My brother Tom was sifting through some boxes of stuff that belonged to our father, and he discovered an old newspaper clipping, which he sent to me:
This is from 1965 — it’s 49 years old as I write this. That’s me on the right. I was quite a good speaker back in my high school days. I remember this particular speech contest quite well, because it presented me with one of my first panic situations. Harken back to days of yore:
The finals were held on a Sunday morning on Channel 42 in Concord, California. Now, back in the 1960s these UHF television channels were extremely rare and nobody ever watched them. And airing the finals live on a Sunday morning pretty much guaranteed our complete privacy. Nevertheless, I was young and this was TELEVISION!!!! I would be on TELEVISION!!!! It was exhilirating and terrifying.
So on the appointed Sunday I showed up dressed in my suit and tie. We all sat down in chairs on the side of the small studio room, out of camera view. The camera (which was huge) was trained on the podium in the center of the room. Just before the show began, the organizer decided that it would be inelegant for us to walk up to the podium holding our note cards in our hands, so she collected our note cards and placed them on the podium so that they’d be waiting for us when we began our speeches.
The show began and I was sweating profusely. The first speaker was the fellow on the left in the photo. He was just as terrified as I was and stumbled through his speech. He had been holding his note cards like they were life preservers, and when he was done he carried them with him back to his seat. Obeying the hand signals from the director, I rose from my seat as he stepped down from the podium and passed the first speaker as he came back to his seat.
I arrived at the podium and gathered my wits. The director signalled with his fingers: 3 — 2 — 1 — GO! I took a deep breath, looked confidently into the camera, and looked down at my note cards.
They weren’t there. The previous speaker had taken ALL the note cards.
I looked back up at the camera; panic swept over me. What should I do? Should I turn toward the previous speaker and, as elegantly as possible, ask him to give me back my damn note cards? Should I just plunge into the speech without any note cards and hope I could wing it? Should I just stare stupidly at the camera?
I don’t know how long I stood there with a blank look on my face, but I eventually decided to plunge ahead. I launched into the speech, desperately trying to recall its contents just before I was to speak them. I stumbled a few times, but somehow I made it through without making a complete fool of myself before the assembled mass of viewers, consisting of absolutely nobody.
When I was done, I sat down. The previous speaker had realized his mistake and given the third speaker her note cards. He sheepishly handed me mine. I don’t know where I found the civility to thank him instead of taking his head off.
I won the contest.