Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why not the best?

Listening to the rapid patter of a radio announcer the other morning as she rattled off facts that were never worth knowing about movies I’ll never see, reminded me of Charlie.

I met Charlie 40 years ago, when we were both freshmen at Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri. I was standing in the men’s washroom shaving, when Charlie came in on his crutches; as he prepared to shower, he introduced himself. I was struck both by the extraordinarily deep resonance of his voice and the grotesque twisting of his frame. A genetic defect and a difficult birth had left Charlie at about the height of a 9-year old, with twisted legs that hung useless and a spine that would never allow his entire body to face in the same direction at once, surmounted with powerful shoulders and a head that was rather too large for his frame. Raised by his father in a small Missouri town, Charlie relied on a friendly personality and his remarkable voice for any hopes he had of worldly advancement.

My own voice had matured early. My late father had an operatic baritone voice, but when I was growing up, my voice was so deep for my age that adults blinked in amazement when I spoke, and my 8th-grade classmates called me “Lurch.” When we did a Sunday school play, I was always the voice of God. All this stood me in good stead in public speaking and debate, and some were heard to comment on my “radio announcer” voice, but I didn’t have the hunger or need for whatever it might bring me, that Charlie did.

I had also had educational advantages that someone from Charlie’s background probably couldn’t have had. My mother was always an avid reader, and I became one too, at an early age. When I was 11, my parents moved to a rather well-off community in the suburbs of northern New Jersey where we really couldn’t afford to live and found a place there only by virtue of a cheap rental house, but the taxpayers believed in having a school system second to none and paid for it. Our public schools were like private schools, and some of my teachers might have distinguished themselves equally as college professors, had they chosen to. The written word was always easily and rapidly accessible.

I’m not sure I fully realized how little this was true for many others. Of course I understood that when my late paternal grandparents would take my brothers and me during the summer to the small town in Arkansas where they pastored a Pentecostal church, there were what we called “country people” who could barely read a newspaper editorial and stumbled over passages in Scripture. Two of them got into an argument once, when one read the passage from the Gospels that says that one cannot serve God and mammon, and another cried out, “Now hold on! What about manna from above?”

But they were not alone. Years later, attending the Episcopal church with urban professionals, I noted with exasperation that every Pentecost Sunday, when the lectors read (what they must have known for a whole year they would have to read) the passage from Acts chapter 2 that records the astonishment of men from all nations upon seeing the descent of the Holy Spirit—“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and dwellers in Mesopotamia and Cappadocia,” etc.—they would look sheepish and stumble through the passage as though someone had suddenly required them to juggle flaming torches while changing their underclothes. I think a lot of this was just laziness, of the same kind that makes some people unable to distinguish between “mitigate” and “militate” or between “access” and “assess.”

Charlie, in any case, worked hard, not only at his lessons, but as an announcer at the campus radio station. One afternoon, a professor in the Speech and Theatre Department asked Charlie and me to come to his office. He had been contacted by two local businessmen who needed young men with good reading voices to record a radio ad, and he thought of the two of us. One of the businessmen came for us in his car, and we rode downtown to the recording studio, agreeing that we would both simply audition on the spot—may the best man win.

The businessmen handed us a script and asked us to take turns reading. I thought we did about equally well, but the businessmen kept prompting us to “read it with more enthusiasm.” We kept modifying our approach until we had both reached a level of dramatic expression that sounded absurdly overdone, but our prospective clients were still not satisfied. Finally, they offered to play us a tape of another announcer who had the sound they wanted. It turned out that what they had really wanted the whole time (but somehow couldn’t figure out how to say!) was that they wanted us to read more rapidly—again, at a rate that approached the absurd.

This changed everything. Charlie began to attempt rapid reading but began stumbling at once; something quite like this had probably never been expected of him before. He stopped after about 15 seconds, and the men asked me to try. All my early advantages stood me in good stead, and although I felt silly doing so, I picked up the script and began to read loudly and at a ridiculously fast rate, fluently and without stumbling.

As I did so, I happened to catch a glimpse of Charlie. Unnoticed by anyone else, his face was set in mortification, and a large tear rolled down his cheek. This opportunity represented all he really expected from life, and he hadn’t succeeded.

I continued reading, but I would have given anything at that moment, to be anywhere else.

As it happened, neither of us got the assignment. The two men thanked us for our time, drove us back to campus, and I never heard from them again.

Charlie continued his studies and his radio announcing. I returned to school one year and learned that he was no longer there. Whatever he had hoped for at Evangel didn’t happen; his spirits sank,and he began to do things that were not only considered rude but that violated the school’s religious standards. He was asked to leave.

About ten or 12 years later, I learned somehow that Charlie had died in an automobile accident, after returning to the town where he had grown up and lived there for the rest of his brief and frustrated life.

I hadn’t thought of that incident of the recording audition in years until I heard the announcer just the other morning. What happened to Charlie and me took me by surprise, and I couldn’t have pretended to read badly in the hopes they would pick Charlie instead—I doubt it would have fooled anyone, and besides, Charlie simply couldn’t do what they wanted, even had he been their only candidate.

Hopefully, we all believe in striving to be the best we can, and life sorts us out, sometimes ruthlessly. I once applied for a job as a sewing machine operator at a factory, and the two male owners gave me a small board and some pins to insert in slots in a timed test, to measure my manual dexterity. I had the kind that would enable me to play the violin, but not the kind to do justice to those pins, and the two men had to try very hard not to laugh in my face. I’m sure they were grateful that I had provided them with an entertaining break in their busy day.

Life sorts us out, but some overcome, astonishingly so. As a child, I knew a boy named Gary, whose body appeared as twisted as Charlie’s, also from a difficult birth. Gary was a sort of pathetic “Tiny Tim” figure at our church.

Years later, visting the same church for my father’s memorial service, I was startled when a deep, confident voice called my name, but I couldn’t see anyone. “Down here!” the voice said.

I looked down and saw a well-muscled man who radiated confidence and strength, though his misshapen legs would not support him, but he got about by using his arms, instead of sitting in a wheelchair. “It’s Gary,” the man said. “I own a chain of weight-lifting studios.” I was just about speechless with amazement.

In a way, I’m rather glad that I didn’t get that announcer assignment and only wish I had taken the trouble later to offer to help Charlie with rapid reading aloud, though who knows but that such an attempt might have seemed clumsy and patronizing. The moment when fortune takes us by surprise and sometimes forces us to face things in ourselves where we never even suspected a lack, can be a severe test, and some don’t pass. We who see it happen may be equally surprised and can only hope to have the tact and presence of mind to offer what help we can until the other person’s balance is restored. The rest, of course, has to be up to the other and what he makes of his experience.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.


Tim said...

I enjoy your writing immensely. I still remember the columns you wrote in the school newspaper at Columbia HS.

Tim Willard

Michael Huggins said...

Very kind, Tim; thank you, and it's nice to hear from you. I saw that you had signed my guestbook on, and I'm sorry I didn't see you at the class reunion in April, which was the first I had ever attended. I hope all is well with you. I remember that we were in Maplewood Junior High and Columbia High School together, but I can't remember if you were in Jefferson School, as I was. Did you play violin in the school orchestra? Thanks again for commenting.


Tim said...

Yes, I was in Jefferson School as well and I did play violin in Junior High. I haven't been back to New Jersey in ages since my parents retired and moved away. I haven't seen anybody from our class in almost 30 years although I occaisionally google names I remember. I still have a copy of the April Fool's day spoof of the CHS newspaper from our senior year.

Michael Huggins said...

When I attended the reunion, a couple of people had brought along old issues of "The Columbian," as well as the yearbook. I had meant to attend a reunion for years, but I live in the South, about 1,100 miles from New York, and it really wasn't convenient. I'm glad I went to this one. It was well attended, and everyone seemed to have an enjoyable time. Sue Aeschbach, Steve Crandall, Cindy Jones, and Chas Leiwant had changed so little that one could recognize them almost at once. Most of us squinted at each other's name tags, but in any case, there was a lot of good conversation. I hope you can consider coming to one in the future.