When Are We Most Honest? When Dead Scared

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Bill Cosby is just about my favorite all-time comic. On one of his tapes, when talking about himself and the kids he knew, he said that he became convinced early in life that the one time people were completely honest was when they were dead scared. 

I agree, but the problem with being dead scared is that a moment that may seem dead serious to you can be funny as hell to others. And there’s no way to live it down afterward.

Sooner or later, some genius is sure to say, “Man! You should have seen Tom the day that ...”

The first time I can remember being really scared happened in first grade. Mom walked me to school during kindergarten, but not in first grade. She walked me to school the first day or two and told me I was old enough to make it on my own. Proud as punch, off I went on day three. Mom, however — being a typical mother — sent me off early to be sure I wouldn’t be late. And, of course, she did not tell me I was going in early. She didn’t want me to dawdle.

Thanks, Mom! You almost killed the kid!

I arrived at Public School 16, trotted up the stone steps to the great double doors, and was stopped by a very large sixth-grade girl who asked, “Where do you think you’re going, junior?”

“Inside?”

“You can’t go in. You need a note or teacher’s permission.”

Dead scared because I knew I was late, I — of course — lied.

“I have teacher’s permission.”

Once inside a completely empty school, I realized that I wasn’t late, I was early! And trapped inside the school! With a big, nasty, sixth-grade girl waiting to catch me sneaking out!

I found my way down to a darkened basement and slipped out a side door — right into a playground surrounded by an 11-foot-high chain link fence with barbed wire at its top. Turning to run back in, I saw the door closing. Too late! Locked out and fenced in.

You never know what you can do until you are dead scared. I was up that 11-foot-high fence in microseconds. No use. There’s no way a first-grader can make it across six strands of barbed wire — not alive anyway. So I squeezed out under a gate that was set so low that an anorectic snake couldn’t have wriggled out below it. 

Safe! Soaked with sweat, scratched and bruised, covered with dirt and dust, and half dead with worry, but safe! Thanks, Ma!

I know you’re laughing, Johnny. You can’t fool me.

My turn to laugh. My now 52-year-old son has never — not ever — cracked a smile over an incident that occurred over in England 43 years ago. Nor has he ever completely accepted my absolutely truthful claim that it was absolutely accidental.

Our base house at RAF Upper-Heyford was the right side of a one story duplex with a paved driveway on either side. It was nine o’clock on a cold midwinter night. Our little Chevy was parked in the driveway. Remembering that the trash had not been put out, I turned to 9-year-old David, whose job it was to put out the can, and said, “Dave, don’t forget to put the trash can out.”

A few minutes passed. Remembering that the car needed fluid in the windshield washer, I donned my heavy blue jacket and black wool pullover hat, and went out to do an unpleasant job in the icy cold. Stepping out the front door, I turned the front corner of the house just as David turned the back corner trash can in hand, looked up, and saw a very large giant backlit by the street light and throwing a 15-foot-long shadow on the driveway.

“Oh-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h!” he yelled as he ran.

Later on I learned that, “Oh-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h!” was 9-year-old for, “Help! A giant is going to eat me!”

To this day I have a hard time convincing him it was not a planned meeting. I am now laughing — quietly because he’s upstairs. 

Back when I was living in Port Arthur, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, I saw many storms come ripping through during the hurricane season. During last period one afternoon I was teaching chemistry in my lab at the high school. A call came over the loudspeakers, one I had never heard before and never heard again in eight years.

“Teachers, we are under a severe storm warning. If you have drapes on your windows, please close them and move your students away from the windows. Students, your teacher will review the room safety precautions with you. Please pay close attention as the storm will hit within the next few minutes.”

My room had no drapes, but it had something few classrooms have: solid, stone-topped benches beneath which the kids could go if needed. I reminded them that they were to do that if the storm struck. They were to move their stools out of the way and get under the benches where they would be safe.

Well, you know how kids are. They laughed, and began joking about it, both with each other and with me.

“Oh, Mister Garrett, we’re not little kids.”

“We’re not afraid of a little storm, are you?”

“We don’t have to hide under the benches.” 

“That’s for kindergarten kids, Mister Garrett.”

As I listened, I walked into a narrow back hallway leading from my lab to my storerooms, preparation rooms, and office. I eyed the sky off to the northwest. It was a deep threatening gray edged with livid green, unlike any sky I had ever seen. As I eyed it I heard an odd humming, whirring sound, like that of a slow moving aircraft propeller. I turned toward the air conditioning building behind the school and saw the top four feet of the cooling tower, huge cooling fan and all, become airborne, rise into the air about a hundred feet, and then turn, drop, and make a perfect four-point landing on a patch of grass.

As I walked back toward the lab, planning to do what I have no idea, I listened to the kids still joking and laughing about hiding under the benches. A deafening roar suddenly filled the air, accompanied by a gale force wind that drove three quarter inch hail against the windows of my lab. 

I looked up. Not a head was showing above the benches.

I’d say that was being honest, wouldn’t you?

What did I do? What would you do? For the next five minutes I doubled up in laughter. I swear, the building could have blown away, and I’d have gone off with it, still laughing. 

Then as things calmed down, I strolled back into the lab with the straightest face I could manage. And no, I never mentioned that afternoon to the kids. 

I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb.

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