By Tim McGrath
We all have them, of course. These little nuggets that whisper our name, seducing us into thinking: “You know, this is a great idea, and by doggies I’m going to do it!” Or, they could come as a tragic consequence of group-think. You know what I’m talking about. How many times have we joined right in when someone in the group says: “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to: (fill in the blank)?” When looked at in the light of day, or after the hangover wears off, however, we cringe at the absurdity of these little gems.
Trouble is, our sense of pride waves off any negative self talk: no Debbie Downers here. We throw all caution to the wind, chuck common sense under the bus, and plow ahead with our Big Idea sure of glory, honor, fame, riches, or winning over the girl (or boy) no matter how harebrained the scheme might be. Yup, we all have them. Here’s one of mine that even after all these years still makes my toes curl.
Spoiler alert: I was trying to get fame AND the girl.
In the good old days when black & white TV ruled the airwaves, I sat entranced by the entertainers of the day on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show. The man playing a weird, whiny version of The Yellow Rose of Texas on a handsaw, or the one guy who could actually make songs using a bicycle pump by sticking the hose end in his mouth while operating the pump with his other hand. It sounded like a more sophisticated version of the armpit farts we all thought were the height of hilarity. But, the ones that really got me were the ventriloquists. They could do something to make goofy looking dummies or puppets seem to come alive. Mom said they “threw their voice”. I had to do this.
Imagine the possibilities! I’d sit forever dreaming up all the wise cracks I’d pull off in class that appeared to come from the coat closet or somebody’s desk. All the kids would laugh, and I’d just sit back with a smug little grin while Mr. Thomas, our teacher, would blow a gasket trying to figure out who the offender was. Or I’d pretend to sound like God scolding Gary Hudson in Sunday School for being a jerk. But, the best would be impressing Debbie Phillips. I could see it now. I’d create these clever little voices saying equally clever things that would pop up out of her desk, or History book, or Dream Date lunch pail. I could get her to laugh right out loud. Then, she’d look around trying to figure out where it had come from. Finally, I’d sneak her a little note confessing it was me, and she’d turn to look at me with new found wonder and a gleaming smile beaming from her perfect teeth. She’d scribble something back on the note. Unfolding it, the words I’d longed for: “meet me by monkey bars…you know which ones.” Then, a big heart with DB inside. I repeat, I had to do this.
Hours were spent in front of the mirror, then pestering mom with the same question over and over (and over): “Can you see my lips move?” I’d ask through clenched teeth. “Go play,” was something I got used to hearing. This was not working.
But, like a beacon on a dark night, I saw something in the back of my latest Sgt. Rock comic. An ad promising me I could “delight and fool my friends” by throwing my voice. I could not believe it; finally, finally I had found the key. All I had to do was send thirty-five cents to The Johnson-Smith Novelty Company in Detroit for their latest catalog. My envelope was in the mail next day.
Several agonizing weeks passed, when, at last, the ripped and battered envelope came. Inside was the promised catalog of wonderful tricks and contraptions sure to inspire and delight kids of all ages.
This catalog was amazing. Stinkbombs, X-ray Specs (you can really see somebody’s skeleton with these babies on), gas powered rockets (yes, gasoline – this was the ‘60’s), gum that turned your mouth bloody, AND, what I’d been searching for: a kit to learn to throw your voice. I was in business.
Gathering the required one dollar and ninety-eight cents, I quickly filled out the order form, stuck it in the mail and waited. And waited. And waited.
After about two years passed, one Saturday morning mom called: ”Honey, something just came in the mail for you!” Tearing it from her hands, I ran out to the secret backyard fort where all things important and possibly naughty were sorted out. Quickly tearing open the package a booklet and small black plastic disc with a piece of flimsy white rubber attached slid out. Eagerly, I read the booklet and realized how simple it was. All I had to do was put the plastic disc in my mouth and hiss the words I wanted – no lip movement involved. “Almost any voice can be achieved. But, for best results considerable practice will be involved” the booklet advised. Got it. Should be ready by Monday for my secret debut.
Monday afternoon math class. Mr. Thomas had assigned a page of multiplication and long division problems and reminded us we were to work on them by ourselves QUIETLY. He set the egg timer on his desk for thirty minutes, and then promptly fell asleep. We had just learned long division, and most were still stumped by remainders. Perfect. Stealthily reaching into my husky-sized jeans pocket I pulled out my new gadget. Slipping it into my mouth, I readied myself to “delight and fool my friends”. My intent was to throw my voice to the coat closet in the back of the room and say in my Elmer Fudd-type voice: “Hewp, hewp, hewp, I’m twapped in the coat cwoset!” That’d be enough for my first try.
Drawing in a deep breath I let out a series of rasping hisses that had absolutely no semblance of any human voice. Several kids started laughing looking about wondering where the sounds came from. I gave it another try, this time taking deeper breaths. Rasp, rasp, hiss, hiss. My quest for fame and winning over the girl trumped any good sense I had left. Raaassspppp, Hiiissss, I tried in vain. All eyes were on me now, including a wide-awake Mr. Thomas.
“McGrath, just what in the name of Samson are you doing?” Mr. Thomas scolded as he stared in disbelief. “See me after class!”
I got a hundred lines for that little job: “I will keep my big mouth shut in class.” To be signed by my mom and returned next day. Mom signed it, but made me write another hundred just because. The worst part of the whole thing, though, was when Debbie Phillips walked by desk, looked at me and said: “That was just about the stupidest thing anybody’s ever done. You really are an idiot!”
The ventriloquist kit ended up in my bottom dresser drawer right on top of my book about how to be a tap dancer.
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