he didn't inadvertently say, the more nervous he got about getting right what he was actually supposed to say, and it seemed the greater the potential for him to make a mistake.  By the time he and I were in ready-position at the far end of the aisle as the music began and all the heads turned our way, he had worked himself up so much about it that neither of us were laughing.  When we got to the Big Moment (for him, and for the rest of us who knew about his nervousness), when he was asked The Question, his eyes went a little wider and I saw him take a deep breath before he responded, but he pulled it off with his typical style: he said, "Her mom and I do."  Not exactly the line from the Miss Manners Wedding Day Book, but just right anyway, if you ask me.

Just a few months later, he told me that he was thinking about branching out in his career but that there was one thing he really needed to work on before he could really consider make a change: he said he needed to get better at public speaking.  And so, like every challenge I'd ever seen him take on, he dove right in, and he practiced until he got it right.  

As part of getting comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, Dad joined a group of people who also wanted to improve that skill; I'm not sure if it was the Toastmasters International Club but at least it was something similar to it.  Periodically, people in the group were given topics about which they were supposed to write and then deliver speeches, to practice and to improve their comfort levels.  One of the assignments was for each person to talk about how they'd gotten their name, whether they were named after someone, if they had a nickname, or whatever information related to that topic they wanted to share.  

Dad said that one came to him easily; he gave me the written out copy of his speech when I was visiting at my parents' house during that time period, and I was enlightened and entertained by what he had written:

Some people dream of singing in a rock band, winning the Daytona 500, or being a great warrior in an epic battle.  Myself, I have always wanted to be an adventurer.  I am afraid of heights, but I read every book I can find about climbing Mt. Everest.  I have dreamed about biking across the country in 14 days and winning the 48 hour run across Death Valley.  Sailing across the ocean has appeal for me, but it doesn't make my final cut for that list because I'm afraid of sharks.

At this point in my life, I have not failed totally in my search for adventure.  There are a few running and biking tales I could share with you, but I will spare you the details.  There is one outdoor adventure I would like to tell you about, though.  It wasn't my greatest, but it might have been my most memorable.  It took place when I was eight years old, and this is what happened:

For some reason my parents chose to name me William but decided to call me Billy.  However, I've always hated to be called by that nickname.  I think it's because when I was a kid my friends said it sounded sissified.  On my 8th birthday, I decided I'd had enough, and I asked my mom to please start calling me Bill instead of Billy.  I told her that if she didn't I would run away and never come home.  We lived in a small house surrounded by woods, just on the edge of town.  It was a good place to run away and hide, which is exactly what I did on the afternoon of my birthday when it became clear that my nickname wasn't likely to get shortened into the version I wanted. I tucked into a place I found in the woods where I could see if someone was coming but where I couldn't be seen.  As I remember, I didn't go unprepared - I took my silver canteen and something to eat along with me.

I had already figured out how to go to the bathroom in the woods.  My friends and I were often out of washroom range when we were playing cowboys and Indians, and we'd learned to make do when nature called by using leaves or moss or whatever was available at the time.  Unfortunately, that day I made the mistake of using poison ivy leaves for you know what.  It didn't take long for the itching to begin, maybe an hour or two, and not too long after that, I decided that maybe it would be best for me to go home - besides, it was getting dark outside.

As my mom always told the story, I was soon race walking around the house, and I couldn't have sat down if my life had depended on it.  I wound up with such a blistering case that I was taken to the local doctor for some kind of shot.  The doctor also prescribed an ointment that made the itching feel better, at least temporarily.  The bad news is that my mom had to put it on.  God, was I embarrassed.  Not at all the birthday that I'd imagined.

My mom keeps things forever.  She has a log of my childhood illnesses, and on October 26, 1951, the entry in her notebook says, "Bill - poison ivy, lower trunk, really bad."  Amen to that!  At least she'd started just calling me Bill though.

Dad, giving a speech, after he overcame his fear of public speaking.  (Note the guy who can't keep his eyes open!)


  1. A blog about a Dad...I can't resist.

    Sounds like quite a man...and you know, aren't a lot of men from outside our generation that way? I find that 'Men' with a capital 'M' are disappearing, getting harder to find. Defined very well by the statement regarding viewing "anything that he wasn't naturally good at or that scared him (or both) as a challenge."

    That trait is certainly not in me. And I am definitely not passing it along to my boys. I don't see it a lot around me a lot. I see it. Sometimes. It is just more rare than it used to be.

    Maybe in our quest to make life easier, we have made it TOO easy? I don't know...

    Of course, I could just be a giant wuss and this could just be my issue. There is that. ;)

  2. "I don't see it a lot around me a lot."

    Brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department.

  3. Hey...did you know your e-mail originally associated with this account might not still be active? So you may not receive stuff like e-mail notifications and stuff like that. I just got two Undeliverable messages from a Mail Demon saying that your e-mail addy didn't exist anymore, so if you changed it you will need to change it in your profile. (Sorry, just trying to help, not trying to stalk you or anything...)

  4. Thanks! I will check on it! And thanks for the comments, although based on what I've read so far of your blog, I think you are quite underestimating (or understating) yourself!