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Thursday, May 15, 2014 12:01 am

My life of service

I go to a Rotary convention

 

Foreign travel is usually regarded as a perk of high office. After I had been elected president of Springfield High School’s Interact Club, the service club for boys, sponsored by the local Rotary Club, I learned that my official itinerary would extend no farther than New Jersey. One of my duties (actually, just about the only one) was to make a sort of What-Interact-Means-to-Me speech to the Rotarians, who that year would gather in convention in June in fabled Atlantic City.

My traveling companion was a cheerful and accommodating Rotarian, a Springfield insurance agent I will call Fred. We made the 900 miles in his mid-range Chevy. In those days I feared carsickness more than I feared trigonometry, which I feared more than I feared the “Lawrence Welk Show,” which will give you an idea. For mile after mile I dosed myself into near-stupor with Dramamine, slumped with no seat belt against the car door handle; had I tumbled out onto the Pennsylvania turnpike at 60 miles an hour, I doubt if I’d even have awakened until after I’d quit rolling.

When we got there, I found that I was scheduled on the last day, which left me with plenty of time to fret but also plenty of time to myself. I did what I still do when in a city new to me and went out walking. I explored the distinctly unlovely side of Atlantic City away from the boardwalk. I strolled down the famous boardwalk too, of course, which I found to be an inferior version of the state fair, only with New Yorkers instead of Herefords.

The organizers laid on a crowded schedule of entertainment for the many wives and children who’d come along. The fun included a beach party buffet dinner, bike rides on the boardwalk and a “record hop,” intended to keep us teens out of the tattoo parlors. The big show was held in the International Amphitheater itself, home of the Miss America pageant. It was the biggest building I’d ever been in, unless you count Cass County as a building. Listening to the Fred Waring Chorus (younger readers should know that Waring was the Norman Rockwell of American pop chormeisters) didn’t make me any less eager to get back home to my world, where the Stones’ “Satisfaction” went No. 1 that month.

The warmup act was Miss America 1965, Vonda Van Dyke, the pride of Phoenix. Vonda’s ventriloquist act helped put her over the top in that year’s pageant. She also was the first Miss America to talk about God on national TV (Am I the only one who thinks name-dropping is vulgar?) and the first winner to also be named Miss Congeniality. The evening was the “Lawrence Welk Show” live, and I began to wish I had tumbled out that car door.

Finally, the day came for my speech. My theme was the club motto, “Service Over Self.” I spoke feelingly of the need to balance the self absorption of grade-getting and college-accepting with the wider social view. I spoke of the need to open young eyes to the unfortunate of the world. (I had in mind children who have Mr. H. for history, but I didn’t say so, since they wouldn’t have known how horrible that is.) Blah blah blah. It was mostly extempore, and as friends will confirm, when I get a head of steam up – steam being mostly hot air – I can go on and on.

In fact, I probably spoke for three or four minutes. The session had been scheduled before 9 a.m., and a couple of the attendees (I was the only youth in the room) looked distinctly the worse for drink; I suspect they had come only because they were looking for a quiet place to nurse their hangovers. I could see that one of the gents in the front, a mustachioed Brit in tweeds, Terry Thomas’ more reputable brother, was getting misty. It couldn’t have been my eloquence that moved him. Maybe my speech reminded him of a vicar he once had a crush on. Or maybe I looked like his son before the boy joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Did I believe any of it? I was a nice middle class boy, and I would not lie and say I believed in something that I did not. But since I never actually thought about it, I didn’t know what I did believe in. I could thus affirm almost anything without any obvious risk of falsehood. All the way home I slept the easy sleep that is given only to one who has been a Very Good Boy.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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