Panama Part 2
Home Up Panama Part 3

Story of the Panama Trip 1 Story of the Panama Trip 2 Story of the Panama Trip 3
Background on the Panama Canal 1 Background on the Panama Canal 2 Panama Canal Quiz

Story of the 2012 Panama Canal Trip, Part Two

Written by Rick Archer
February 2012



Rick's Note:  The first week of our trip had been delicious fun.  We were enjoying teaching our dance classes during our five days at sea and Costa Rica had been a marvelous experience.

Better yet, we had the amazing Panama Canal to look forward to.

The Panama Canal has been described as "the greatest liberty man has ever taken with nature". 

Well, those "liberties" were worth it.

Just one look at the map makes it obvious what an incredible gift the Canal has been to the people of the world.  

Another great joy of this trip was the chance to renew my friendship with Polly and Shari Clark.  Polly was a second mother to me when I was growing up.  Polly and her husband Allen played a key role in helping me keep my sanity during my troubled youth.  I became a fourth child of sorts.

Allen and Polly had three children.  Along with Margaret and Jim, Shari was the oldest.



Polly and Shari

Polly was a second mother to me when I was growing up and Shari was the sister that I loved to terrorize.

I was an "only child" and I was also an extremely lonely child.  After my parent's divorce when I was 9, my father pretty much abandoned me.  Meanwhile my mother spend most of her free time looking for love in all the wrong places.

I was left alone a great deal of the time.  I had my books and my dog Terry. It was me against the world for a long stretch there.

Polly and Allen were members of the Quaker Meeting here in Houston.

My mother, also a Quaker, took me to Quaker Meeting on a regular basis. 

These Sunday visits were the highlight of my week.  Not only did I get to hang out with a few kids my age in our Sunday School class, but the once-a-month Potluck Dinners were my most anticipated events of each month.  Yum!

Polly is a born "Mom".  She could immediately see the effects of the divorce on me.  I was intensely lonely.  It broke her heart to see me suffering like that. 

The summer following my parents' divorce, Polly talked Allen into taking me along with them on a summer camping trip through Colorado.  It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me.  I cannot begin to say how much I appreciated their kindness. 

I was a very neglected kid who was steadily retreating deeper and deeper into an inner world.  This was my way of coping with my loneliness and low self-esteem.  Out of nowhere these two kind people stepped up to make a huge difference in my life.

Their profound acts of kindness... it takes a village to raise a child... provided just enough sanctuary to keep me from turning anti-social.  To say I owe a debt to Polly and Allen is a vast understatement.

Last Fall, Shari invited me to Polly's 80th birthday party back in September 2011. I was delighted to renew my friendship with this family that had been so important to me for so many years.

I had not seen Shari in ages, so I did a double-take when I realized how attractive she is.  Gee, my kid sister has grown up!  Even better, Shari had become a devoted daughter to Polly.  I could not have been more proud of Shari.

Shari is about 14 years younger than me.  Back when she was growing up, I used to make Shari miserable.  I teased her mercilessly and chased her around the house.  Once I kept her trapped in the bathroom for four hours. 

Fortunately the kids liked me. They called me the "Terrifying Python" due to my constant reign of terror.  Why they liked me I will never know.  It was all  supposed to be in fun, but there was a element of meanness in some of the things I did.  I loved all three of them, but I was an angry kid who didn't always understand that I was playing too rough.

Let's face it, I wasn't always the nicest kid growing up.  I would play Risk with Shari, Margaret, and Jimmie whenever I came to visit.  I almost always won. The thought of losing was more than I could possibly bear. 

I could have been a little nicer and played Big Brother to these kids, but my own needs came first. I would do anything to win in my constant desire to feel superior.  Why Polly put up with me being around the house is a miracle.  If forced to guess, I think Polly knew that basically I was a pretty decent kid underneath my rough edges.

Perhaps the greatest favor that Allen and Polly ever extended to me was allowing me to remain a blob on their sofa for an entire month.  Their kindness helped me recover from the toughest blow I ever received - getting thrown out of Graduate School

I was always a good student.  My grades were good enough to earn me scholarships to Saint John's, a private school here in Houston, Johns Hopkins, a well-regarded university on the East Coast, and Colorado State University.  It was at CSU that I met my Waterloo.

My grades were good at Colorado State.  Academics were always my strength.  I was getting my masters degree in Clinical Psychology with the goal of becoming a therapist. 

However, it isn't enough to be smart when it comes to healing people.  They took one look at my aggressive, self-centered personality and concluded I was not cut out to be therapist.  I had far too many problems of my own for them to take a chance on me. 

They used a simple trick to get rid of me.  They gave me a "D" in a class called "Interviewing".  There were no tests.  I would have aced those.  Instead the grade was based on the professor's subjective assessment of my skills.  Here my personality flaws destroyed me.  I argued in class with the professor on anything I disagreed with.  I bristled when he criticized me for my short-comings.  Over time I became defensive, withdrawn and sullen.  In short, all the character flaws I had acquired during my troubled childhood were exposed. 

Looking back, my dismissal was a real break for me.  Not only did this reversal of fortune force me to seek therapy to work on some of those anger issues, it paved the way for my teaching career.  However, I could not see the silver lining at the time.  I was devastated.

Limping back to Houston feeling completely defeated, I asked Polly if I could stay with the family for a while till I got back on my feet (the thought of staying with my own mother never even crossed my mind).

Without hesitation, Polly said of course.  She said there was one problem - there were no spare rooms in the house.  If I didn't mind sleeping on the living room couch, I was welcome to stay with them.  I didn't mind at all.  The living room was off the beaten path in their house... the den provided the real living area.  I had the room to myself.

So that's where my healing process began.  I was in a state of total despair.  I felt like the biggest failure that had ever walked the earth.  I had no idea what to do next. 

I was Blob that came to visit. I just laid on that couch all day long throwing a baseball in the air and catching it when it came down. My therapy consisted of feeling sorry for myself for hours at a time. This went on for an entire month (June 1974).

The only signs of life came in the evening. Allen and Polly lived next door to the Jewish Community Center on Braeswood.  Every night I would go over there to play basketball or volleyball.  This nightly athletic ritual became the outlet for the incredible anger that raged through my soul.   I may have been a giant catatonic lump during the day, but I became the Incredible Hulk at night.  Because I was angry at the world, I played tough defense and bullied my way around the basket. 

Mysteriously, one day at the end of the month, my life spirit kicked back in.  One morning on a whim I looked at the wants ad in the paper.  I went out and applied for a job as a social worker.  When I got that job, I went ahead and found an apartment.  Within a span of four days, poof, I was gone. 

Not once did Polly criticize me, try to console me, ask me for rent, or give me chores to do.  Polly just let me do whatever I wanted.  And it worked.  Is that incredible or what?

Polly had no idea I would suddenly heal, but she had faith in me.  That's all I needed.  I cannot begin to say how much I appreciated her love.

Slowly but surely the pain of my Graduate School failure receded. I was finally ready to move on with my life.  One month after I moved out, I took my first dance lesson.

Shari is a born traveler.  She has seen more interesting places than anyone I know.  Shortly after graduation from the University of Houston, a friend told Shari there was an upcoming interview for potential airline stewardesses.

Shari could not have cared less, but she needed a job so she went out of curiosity.  Her friend desperately wanted this job, but Shari, the one who didn't care, got the job instead.

Twenty-five or so years later, Shari still has that job.  Based in Honolulu, Shari has seen practically every interesting spot the world has to offer.  Except for one place - Shari had never been to the Panama Canal.  

During Polly's 80th Birthday Party, Shari quizzed me several times about the trip.  Knowing that cruise ships are quite accommodating towards senior citizens, Shari figured her mother could handle this trip just fine. 

After taking her mother on a trip to Argentina as a test run, Shari decided to give the Panama Cruise Trip to Polly as a Christmas present.  It was great having them along.  Marla and I shared many wonderful dinners with Shari and Polly.

The Poster Story

There is an odd story behind this poster (see above).  Every day as I passed by the photography area of the ship on my way to dance class, I would see people designing posters.  I had no idea what they were doing until one day I saw Shari down on the floor furiously working on a poster of her own.  When I stopped to ask her what she was doing, Shari explained to me what was going on.

There was a ship-sponsored competition to make posters for the Panama Canal.  The idea was to stand on your balcony as we passed through the canal locks so the videographers could take pictures of the people displaying their posters.  Not only would there be prizes for the best posters, all participants would appear on the final DVD of the trip.

I was interested in what Shari was doing, so I sat down for a moment and watched. At the time, Shari was busy cutting out the ocean.

Shari had graduated with a minor in art in college.  She must have learned something because she knew all sorts of tricks.  Shari had seen the ocean design in her hallway carpet.  Using her camera, she took a picture and somehow managed to trace out the high seas depicted by the wave design.  Very clever!

For some reason, Shari found it easier to spread out and do her work on the floor of the hallway instead of using the tables provided like everyone else.  On those tables, the ship had furnished various colors of paper, rulers, scissors, paste and any other art supplies that might come in handy.  As I studied the different people engrossed in the poster competition, I could see this was an ingenious way to give the passengers something fun to do during our many hours at sea.  I was impressed. What a great idea!


After dance class was over, the plan was for me to meet Shari at the poster area and go to lunch. Shari was just finishing her "blue waves" when I walked up. Shari got up off the floor and went to get her dolphins

To her dismay, the dolphins were gone.  Shari was perplexed.  The dolphins had been there just minutes before.  As Shari searched the area, she found both dolphins partly concealed under another woman's poster.

"Hey, those are my dolphins!" exclaimed Shari. 

Far from contrite, the woman responded, "Well, you shouldn't leave them laying around.  I figured someone had left them behind and didn't want them anymore."

"But my purse and my camera were sitting right beside my work.  And I was just five feet away sitting on the floor."

The woman said, "Well, okay, but can I have them anyway?"

My mouth dropped open and I stared incredulously.  Did this insensitive b---h really just say what I thought she said?  

'Can I have your dolphins?

I was livid.  Who did this woman think she was to be talking like that?  And right in front of witnesses no less.  Polly was standing there watching and so was I.   This was the worst case of thoughtless arrogance I could remember. The woman was shameless.  She had just been caught stealing another passenger's work red-handed and now she was asking permission to keep it.

I had watched Shari spend 20 minutes working on her waves.  That was enough for me to realize the amount of time involved in this project.  And what about Shari's creativity in making the two excellent dolphin cut-outs?  Now this woman wondered aloud if Shari would sacrifice all that hard work and just hand over her dolphins because she was too damn lazy and too uncreative to do it herself.  Unbelievable.

Despite my anger, I kept my mouth shut and just stood there watching.

Unfortunately, Shari was so taken aback by the woman's audacity that she was speechless.  Her instincts were correct... 'no, you can't have my dolphins!!!!', but I think her airline attendant training kicked in.  Shari's basic sense of decency forced her to get her temper under control before responding.

Just when Shari was about to speak, Polly spoke up with a compromise. "Shari, why not let the lady have your original tracing of the dolphin?  She can create her own dolphin from that outline."

Shari was completely taken off guard by her mother's comment.  Shari didn't want to give the thief a damn thing, but her mother's intervention flustered her.  As Shari thought about it, this seemed like a reasonable way out of the awkward situation.  So Shari handed over the trace in return for getting her two dolphins back.

Personally, I was outraged.  The woman didn't apologize, she didn't thank Shari for the trace, and she acted like the whole problem was Shari's fault for leaving her work unguarded.  Some people just really don't get it, do they?

This was the single worst example of rudeness I had personally witnessed in a long time.  However, as it turned out, this was just the tip of the iceberg.  As I discussed this incident with some of the other passengers, I heard several appalling stories of rudeness aboard this ship.  

Marla was constantly getting pushed around in the buffet line by people cutting in, but her problems were nothing compared to one ugly story I heard. 

One of my dance students relayed this story.  In the buffet area, a huge man barged through three people already waiting in line to demand an omelet be cooked for him instantly. 

When he didn't get his way, the huge man began to berate the poor Filipino cook.  Then he started barking towards my dance student friend who came to the cook's defense.  The passenger was outweighed by 100 pounds, but he didn't back down.  Instead he pointed out what a bully the man was.  He said, "You can't just barge in here and push other passengers out of the way.  We have just as much right to be here as you.  Go learn some manners!"    Good for him!

The buffet confrontation and the poster theft were dramatic examples of the rudeness, but there were all sorts of small, unnecessary moments as well.

Once when I was trying to get off the elevator, I got jostled by people who wouldn't let me off.  Apparently as I prepared to drag my 45 pound boom box on wheels out the door, I didn't move fast enough.  Five people got on board before I had a chance to depart.  These were adults.  Didn't anyone ever explain to them that common courtesy (and practical sense) says to let people out of the elevator before entering?   Now I had to ask them to please step aside so I could get off.  Not one person apologized.  If anything, they glared at me for inconveniencing them.

Rick Has a Run-In

Shari, Marla, and the dance student weren't the only ones who encountered poor manners.  I was called an "A-hole" by one of the ship's personnel. 

After dance class, I took the elevator down to the crew level to take my big amplifier back to the Hovel.  I had brought that amplifier on the trip because the ship's pathetic music equipment had been inadequate on my previous two trips.  I found it very difficult to teach because the volume was too weak or the over-used boom boxes would skip while playing my CDs.

It was a real pain to lug this amp all the way from Houston.  It was also a hassle carrying it back and forth to class every day.  However, I think it was worth it.  I did it because I wanted my classes to be a success. My work paid off.  The music situation was perfect for every class.

One day after class, one of my dance students rode down to the crew level with me to talk.  As the door opened, an attractive dark-haired Hispanic woman was crossing in front of us.  I commented to my friend, "I will meet you upstairs in a minute, but first I am going to follow this pretty lady." 

All I meant by my silly utterance was I would be following her to the metal door that led to the crew hallway.  That long hallway was how I got to my room.  I certainly did not say it to be offensive.  I just said the first thing that popped into my head as the elevator door opened... she was indeed pretty and I was going to follow her because she was heading where I wanted to go.  I meant no harm.

The lady was dressed in a white outfit.  That meant she was either a person with rank or a security officer.  However I didn't really give it any thought.  I just pulled the amplifier on its wheels out of the elevator and fell in right behind her.

I do not think what I said was offensive. Perhaps she thought I was making a pass at her, but I wasn't.  I was simply trying to be friendly and give a young, attractive woman a small compliment.  In retrospect, maybe she misunderstood what I had said.

We traveled ten feet before the woman stopped and opened the heavy metal door which led to the main hallway (see picture).  Then she just stood there.  I had no idea why she stopped, but I didn't care.  I was tired and wanted to get to my room.  So I kept on going right through the open door lugging the heavy amplifier behind me, passing her in the process.  In essence she had opened the door for me.  How convenient!  Then I stepped into the long corridor.

The woman had only gotten a fleeting glance at me.  This is just a guess, but I think she stopped at the hallway door because she realized I wasn't crew and therefore had no business heading for that door.

As always, I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I was wearing dress pants and a dress shirt for dance class.  Every other person on this level was a crew person dressed for their job just like she was.

I think she was doubly surprised when I walked right past.  I guess she expected me to stop.  Heck, that amplifier was heavy.  I wanted to take advantage of the open door.

I headed right through a door that said "No admittance, Crew Only" without hesitation.  Perhaps my boldness upset her.  From my point of view, I had every right to do so, but from her point of view, maybe she decided I was an intruder.

I was already 20 feet ahead of the woman when I first heard her bark, "Sir, you are in the wrong area.  Stop immediately."

Actually, she was wrong.  I wasn't in the wrong area.  But I didn't feel like wasting my time to discuss her mistake.  Furthermore, I figured if I kept going, she would realize where I was headed and give it a rest.

It was tone of voice and the military style that had irritated me.  I don't take orders well, especially in the mood I was in.  I had just finished teaching for an hour and a half (I had held a Gypsy Dance Class to extend the time) and I needed to use the restroom. 

However, the bottom line was that I was sick and tired of being pushed around by certain people on this ship who showed no respect to Marla and me.

We had paid for a decent cabin; it wasn't my fault we were stuck in the Hovel.  Furthermore, for the past six days, I had patiently explained to everyone down here who asked that we were down here because this is where our cabin was located.  The difference between those people and this woman was that every one of those people had addressed me politely.

All this woman had to do was be polite and I would explained for the 20th time what I was doing down here. 

She was 20 feet behind me and yelling at me.  I am not a criminal, so why treat me like one?  The correct thing for her to do is to walk up to me and make eye contact like everyone else.  All she had to do was smile and explain this area was for crew only.  But she didn't do that.  Instead this woman preferred to use her authority.

I kept on walking.  Stunned at my disobedience, she raised her voice. "I told you to stop!  You have no business being down here."  As before, she was speaking to my back, not to my face.  Again I gave no sign that I had heard her.  I just kept going. 

I turned and opened the door to the little hallway that led to our room.  The hall was so narrow that I had trouble dragging the amplifier with me.  Just as I reached my door, the woman threw open the door at the other end.

"What are you doing in here?  Why did you not respond to my directions?"

I turned and said with a smile, "I'm sorry, were you speaking to me?  I don't hear very well."  And with that I opened my door.

Her face turned crimson.  I think when my door opened she finally figured it out.  She screamed, "You're an A-hole!!", slammed the hall door and left.

When I told Marla this story, she was immediately suspicious.  "What did you do or say that you aren't telling me?"

I said to Marla, "I don't appreciate being yelled at when I have done nothing wrong.  I have the right to expect to be treated with courtesy.  This woman was guilty of serious over-reaction.  It never even dawned on her that I had a right to be here.  That said, I said and did nothing to provoke her other than to walk to my cabin without stopping. I don't think that gives her the right to use profanity."

Happy Ending

Getting back to the Poster story, I could tell that Shari was upset. 

She didn't lose her temper and she didn't lose her poise.  However, like me, she didn't appreciate being pushed around.

I guess Shari and I have that in common.  And, judging from some of Marla's choice comments about the Hovel, she doesn't like getting pushed around either.

For that matter, I don't think anyone appreciates being pushed around.

As we ate lunch together, Shari kept talking over and over about that woman's rudeness.

Both Marla and I both felt sympathy.  Marla said, "Would you like me to help?  I am pretty good at arts and craft." 

I could not have been more proud of Marla's thoughtfulness. Shari immediately cheered up. So that evening Marla and I went to their cabin to help Shari with her poster. 

That is Marla's jaguar in the tree and that is my cruise ship and sun on the right. So as you can see, Marla and I were able to help a little.

By the way, that python in the tree is Shari's sense of humor expressing itself. "Terrifying Python" was always my nickname. I could not help but smile.  

By the way, Shari's poster won first place.  There is some justice in the world after all.  I could not possibly have been more proud of my kid sister. 

Here Comes the Judge

One of the interesting features of the trip was getting to meet the other guests.  Normally Marla and I sit with our guests from Houston on our cruise trips, but this was a different kind of trip.

Thanks to our strange "crew status", we were not allowed to have an assigned table.  So we simply showed up late for dinner every night when most of the guests were already served.  On the nights when we didn't eat with Polly and Shari, we were put with some of the other passengers.  The faces changed every night, but we invariably met an interesting group of people.

I got involved in all sorts of unusual conversations.  Probably my favorite conversation of the two week period was with a semi-retired judge named John from the Bay Area. 

From the moment I sat down John was orchestrating the conversation.  As the waiter placed me next to him, I could tell he was studying me quizzically.  He looked at me and said, "I see you are a southpaw."

I answered, "Yes, I am definitely left-handed."

He replied, "I know lots of southpaws.  Southpaws are frequently among the most creative people in our population.  Many of our free thinkers are left-handed. If you watch TV and movies, you will be astonished at the high percentage of southpaws."

I smiled and said perhaps immodestly, "I have always wanted to believe that I am creative."

John smiled. "In my role as a judge, I have also found that left-handers form an unusually high percentage of deviants and sex offenders. Which category do you fall into?"  Then he grinned and waited for me to respond.

Slightly red-faced, I replied, "Uh, well, I wouldn't know about that."  Ouch. I realized he had played this game before.  I had just fallen into his trap.

At this point, John was delighted at finding a new victim.  He began to toy with me the same way I sometimes toy with my students in dance class.  He had clearly established he had the upper hand, even if it was just in fun.

"So, Rick, do you know where the term 'southpaw' comes from?"

Once bitten, twice shy, I warily responded, "Well, I think it is primarily a baseball term."

"Excellent!  How right you are.  Now tell me where the term came from."

I decided it was better to fold my cards now, so I gave in. "I don't know."

John replied, "Back in the days before lights made night baseball more popular, stadiums were always built with home plate facing east.  This allowed the batter to face the pitcher with the sun behind him in the afternoon.  As a result, any left-handed pitcher threw from the 'south', or first base, side of the diamond.  So they became known as southpaws."

I had grown up as a big baseball fan, but I had never heard that one before.  When I returned to Houston, I looked it up.

Southpaw: [from paw (in the sense: hand): originally a term applied to a left-handed baseball player: perhaps so called because baseball pitchers traditionally face west, so that a left-handed pitcher would throw with the hand on the south side of his body]

At this point, it was John 2, Rick 0.  I decided it was time to fight back.  After he spoke a little about being a judge, he asked what I did for a living.  I grinned and replied, "I have a non-traditional profession that is well off the beaten path.  Why don't you try to guess it?"

John was absolutely delighted.  He could barely contain himself at having been given so delicious a challenge.  I got the impression that this guy is so imposing due to his knowledge and his career spent being in charge that no one ever bothers to play with him anymore.  So he immediately picked up the gauntlet and began to guess. 

John first guess was that I was an international arms dealer. I stared at him in confusion.  Where did that come from?  He really knew how to catch people off guard, that's for sure.  John's friends were grinning.  They knew he had just caught a live one.

Now that John had set the line of initial questioning, his cronies followed his lead.  They had fun pretending I was a shady character. I think they have seen too many spy movies, because they were convinced I was CIA or DEA. 

John announced he was sure he had it.  He asked if I was in Witness Protection for ratting on a left-handed deviant sex ring.  Thanks, John.  He had a very interesting way of making feel off balance. 

For a moment the guesses turned more serous.  Sales positions.  Nope.  Computers.  Nope.  Then I worked in the Bush Administration because I was from Texas.  Nope.  Then I was a former operative for the FBI investigating a Panama-based drug cartel.  I suppose I should have been happy they didn't accuse me of actually working for the cartel itself.

At this point, every new suggestion was making things worse.  At this point, my smart mouth kicked in.  "I'll give you a hint.  I have made a career out of making women happy."

I thought I was being clever, but this was a real mistake, especially with this crowd.  The next suggestion was that I was in the porn industry or even better, a gigolo.  I was really beginning to regret playing this game, especially when Marla burst out laughing at the gigolo suggestion.  At this point, I became a Chippendale dancer for a woman's club.  Marla liked that one too and giggled.  They really jumped on that one.  I can't even print the next few suggestions.  I was amazed at how my simple little game had backfired so badly.  When will I learn to keep my mouth shut?

Finally a lady from Vancouver got it after Marla let some things slip after the Chippendale suggestion.  They were all amazed at how well I had stumped them.  I cynically concluded the thought that a person with an education would become a dance teacher was just too far-fetched.

John asked me why I became a dance teacher and I answered him truthfully.  "I did it to meet girls since I didn't have a personality."

John loved that one.  The master BSer had met a kindred spirit.  John immediately flipped it.  John boasted he had been never found it necessary to learn to dance since he was such a good talker.  Why waste energy dancing when all you need is a good line of BS?  All he had to do to get a conversation going with a woman was to announce he was a "psychiatric gynecologist". 

John added that was the most surefire pickup line he had ever used.  Most women either walked away or ignored what he had just said.  However, if they began to ask questions, they were doomed.  Their fatal curiosity opened the door.

I added that if the woman was left-handed, he probably had some variations on that theme too.

John looked at me in amazement. "How did you know?"

"Lucky guess." 

At this point, John got serious.  Speaking of dance, he asked if I was familiar with Arthur Murray dance studios.  He said he had presided over a law suit involving Arthur Murray.  Apparently some people had signed an expensive contract for multiple dance lessons, then changed their mind.  They wanted at least some of their money back.  They filed suit after their refund request was refused. 

Apparently the legislature passed some law that sabotaged Arthur Murray's position. John shook his head in disgust.   Why do they always baby the consumers? A contract is a contract.  He concluded that California is a very difficult place to do business in. 

I smiled. I asked him how he ever became such a successful judge speaking so candidly.  He shook his head grimly. "Now that's a good question, my friend.  By the way, do you know what the phrase 'earn the nut' means?" 

Uh oh.  Here we go again.  I quickly admitted my ignorance.

He said it was a term from the days when barnstormers would come to town.  Frequently they would say they didn't have enough money to pay the appearance fee, but if they could just work for a couple days, they would share the profits.  After a few people left in the dark of night without paying, authorities learn to take a nut off of the wagon wheel.  They weren't going anywhere now. 

"To earn the nut" became a phrase meaning you have to pay your overhead to stay in business.  Referring again to how legislation had made it tough for Arthur Murray to stay in business, John concluded many of California's anti-business laws made it very tough to pay the rent... or "earn the nut" if you prefer.  (By the way, I looked it up and John was right on the money with "earn the nut".)

At this point, John chided me for deliberately misleading him on my "What's My Line?" game.  He said I had deliberately thrown him off the track by suggesting I was in the business of pleasing women.

I pleaded the Fifth.

John said there is a term for that.  It is known as a "red herring".  Did I by chance know the meaning of this phrase? 

I said it was probably a psychiatric vaginal disorder.  That got a good laugh.  John frowned.  It was more fun when he told the jokes. 

Seeing his disapproval, I quickly added that a red herring was a device used in crime novels to throw the detectives off the trail. 

John exclaimed, "Very good.  Now, tell me where it comes from."   I said I didn't know, but I would love to learn.

John said that herrings were used two hundred years ago by animal rights activists in England who disapproved of fox hunting.  Whenever the activists learned of a hunt, they would strew smelly fish all over the forest to distract the hounds from the faint scent of the fox.

(Rick's Note: Naturally I was impressed at that story.  So when I got back to Houston, I decided to check it out.  It turns out that John was close, but the use of the herrings was probably just an urban legend of the day.

From Wikipedia: The red herring idiom probably originates from an article published 14 February 1807 by radical journalist William Cobbett.  In a critique of the English press, which had mistakenly reported Napoleon's defeat, Cobbett recounted that he had once used a red herring to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare, adding "It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone."

As British etymologist Michael Quinion says, "This story, and [Cobbett's] extended repetition of it in 1833, was enough to get the figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers, unfortunately also with the false idea that it came from some real practice of huntsmen."

I liked John's red herring story. It was plausible and fascinating. I told John that he was my nominee for the most interesting man in the world. 

He looked at me suspiciously.  Was I making fun of him?

"No, actually I am serious.  I have never met anyone who is as good at holding court as you.  You were born for this role."

One of his friends at the table said, "He has you pegged, John!"

John looked at me and smiled.  He said thank you.  He liked my compliment. 

As for me, I kept wishing I would run into him again.  He really was one of the most interesting people I have ever met.


Royal Gossip

Half the time we were seated with someone from England, Wales, Scotland and Canada.  We had some delightful conversations. 

We talked about Scotland's desire to go back to being its own country.  I quietly thought that if the South and the North could mend fences after that brutal Civil War, surely at some point the Scots could forgive the English and embrace their common heritage.  After all, they do share an island together and the past two World Wars.  However, I was smart enough to keep that opinion to myself.

I also detected some vague discontent on the part of the Welsh people as well.  They wouldn't mind being their own country either.  I was just waiting for the moment some Canadian would bring up the Quebec Separatist Movement.  Ah, civilization and its discontents. 

I loved hearing them discuss politics.  Rupert Murdoch was a favorite topic.  He was blamed for everything from Diana's death to corruption in Parliament to the decline of the British Empire.  It's all his fault, they said.

Among other things, I learned that Charles, the Prince of Wales, has no Welsh heritage whatsoever.  Apparently it is an honorary title devised by the English many years to pull the wool over the Welsh people.

I also learned that many UK people would rather Charles just step down and let his son Harry take over.  Not only can they not stand Camilla, Charles is strongly disliked for his part in driving Diana to her tragic end.  Besides, Kate reminds them a lot of Diana. 

William and Kate are all the rage in England.  They are terrified an Argentinean hit team is going to take out William while he serves his tour down in the Falklands.

One man said he actually met Charles.  Charles was there for some dedication in Manchester.  From what I gather, Charles came over to speak to a group of people just to be friendly.  When told by his security staff it was time to move on, Charles snapped, "I will let you know when I am ready.  Right now I am enjoying this conversation." 

The man concluded that Charles got a raw deal on his public image and that he is basically a good guy trapped by his strange circumstances. 

From there the conversation drifted to the movie The King's Speech. We all agreed that movie did a good job of revealing the stultifying atmosphere the Royal family lives in.  It must be difficult to be a "normal bloke" when everyone is always telling you how to behave and what to do. 

The consensus is that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is the thug that forced Charles to marry Diana against his will.  It's all Philip's fault.  Behind his back, Philip is referred to as England's answer to Darth Vadar and Dick Cheney wrapped into one.

The UK people loved talking about the Royals.  Aren't you glad to know all this royal gossip?  I have more if you're interested.  I overheard two week's worth of the stuff.

Trivial Pursuits

One day Shari invited Marla and me to join her for 11 am Trivia.  Since Marla and I were both fighting the kind of boredom that comes from 5 straight days at sea, we readily agreed to participate.  Except that Shari didn't show up.

Fortunately there were four people already sitting there who were being stood up as well.  Teams were supposed be six people, so we asked if we could join them.  Bob and Nancy plus Frank and Sarah graciously said we could indeed.  But I could tell by their expressions that they were just being polite.  I could see we were being evaluated, not "accepted".  The pressure was on.

I quickly realized our teammates were smart as in mensa smart.  They really took it seriously.  Nancy absolutely blew me away with her answer on one question.  "What sport outlawed the use of the left hand in 1974?"   I will give you the answer in a moment, but see if you can figure it out. 

Another time Sarah, our captain, knew the five books of the Torah while the other five of us looked clueless.  She aced onomatopoeia for words that sound like the action they stand for: buzz, hiss, ping pong, achoo, hiccup.

Bob pulled "1/10" out of the ether on some nautical measure.  A cable is one-tenth of a nautical mile.  I was in awe. My teammates were very bright indeed.

I had a random moment of glory here and there.  I helped by identifying "Grendel" as the monster slain by Beowulf.  No one else had a clue.  I think that's what solidified our spot on the team.  They needed an expert on monsters.

Marla also had a unique answer that was correct, but her suggestion was ignored.  Later on she fussed about it.  I told Marla she should not have felt bad; it happened to all of us.  Bob named "Ecuador" as the leading banana producer in the world, but Sarah and I overruled him because "Brazil" made more sense.  Bob was right, we were wrong.  I told her to stick up for her answers more.

Our team nearly won.  We finished second.  We should have tied for first, but we accidentally named "Jupiter" as the seventh planet from the Sun instead of "Uranus".  Every single one of us knew the correct answer, but we took for granted the first planet suggested.  I was just as guilty as the rest.  I was busy writing down the order of the planets, but "Jupiter" was spoken with so much assurance that I simply put down my pen before finishing the exercise. 

By the way, did you guess 'Polo'?  This is the sport where people ride the ponies hard and fast.  Those left-handers swinging the mallets would pose a serious threat to people's heads.  Nancy didn't actually know the answer; she just figured it out on the spot.  I was chagrined.  I have read Sports Illustrated cover to cover since I was 12, but I had no idea what the answer was.  These guys are good!!

After our careless error, we came back determined to win the next day.  My big contribution was "Vulcan" as the answer for the Roman God of Fire.  However again we finished in second.  Darn. 

This was the day when Kelly told us to name the five oceans.  I jumped all over that one.  Geography is one of my specialties. Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic.... and Antarctic.  Except that Kelly disallowed 'Antarctic'.  She said the correct answer was the "Southern Ocean".

Southern Ocean?  We all stared at each other.  How did all six of us manage to turn 60 without ever hearing of the Southern Ocean?  I know the name of every single country in the world.  How is it possible not to know the name of all five oceans?  However, no matter how much I fussed, Kelly said she was an expert on this subject.  In fact, she looked it up on the Internet last night.

Oh, please.  I wanted to tell her she could not be more wrong.  However, our team had lost by 5 points, so winning the ocean argument wasn't going to change our standing.  Therefore I decided to drop it.  But I do have something to share.

Maps of the World: The Antarctic Ocean runs around Earth in one direction. The Antarctic Ocean flows in the eastern direction. The current which is more popularly known as West Wind Drift moves the ocean from the direction of west to the direction of east all around Antarctica. This current mixes the ends of the Pacific, the Southern ends of the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. A very unique oceanic area is created due to this geography. This area is defined by some as the Southern Ocean.

The Antarctic Ocean or the Southern Ocean comprises the southern most waters of the World of Ocean which has the latitudinal measurement of 60 degrees south. The Antarctic Ocean is the fourth largest among the five main oceans.

After some more digging, I got to the bottom of the mystery at 

In 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization created the fifth and newest world ocean - the Southern Ocean - from the southern portions of the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean. The new Southern Ocean completely surrounds Antarctica.

Don't you hate when they rewrite the world's map and don't even bother to send you an email?  

The third day was my favorite.  The narrator was Drake.  This lad from Australia had an accent that made him sound exactly like Cary Grant.  Several times I could have sworn Drake had copied his speaking style from my favorite movie actor. 

Drake always made me laugh.  He was unbelievably funny with his droll, sarcastic wit.  Whenever someone would complain about his decision not to allow an answer, he would take his shoe off and place it next to the complainer. "Here, talk to the shoe.  If it agrees you are correct, I will allow your answer."  The person would begin to stare at the shoe as if it had a listening device and I would just roll with giggles.

I am sure Drake would have been happy to know that the "Drake Passage" separates the "Southern Ocean" from Argentina.  In fact, that's probably where Kelly, yesterday's narrator, had gotten her question from.  They were joined at the hip at every event.

One day I studied the huge world map on the ship's wall and noticed "Drake Passage".  Curious, I asked him about his name.  I had never met a "Drake" before.  So one day when I was in the mood to cause trouble I asked if he was named for a male duck or for the famous Sir Francis Drake or merely just the passage.  Naturally since I was messing with him I expected a smart ass answer.  However Drake far exceeded my expectations.  Apparently he had been asked this question before.

He said, "My father named me after his favorite poem titled 'The Hawk'.  It goes something like this.

I am a Hawk and I like to Stalk.
I met a Lark who wanted to Spark.
I met a Dove who gave me Love.
I met a Duck who wanted to [guess],
then I met a Drake who said there's been a mistake.
Now I'm a Hawk who can barely walk.

After that mind-blowing exchange, I kept my eye on Drake.  He said some highly irreverent things that reminded me of my own big mouth.  I wondered if his sharp wit would get him in trouble with the more conservative passengers.  What a shame it would be to curb such an original sense of humor. I was worried that someone would take offense and report him for one of his off-color jests.  That's what happens to those high-flyers.  Someone inevitably complains about their irreverence and brings them back to earth.  They aren't nearly as funny after that.

We came very close to winning with Drake as our emcee.  The most interesting question of the day was, "What movie was originally named '$3,000'?" 

No one on our team had a clue.  Certainly not me.  In fact, no one in the whole room knew, so they started to complain.  Drake is basically a tease.  He took great pleasure in dropping extra clues just to see people writhe in confusion.  After we all complained, Drake decided to let something slip.  He said the $3,000 was payment for an intangible service.

Marla heard that and had a flash.  She whispered a movie name to Sarah, who smiled and said that was as good a guess as any.

So now it came time to grade our papers.  When we got to "$3,000", Drake said, "How many of you put down Pretty Woman?"

Marla was the only person in the room to get it right.  $3,000 was the going rate for youknowwhat.

I immediately quipped, "Now Drake, you must be confused.  That is hardly an 'intangible service'.  In fact, it is highly tangible."

We all got a good laugh out of that one.

There's a footnote to this.  Two days later Drake saw me and remembered my joke about 'intangible'.  He told me someone had reported him for discussing prostitution in a public gathering.  He had been reprimanded.

I shook my head in disgust.  The whole room had been laughing, but it just takes one person to take the fun out of it all.



Alas, even with Marla's brilliant Pretty Woman guess, we still finished second for the third day in a row.  It was another crushing one point defeat.  Judging by the mumbling, I could tell our group was sick of finishing second.  They were getting ready to kick the door down!!

Our Trivia team was bright.  No question about it.  We had some really smart people on the team.  However, I developed some real respect for the other teams too.  There had to be close to 100 people playing.  We filled the entire room.  This trip wasn't cheap, so by definition anyone of this ship was a successful person.  I could tell that every one of those hundred people had knowledge.

With so many smart people, it was no surprise that almost every game was decided by one or two points.  On a lot of the questions, everybody knew the answer.   On some of the questions, several people knew the answer.  I concluded that out of 20 questions, usually there were only three or four questions that might actually create separation from one team to the next.  Consequently one or two point victories were the norm. 

It all boiled down to having a wide range of different knowledge.  One day we lost because they asked for the 5 children in Willie Wonka.  We really got hammered on that one.  Another question that hurt us was to name the 5 levels of the atmosphere.  Marla got two of them, but the rest of us didn't have a clue. 

On the other hand, when it came time to name the first 5 Roman Emperors, that was right up my alley.  However, just when I was feeling smart, I completely blew the 5 members of the Avengers question.  I got the Avengers mixed up with Justice League and put down Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern.  My teammates trusted me.  Imagine how I felt when the answers were Black Widow, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Thor, Captain America and Fury.   Uh oh.  I got them mixed up.

In Trivia terms, I had just cost us the game.  This question was the one that separated the winners from the also rans.  As a nearby team exulted, my teammates stared darts at me.  I felt awful.  Another near miss and this one was on me. 

I badly wanted a chance at redemption, but my fortunes took a turn for the worse.  When I saw the schedule of activities for the next day, I had an immediate foreboding.  Trivia and Dance Class were scheduled to partially overlap.  I could still make the second half if I ended my class on time.

After the near-miss yesterday, I could see Marla was pumped for another chance.  So I made a deal with her.  I would teach the Texas Twostep class on my own and she could go to Trivia to represent the two of us.  Marla didn't even hesitate. "Deal."

I hate being noble.  Throughout class, I could barely keep my mind on dance.  My mind invariably drifted to Trivia.  When you are stranded out at sea with nothing else to do, your mind amplifies the significance of the smallest thing.  In this case, Trivia grew in importance to enormous proportions.  I wanted to win so bad!

Then it happened.  Right in the middle of class, a dark thought came over me.  What if my team did BETTER in my absence?  Or worse, what if they won without me?!!   A cold shock of fear vibrated through my body.  No!!  I shivered involuntarily.

I was so shaken, I stopped the class to blurt out my hidden fear.  Sharing my fear with someone was the only way I could cope with it.  Everyone nodded, but probably for the wrong reason.  They already knew I was weird.  This just confirmed it.

I am a professional.  Despite my anxiety, I taught my class well and didn't cut any corners.  When class ended, I even stayed to answer a couple of questions.  Curtly, of course.  I had somewhere I needed to be.

And then I raced as fast as my 45 pound amplifier would permit to Trivia.  To my dismay, there were only seven questions left.  I was so distracted that I was unable to even muster a suggestion for the final 7 clues.  I just sat there like some perennial B-teamer who never leaves the bench.  I was especially worried because my teammates were displaying the highest level of confidence in their answers I had ever seen. 

Marla in particular was beaming.  Apparently she had been a real star that day.  Marla had just identified the Brannock as a device used to measure foot size for a shoe.  Everyone was so busy complimenting her brilliance they didn't even notice I had arrived. I was the Invisible Trivia player.  Imagine my despair.

And then it happened.  My worst nightmare came to pass.  My team got a PERFECT SCORE.  20 for 20.  We were the Champions!!  According to our emcee, no team had ever gotten a perfect score before.  Then the emcee frowned.  What if we had cheated?  The emcee was so suspicious that he asked to see our score card. 

I watched Drew as he carefully checked our card.  He was frowning at first, but then began to nod as if he was impressed.  He confirmed our perfection.  Or maybe I should say "their perfection".  I contributed nothing.

I tried to check my ego, but it was no use.  I was seriously bent out of shape at my utter inability to contribute.  Even worse, they were practically hoisting Marla on their shoulders for "brannock", the only question that the other five had no idea on.  Marla had saved the day and given them their perfect score.

I felt completely insignificant.  Now I knew how James Mason felt in A Star is Born. James Mason was once a star, but his wife Judy Garland has just replaced him as the real talent in their marriage. 

Now as I watched my teammates praise my indomitable wife, I knew my James Mason moment had come.  I recalled that James Mason had turned to alcohol.  Hmm.  By chance a waiter walked by.  What a funny coincidence.  I ordered a pina colada to drown my sorrows.  Make it a "large", I told him, and add an extra pineapple.  Anything to cheer me up.

Someone suggested a group picture.  Frank, Sarah, Bob, Nancy, Marla, Drew, and some guy pulling up the rear in back. 

Here I am smiling but its all a lie.  Inside I am dying. 

Just then, Dottie from my dance class came by.  She heard all the clamor and wanted to know how we did.  A perfect score.  Really?  "Aren't you excited, Rick?  Did you help?"

"No, they did it without me."

"Wasn't that your biggest fear?  Isn't that what you said in dance class that you were the most worried about?"

I didn't need her reminding me.  "Yes, Dottie, that is what I was worried about."

Dottie grew quiet.  She wanted so much to cheer me up.  Then a thought flashed through her mind.  "Well, look at it this way.  Our team finished second.  You singlehandedly kept Harry and me from getting here in time to be of any help.  You helped to sabotage our team.  Shouldn't that make you feel better?"

Marla overheard this line of reasoning and rolled her eyes. 

"Gosh, Rick honey, you were a hero after all!  I don't think we have given you enough credit, now have we?  Let's give you the Tonya Harding Sportsmanship Award for taking out the best players on the other team!!" 

Whatever happened to the good old days when women were taught to sublimate their intelligence to help boys have higher self-esteem?

Personally speaking, that's one custom I wouldn't mind seeing make a comeback.


This the end of Part Two.  If you would like to continue, we invite you to read the Story of the Panama Trip 3

Story of the Panama Trip 1 Story of the Panama Trip 2 Story of the Panama Trip 3
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