Hartford, Alabama—a Future Farmers of America banquet. I am about to speak for a group of Minnesotans. These are rural people with Northern accents. Gentle people who know how to handle large animals, and how to milk them.
I’ve never performed before any Minnesotans before. In fact, I don’t know much about Minnesota, except that it’s somewhere below the Arctic Circle.
The truth is, I don’t know why anyone would ask me to speak over a microphone at all.
The first time I ever got on stage, I was seven. I sang at our church. It was a Wednesday night. I was so nervous I nearly puked. My father gave me some sound advice beforehand:
“Imagine the entire audience in their underpants,” he said.
“That’s right,” he went on. “Pretend they’re all wearing underwear.”
This, he claimed, would take the sting out of my nervousness and help me remember that everyone is virtually the same beneath the surface.
It sounded like a good idea. And it might have worked if the front pews hadn’t been filled with members of the women’s Bible study group. Because when I envisioned twenty-one elderly women of virtue in their tighty-whities, I choked.
My Aunt Eulah was in the front row, smiling. I couldn’t help but visualize her wearing a granny girdle, nylons, and a military-grade underwire.
I was supposed to sing “Rock of Ages” that Wednesday, but I ended up singing “Honky Tonk Woman.”
Anyway, this is a yearly thing here in Hartford. Every November, high-schoolers from Hartford’s sister city in Litchfield, Minnesota, visit this town to experience life in the South.
Tonight, I am seated at a table with some of these quiet Minnesotans. We are eating downhome cuisine, sipping sweet tea. My new friends do not know what sweet tea is.
They have also never eaten collards, hog head souse, rag bologna, pickled okra, field corn, zipper peas, pear salad, or a boiled peanut.
They use words which I have never heard before. Words like: “Youbetcha.”
And in extreme cases: “OOF DUH!”
I asked what “OOF DUH!” meant.
My new friends explained: “It’s what we’d say when we hit our thumb with a hammer. We shout, ‘OOF DUH!’ Don’t you have words like that here?”
“We do,” I point out. “But most of ours have four letters.”
It is almost time for me to take the stage. And suddenly, I am getting nervous.
I’ve been speaking and telling stories for few years now. But I’m going to admit something to you: I have no idea what I’m doing.
I tell stories that are supposed to make people laugh. But it’s a hit-and-miss kind of job. Sometimes, people laugh. Other times, I find myself in a Presbyterian church speaking to folks who I’m not quite certain are actually breathing.
I was not meant to do this sort of work. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be doing it. A guy like me is under qualified. Hence, the nervousness.
When I first started, I used to get so nervous—and I’m not proud of this— I would close my eyes while I spoke. Eventually I got over this bad habit, and I rarely get nervous anymore. But a lot of people still remember the old days.
Once, I spoke in Franklin, Tennessee. Before I went on stage, a fifteen-year-old girl and her father visited me in the dressing room. The girl asked if I was legally blind.
“Legally blind?” I said. “No, why would you ask that?”
“Because,” she said. “A long time ago, you told stories at my school with your eyes closed the whole time.”
“I’m not blind,” I told her. “I just get nervous.”
She took my hand and I’ll never forget her words: “You don’t have to be nervous, just don’t freakin’ screw up. Okay?”
Her advice must’ve worked, because I don’t close my eyes anymore. I don’t need to. I’m changing inside. Maybe I’m starting to grow into my paws, like my mother always said I would. Maybe I’m getting older, or more comfortable in my own skin. I don’t know.
What I DO know is that nobody expected much out of me. And I never expected much from myself, either. But here I am, speaking at a small-town banquet, eating smoked pork chops, and I am so grateful it hurts.
I am grateful to be here. I am grateful to tell stories about my culture, my family, and about the words my people say when they hit their thumbs with hammers.
I am grateful for Minnesotans. And for my friends who believed in an underachieving redhead. Above all, I am grateful that I don’t get as nervous as I used to.
The woman at the podium announces my name. People clap.
Wish me luck.
And let’s pray that Aunt Eulah is wearing a girdle tonight.