When I try to recall details from my high school graduation ceremony a few impressions remain, like half-melted ice cubes in a watered-down drink. We were seated on the stage of the gymnasium, facing the audience. I know I received more applause than I deserved when the principal, E.Y. Templeton, handed me my diploma.
A few minutes later, when the guest speaker literally turned his back on the audience, I wondered for one brief, alcohol-altered moment if he'd lost it. Then I realized it was merely a gimmick. Wilson Pickett, a banker whose public speaking skills had been honed in a Dale Carnegie course, had dramatically repositioned the lectern to face us, the graduating class of l953.
“You are the future,” he announced, “and so it is to you that I address these words.”
I couldn't see beyond the stage lights, but I sensed a ripple of disapproval out there. Nothing overt, just throats cleared nervously and some whispering as parents came to terms with Pickett's unorthodox approach. It was a calculated trick, this turning the tables on the audience, but it's what I remember best about the ceremony.
Pickett was a small man who rocked back and forth on the stage in a vain attempt to gain height.
“Whenever you see a sign that reads, 'Don't Touch - Wet Paint,'” sweat was beading his forehead, “don't take someone else's word for it. Touch it. Check it out yourself.”
He paused, his stare a challenge, as if he expected someone to argue the point. When no one did, he waved his finger at us and boomed, “Always . . . Touch . . . Wet Paint!”
Then he leaned forward on the lectern and in a voice that was now conversational repeated the phrase. He rubbed a finger and thumb together, examined them, then looked up at us.
“It's only paint,” he said, and smiled, “you can always wash it off.”
When the ceremony was over, we spilled out of the school, our breath clouding the night air, everyone talking. Cigarettes were lit and we piled into waiting cabs and headed across the Victoria Bridge for Montreal. In our taxi we tried humming Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance without much luck, dissolving into laughter with each successive failure.
I had the bottle of rye I'd been sharing it with Bryce, not usually a drinker. But it was a special night for him – he had pulled off the highest marks in our graduating class.
Our first stop was the Chez Paree, a nightclub on Mountain Street. It was crowded and hot; spotlights of colours cut through the smoke-filled air, illuminating the stage. The Andrews Sisters were the featured act, and they had just come on stage as we reached our table.
Drinking rum and Coca-Cola,
Go down Point Khoomahnah
First mother and daughter
Workin' for the Yankee dollar.
It was a fine choice for an opening song and it prompted me to order a rum-and-coke. It had been my mother's favourite drink and I raised the glass to her in a silent salute. She'd liked the Andrews Sisters. If things had been different, she might have been up there performing. Mom had been a pop singer in the thirties, before I was born. She had a trio and her own weekly radio show on CKLW, a station serving the Detroit-Windsor area. She put aside her career to have me. I drank down the remaining rum-and-coke and ordered another.
“Make it a double,” I said to the waiter.
The next clear memory I have of that night is getting out of a Veteran's Taxi in front of Bryce's house in St. Lambert. For the first time in his life my best friend was drunk – in fact he'd passed out in the back seat of the taxi. I paid the cabby, hoisted Bryce on my shoulders and staggered up his front walk. His mother must have been waiting up for him because as I approached, the front door magically opened and she ushered me in with a finger to her lips. I deposited Bryce on a sofa in the living room and smiled sheepishly at her.
“Thank you.” Her Glasgow accent was more pronounced when she whispered. A tiny, round woman, she was no stranger to the problems of drink. Her husband Ernie fancied his 'wee drop' as well.
“Can I get you something? A cup of coffee?” she suggested hopefully,
“No thanks,” I said. “The taxi is waiting.”
I took one last look at Bryce, asleep on the sofa. He was on his back, his shirt collar open, school tie askew, snoring softly. His mother smiled indulgently at him. One of his legs was bent over the arm of the sofa – the other extended to the carpeted floor. His shoes no longer held the high gloss he'd worked so carefully to achieve just a few hours earlier. Outside, the taxi driver honked.
“Gotta go.” I gave Mrs. Weir a quick kiss on the cheek. “Goodnight.”
“You mean good morning,” she laughed. She was right. The streetlights had gone out and the sun was beginning its climb in the east.
“Thank you again,” she called after me.
“It's nothing. He'd have done the same for me.”