By Tim Hayes
Seated in a giant semi-circle of metal folding chairs, clad in a starched white dress shirt, black slacks, and clip-on necktie from Sears, I awaited my turn in the citywide spelling bee.
The bee took place in a cavernous auditorium within what had been known as the Buhl Planetarium on the North Side of Pittsburgh. They could not possibly have chosen a more intimidating setting for a bunch of 12-year-old seventh graders – as if the spelling bee weren’t terrifying enough.
For months, my family had endured hours of drills, studying from the workbook, “Words of the Champions.” After school, before leaving for school, after dinner, during dinner, before going to bed, even while in the shower (with the person holding the book just outside the bathroom door), I spelled and spelled and spelled. To the point where I could ace crazy, really long, words like antepenult or staphylococcus or leitmotif.
A veritable spelling machine, I tell you.
So we make it to the actual event. Spellers sat in that huge semi-circle, and looming over – and behind – us, at a raised platform, the host held his cards with words and their definitions. His mellifluous baritone boomed across the tops of our heads, past the full-habit bound, Sound of Music Mother Superior, wire-rimmed glasses, iron-BB daggers for eyeballs nun, and her Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which must have weighed 30 pounds if it weighed an ounce, and into the seated audience of parents, siblings, and wiseacre classmates come to snicker and mock.
Piece of cake. I got this.
My placement came about midway through the sequence of spellers, about 30 in all. I surmised that this first round had been made intentionally easy for everybody. Work the butterflies out. All freebies to open things up. Let everyone get a victory under his or her belt before the tougher words started in Round 2.
Looking into the seats, I spotted my parents, sisters, and one buddy from school. As my turn to step up to the microphone neared, I adjusted the cardboard sign around my neck – “Timmy Hayes” – and steadied myself. Hearing my name announced, I walked up to the mike, tried to ignore Sister Mary Dictionary, seated about 18 inches away. I could smell that musty old Webster’s and feel her congested breathing wafting across my face. What a picnic this was turning out to be.
Suddenly, the thunderous voice behind me rumbled, “Your word is: GOUT.”
“Oh, yeah! Simple! Ha! Watch this!” I said to myself, all anxiety flowing from me in an instant. And in that microscopic, hair-length snippet of time, all those hours of practicing and drilling, all that effort, all that anticipation – went right out the window.
“J-O-U-T!” I declared, shoving my imaginary sword back into its sheath, having slayed the spelling bee dragon with a flourish. Until…
Have you ever heard 300 people go, “Awwwwwwww…” at the same time? I have. Turning on my heel to return to my metal folding chair in the big old semi-circle, I saw the next kid up slowly shaking his head in my direction, as if to silently say, “Tough luck, Dumbbell. How’s it feel to be the FIRST ONE to wipe out?”
After making the Walk of Shame back to my family in the audience, and waiting for 28 other kids to blow it, I had a LOT of time to think things over. My theory is that I’d worked myself into a frothy mix of nerves and fear, so the relief of having such an easy word led to every guard being let down – including the one that knew how to spell GOUT.
Everybody gets them. On the old “Password” TV game show, occasionally the voiceover guy would whisper, “The Password is…CHICKEN.” Then some stupid actor playing the game would look at the clue and say, “Chicken!”
Yep. Brain fart.
There’s a great Twitter feed called “You Had One Job,” that’s built on nothing other than catching people who have succumbed to brain farts. Like the Wal-Mart clerk that put up a sign advertising movies featuring “The Rock,” with a photo of Vin Diesel on it. Or the janitor who placed a bar of soap in a public soap push-dispenser. Or the headline writer at a newspaper who came up with, “China may be using the sea to hide its submarines.”
Brain farts, all.
Sadly, there remains no cure for this affliction. It harbors no prejudices, it respects no borders, income classifications, races, creeds, colors, or national origins. It is an equal opportunity embarrasser. In Washington, DC, for goodness sake, it has reached epic proportions, and seems to get wider and deeper every year. A virtual tsunami of perpetually napping synapses.
So how can we cling to hope? Can this epidemic of cranial cramping, this vortex of the cortex, this dare-we-tell-‘em of the cerebellum, ever be eradicated? Short answer: No. Longer answer: No way.
All we can do, really, is let it happen and realize it for what it is – irrefutable proof that, when clear thinking is most needed, human beings can always be counted on to trip over their frontal lobes and pratfall their way into family and friends’ legend.
J-O-U-T. Forty-five years ago, and I’m still not over it. In the Brain Fart Derby, that moment remains my personal best.
Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes