I took my youth work seriously, but at times, when I stood before an audience as either a storyteller with the Nebraska Arts Council or as an anti-drug crusader, I tried to make light of some of my more tragic experiences by adding a humorous twist to my tales. At times, this worked wonders to warm up an audience, but other times it backfired, badly.
My first speaking engagement was at the Men’s Reformatory when I was just 16. I only knew two songs, and when I finished all 200 inmates gave me a standing ovation. When I meekly explained that I did not have an encore song to perform, one inmate shouted, “Sing them again, Brother Tom!” So I did, leaving that place wondering if it ever got any better than that.
Things did not go as smoothly ten years later when I returned to the Men’s Reformatory. As my band members, Gary Williams and Danny Dakan, and I took to the stage, Gary said, “If a fight breaks out, I am grabbing my Les Paul and heading for the door!” Three songs into our concert, my mustache got stuck in my harmonica holder, so I jerked my head back and saliva flew out of my mouth and landed on an inmate in the front row. He angrily snarled, “Hey, you spit on me!”
Without missing a beat, I made the sign of the cross and said, “Bless you, my son!” The audience roared and the appeased inmate wiped the spit from his cheek, chuckling in good humor. “Good save,” Danny whispered as we both eyed Gary standing there cradling his Les Paul and looking anxiously at the exit door.
Five years later, I spoke for Drug Free Nebraska, opening their conference for teachers from every county in the state. I broke the ice with a joke grenade. I began by telling those 300 teachers, “My band and I were once performing at the Legion Club here in Lincoln. Into our second song, some heavy-set lady stood up from her table and gestured at me, shouting, ‘Sing your heart out, son!’ She then promptly sat back down, took a swig of her beer and toasted me, shouting, ‘That’s my boy! That’s my boy!’
“My band members laughed at this crazy lady, who in her drunken state of confusion, thought I was her son. She pulled a finale for the night, too. As she and the man at her table got up to leave, she called out, ‘Sing your heart out, son! That’s my boy! Don’t be late coming home tonight. Your father and I want to talk to you!’
“We played one more song and took a break. I went up to the bar to get a pop and the bartender rang up my bill. It was for $95.45. I nearly choked on my pop and asked, ‘What is this?’
“The bartender said, ‘The forty-five cents is for your pop, but the $95 is the bill for your mom and dad. She said you would take care of their tab.’
“I tried to explain to him that the lady had obviously pulled a scam by calling me her son. He would not believe me. I was so frustrated, I went to the bathroom, and splashed cold water all over my face, when the door to the bathroom burst open and that lady barged in and started pulling my leg . . . just like I’ve been pulling yours!”
There before the 300 teachers of Drug Free Nebraska I finished my story, waiting for the joke grenade to explode. Five, long seconds of silence passed, then those teachers responded with laughter. It worked! And I went onto to speak, and to eventually close my presentation. As I did, an Afro-American female teacher in the back stood up and shouted, “That’s my boy!”
It brought the house down.
My sixth and last year speaking for this same group a State Trooper introduced me with an opening statement that I thought deserved some explanation. He said, “I have a feeling that this guy and I grew up on different sides of the track . . .”
Oh, I thought, since I was a long-haired guy, while he was a clean-cut fellow, he assumes that we had lived very different past lives. So I opened my presentation with, “It’s ironic that I find myself speaking here tonight, because as kids my friends and I used to come up here on this Ag. Campus and steal eggs out of the chicken coops and egg neckers in the parking lot!”
A strange silence passed through the crowd. I went on to do my show and afterwards three teachers approached me, stern looks on their faces. One of them said, “We need to clarify something. Did you say you used to come up here and egg niggers in the parking lot?”
I gasped, “NECKERS! We would sneak up to Lover’s Lane and lob eggs at couples NECKING! NECKERS are what they were called back in the day! No way did I say the N word!”
Drug Free Nebraska never invited me back.
A short time later, I was called by a Specialist with the Nebraska Arts Council who told me I could no longer use Arts Council funding to address social issues. That was a low blow since I specialized in using “edutainment” to empower kids.
After I received this discouraging phone call, the director of Camp Kitaki, Bob Furman, went before the Arts Council to explain to them how effective my interactive storytelling program had been with 2,000 kids each summer for the past seven years. He tried to convince them how profoundly moronic they were being to cut off such funding when my art impacted so many kids.
However, the Arts Council refused to support me if I continued using my art to address social issues. Most administrators who invited me to their schools, by-passed this new ruling and asked me to continue as I usually did, conveying my anti-drug message through my storytelling.
Word of this infraction got back to the Arts Council, and I was asked to come up to Omaha to be evaluated by a panel. I knew what it was about the moment I hung up the phone. So I went before this panel thinking to win them over. I held up my sword, lit the lighter taped to the hilt, sending flame trickling up the blade. The flame hit the flash packet filled with sparkle addictive on the tip, and Whoosh! magical sparkles drifted through the air.
Smoke from the fiery sword drifted over to one heavy-set lady and she began to gag and cough. Several panel members leaped up from their chairs. One to open a window. One to hand the poor choking lady a Kleenex. And one to get her a glass of water. The 12 panel members in the room offered me such cold, frosty scowls they could have melted the snowballs off of a Snowman!
This ended my career with the Nebraska Arts Council.
However, Camp Kitaki of the YMCA, loved my fiery performances, and each year I enhanced my stories with new and exciting magic. One summer, the pop bottle rocket taped to the end of my sword went off and did not take flight as it was supposed to do. Instead it spun round and shot straight down into the collar of my shirt, exploding with a bang that had the audience on the edge of their seats.
Another time, I used sleight of hand with a lighter and flash paper to create a huge fireball before 200 kids seated at an evening campfire. I used an entire page of the highly flammable stuff, and as dusk settled on the woods, I tossed the fireball into the air. At that point, a dove flew out the shadowy woods and passed completely through my huge fireball! I stood there, gaping up in amazement and the audience gasped in surprise. That poor dove struck three trees on his dazed flight out of there, leaving behind a scattering of blackened feathers.
After campfire ended, director Bob Furman walked up to me shaking his head, saying, “Wow, that fireball was great tonight! But how did you perform that trick with the dove?”
I casually blew on my knuckles and said, “Magic!”
A year later, when invited to become a Guest Artist out at the Regional Center, principal Sandy Delano, urged me to use my magical swords during my performance. She explained that she had received a grant for her middle school students, and all she needed was 10 kids to sign up for my program. So she said, “Really wow them, will you?”
Ten minutes into my story, I raised my sword, flicked the lighter taped to the hilt, and fire trickled up the blade. When it ignited the flash paper on the tip, the sparkle addictive began to crackle. So I gave a quick snap of my wrist, which usually left a scattering of bright sparkles in the air. This time, however, the flash packet flew off of my sword, sailed over my head, and landed directly in the center pocket of the pool table behind me!
Earlier, this kid had stuffed his homework into the very pocket of this table, and when the fiery flash packet connected with the wadded up mass of papers, the whole thing caught fire. It was then that all fifty kids seated in front of me began pointing excitedly at the pool table, and when I turned around to look, a two-foot geyser of flame was rising out of that center pocket! One teacher, Chris Lyford, casually walked over, tipped his can of Mountain Dew into the fiery pocket, and promptly extinguished the fire.
About this time, principal Sandy Delano, appeared in the room, gaping at the scorched table. The kids were wide-eyed with disbelief. The teachers looked to her, gauging her reaction. And I stood there, wondering if I was about to get fired as a Guest Artist. Sandy dramatically placed her hand over her heart and said, “Goodness gracious! Great balls of fire!”
Later, 35 kids signed up to participate in my program, because as they put it, “We want to see what he burns down next!”
I guess the topper of all my blunders on stage took place in an old movie theater down in Falls City, Nebraska. I was speaking to a church youth group down there. I had my guitar depending from my shoulders with a strap, and as I raised my hands in the air and spoke, my guitar slipped off of my shoulders and crashed to the floor and broke. So I started out by saying, “And Jesus said–” and ended by saying, “. . . oh crap!”
And instead of God sending a lightning bolt down there to zap me as I probably deserved, I think he simply shook his head in exasperation, and said, “That’s my boy!”