Ed. Note: Within the realm of this month’s theme about deciding to “stay” or “go,” some of the extremely awkward and embarrassing situations mentioned here probably made the writer feel like crawling under the nearest rock—neither staying nor going, but disappearing.
I’m quite sure everyone has had their share of embarrassing moments.
But most folks are wisely reticent about divulging such experiences, and rightfully so. It seems that when we tell self-impugning stories meant to elicit humor and engender a little sympathy, the laughter keeps on bouncing around for a long, long time; while the sympathy evaporates like Coleman white gas poured upon a hot rock.
But what the heck—I think it was comedian Rodney Dangerfield who said he’d rather be laughed at than to have no laughter at all.
Some of these experiences will be instructional. While I’ve never had to worry about doing any of these a second time—they were quite simply too horrid—perhaps you’ll never have to worry about doing them a first time.
Several years ago my wife and I were selling a home and two really prospective buyers—a man and his wife—had just toured the place and were both enthusiastic. We invited them to sit in the living room and talk further about the house and its amenities. They were a middle-age couple and she was rather portly. In fact, her stomach protruded dramatically. I asked her in a friendly manner when the little one was coming along. She replied, “pardon,” acting as if she didn’t hear me, and at that point I felt a sharp kick from my wife. Then I blurted out loudly: “When is the baby due?”
“I’m not pregnant,” she said softly. I felt another sharp kick from my wife, but of course it came too late.
I need not tell you that from that point on I never again made any comment about a woman’s maternity status.
As it turned out, the couple later called and made an offer on the house, and we received our asking price. My wife must have had a private telephone conversation with the woman and explained something to the effect that it hadn’t been that long since I was released from the institution.
This one falls within the realm of stark humiliation rather than embarrassment—I can very well picture the Seinfeld character George Castanza in this kind of a situation. It happened eons ago in my senior year of high school during rehearsals for the school play, West Side Story, in which I had a small part. One of the most popular, attractive girls in our high school class was assigned to apply my stage makeup prior to a dress rehearsal. Of course, I felt really stoked, and honored. Suddenly she yelled across the crowded backstage room to the director, “how do I do this makeup on Frank Baker?”
“Just follow the facial muscles,” was the loud reply.
“He doesn’t have any facial muscles,” she exclaimed.
“Do the best you can,” the voice returned.
I’ll let that story just lie there. It speaks for itself. It really makes me feel like Rodney Dangerfield.
Underwear head dress: This one was legendary enough to make it into a column in the Anchorage Daily News after being surreptitiously leaked by one of my co-workers. I was hiking in the mountains near Anchorage in July and it was a beautifully hot, sunny day. With thinning hair I was no longer able to subject my head to a full day’s exposure of sun, and after getting to the top of a mountain I realized I didn’t have a hat. I rummaged my pack for a bandana or something—giving up my t-shirt would mean that I’d sunburn my body. It didn’t take me longer than a second to come up with a piece of material that would make an ample covering: my underwear. I wished at the time that they’d been boxers instead of jockeys, as they would have made an easier fit and perhaps more stylish head dress. But I managed to stretch the jockeys up over the crown of my head as I prepared for the downhill trek. When I finally got down to the main Glen Alps trail, some hikers greeted me and gave me rather odd looks. I had honestly forgotten about the underwear on my head. After they passed I thought about making the switch—however I still had a few miles to go. A sunburned head would be worse than scorched pride, I thought to myself, so I left the underwear on.
This falls into the “serves you right category,” and the kind of mistake you shouldn’t make even once. I was very young when this happened but that is still no excuse. I was at an airport terminal waiting for a flight and seated next to a young, attractive woman who was obviously aggravated by the older woman sitting next to her. The older woman seemed to be talking quite a lot and the younger woman acted quite perturbed. The older woman also seemed agitated and after she got up and walked away, I tried to strike up a conversation with the young woman, now alone. “Bet you’re glad to get rid of that old witch,” I offered. “She’s my mother,” she replied.
I do think that was quite possibly the most stupid thing I’ve ever done—and believe me, there are plenty to choose from.
Here’s another one: While interviewing the president of a very large and prestigious company for a magazine article, I suddenly realized I had a gigantic coffee stain on the front of my shirt. The stain was faded, but from a distance it was clearly visible. I’m sure he noticed it, but he’s such a nice guy that he didn’t say anything to cause me further embarrassment.
I once conducted tours for BP at Prudhoe Bay, and at dinner in the operations center I told a woman in the tour group she had something on her face, offering a damp napkin. It turned out it was a natural growth, and she deftly ignored my proffered ministration. I felt like crawling under the table.
A shrimp shoveling shrimp: As a prelude to this next story I should mention that I did a stint in the U.S. Navy, and during that time physical fitness wasn’t the chief priority. In fact, I think I was in better shape before going into the service than afterward. Soon after my release I landed a job in Kodiak shoveling shrimp from the hold of ships into buckets that were hoisted up to large scales for weighing. We used huge shovels for the shrimp, that when combined with ice, were really heavy. It was very cramped in there and we had to bend over to do the shoveling. The guys working with me had arms the size of my waist and they noticed I was having a hard time. One commented, “What’s the matter with you, did you just get out of the Navy or something?”
“How did you know?” I asked, feeling like the guy in the comic book who had sand kicked in his face by well-muscled beach bullies.
As a college freshman I made the mistake of enrolling in an extremely difficult 400-level Field Biology course. I did it for the hikes and other outdoor adventures. The final exam involved keying out about 45 plants according to family, genus, species, etc. The exam was so difficult, in fact, that the highest score was 50 percent, which on a grade curve was an “A.” I got about 15 percent correct, for a “D,” one of the lowest scores in the class.
That’s enough self-debasement for one sitting…I’m starting to feel more and more like Rodney Dangerfield, but without the fame and millions of dollars that go with his dearth of respect. Like I said earlier, there is some compensation to all of this if someone out there had a laugh or two. But that’s enough. I don’t want to hear laughter a year from now, or I’ll be forced to change my name.