excerpt > Dan McCall > Boy On A Unicycle
The very first round at Roosevelt Junior High in Eugene had only four of us participants—I was in seventh grade and the other three in ninth. I’d never been in a speech contest before, and hardly knew what to expect. We all practiced together after school in the cafeteria.
The day of that first round I ascended to the cafeteria rostrum. It was very strange. My voice surprised me, it was naked, and it bounced over their heads and back from the pale green walls. I was looking at the walls, losing the eye-contact I had practiced in the mirror. I was speaker number three, my only real competition had just finished, and now I was going to show them the magic. But my voice, my voice:
Finally, the pilot of the plane decided to take a thousand-to-one chance of coming down in the rampaging sea to rescue them. But the men on the rafts, seeing the hazard to both man and plane, waved, —and here, my first gesture, both hands held up, shoulder high, palms out—‘Don’t land!’ Hands slowly, not mechanically, back to my sides. The pilot of the plane accepted their decision and flew away. Three days later, after the storm was over, planes re-discovered the rafts. All six men on them were dead.”
My face was itching, everywhere, a fly crawling around on it. My eyes watered. In the audience Mother’s face was reassuring, she was calm now; the frown she’d given me from before was gone. Earlier, when I was sitting in my chair up there on the stage, waiting my turn, and patting my hair into place, Mother’s frown told me that I shouldn’t be doing that while another contestant was speaking.
Nearing the end, the timer in the front row bent over his stop watch and motioned that I had passed the four minute mark—if you came in under four or went over five, you lost points. I finished up at 4:33, ten seconds under my usual practice time.
Later there would be punch and cookies. About thirty people in the junior high cafeteria, teachers and parents and Optimists. The social studies teacher who had coached us for a month was sitting in the front row, arms folded, in a gray suit.
I figured that Wally, the Student Body President, was my real competition; he was so confident. His girl, a cheerleader, sat all dressed up in blue at the exact middle of the room. The third guy was a weird-o (he read comic books in English class and giggled all the time). The fourth boy, Keith, was extremely tall, the starting center on the Roughriders basketball team. He had a strange speech: he actually came to Optimism after the death of his pet dog. [Not me, I’d already had a dog who died on me—Christopher, named after Christopher Columbus, since he was always exploring. Christopher was given to me when I was six, a beautiful Fox Terrier puppy—I’ll never forget when Dad and I brought him home, and Mom came down from upstairs and crouched on the landing with her arms open wide. God, I loved to play with him on the kitchen floor while the folks were doing the dishes. But one day, right in front of my eyes, Christopher ran into the street and got run over by a beer truck. He was my best friend. Dead. Then and there I made a vow: No More Pets. All they do is break your heart.] But here in the Optimist Club’s speech contest, Keith had lost his dog, and the death, well, somehow it gave him… Optimism! No wonder he didn’t stand a chance.
We had to eat the cookies and drink the punch and be polite with everybody and listen to all that “I wouldn’t want to be a judge ha ha you’re all winners” while the three Toastmasters huddled in the back with their ballots. Mother was shining, radiant, and she gave me a wink that said there was no question, and she talked graciously with the other boys.
When the decision was reached we had to go back on the stage. It was pretty terrible, though, because the judges only announced first place (Me), second place (Wally the Student Body President), and third place (the giggle boy)—and Keith the Canine Optimist sitting next to me on the stage let out a groan. It was an awful little moan, all the way up from his huge shoes, and I suddenly stared at him and then away very fast; I had worried all along about beating Wally, but the moan made it clear that Keith never saw anything above third and was counting on it. He didn’t think he would win, but he couldn’t bear being last.
When we got home Mom and I played a little trick on Dad. He hadn’t been able to come because he had to speak somewhere and so we told him Wally had won, it was really a bum decision, and Dad was very disappointed because he was, after all, the Chairman of the Speech Department at the University of Oregon and we had worked together on that speech. But then while Dad sat at the kitchen table, dejection, I went down to the basement and got my suitcase. “Oh, all right, I’ll go to Boise.” That would be in a month, the section finals, four western states and three Canadian provinces.
He jumped up, all right again, looking from mother to me.
We worked together, father and son, every day for the next four weeks on that speech, on the right inflection for every word, the proper speed for every sentence. That first paragraph about the Navy fliers was such a powerful story on its own, the job wasn’t to ham it up. You let tragedy speak for itself. Don’t get excited. Be calm. Be clear. Gestures are crucial, you have to know what to do with your hands. At the beginning, practicing the signal for “Don’t Land,” I got the idea but had trouble doing it, so Dad and I stood facing each other, working it out together. With the simple, grave motion of my hands, I was his mirror image. In May Mother and I took the train to Boise for the sectional finals. All the contestants seemed so much bigger and older than I. The rumor around Convention Center was that the real competition, a boy named Gerry Tester from Vancouver, would take it hands-down, just as he had the previous year. He wasn’t even arriving until dinner time just before the competition on Saturday.
I worried that maybe I was cheating because Dad wrote every word of my speech. This was supposed to be “Original Oratory.” My science teacher at Roosevelt Junior High smelled a rat; he surprised me during a biology quiz. Leaning down at my desk he asked an extra question just for me: spell and define “Thermopylae.” He seemed taken aback when I knew about the unsuccessful Spartan stand. Dad had written all the words, of course, but he explained every one of them to me. And in Boise one kid said that when he gave his speech he used notes—I didn’t know you could do that —and another kid bragged that his “original” oration was written by a professional journalist. As I listened to the other guys, all of whom were bigger and stronger than me, I knew they hadn’t written those words. So I was off the hook. But still, every single word—and how to say every single word—was Dad’s. He was a ventriloquist and I was his dummy.
The other boys didn’t think much of me, but liked me well enough because I was so small and probably no competition. I finally caught sight of Gerry Tester in the hotel: he was very tall and lean and blond, in a glossy suit, and his voice was richly modulated, oratorical, just talking with the Optimists who remembered him from the year before. Besides me, he was the only contestant whose mother came along.
It was a fairly long, narrow stuffy auditorium, packed. People were sitting in windows, all around the floor, and standing in back. We drew for speaking positions and again I was number three:
“In all things,” replied the wise man, “look for that which can neither be bought nor sold —the priceless ingredient.”
“The ‘priceless ingredient?’” said the young man. “How shall I look for it? How shall I recognize it?”
Right arm up, half-extended, not jerky but with conviction, the fist closed, but not too tight, and the index finger pointing:
“The ‘priceless ingredient,’ said the wiseman, “is the integrity of the maker.”
Pause. Quietly, with the index finger extended, the truth: “Look for the integrity of the maker.”
There was no applause allowed, but when I finished and walked on out to the contestants’ room there was considerable murmuring. My spirit sank after Gerry Tester finished: a sharp burst of real, spontaneous applause. The Head Judge warned the audience.
The big kid from Portland was satisfied with third place. Gerry Tester, smiling bravely, was sick with second. The trophy was small but heavy, gold, a man standing with his arm on a tablet where a jeweler could engrave my name. That night in the hotel eight of us played penny-ante poker. Gerry laughed, “Hey, this guy wins everything.” Afterwards I went back up to the room where Mother was waiting, my pockets and hands full of pennies. Mom told me I had to take the money back. I returned to the door of the poker room, but I couldn’t go in and give the guys their pennies back, I just couldn’t. So I took another elevator trip, went into the big speech contest room, it was all dark, I couldn’t find the lights, and I piled all the pennies on the dais. On the train trip home I polished my trophy with Kleenexes, polished it for miles and miles.
While waiting for the National Finals in Louisville in June, a record was mailed to me from national headquarters, a recording of the previous year’s Optimist Oratory Winner. Listening to it, I got my own speech all fouled up. The 1951 winner was a practitioner of old time declamation, fire and brimstone; the most thrilling part of his speech was when he quoted the Dean of some Law School addressing an ill-prepared class in 1942: “Gentlemen, if you let a little thing like a war stop you, you will never become lawyers!!” Those roars and elaborate inflections began to creep into my delivery. I even memorized his first minute (“A century ago, the English statesman Benjamin Disraeli said, ‘The burden of tomorrow’s problems falls upon the youth of today…’”) and I tried to imitate his voice exactly. I boomed “Don’t Land!” in my opening illustration. Mother and Dad kept coming into the study to tell me to stop. I protested that he had won, talking that way. They said that he had won, talking that way, but I wouldn’t. Mom even cried about it—she said I wasn’t “natural” anymore. And Dad disapproved; he was a leading advocate of the “conversational style.” So, before I went to Louisville, they convinced me to go back to my old way. Besides, I couldn’t get near that booming voice—and I could kind of tell that you shouldn’t be so forceful until your voice changed. But it bothered me to hear myself on tape, I sounded so young.
When Mother and I finally got off the plane in Louisville, the temperature and the humidity were both in the nineties, my brown tweed pants were damply digging into my legs, my ears wouldn’t pop and my throat was on fire. Our room in the Henry Clay wasn’t air-conditioned. Mother had room service send up ice cubes, and she put them in a little white towel and held it to my head. My fever was 101; I’d been perfectly okay in Eugene that morning, so maybe I’d picked up a bug in Chicago. And then, after dinner, I got frightened by some drunk Optimists. They came laughing out of the bar, didn’t see me standing there sick, and almost knocked me down. The inebriated. Conventioneers seemed like an omen—I might not even make it past the semi-finals.
At three a.m. I awoke and tried to practice my speech in the bathroom, but my voice was nasal and I threw up during my second illustration. I was drenched with sweat and my legs were rubbery. The only thing that seemed to help was for me to sit in a hot tub, hot as I could stand it. I got a little more practice on my speech, sitting in the steam, ice cubes melting on my forehead. I dried off, got into my pajamas, and a Negro bellhop brought us tea and toast at 6:30; Mother was in the bathroom, and I had to tip him. I gave him a dime. He looked at it, and he looked at me. He said, “Whatever you prefer.” Then he slammed the shit out of the door.
My temperature climbed a degree to a hundred and two. The doctor saw us at 8:30. He was from the North, and talked like us; he gave me a shot of penicillin and swabbed my throat. I still hadn’t met any of the competition, although I had seen several tall good-looking boys walking around the lobby. I had to stay in bed all day, and missed the round-up of boys for the tours of Churchill Downs and the Louisville Slugger plant. The doctor from the North stopped by that evening and stabbed me full of more penicillin. He talked in the hall with Mother. For dinner she had them bring me a steak-burger and green salad and lemonade. I read movie magazines until midnight and slept through until seven.
My white suit was ready when I awoke: white linen, double-breasted, bone buttons, we had had our tailor make it up special in Eugene, my costume for the National Finals: a perfect little gentleman, white threads in the blue grass. I got it on, with exquisite care, Mom timed my speech, 4:43, right on the button, and we went down for breakfast. At last a familiar face: the 13th District Commander, a lean sun-burned redhead from Montana, stopped at our table: “We know you’ll do us proud, Danny.” He’d seen my triumph in Boise.
The Finalists had to sit for a group picture: twenty-seven of us, and some of them were enormous and a few actually smoked. Three of them had been in the previous year’s Championship, and they were smooth, polished, laughing together. There was only one boy as short as I was—he was wearing a red jacket and blue slacks and white shirt and bow tie with white stars on a blue field. Dope. But I was way out of my league, my voice sounded puny next to the big guys’ basso profondos. Tears came to my eyes as I sat smiling for that group picture. Poor little creature, I had no chance at all. It was so obviously unfair. Their big sonorous voices, my little boy’s voice. They were all Goliath—and I was—it suddenly struck me—David. I’m little and all alone, and that’s why you can’t beat me. I am Optimism. I am this country, 13 little colonies that beat the bejeezus out of The British Empire!
Fourteen of us competed in the main ballroom, which wasn’t air-conditioned; the other semi-finals got the dining room at 72 degrees. I drew lucky Speaker #3 —the same position I’d had in Eugene and Boise:
From that opening paragraph on I did it all perfectly, just the way Dad and I had practiced it a thousand times. Dad had taught me how to say all of the words exactly right. But when I finished and walked off the stage, I didn’t feel lucky as I sat there listening to that long parade of tall guys following me. The Ohio boy’s big moment was the vision at the end of his speech: “I see a man, walking by the shore of a Galilean Lake,” and it was very effective. I was angry that Dad and I had neglected to put Jesus in my speech. By the time we had all finished, the afternoon sun was pouring into the room, and people were fanning themselves with programs. Three speakers from each section would be chosen for the Final Round.
When Mom and I called home to Dad that night, I told him that someone had seen the ballots and the rumor was I had the highest score of the three from my section. Dad warned me, “Be careful, son—don’t let your hopes get too high.”
Some of the losers went home, but most of them stayed, and everybody took a long damp tour of Mammoth Cave and My Old Kentucky Home. It was swell, but I was worried about the boy from Glendale, California—he hadn’t been in my semi-finals—the reports said his closing illustration from Abraham Lincoln was championship stuff.
All the contestants were invited to a country club for a swim. Mother told me I shouldn’t go in the water, because of my cold, and I promised her I wouldn’t. The Glendale boy was doing some jackknives off the high board. Mr. Unbeatable. I rented swim trunks in the locker room and climbed the ladder while Glendale stood dripping beside the board. OK. I did a swan with a half-twist so perfectly that I laughed out loud under the water. I hopped out. Now it was my turn to stand dripping beside the board. I looked at Glendale, and he looked at me. We both knew what life was all about.
That night in our room, Mom was panicky: my temperature was 103.
The Finals were at two o’clock. The Crystal Ballroom was packed with over a thousand Optimists and Opti-Mrs. All around the walls hung flags of local clubs, with a huge poster at the front: “OPTIMISM: THE FAITH THAT LEADS TO ACHIEVEMENT.” Mother sat in her lucky green dress, halfway back, under one of the enormous glass chandeliers. There was a podium with a microphone for the men who had conducted the meeting, but the mike was unplugged and the podium was carted away for the finals of the Boys’ Oratorical Contest.
It was all on the line now. My fever relaxed me. On my way to the stage in my freshly pressed white suit, I exchanged greetings with the doctor from the North —he wasn’t an Optimist, of course, he had come to the finals just because I was his patient; he had an umbrella between his legs. It was raining outside, cooling things off at last. In the course of my speech I made my deepest eye-contact with three people: Mom in the middle of a sea of faces, the Northern doctor down front, and way in the back a badly sunburned man with a white crewcut. In conclusion:
There are a half-dozen different ways of saying those two sentences, and Dad and I had tried them all, in his study in Eugene. I liked this part the best: it was like a game-winning basket or a touchdown pass, going through my mind in slow motion. Mother and Dad had bought me a unicycle for my birthday, and I’d learned how to pause and sit rocking in place; now, when I got to Fosdick’s letter to his future wife, I felt somehow mounted, perfect, and the audience could sense it, too. A hush came over them. It broke my heart when I said “as true as though she were already his.”
I had to say those words as if it weren’t practiced and rehearsed. I had to do it as if it were all happening naturally. Dad said the job was “to make the audience a family.” His hazel eyes told me: the way you do it is to go under the words. The words are only a way to get there. When you’re really cooking, when you’ve got it, the words aren’t words anymore. My father said to me, “All words aspire to silence.” Funny thing to say, for a man who teaches you how to talk.
In that final round, that afternoon in Louisville, I did it better than I had in Eugene. Better than in Boise. I was Dan E. McCall, twelve years old, joining my life to a thousand adults in the Crystal Ballroom.
The official rulebook granted maximum points in two categories:
70 points for delivery and poise (the power to thrill and impress)
The boy from Glendale sure did thrill and impress. He took a little walk about half-way through his speech, a couple of steps, steps of conviction. I hadn’t walked at all, I had been rooted to the spot. Listening, watching, I couldn’t tell whether his walk would pay off. I should have walked. Next time I’ll walk. In the middle you take three or four steps, and then turn, one hand casually moving back to the area you have covered. Good move.
There was an intermission. Down front, the judges got together and sat huddled with their ballots. I couldn’t get to Mother through the crowd. I threaded my way out to a drinking fountain on the mezzanine. The boy from Iowa who had lost in the semi-finals grabbed me, smiling, and showed me his unofficial score card: “I have you picked for second,” he said, as if that would encourage me.
Second? Are you kidding? Runner-up? And those Navy pilots—those men on the rubber rafts in zero weather—is self-sacrifice an also-ran?
I strolled around on the thick green carpet. If people thought I had won, they smiled at me; if they thought I hadn’t, they looked away. I pretended to be lost in thought. I was the boy in the white suit.
Finally, the announcement was made by a bald man from Los Angeles, the Retiring President who had warned the general session about “the subversive elements desperately eager to capture the mind and hearts of our young people.” The kid from Utica, New York got third. I hadn’t expected that; he wore thick rimless glasses, a kind of bookish boy. But that was okay, come to think of it, that was a good third. I sat there, staring at my hands, my fingers, the delicate blue veins of my wrist. Was I going to win this thing or not? Mom and Dad had worked so hard, and I had too. Oh, this was too much for me, it hurt—I was being changed—I couldn’t take it—I couldn’t. I prayed, Oh God, dearest Father, please give me this, and I’ll never bother you again.
It was June 28, 1952. My father’s 46th birthday.
The bald man toyed, or seemed to toy, with the scorecards in his hand. “Let’s see here, our second place winner, the runner-up today is…” He peered at the cards, pretending to be confused, “The winner of second place is. . .”
I sat there promising God everything I owed him, everything I ever would, a whole lifetime of service.
“Yes, from my own home state of California. . ."
Glendale was second! I burst forward, my eyes swimming up to the crystal chandeliers and going crazy in their brilliant white radiance. I didn’t need God the Father anymore, I had my own father, Dad. Outside it had stopped raining. The air suddenly felt fresh. I glanced at the Texas boy, the lip-nibbling dude who after all still thought maybe he could be the champion. People around me weren’t crushing me or slapping me on the shoulder yet. They didn’t know. They should have. I certainly did.
Then, in a huge hush: “Our National Champion for 1952—Dan E. McCall.”
Applause!, wonderful, gorgeous applause—big billowy waves of it—a thousand people deeply, rhythmically clapping and whistling and lifting. The doctor from the North was standing up holding aloft his umbrella and tapping the air. A man was leading Mother up to the stage, Mother in her lucky green dress.
Next morning our mailbox at the Henry Clay reception desk was stuffed with a dozen telegrams. People in Eugene said they were “bursting with pride.” Then Mom and I were on our way home. At the layover in Chicago we ate turkey sandwiches in the Sky Room, and she said with a mischievous wink, “You’re not a boy anymore—you’re a National Champion.” I didn’t know what to say. I’d never been a boy, actually.
In the gift shop I scanned the paperback books. Back in Eugene, Willy Black, throwing rocks at his Dalmatian puppy, had told me about I, the Jury. Now, in O’Hare airport, while Mom was occupied, I bought the dirty book. In our plane winging westward I read some of the juicy parts, especially that last page. Wow. I took off my shoes and stretched out. I still had a little fever; totally exhausted, I fell asleep. But in my sleep, gradually, I felt something fantastic, something completely new and crazy and frightening, the seat-belt across my lap rubbing against me, everything getting all hot and weird, painful and joyful, both at the same time, and then—then—I bolted awake. At first I didn’t know what had happened or where I was. I looked down at Mom’s hand, on my hand, on the arm-rest. The flashy jeweled ring on her finger. Mom was sleeping, or pretending to sleep.
Very quietly I sat up. I tip-toed in my stocking feet down the aisle into the lavatory. In there I inspected, and wiped the sticky stuff off my belly with toilet paper.
In my socks I came back down the aisle and lowered myself back into the seat beside Mom who was still sleeping, I guess—I guess she was sleeping. I sat there—Was this what a National Champion feels like? Was what just happened the real prize? My face felt different. My shoulders felt different. I was another person.
Jesus, was Mom really asleep?
At the Eugene airport a gray sky was full of rain, but when Mother and I stepped off the plane, cheers went up. A big line of cars had “DANNY” and “WINNER” and “CHAMP” poster-paint signs on the doors. Some Roosevelt kids were there, and we had a parade down Willamette, cops on motorcycles with their sirens going, and a reception in the Roosevelt cafeteria. Dad had a camera, making a home movie of it. But Dad hardly looked me in the eye, almost as if he were embarrassed. He couldn’t seem to get into the spirit of the occasion. Wasn’t this Roy C. McCall’s triumph? Ever since I’d got off the plane I had been waiting for him to hug me or kiss me. But he didn’t.
All the girls made a big fuss over David. Marjorie Caulkins came up and hugged me and told me my little brother was “a living doll.” And he was. He was sweet, he was instinctively nice, not like me. You could see it in his clear, beautiful eyes. Pissed me off.
The next day, in the newspaper:
Sunday, June 29, 1952, front page:
A kid with a sore throat Saturday won the Optimist International oratorical finals at the service organization’s national competition in Louisville, KY. It was his first venture of that kind, but 12-year-old Danny McCall came away with a $1,000 college scholarship. Son of the chairman of the University of Oregon speech department, Danny bested a big field of contestants, ranging up to 17 years old, with his five-minute oration on ‘Optimism for Courageous Living.’
The first thing Danny will want to do, his Dad opined, will be to go swimming.
On their return to Eugene Danny is to be met by a big parade arranged by the Optimists and Danny is to be installed as the nation’s champion in big ceremonies.
The following year I was nominated for President of the Roosevelt Junior High School Student Body. I made my campaign posters myself with colored pencils. The other candidate, Bobby Overstreet, had poster parties, a dozen kids painting together, using bright rich paints on huge posters that they put up on the pale green walls above the lockers. But I did mine all by myself in my room, busy as a bee, listening to the radio.
At school I put up my posters:
After I lost, I talked it over with Walter Osborn, shooting hoops in the rain in my driveway. Walter said I shouldn’t have put “National Champion” on my posters. A lot of the kids had thought that was braggy.
It clicked in my head—oh, of course—other people can call you a National Champion, but you yourself can’t say that’s who you are. How could I have been so dumb? Walter had been on the committee that counted the ballots, and he said I lost by a mile. It wasn’t even close. Bobby Overstreet won in a landslide. I couldn’t figure out why Walter had to emphasize how badly I’d gotten beat. Then he smiled kind of sadly and said he had to go home, he wasn’t supposed to “play” with me. Walter said, with a sick grin on his face, “My Dad says you’re ‘a precocious little shit.’”
That hurt. Sure, I knew I was precocious—but I also knew I was a little shit.
Alone, I shot lay-ups and played ‘Horse’ against myself in the rain. I rode my unicycle, a present for my birthday, up and down the alley. Bobby Overstreet gave a dumb speech. God, it was dumb. But the kids liked it. Kids don’t care what you say.
I pedaled out into the street in the rain.
I pedaled over to the U. of O. I didn’t want to be who I was. I mean, who people thought Dan E. McCall was. On the little bike-path through the cemetery opposite McArthur Court I was getting drenched, but I liked it. I thought of the umbrella the Northern doctor in Louisville had held up when I won. I made my way on the winding path among the tombstones. What was wrong with me? The kids laughed at my campaign speech. Damn it! The kids laughed at my salutation: “Fellow students—” Mom said they were just jealous. Mom always said that. It wasn’t true. But who cared, anyway? Mom and Dad truly loved me. I wondered, though, would they love me if I hadn’t won? Would my parents still have loved me if Dan E. McCall was a loser? Did anybody love you just for who you were, when you weren’t performing? I wanted to be loved because I was nobody.
I pedaled out into the wet gravel roadway. A blonde college girl was walking along in a hurry, probably taking a short-cut to class. I got so lost in her that I failed to mind my own business. The uni got away from me and I fell off backwards down onto the muddy gravel. The girl turned, stared at me, and suddenly burst out laughing. I sat there in the mud. In the graveyard. Then I picked myself up and went over beside the huge oak tree to steady myself while I got back up on my unicycle. That beautiful girl was laughing at me. Well, everybody was. Everybody. I wasn’t a National Champion, I was a Precocious Little Shit.
I looked at my muddy hand on the soaking tree, my fingers digging into the wet bark. The whole world was silent, except for the deliberate sound of the heavy raindrops on the big leaves of the somber trees. I mounted up. And Dan E. McCall slowly rode his unicycle back into the audience of wet tombstones. . .
Dan McCall (1940-2012) was the critically-acclaimed author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including Beecher (Dutton Books), Triphammer (Atlantic Monthly Press), and The Example of Richard Wright (Harcourt Brace). Dan was also a Professor of Creative Writing and American Studies at Cornell University for forty years. His novel Jack the Bear (Doubleday),translated into a dozen languages, was made into a 20th Century Fox feature film. Learn more about Boy On A Unicycle.
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