Everyone’s had weird things happen to them, events or happenings that are so out of the ordinary that they stick in your mind in a way that normal occurrences don’t.
Like the experience I had in Munich in the middle of my adolescence. I was an upper-middle class, preppy, suburban kid and at that time madras shorts were the rage. So naturally, when our parents decided to take the kids on a summertime trip to Europe, I packed my madras shorts thinking I’d sport them around England, France and Germany.
All went well in the first two countries but when I put them on in Germany and took a walk around the hotel, I was in for a shock. At first it was two teenage German guys pointing at me from across the street. Not only were they pointing, but they were laughing uproariously. I looked around to see what they were laughing at, never imagining it was me they found so funny, until a couple other kids joined them and they formed a group, every single one of them pointing at me and howling hysterically. I distinctly remember looking down at my shorts and suddenly realizing it was my madras trunks they found so hilarious.
By this time, the group of kids had grown into a crowd, everyone motioning at me and guffawing loudly. I was totally embarrassed and turned beet red, almost the color of the plaid pattern on my shorts. How could the madras shorts that were so popular back home, be the object of ridicule in Germany? I couldn’t figure it out but hightailed back to our hotel totally humiliated. I hustled through the lobby and up to the room, took off the shorts, stuffed them into the bottom of my bag and didn’t put them on again until I got back to the States.
To this day, when I spot an article of madras clothing, I can hear raucous giggling—in German.
Then there was the time when I was in Guinea, in West Africa, serving in the Peace Corps. A couple volunteers and I were visiting a small village out in the sticks and the villagers insisted that we stay and eat lunch with them. We had learned that the Africans were particularly welcoming to Americans and though none of us liked eating out of the communal pots with bare hands, we knew better than to refuse their kind gesture.
Okay, so get this picture, the three of us sitting on our haunches with a bunch of village elders, around a large pot filled with some kind of murky-looking stew. One villager spoke French and he explained to us that the dish we were about to eat was poulet, chicken in French. Everyone gustily dug into the pot, I grabbed a handful of stew and brought it up to my mouth and just as I was about to take a bite, I realized that I was holding the head of a chicken and that its one eye was wide open, staring me right in the face.
Needless to say, I dropped the head, eye, beak, cockscomb and all, back into the pot, much to the delight and amusement of my fellow diners.
Later in my Peace Corps service, in the capital city, Conakry, I got on a large public bus to go somewhere and since the bus was packed with people and there were no available seats, I stood, holding onto one of the metal grab handles. As the bus got underway, I looked around at the other passengers and began to notice that everyone was staring at me. At first, I couldn’t figure it out. I wasn’t wearing madras shorts or anything out of the ordinary, but all the passengers were looking at me. Suddenly, looking at my arm holding the grab handle, I realized why they found me so interesting. All the other people on the bus were black, I was the only white person. That feeling of being singled out because of my skin color has stuck with me to this day.
One more instance of being singled out—or almost singled out. This time much later when I was in the advertising business. I was down at the Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St. Louis to present a major ad campaign for one of its brands to the chairman, August Busch (Sallie Wheeler’s brother). I arrived early and decided to make a quick stop in the men’s room so I’d be all set for the presentation. Presenting ads to the chairman was a big deal, not only was he the top dog, but he was a tough customer, both demanding and dismissive. If he didn’t like something, you’d know it, quickly. So I was a bit preoccupied as a lot was riding on my presentation, like my career. I pushed open the door to the bathroom and not seeing any urinals, pushed open a stall and closed the door behind me. Just as I was about to pee, I heard people coming into the bathroom. What caused me to quickly clamber up on the toilet, carefully balancing myself on the seat, was the sound of their voices. They were female.
I was in the Ladies Room. In my concentration on the upcoming presentation I had walked into the wrong bathroom. Praying they wouldn’t discover me and rush out screaming to alert the security guards about the weirdo in the Ladies Room, I stood stock still, hoping they’d go about their business and leave so I could scurry out undetected.
After what seemed like an eternity and as I watched my career flash before my eyes, imagining the headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reading, “Pervert ad exec arrested in Anheuser-Busch Ladies Room,” I heard the women opening the door and leaving. Whew!
Though I don’t remember a thing about the presentation, I can remember every stinking detail about the five minutes I spent in a state of total terror standing on the toilet in the Ladies Room of our largest client.