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  • November 20th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance



There were a dozen couples grouped around a table in a nightspot, all of us on dates. I knew the guys but was only vaguely familiar with their girlfriends so I studied their names more assiduously than I ever did, for example, algebra. It would be horribly embarrassing to introduce my date, Martha Lou Leist, the girl who would become my wife, now of 64 years and counting.


So, came the time to introduce ourselves and I began around the table, flawlessly remembering the names of the young ladies, correctly identifying both them and their male companions until I came to the lovely young woman seated to my right and I said “and this is……ah, er…..”


“Marty,” she said. And everyone laughed except me.


The late, great, comedian, Chris Farley earned himself a spot in the comedian’s Hall of Fame when, during a skit on Saturday Night Live, posing as a bumbling, inept, interviewer, he blurted out to Paul McCartney, “didn’t you used to be a Beatle?”


At a gathering of outdoor writers and celebrities, I once went to breakfast with a tall gentleman whom I assumed was a fellow outdoor writer. Smalltalk is something I’m not good at—sometimes it’s beyond small to downright infinitesimal. “And what is it you do?” Expecting him to answer that he was a specialist in big game hunting or upland birds. Much to his credit and without so much as a scornful “you idiot” remark he merely said “I’m an actor.”


Through quick deduction, which I am noted for like Sherlock Holmes, I looked at his name tag “Richard Anderson.” Whoever that is, I thought. When I had time to check him out on the Internet I found out that not only was he an actor, but I had been watching him on the popular television show “The Six Million Dollar Man” just about forever. Not only that, but he had appeared in countless movies, which I had seen and even beyond that, he had been Debbie Reynolds’ first serious boyfriend, something that I will never forgive him for because that was supposed to be my role.


I also once had dinner at a table with some guy named Denis Potvin without having the faintest idea who he was. Through some fortuitous twist of fate, I avoided asking him what he did for a living and was grateful when later I found out he was a Hall of Fame hockey player. Kind of like asking Stan Musial, nicknamed the Donora Greyhound, in honor of his Pennsylvania home town, “Didn’t you used to raise racing dogs?”


If there is an upside to coronavirus it is that self isolation, and the wearing of a mask, somewhat like the Lone Ranger putting his mask on over his nose and mouth rather than his eyes, lessens the opportunity for one putting his Air Jordans where his stupid tongue resides.


As I add up the times that I have publicly embarrassed myself over the years, I remember more than a few times that I have come across looking like Private Zero at Camp Swampy in the Beetle Bailey comic strip. Or maybe more like Lieutenant Fuzz, especially the time that I failed to salute a general. It was at the end of the long day on the road from mid-Missouri to camp Ripley, Minnesota, where we intrepid National Guard warriors were to learn how to defend the country from invasion by people named Olson.


I sort of noticed a couple of guys walking across the vast parking lots where my troopers were washing our tired vehicles and when they got close I turned and one of the two,  who turned out to be a Colonel, who snarled at me in a rather unfriendly way, “don’t you know enough to salute a general?” I then realized the other fellow had a star on his shoulder which did not come as a prize from a box of Cracker Jacks.


I lofted a sort of sloppy salute and mumbled abject apologies, none of which were sufficient for the colonel who proceeded to ream me what’s known in the military as “a new one” while the general stood impatiently rapping, I swear to God, a swagger stick against his leg, probably wishing he could instead rap it repeatedly against the side of my head.


Once, I attended a celebrity and press event whose main celebrity was General Norman Schwarzkopf. I was long out of uniform and didn’t have to salute, but I still was awed by his militaryness, having learned for all time at Camp Ripley the difference between me and a general.


Restaurants seem to encourage in me a compulsion to do incredibly stupid things, much to the amusement and entertainment of friends and strangers alike.  If one incident comes up a lifetime of embarrassing ineptitude, I think it is the time when, returning from a family outing, we stopped at a chain restaurant for dinner.


I rose from our table and threaded my way through the crowded restaurant to an ice cream machine. I fished a bowl from a stack beside the machine and pulled the lever to fill it to the brim. I turned and began to move back to my table, lofting the near overflowing bowl of sweet stuff. And then I realized that my hand holding the bowl was uncomfortably hot. Apparently I had picked up a bowl fresh from the scalding dishwasher and I also realized that the ice cream had lost the ice part of the description and was beginning to flow down my hand and arm.


I began to sprint my way through the occupied tables like a border collie negotiating an agility course. “Hot bowl!” I exclaimed, the ice cream reaching torrent proportions on my arm, “hot bowl!” The bemused crowd seemed to be unanimously concluding that they were watching a madman.


Did the family rallies around its humiliated father with words of encouragement?  It was several hundred miles to home and I don’t think the family ever stopped laughing.


Restaurants seem to bring out the stupid in me. There is an old joke which I heard on a recording by the late wonderful Utah Phillips about a bunch of hunters who vote to punish one of their members by making him camp cook. The camp rule is that if anyone complains about the cooking, they have to do it.


One day while grumbling to himself about having to cook, the luckless hunter spies a moose flop in a meadow, has an inspiration and exclaims, “I’m going to make a moose flop pie!” He takes the meadow muffin back to camp, prepares an elaborate pie tin and bakes a moose flop pie. When the hungry hunters return, he serves the pie.  One hunter shoves a fork full in his mouth, howls, “that’s moose flop pie!” Long pause. “It’s good though.”


I was reminded of the joke when I went for lunch one day at a local eatery and ordered a chicken breast sandwich. It arrived and I dug in and ate about half of it before I noticed the waitress standing by the table.


“Uh, excuse me sir,” she said, “but the cook forgot to put any chicken in your sandwich. He’s making another one and I’ll have it right out.” I had eaten much of a chicken breast sandwich without the chicken and never noticed. As the waitress set it down and picked up the original half eaten sandwich, she looked at me as if examining a strange bug and I said, “it was good though.” Later, I noticed a little knot of waitstaff at the far end of the place chattering to each other and giggling. They seemed to be stealing glances at me.


I wonder why.


It’s possible that restaurant stupidity is catching. Several years ago, my wife, Marty, and I decided to eat lunch at a Mongolian restaurant named Hu Hot.


I had no idea what Mongols eat, although I know they are fond of drinking yak milk which, I suspect, tastes like yak milk. We found a booth and sat and I waved off the menu from a timid waitress (increasingly, waitstaff seem timid when serving me) “We’ll eat the buffet,” I said.


Marty and I went to the long buffet table and I shoveled a heap of ice cold noodles into my bowl. That seemed peculiar, but I thought maybe that’s the way Mongols eat noodles. After all, it’s a cold climate up there in the Siberian desert. Next came a helping of meat labeled as beef and ham. Each of the shaved pieces of meat were frosted—obviously frozen. Maybe that’s the way the Mongols eat their meat, I thought. Stuff a bunch of yaks in a frozen food locker and shave off what you need for each meal. We added more gelid goodies, went back to our seats, and dug in. I had never eaten food covered with frost before except for a Popsicle. It’s a tough life out there on the Steppes, I thought.


I became aware of someone standing beside our booth and looked up to behold that same timid waitress, appearing even more timid. She cleared her throat nervously and said “Ah, I think you’re supposed to cook the food.” Marty continued to eat, amid tiny crunching sounds.


For the first time I became aware of a roar from what turned out to be a massive grill about 20 feet away. four or five cooks circled this superheated metal cooking surface stirring the food of everyone else, those who were not noisily crunching frozen fish and chips.


I was mortified, realizing that Mongols do not shave yaks for dinner and that once again I had turned a restaurant into a Three Stooges comedy. Marty and I were emulating Moe and Shemp, lacking only Curly Bill. I looked up at the waitress, still standing there, poised as if to flee if I showed the any sign of unrestrained madness.


“Okay,” I said. “Thanks— we’ll cook it.”


“It’s good though.” I added.

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By Joel M. Vance     There were a dozen couples grouped around a table in a nightspot, all of us on dates. I knew the guys but was only vaguely familiar with their girlfriends so I studied their names more assiduously than I ever did, for example, algebra. It would be horribly embarrassing to […]

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