Billy Pilgrim went on skating, doing tricks in sweatsocks, tricks that most people would consider impossible--making turns, stopping on a dime and so on. The cheering went on, but its tone was altered as the hallucinations gave way to time-travel.
Billy stopped skating, found himself at a lectern in a Chinese restaurant in Ilium, New York, on an early afternoon in the autumn of 1957. He was receiving a standing ovation from the Lions Club. He had just been elected President, and it was necessary that he speak. He was scared stiff, thought a ghastly mistake had been made. All those prosperous, solid men out there would discover now that they had elected a ludicrous waif. They would hear his reedy voice, the one he'd had in the war. He swallowed, knew that all he had for a voice box was a little whistle cut from a willow switch. Worse--he had nothing to say. The crowd quieted down. Everybody was pink and beaming.
Billy opened his mouth, and out came a deep, resonant tone. His voice was a gorgeous instrument. It told jokes which brought down the house. It grew serious, told jokes again, and ended on a note of humility. The explanation of the miracle was this: Billy had taken a course in public speaking.
And then he was back back in the bed of the frozen creek again. Roland Weary was about to beat the living shit out of him.
I understand Billy's fear of public speaking. Even though I have been a professor for over twenty years (teaching since about 1992 or '93), I still get bouts of anxiety before I have to get up in front of a class. Billy, obviously, has taken steps to help him with his stage fright. Voice lessons. Me? I just keep getting up and talking. Sometimes I hit a home run. Other times, I barely make it to first base.
Tonight, I have to watch myself on television. Our local Public TV station is airing the announcement of the next Poet Laureate of the U. P. Like Billy, I don't really care for the sound of my voice. Never have. I don't think it sounds like a little whistle cut from a willow switch. More like a banjo with some strings missing.
As I said last night, I've always had useful terror when it comes to performing (and teaching is, in a way, a performance). I've been in musicals and plays. I've sung solos in church, play in a band. Every Saturday, I sit down at a pipe organ or piano and play for an hour straight. Useful terror always comes into play.
As I watch myself tonight, I will be hyper-critical. Notice all the stumblings and physical tics. I once sat through an entire television interview with my pant leg tucked into my sock. It nearly killed me when the interview aired. I wanted to punch the TV screen. I kept yelling at my image, "Fix your goddam pants!!" Thank God I was sitting at a table for tonight's show, although nobody will be able to see the absolutely fabulous boots I was wearing.
No worries, though. It only lasts a half hour, and there are three other people on the panel. My camera time will be severely limited.
Saint Marty is thankful today for everybody who voted for him for Poet Laureate.