Story of the
2012 Panama Canal
Written by Rick Archer
The first week of our trip had been delicious
fun. We were enjoying teaching our dance classes
during our five days at sea and Costa Rica had been a
yet, we had the amazing Panama Canal to look forward to.
Panama Canal has been described as "the greatest liberty man has
ever taken with nature".
those "liberties" were worth it.
one look at the map makes it obvious what an incredible gift the
Canal has been to the people of the world.
Another great joy of this trip was the
chance to renew my friendship with Polly and Shari Clark.
Polly was a second mother to me when I was growing up.
Polly and her husband Allen played a key role in helping me
keep my sanity during my troubled youth. I became a
fourth child of sorts.
Allen and Polly had three children.
Along with Margaret and Jim, Shari was the oldest.
Polly was a second
mother to me when I was growing up and Shari was the sister that
I loved to terrorize.
I was an "only child"
and I was also an extremely lonely child. After my parent's
divorce when I was 9, my father pretty much abandoned me.
Meanwhile my mother spend most of her free time looking for love in
all the wrong places.
I was left alone a great
deal of the time. I had my books and my dog Terry. It was
me against the world for a long stretch there.
Polly and Allen were
members of the Quaker Meeting here in Houston.
My mother, also a
Quaker, took me to Quaker Meeting on a regular basis.
These Sunday visits were the highlight of my week. Not only
did I get to hang out with a few kids my age in our Sunday School
class, but the once-a-month Potluck Dinners were my most anticipated
events of each month. Yum!
Polly is a born "Mom".
She could immediately see the effects of the divorce on me. I
was intensely lonely. It broke her heart to see me suffering
The summer following my
parents' divorce, Polly talked Allen into taking me along with them
on a summer camping trip through Colorado. It was one of the
nicest things anyone had ever done for me. I cannot begin to
say how much I appreciated their kindness.
I was a very neglected
kid who was steadily retreating deeper and deeper into an inner
world. This was my way of coping with my loneliness and low self-esteem.
Out of nowhere these two kind people stepped up to make a huge
difference in my life.
Their profound acts of
kindness... it takes a village to raise a child... provided just
enough sanctuary to keep me from turning anti-social. To say I
owe a debt to Polly and Allen is a vast understatement.
Last Fall, Shari invited me
to Polly's 80th birthday party back in September 2011. I was
delighted to renew my friendship with this family that had been so
important to me for so many years.
I had not seen Shari in ages, so I did a double-take when I realized
how attractive she is. Gee, my kid sister has grown up! Even better, Shari had
become a devoted daughter to Polly. I could not have been more
proud of Shari.
Shari is about 14 years
younger than me. Back when she was growing up, I used to make
Shari miserable. I teased her mercilessly and chased her
around the house. Once I kept her trapped in the bathroom for
Fortunately the kids
liked me. They called me the "Terrifying Python" due to my
constant reign of terror. Why they liked me I will never know. It was
all supposed to be in
fun, but there was a element of meanness in some of the things I did.
I loved all three of them, but I was an angry kid who didn't always
understand that I was playing too rough.
Let's face it, I wasn't
always the nicest kid growing up. I would play Risk
with Shari, Margaret, and Jimmie whenever I came to visit. I
almost always won. The
thought of losing was more than I could possibly bear.
I could have been a
little nicer and played Big Brother to these kids, but my own
needs came first. I would do anything to win in my constant desire
to feel superior. Why Polly put up with me
being around the house is a miracle. If forced to guess, I
think Polly knew that basically I was a pretty decent kid underneath
my rough edges.
Perhaps the greatest
favor that Allen and Polly ever extended to me was allowing me to
a blob on their sofa for an entire month. Their kindness
helped me recover from the toughest blow I ever received - getting
thrown out of Graduate School
I was always a good
student. My grades were good enough to earn me scholarships to
Saint John's, a private school here in Houston, Johns Hopkins, a
well-regarded university on the East Coast, and Colorado State
University. It was at CSU that I met my Waterloo.
were good at Colorado State. Academics were always my
strength. I was getting my masters degree
in Clinical Psychology with the goal of becoming a therapist.
However, it isn't enough
to be smart when it comes to healing people. They took one
look at my aggressive, self-centered personality and concluded I was
not cut out to be therapist. I had far too many problems of my
own for them to take a chance on me.
They used a simple trick
to get rid of me. They gave me a "D" in a class called
"Interviewing". There were no tests. I would have aced
those. Instead the grade was based on the professor's subjective
assessment of my skills. Here my personality flaws destroyed
me. I argued in class with the professor on anything I disagreed
with. I bristled when he criticized me for my
short-comings. Over time I became defensive, withdrawn and
sullen. In short, all the character flaws I had acquired
during my troubled childhood were exposed.
Looking back, my dismissal was a real
break for me. Not only did this reversal of fortune force me
to seek therapy to work on some of those anger issues, it paved the
way for my teaching career. However, I could not see the
silver lining at the time. I was devastated.
Limping back to Houston
feeling completely defeated, I asked Polly if I could stay with the
family for a while till I got back on my feet (the thought of
staying with my own mother never even crossed my mind).
Polly said of course. She said there was one problem -
there were no spare rooms in the house. If I didn't mind
sleeping on the living room couch, I was welcome to stay with them.
I didn't mind at all. The living room was off the beaten path
in their house... the den provided the real living area. I had
the room to myself.
So that's where my
healing process began. I was in a state of total despair.
I felt like the biggest failure that had ever walked the earth.
I had no idea what to do next.
I was Blob that came to
visit. I just laid on that couch
all day long throwing a baseball in the air and catching it when it came down. My
therapy consisted of feeling sorry for myself for hours at a time. This
went on for an entire month (June 1974).
The only signs of life
came in the evening. Allen and Polly lived next door to the Jewish
Community Center on Braeswood. Every night I would go over
there to play basketball or volleyball. This nightly athletic
ritual became the outlet for the incredible anger that raged through
I may have been a giant catatonic lump during the day, but I became the
Incredible Hulk at night. Because I was angry at the world, I
played tough defense and bullied my way around the basket.
Mysteriously, one day at the end
of the month, my life spirit kicked back in. One morning on a
whim I looked at the wants ad in the paper. I went out and
applied for a job as a social worker. When I got that job, I
went ahead and found an apartment. Within a span of four
days, poof, I was gone.
Not once did Polly
criticize me, try to console me, ask me for rent, or give me chores
to do. Polly just let me do whatever I wanted. And it
worked. Is that
incredible or what?
Polly had no
idea I would suddenly heal, but she had faith in me. That's
all I needed. I cannot begin to say how much I appreciated her
Slowly but surely the
pain of my Graduate School failure receded. I was finally ready to
move on with my life. One month after I moved out, I took my
first dance lesson.
Shari is a born
traveler. She has seen more interesting places than anyone I
know. Shortly after graduation from the University of Houston,
a friend told Shari there was an upcoming interview for
potential airline stewardesses.
Shari could not have cared
less, but she needed a job so she went out of curiosity. Her friend desperately wanted this
job, but Shari, the one who didn't care, got the job instead.
Twenty-five or so years
later, Shari still has that job. Based in Honolulu, Shari has
seen practically every interesting spot the world has to offer.
Except for one place - Shari had never been to the Panama Canal.
During Polly's 80th
Birthday Party, Shari quizzed me several times about the trip.
Knowing that cruise ships are quite accommodating towards senior
citizens, Shari figured her mother could handle this trip just fine.
After taking her mother on a trip to Argentina as a test run, Shari decided
to give the Panama Cruise Trip to Polly as a Christmas present.
It was great having them along. Marla and I shared many wonderful dinners with Shari
There is an odd
story behind this poster (see above). Every day as I
passed by the photography area of the ship on my way to
dance class, I would see people designing posters. I
had no idea what they were doing until one day I saw Shari
down on the floor furiously working on a poster of her own.
When I stopped to ask her what she was doing, Shari
explained to me what was going on.
There was a
ship-sponsored competition to make posters for the Panama
Canal. The idea was to stand on your balcony as we
passed through the canal locks so the videographers could
take pictures of the people displaying their posters. Not
only would there be prizes for the best posters, all
participants would appear on the final DVD of the
I was interested
in what Shari was doing, so I sat down for a moment and
watched. At the time, Shari was busy cutting out the ocean.
graduated with a minor in art in college. She must have
learned something because she knew all sorts of tricks.
Shari had seen the ocean design in her hallway carpet.
Using her camera, she took a picture and somehow managed to
trace out the high seas depicted by the wave design.
For some reason,
Shari found it easier to spread out and do her work on the
floor of the
hallway instead of using the tables provided like everyone
else. On those tables, the ship had furnished various colors of paper,
rulers, scissors, paste and any other art supplies that
might come in handy. As I studied the different people
engrossed in the poster competition, I could see this was an
ingenious way to give the passengers something fun to do
during our many hours at sea. I was impressed. What a
After dance class was
over, the plan was for me to meet Shari at the poster area and go to
lunch. Shari was just finishing her "blue waves" when I walked up.
Shari got up off the floor and went to get her dolphins
To her dismay,
the dolphins were gone. Shari was perplexed. The
dolphins had been there just minutes before. As Shari
searched the area, she found both dolphins partly concealed
"Hey, those are
my dolphins!" exclaimed Shari.
contrite, the woman responded, "Well, you shouldn't leave
them laying around. I figured someone had left them
behind and didn't want them anymore."
"But my purse
and my camera were sitting right beside my work. And I
was just five feet away sitting on the floor."
The woman said,
"Well, okay, but can I have them anyway?"
My mouth dropped
open and I stared incredulously. Did this insensitive
b---h really just say what I thought she said?
have your dolphins?'
I was livid.
Who did this woman think she was to be talking like that? And
right in front of witnesses no less. Polly was standing there
watching and so was I. This was the worst case of
thoughtless arrogance I could remember. The woman was shameless.
She had just been caught stealing another passenger's work
red-handed and now she was asking permission to keep it.
I had watched Shari
spend 20 minutes working on her waves. That was enough for me
to realize the amount of time involved in this project. And
what about Shari's creativity in making the two excellent dolphin
cut-outs? Now this woman wondered aloud if Shari would
sacrifice all that hard work and just hand over her dolphins because
she was too damn lazy and too uncreative to do it herself.
Despite my anger, I kept
my mouth shut and just stood there watching.
Unfortunately, Shari was so taken aback
by the woman's audacity that she was speechless. Her
instincts were correct... 'no, you can't have my dolphins!!!!', but
I think her airline attendant training kicked in. Shari's
basic sense of decency forced her to get her temper under control
Just when Shari was
about to speak, Polly spoke up with a compromise. "Shari, why not
let the lady have your original tracing of the dolphin? She
can create her own dolphin from that outline."
Shari was completely
taken off guard by her mother's comment. Shari didn't want to
give the thief a damn thing, but her mother's intervention flustered
her. As Shari thought about it, this seemed like a reasonable
way out of the awkward situation. So Shari handed over the
trace in return for getting her two dolphins back.
Personally, I was
outraged. The woman didn't apologize, she didn't thank Shari
for the trace, and she acted like the whole problem was Shari's
fault for leaving her work unguarded. Some people just really
don't get it, do they?
This was the single
worst example of rudeness I had personally witnessed in a long time.
However, as it turned out, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
As I discussed this incident with some of the other passengers, I
heard several appalling stories of rudeness aboard this ship.
Marla was constantly
getting pushed around in the buffet line by people cutting in, but
her problems were nothing compared to one ugly story I heard.
One of my dance students
relayed this story. In the buffet area, a huge man barged
through three people already waiting in line to demand an omelet be
cooked for him instantly.
When he didn't get his
way, the huge man began to berate the poor Filipino cook. Then
he started barking towards my dance student friend who came to the
cook's defense. The passenger was outweighed by 100 pounds,
but he didn't back down. Instead he pointed out what a bully
the man was. He said, "You can't just barge in here and push
other passengers out of the way. We have just as much right to
be here as you. Go learn some manners!" Good
The buffet confrontation
and the poster theft were dramatic examples of the rudeness, but
there were all sorts of small, unnecessary moments as well.
Once when I was trying
to get off the elevator, I got jostled by people who wouldn't let me
off. Apparently as I prepared to drag my 45 pound boom
box on wheels out the door, I didn't move fast enough. Five
people got on board before I had a chance to depart. These
were adults. Didn't anyone ever explain to them that common
courtesy (and practical sense) says to let people out of the
elevator before entering? Now I had to ask them to
please step aside so I could get off. Not one person apologized.
If anything, they glared at me for inconveniencing them.
Rick Has a
Shari, Marla, and the
dance student weren't the only ones who encountered poor manners. I
was called an "A-hole" by one of the ship's personnel.
After dance class, I
took the elevator down to the crew level to take my big amplifier
back to the Hovel. I had brought that amplifier on the trip
because the ship's pathetic music equipment had been inadequate on
my previous two trips. I found it very difficult to teach
because the volume was too weak or the over-used boom boxes would
skip while playing my CDs.
It was a real pain to
lug this amp all the way from Houston. It was also a hassle carrying
it back and forth to
class every day. However, I think it was worth it. I did it because I
wanted my classes to be a success. My work paid off. The music
situation was perfect for every class.
One day after class, one of my dance students
rode down to the crew level with me to talk. As the door opened, an
attractive dark-haired Hispanic woman was crossing in front of us. I
commented to my friend, "I will meet you upstairs in a minute, but
first I am going to follow this pretty lady."
All I meant by my silly
utterance was I would be following her to the metal door that led to the crew
hallway. That long hallway was how I got to my room. I certainly did
not say it to be offensive. I just said the first thing that
popped into my head as the elevator door opened... she was indeed
pretty and I was going to follow her because she was heading where I
wanted to go. I meant no harm.
The lady was dressed in
a white outfit. That meant she was either a person with rank
or a security officer. However I didn't really give it any
thought. I just pulled the amplifier on its wheels out of the
elevator and fell in right behind her.
I do not think what I
said was offensive. Perhaps she thought I
was making a pass at her, but I wasn't. I was simply trying to
be friendly and give a young, attractive woman a small compliment.
In retrospect, maybe she misunderstood what I had said.
We traveled ten feet
woman stopped and opened the heavy metal door which led to the main hallway
(see picture). Then she just stood there. I had no idea why she stopped, but I
didn't care. I was tired and wanted to get to my room. So I kept on going
right through the open door lugging the heavy amplifier behind me,
passing her in the process. In essence she had opened the door
for me. How convenient! Then I stepped into the long corridor.
The woman had only
gotten a fleeting glance at me. This is just a guess, but I
think she stopped at the hallway door because she realized I wasn't crew and therefore
had no business heading for that door.
As always, I stuck out like a
sore thumb. I was wearing dress pants and a dress shirt for
dance class. Every other person on this level was a crew
person dressed for their job just like she was.
I think she was doubly
surprised when I walked right past. I guess she expected me to
stop. Heck, that amplifier was
heavy. I wanted to take advantage of the open door.
I headed right through a door that said "No
admittance, Crew Only" without hesitation. Perhaps my
boldness upset her. From my point of
view, I had every right to do so, but from her point of
view, maybe she decided I was an intruder.
I was already 20 feet
ahead of the woman when I first heard her bark, "Sir, you are in the
wrong area. Stop immediately."
Actually, she was wrong.
I wasn't in the wrong area. But I didn't feel like wasting my
time to discuss her mistake. Furthermore, I figured if I kept
going, she would realize where I was headed and give it a rest.
It was tone of voice and
the military style that had irritated me. I don't take
orders well, especially in the mood I was in. I had just
finished teaching for an hour and a half (I had held a Gypsy Dance
Class to extend the time) and I needed to use the restroom.
However, the bottom line
was that I was sick and tired of being pushed around by certain
people on this ship who
showed no respect to Marla and me.
We had paid for a decent cabin; it wasn't
my fault we were stuck in the Hovel. Furthermore, for the past
six days, I had patiently explained to everyone down here who asked
that we were down here because this is where our cabin was located. The
difference between those people and this woman was that every one of those
people had addressed me politely.
All this woman had to do
was be polite and I would explained for the 20th time what I was
doing down here.
She was 20 feet
behind me and yelling at me. I am not a criminal, so why treat
me like one? The correct thing for her to do is to walk up to
me and make eye contact like everyone else. All she had to do
was smile and explain this area was for crew only. But she didn't do that.
Instead this woman preferred to use her authority.
I kept on walking.
Stunned at my disobedience, she raised her voice. "I told you to
stop! You have no business being down here." As before,
she was speaking to my back, not to my face. Again I gave no sign
that I had heard her. I just kept going.
I turned and opened the
door to the little hallway that led to our room. The hall was
so narrow that I had trouble dragging the amplifier with me.
Just as I reached my door, the woman threw open the door at the
"What are you doing in
here? Why did you not respond to my directions?"
I turned and said with a
smile, "I'm sorry, were you speaking to me? I don't hear very
well." And with that I opened my door.
Her face turned crimson.
I think when my door opened she finally figured it out. She
screamed, "You're an A-hole!!", slammed the hall door and left.
When I told Marla this
story, she was immediately suspicious. "What did you do or say
that you aren't telling me?"
I said to Marla, "I
don't appreciate being yelled at when I have done nothing wrong.
I have the right to expect to be treated with courtesy. This
woman was guilty of serious over-reaction. It never even
dawned on her that I had a right to be here. That said, I said
and did nothing to provoke her other than to walk to my cabin
without stopping. I don't think that gives her the right to use
Getting back to the
Poster story, I could tell that Shari was upset.
She didn't lose her
temper and she didn't lose her poise. However, like me, she
didn't appreciate being pushed around.
I guess Shari and I have
that in common. And, judging from some of Marla's choice
comments about the Hovel, she doesn't like getting pushed around
For that matter, I don't
think anyone appreciates being pushed around.
As we ate lunch
together, Shari kept talking over and over about that woman's
Both Marla and I both
felt sympathy. Marla said, "Would you like me to help? I
am pretty good at arts and craft."
I could not have been
more proud of Marla's thoughtfulness. Shari immediately cheered up. So that evening Marla and I went to their cabin to help Shari with
That is Marla's jaguar
in the tree and that is my cruise ship and sun on the right. So as you can
see, Marla and I were able to help a little.
By the way, that python
in the tree is Shari's sense of humor expressing itself. "Terrifying
Python" was always my nickname. I could not help but smile.
By the way, Shari's
poster won first place. There is some justice in the world
after all. I could not possibly have been more proud of my kid
Here Comes the Judge
One of the interesting
features of the trip was getting to meet the other guests.
Normally Marla and I sit with our guests from Houston on our cruise
trips, but this was a different kind of trip.
Thanks to our strange "crew status", we were not allowed to have an
assigned table. So we simply showed up late for dinner every
night when most of the guests were already served. On the
nights when we didn't eat with Polly and Shari, we were put with
some of the other passengers. The faces changed every night,
but we invariably met an interesting group of
I got involved in all
sorts of unusual conversations. Probably my favorite
the two week period was with a semi-retired judge named John
from the Bay Area.
From the moment I sat down
orchestrating the conversation. As the waiter placed me next to
him, I could tell he was studying me quizzically. He looked at me and
said, "I see you are a southpaw."
I answered, "Yes, I am
He replied, "I know lots
of southpaws. Southpaws are frequently among the most creative
people in our population. Many of our free thinkers are
left-handed. If you watch TV and movies, you will
be astonished at the high percentage of southpaws."
I smiled and said
perhaps immodestly, "I have always wanted to believe that I am
John smiled. "In my
role as a judge, I have also found that left-handers form an
unusually high percentage of deviants and sex offenders.
Which category do you fall into?" Then he grinned and waited for me to
Slightly red-faced, I
replied, "Uh, well, I wouldn't know about that." Ouch. I
realized he had played this game before. I had just fallen
into his trap.
At this point, John was
delighted at finding a new victim. He began to toy with me the
same way I sometimes toy with my students in dance class.
He had clearly established he had the upper hand, even if it was
just in fun.
"So, Rick, do you know
where the term 'southpaw' comes from?"
Once bitten, twice shy,
I warily responded, "Well, I think it is primarily a baseball term."
right you are. Now tell me where the term came from."
I decided it was better
to fold my cards now, so I gave in. "I don't know."
John replied, "Back in
the days before lights made night baseball more popular, stadiums
were always built with home plate facing east. This allowed
the batter to face the pitcher with the sun behind him in the
afternoon. As a
result, any left-handed pitcher threw from the 'south', or first
base, side of the diamond. So they became known as southpaws."
I had grown up as a big
baseball fan, but I had never heard that one before. When I
returned to Houston, I looked it up.
[from paw (in the sense: hand): originally a term applied to a
left-handed baseball player: perhaps so called because baseball
pitchers traditionally face west, so that a left-handed pitcher
would throw with the hand on the south side of his body]
At this point, it was
John 2, Rick 0. I decided it was time to fight back.
After he spoke a little about being a judge, he asked what I did for
a living. I grinned and replied, "I have a non-traditional
profession that is well off the beaten path. Why don't you try
to guess it?"
John was absolutely
delighted. He could barely contain himself at having been
given so delicious a challenge. I got the impression that this
guy is so imposing due to his knowledge and his career spent
being in charge that no one ever bothers to play with him anymore.
So he immediately picked up the gauntlet and began to guess.
John first guess was
that I was an international arms dealer. I stared at him in
confusion. Where did that come from? He really knew how
to catch people off guard, that's for sure. John's friends
were grinning. They knew he had just caught a live one.
Now that John had set
the line of initial questioning, his cronies followed his lead.
They had fun pretending I was a shady character. I think they have seen too many spy movies, because
they were convinced I was CIA or DEA.
John announced he was
sure he had it. He asked if I was in Witness Protection for
ratting on a left-handed deviant sex ring.
Thanks, John. He had a very interesting way of making feel off
For a moment the guesses
turned more serous. Sales positions. Nope. Computers. Nope. Then I worked in the Bush Administration
because I was from Texas. Nope. Then I was a former operative for
the FBI investigating a Panama-based drug cartel. I suppose I
should have been happy they didn't accuse me of actually working for
the cartel itself.
At this point, every new
suggestion was making things worse. At this point, my smart
mouth kicked in. "I'll give you a hint. I have made a
career out of making women happy."
I thought I was being
clever, but this was a real mistake, especially with this crowd. The next
suggestion was that I was in the porn industry or even better, a
gigolo. I was really beginning to regret playing this game,
especially when Marla burst out laughing at the gigolo suggestion.
At this point, I became a Chippendale dancer for a woman's club.
Marla liked that one too and giggled. They really jumped on that
one. I can't even print the next few suggestions. I was
amazed at how my simple little game had backfired so badly.
When will I learn to keep my mouth shut?
Finally a lady from
Vancouver got it after Marla let some things slip after the
suggestion. They were all amazed at how well I had stumped
them. I cynically concluded the thought that a person with an
education would become a dance teacher was just too far-fetched.
John asked me why I
became a dance teacher and I answered him truthfully. "I did
it to meet girls since I didn't have a personality."
John loved that one.
The master BSer had met a kindred spirit. John immediately
flipped it. John boasted he had been
never found it necessary to learn to dance since he was such a good
talker. Why waste energy dancing when all you need is a good
line of BS? All he had to do to get a conversation going with a
woman was to announce he was a "psychiatric gynecologist".
John added that was the most surefire pickup line he had ever used.
Most women either walked away or ignored what he had just said.
However, if they
began to ask questions, they were doomed. Their fatal
curiosity opened the door.
I added that if the
woman was left-handed, he probably had some variations on that theme
John looked at me in
amazement. "How did you know?"
At this point, John got
serious. Speaking of dance, he asked if I was familiar with
Arthur Murray dance studios. He said he had presided over a
law suit involving Arthur Murray. Apparently some people had
signed an expensive contract for multiple dance lessons, then
changed their mind. They wanted at least some of their money
back. They filed suit after their refund request was refused.
legislature passed some law that sabotaged Arthur Murray's position.
John shook his head in disgust. Why do they always baby
the consumers? A contract is a contract. He concluded that California is a very difficult
place to do business in.
I smiled. I asked him
how he ever became such a successful judge speaking so candidly.
He shook his head grimly. "Now that's a good question, my
friend. By the way, do you know what the phrase
'earn the nut' means?"
Uh oh. Here we go
again. I quickly admitted my ignorance.
He said it was a term
from the days when barnstormers would come to town. Frequently
they would say they didn't have enough money to pay the appearance
fee, but if they could just work for a couple days, they would share
the profits. After a few people left in the dark of night
without paying, authorities learn to take a nut off of the wagon
wheel. They weren't going anywhere now.
"To earn the nut"
became a phrase meaning you have to pay your overhead to stay in
business. Referring again to how legislation had made it tough
for Arthur Murray to stay in business, John concluded many of
California's anti-business laws made it very tough to pay the
rent... or "earn the nut" if you prefer. (By the
way, I looked it up and John was right on the money with "earn the
At this point, John
chided me for deliberately misleading him on my "What's My Line?"
game. He said I had deliberately thrown him off the track by
suggesting I was in the business of pleasing women.
I pleaded the Fifth.
John said there is a
term for that. It is known as a "red herring". Did I by
chance know the meaning of this phrase?
I said it was probably a
psychiatric vaginal disorder. That got a good laugh.
John frowned. It was more fun when he told the jokes.
Seeing his disapproval,
I quickly added that a red herring was a device used in crime novels to throw
the detectives off the trail.
John exclaimed, "Very
good. Now, tell me where it comes from." I said I
didn't know, but I would love to learn.
John said that herrings
were used two hundred years ago by animal rights activists in England
who disapproved of fox hunting. Whenever the activists learned
of a hunt, they would strew smelly fish all over the forest to
distract the hounds from the faint scent of the fox.
Naturally I was impressed at that story. So when I got
back to Houston, I decided to check it out. It turns out
that John was close, but the use of the herrings was probably
just an urban legend of the day.
The red herring idiom probably originates from an article published 14
February 1807 by radical journalist William Cobbett. In a
critique of the English press, which had mistakenly reported
Napoleon's defeat, Cobbett recounted that he had once used a red
herring to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare, adding "It was a
mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the
Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone."
etymologist Michael Quinion says, "This story, and [Cobbett's]
extended repetition of it in 1833, was enough to get the
figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers,
unfortunately also with the false idea that it came from some
real practice of huntsmen."
I liked John's red
herring story. It was plausible and fascinating. I told John that he was
my nominee for the most interesting man in the world.
He looked at me
suspiciously. Was I making fun of him?
"No, actually I am
serious. I have never met anyone who is as good at holding
court as you. You were born for this role."
One of his friends at
the table said, "He has you pegged, John!"
John looked at me and
smiled. He said thank you. He liked my compliment.
As for me, I kept
wishing I would run into him again. He really was one of the
most interesting people I have ever met.
Half the time we were
seated with someone from England, Wales, Scotland and Canada.
We had some
We talked about Scotland's desire to
go back to being its own country. I quietly thought that if
the South and the North could mend fences after that brutal Civil
War, surely at some point the Scots could forgive the English and
embrace their common heritage.
After all, they do share an island together and the past two World
Wars. However, I was smart enough to keep that opinion to myself.
I also detected some
vague discontent on the part of the Welsh people as well. They
wouldn't mind being their own country either. I was just
waiting for the moment some Canadian would bring up the Quebec
Separatist Movement. Ah, civilization
and its discontents.
I loved hearing them
discuss politics. Rupert Murdoch was a favorite topic.
He was blamed for everything from Diana's death to corruption in
Parliament to the decline of the British Empire. It's all his
fault, they said.
Among other things, I learned that Charles,
the Prince of Wales, has no Welsh heritage whatsoever.
Apparently it is an honorary title devised by the English many years
to pull the wool over the Welsh people.
I also learned that many
UK people would rather Charles just step down and let his son Harry
take over. Not only can they not stand Camilla, Charles is
strongly disliked for his part in driving Diana to her tragic end.
Besides, Kate reminds them a lot of Diana.
William and Kate are all
the rage in England. They are terrified an Argentinean hit
team is going to take out William while he serves his tour down in
man said he actually met Charles. Charles was there for some
dedication in Manchester. From what I gather, Charles came
over to speak to a group of people just to be friendly. When
told by his security staff it was time to move on, Charles snapped,
"I will let you know when I am ready. Right now I am enjoying
The man concluded that
Charles got a raw deal on his public image and that he is basically a good guy trapped
by his strange circumstances.
From there the
conversation drifted to the movie The King's Speech.
We all agreed that movie did a good job of revealing the
stultifying atmosphere the Royal family lives in. It must be
difficult to be a "normal bloke" when everyone is always telling you how to
behave and what to do.
The consensus is that
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is the thug that forced Charles to
marry Diana against his will. It's all Philip's fault. Behind
his back, Philip is referred to as England's answer to Darth Vadar
and Dick Cheney wrapped into one.
The UK people loved
talking about the Royals. Aren't you glad to know
all this royal gossip? I have more if you're interested.
I overheard two week's worth of the stuff.
One day Shari invited Marla
and me to join her for 11 am Trivia. Since Marla and I were
both fighting the kind of boredom that comes from 5 straight days at
sea, we readily agreed to participate. Except that Shari
didn't show up.
Fortunately there were
four people already sitting there who were being stood up as well.
Teams were supposed be six people, so we asked if we could join
them. Bob and Nancy plus Frank and Sarah graciously said we
could indeed. But I could tell by their expressions that
they were just being polite. I could see we were being evaluated,
not "accepted". The pressure was on.
I quickly realized our
teammates were smart as in mensa smart. They really took it
seriously. Nancy absolutely blew me away with her answer on one question.
"What sport outlawed the use of the left hand in 1974?"
I will give you the answer in a moment, but see if you can figure it
Another time Sarah, our
captain, knew the five books of the Torah while the other five of us
looked clueless. She aced onomatopoeia for words that sound
like the action they stand for: buzz, hiss, ping pong, achoo,
Bob pulled "1/10" out of
the ether on some nautical measure. A cable is one-tenth of a
nautical mile. I was in awe. My teammates were very bright
I had a random moment of
glory here and there. I helped by identifying
"Grendel" as the monster slain by Beowulf. No one else had a
clue. I think that's what solidified our spot on the team.
They needed an expert on monsters.
Marla also had a unique answer that was correct, but her suggestion
was ignored. Later on she fussed about it. I told Marla
she should not have felt bad; it happened to all of us. Bob
named "Ecuador" as the leading banana producer in the world, but
Sarah and I overruled him because "Brazil" made more sense. Bob
was right, we were wrong. I told her to stick up for her answers
Our team nearly won.
We finished second. We should have tied for first, but we
accidentally named "Jupiter" as the seventh planet from the Sun
instead of "Uranus". Every single one of us knew the correct
answer, but we took for granted the first planet suggested. I
was just as guilty as the rest. I was busy writing down the
order of the planets, but "Jupiter" was spoken with so much
assurance that I simply put down my pen before finishing the
By the way, did you
guess 'Polo'? This is the sport where people ride the ponies
hard and fast. Those left-handers swinging the mallets would
serious threat to people's heads. Nancy didn't actually know
the answer; she just figured it out on the spot. I was
chagrined. I have read Sports Illustrated cover
to cover since I was 12, but I had no idea what the answer was.
These guys are good!!
After our careless
error, we came back determined to win the next day. My big
contribution was "Vulcan" as the answer for the Roman God of Fire.
However again we finished in second. Darn.
This was the day when
Kelly told us to name the five oceans. I jumped all over that
one. Geography is one of my specialties. Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic.... and Antarctic. Except that Kelly
disallowed 'Antarctic'. She said the correct answer was the "Southern
Southern Ocean? We
all stared at each other. How did all six of us manage to turn 60
without ever hearing of the Southern Ocean?
I know the name of every single country in the world. How is
it possible not to know the name of all five oceans? However,
no matter how much I fussed, Kelly said she was an expert on this
subject. In fact, she looked it up on the Internet last night.
Oh, please. I
wanted to tell her she could not be more wrong. However, our
team had lost by 5 points, so winning the ocean argument wasn't
going to change our standing. Therefore I decided to drop it.
But I do have something to share.
the World: The Antarctic Ocean runs around Earth in
one direction. The Antarctic Ocean flows in the eastern
direction. The current which is more popularly known as West
Wind Drift moves the ocean from the direction of west to the
direction of east all around Antarctica. This current mixes the
ends of the Pacific, the Southern ends of the Atlantic, and the
Indian Ocean. A very unique oceanic area is created due to this
geography. This area is defined by some as the Southern
The Antarctic Ocean or the Southern Ocean comprises the
southern most waters of the World of Ocean which has the
latitudinal measurement of 60 degrees south. The Antarctic
Ocean is the fourth largest among the five main oceans.
After some more digging,
I got to the bottom of the mystery at Ask.com
the International Hydrographic Organization created the fifth
and newest world ocean - the Southern Ocean - from the
southern portions of the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and
Pacific Ocean. The new Southern Ocean completely surrounds
Don't you hate when they
rewrite the world's map and don't even bother to send you an email?
The third day was my
favorite. The narrator was Drake. This lad from
Australia had an accent that made him sound exactly like Cary Grant.
Several times I could have sworn Drake had copied his speaking style from
my favorite movie actor.
Drake always made me
laugh. He was unbelievably funny with his droll, sarcastic
wit. Whenever someone would complain about his decision not to
allow an answer, he would take his shoe off and place it next to the
complainer. "Here, talk to the shoe. If it agrees you are
correct, I will allow your answer." The person would
begin to stare at the shoe as if it had a listening device and I
would just roll with giggles.
I am sure Drake would
have been happy to know that the "Drake Passage" separates the "Southern Ocean"
from Argentina. In fact, that's probably where Kelly,
yesterday's narrator, had gotten her question from. They were
joined at the hip at every event.
One day I studied the
huge world map on the ship's wall and noticed "Drake
Passage". Curious, I asked him about his
name. I had never met a "Drake" before. So one day when
I was in the mood to cause trouble I asked if he was named for a
male duck or for the famous Sir Francis Drake or merely just the
passage. Naturally since
I was messing with him I expected a smart ass answer. However Drake far
exceeded my expectations. Apparently he had been asked this
He said, "My father
named me after his favorite poem titled 'The Hawk'.
It goes something like this.
I am a Hawk and I
like to Stalk.
I met a Lark who wanted to Spark.
I met a Dove who gave me Love.
I met a Duck who wanted to [guess],
then I met a Drake who said there's been a mistake.
Now I'm a Hawk who can barely walk.
After that mind-blowing
exchange, I kept my eye on Drake. He said some highly
irreverent things that reminded me of my own big mouth. I wondered if his sharp wit would get him
in trouble with the more conservative passengers. What a shame
it would be to curb such an original sense of humor. I was
someone would take offense and report him for one of his off-color
jests. That's what
happens to those high-flyers. Someone inevitably complains
about their irreverence and
brings them back to earth. They aren't nearly as funny after
We came very close to
winning with Drake as our emcee. The most interesting question
of the day was, "What movie
was originally named '$3,000'?"
No one on our team had a clue.
Certainly not me. In fact, no one in the whole room knew, so
they started to complain. Drake is basically a tease. He took great
pleasure in dropping extra clues just to see people writhe in
confusion. After we all complained, Drake decided to let something slip. He said
the $3,000 was payment for an intangible service.
Marla heard that and had
a flash. She whispered a movie name to Sarah, who smiled and
said that was as good a guess as any.
So now it came time to
grade our papers. When we got to "$3,000", Drake said, "How
many of you put down Pretty Woman?"
Marla was the only
person in the room to get it right. $3,000 was the going rate for youknowwhat.
I immediately quipped,
"Now Drake, you must be confused. That is hardly an
'intangible service'. In fact, it is highly tangible."
We all got a good laugh
out of that one.
There's a footnote to
this. Two days later Drake saw me and remembered my joke about
'intangible'. He told me someone had reported him for
discussing prostitution in a public gathering. He had been
I shook my head in
disgust. The whole room had been laughing, but it just takes
one person to take the fun out of it all.
Alas, even with Marla's
brilliant Pretty Woman guess, we still finished second for the third day in a row.
It was another crushing one point defeat. Judging by the mumbling, I
could tell our group was sick of finishing second. They were
getting ready to kick the door down!!
Our Trivia team was
bright. No question about it. We had some really smart
people on the team. However, I developed some real respect for
the other teams too. There had to be close to 100 people
playing. We filled the entire room. This trip wasn't
cheap, so by definition anyone of this ship was a successful person.
I could tell that every one of those hundred people had knowledge.
With so many smart
people, it was no surprise that almost every game was decided by one or two points.
On a lot of the questions, everybody knew the answer. On
some of the questions, several people knew the answer. I
concluded that out of
20 questions, usually there were only three or four questions that might
actually create separation from one team to the next.
Consequently one or two point victories were the norm.
It all boiled down to
having a wide range of different knowledge. One day we lost
because they asked for the 5 children in Willie Wonka. We
really got hammered on that one. Another question that hurt us
was to name the 5 levels of the atmosphere. Marla got two of
them, but the rest of us didn't have a clue.
On the other hand, when
it came time to name the first 5 Roman Emperors, that was right up
my alley. However, just when I was feeling smart, I completely
blew the 5 members of the Avengers question. I got the Avengers mixed up with
Justice League and put down Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Wonder
Woman, and Green Lantern. My teammates trusted me.
Imagine how I felt when the answers were Black Widow, Iron Man,
Hawkeye, Thor, Captain America and Fury. Uh oh. I
got them mixed up.
In Trivia terms, I had
just cost us the game. This question was the one that
separated the winners from the also rans. As a nearby team
exulted, my teammates stared darts at me. I felt awful.
Another near miss and this one was on me.
I badly wanted a chance at
redemption, but my fortunes took a turn for the worse. When I saw the schedule of activities for the
next day, I had
an immediate foreboding. Trivia and Dance Class were scheduled
to partially overlap. I could still make the second half if I
ended my class on time.
After the near-miss
yesterday, I could see Marla was pumped for another chance. So
I made a deal with her. I would teach the Texas Twostep class
on my own and she could go to Trivia to represent the two of us.
Marla didn't even hesitate. "Deal."
I hate being noble.
Throughout class, I could barely keep my mind on dance. My
mind invariably drifted to Trivia. When you are stranded out
at sea with nothing else to do, your mind amplifies the significance
of the smallest thing. In this case, Trivia grew in importance
to enormous proportions. I wanted to win so bad!
Then it happened.
Right in the middle of class, a dark thought came over me.
What if my team did BETTER in my absence? Or worse, what if
they won without me?!! A cold shock of fear
vibrated through my body. No!! I shivered involuntarily.
I was so shaken, I
stopped the class to blurt out my hidden fear. Sharing my fear
with someone was the only
way I could cope with it. Everyone nodded, but probably for
the wrong reason. They already knew I was weird. This
just confirmed it.
I am a professional.
Despite my anxiety, I taught my class well and didn't cut any
corners. When class ended, I even stayed to answer a couple of
questions. Curtly, of course. I had somewhere I needed
And then I raced as fast
as my 45 pound amplifier would permit to Trivia. To my dismay,
there were only seven questions left. I was so distracted that
I was unable to even muster a suggestion for the final 7 clues.
I just sat there like some perennial B-teamer who never leaves the
bench. I was especially worried because my teammates were
displaying the highest level of confidence in their answers I had
Marla in particular was
beaming. Apparently she had been a real star that day.
Marla had just identified the
Brannock as a device used to measure foot size for a shoe.
Everyone was so busy complimenting her brilliance they didn't even notice I had
arrived. I was the Invisible Trivia player. Imagine my
And then it happened.
My worst nightmare came to pass. My team got a PERFECT SCORE.
20 for 20. We were the Champions!! According to our
emcee, no team had ever gotten a perfect score before. Then
the emcee frowned. What if we had cheated? The emcee was
so suspicious that he asked to see our score card.
I watched Drew
as he carefully checked our card. He was frowning at first, but then
began to nod as if he was impressed. He confirmed our
perfection. Or maybe I should say "their perfection". I
I tried to check my ego, but it was no use. I was seriously
bent out of shape at my utter inability to contribute. Even
worse, they were practically hoisting Marla on their shoulders for "brannock",
the only question that the other five had no idea on. Marla
had saved the day and given them their perfect score.
I felt completely
insignificant. Now I knew how James Mason felt in A Star
is Born. James Mason was once a star, but his wife Judy Garland
has just replaced him as the real talent in
Now as I watched my
teammates praise my indomitable wife, I knew my James Mason moment
had come. I recalled that James Mason had turned to alcohol.
Hmm. By chance a waiter walked by. What a funny
coincidence. I ordered a pina colada
to drown my sorrows. Make it a "large", I told him, and
add an extra pineapple. Anything to cheer me up.
Someone suggested a
group picture. Frank, Sarah, Bob, Nancy, Marla, Drew, and some guy
pulling up the rear in back.
Here I am smiling but
its all a lie. Inside I am dying.
Just then, Dottie from
my dance class came by. She heard all the clamor and wanted to
know how we did. A perfect score. Really? "Aren't
you excited, Rick? Did you help?"
"No, they did it without
"Wasn't that your
biggest fear? Isn't that what you said in dance class that you
were the most worried about?"
I didn't need her
reminding me. "Yes, Dottie, that is what I was worried about."
Dottie grew quiet.
She wanted so much to cheer me up. Then a thought flashed
through her mind. "Well, look at it this way. Our team
finished second. You singlehandedly kept Harry and me from
getting here in time to be of any help. You helped to sabotage
our team. Shouldn't that make you feel better?"
Marla overheard this line
of reasoning and rolled her eyes.
"Gosh, Rick honey, you
hero after all! I don't think we have given you enough credit, now have
we? Let's give you the Tonya Harding Sportsmanship Award
for taking out the best players on the other team!!"
Whatever happened to the
good old days when women were taught to sublimate their intelligence
to help boys have higher self-esteem?
Personally speaking, that's one custom I wouldn't mind seeing make a comeback.