FIRST THING IS you see the posters up, typically pretentious Harvard posters printed on fine paper with black serif letters--you just know the University wouldn't mimeograph its announcements--telling the time of the contest and when and where you have to bring a copy of your selection beforehand. Fine. You pick your selection, make sure it's under five minutes, then type up a copy to bring over to the Loeb. I picked out something from Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell that I read in tutorial last year and was real gripping because it tells the story of this guy in Burma somewhere being a British colonialist and one day has to shoot an elephant that's gone "must" (in heat). There's a lot of dramatic tension in the story because he really doesn't want to shoot the elephant, but does anyway because he feels under pressure from all the natives. So I brought it over to the secretary in the Loeb and already she gives me trouble. "Isn't this over five minutes?" she says leafing through it not even considering that I'd been up till 3 that morning just timing it. And before I leave, I just kind of make a joke about how I can't wait till April 16 and the finals, and she only fixes me with this cold, frigid, and humorless stare and reminds me as if I don't know that first I have to pass the preliminaries so they can narrow it down from around 20 or 30 people to eight.
Well the preliminaries were a farce, let me tell you, in Boylston Hall in the afternoon, with a parade of pretentious and incompetent speakers except a few, and three judges all frizzy-haired and with eyeglasses looking like they've spent the last three years shackled to their carrels in B-level Widener. It all began inauspiciously, as someone was to comment so aptly in The Crimson the next day, with the first speaker, in a white suit and reading something you couldn't understand from Virginia Woolf, forgetting the part about half way through and just kind of sweating it out until the end when Mr. Chapman--that's Mr. Robert Chapman, who ran the contest--says real politely as if nothing happened, Your time is up. You could tell the guy would fuck up when he started by asking Mr. Chapman who the judges were, as if it was a military tribunal. There I am laughing in the back row with my hand over my mouth. But when it comes my turn, the last one, I got real nervous and sort of spit out the piece. Still I knew I was one of the good ones because a friend of mine said so, but I felt real drained and tired (we went to the Union to eat), as if I had just run the 440. Competition is sometimes like that, even if it's only reading a speech. Two days later the letter comes saying, Congratulations.
In the letter Chapman says he'd like to have a "chat" with each contestant. He doesn't say a "talk" or a "meeting" because you can just tell, as I could see later, that he's the type of person who would chat--with a sort of clipped voice and neat and understated way of dressing. So up to Chapman's office, and he says that I should drop the English accent I was using to get the feeling of the piece across. He says that one of the judges pointed out that Orwell--who's dead now--wouldn't have approved of it so I should stop. I called the guy on the phone, he was English himself and had an accent, and he warned me that I sounded too ruling class, Orwell would have objected. He told me to listen to John Gielgud and told me good luck with a voice that showed he wasn't going to be at the finals.
The next thing to do was buy a tuxedo, as the finals were strictly formal and I didn't own one. So over vacation I went to about six used-clothing stores and tried on about 30 tuxes that were big enough for someone else to get in with me until I found one that fit--midnight blue but baggy--for 13 dollars in a Veteran's Warehouse on the east side ghetto of my hometown. I could borrow the cummerbund from my roommate, and my mother found an ancient pair of suspenders with leather loops up in the attic. All in all it was a big pain in the ass getting all the clothes together--I wore an oversized pair of black Marine shoes--and I don't see why they want it for a speaking contest, hardly a cotillion.
In some ways the final was a gas. We sat in the front row all dressed up and sweating, with parched throats but trying hard not to fart. The place, Boylston Hall again, was packed, and each of the speakers had a group of their friends rooting for them in the audience. There were three black students in the finals and a large group of black supporters, then for some of the white contestants, you could tell there was a bunch of Loebies pulling for them. I wasn't in either of these categories, but there were a lot of people from The Crimson. I was confident because I still thought that if you want something hard enough you can get it and besides, I had a little advice from real experts before I got there: Mark O'Donnell, who was never in the contest himself but writes all the plays for the Hasty Pudding, told me late at night in the Rendezvous restaurant that if you believe your speech it's a lot better. And Tom Wright, who was in it once but lost, collided with me in Emerson and said with his eyes fixing on me intently before he disappeared into a class, Don't let them intimidate you, don't be scared, or you won't win.
BUT THERE I AM, it's 8:15 p.m., boiling in my tuxedo and drenching my underclothes and my throat is so dry you could fry an egg on it. Right next to me, Howard O'Brien is fingering this little brown Vicks lozenge and I whisper in his ear and he gives it to me. I just let it melt slowly in my mouth and try to time it so there's still a little juice from it left when it's actually my turn. You can tell everyone's in top form--there are no goofs in the readings--and when they come back to their seats the contestants next to them shake their hand and try to smile real hard and say what a good job they did.
I'm the last one, and when it gets to be my turn I slide up to the podium and wait a couple of half-seconds to let everyone calm down from laughing so hard at the last person, whose speech was kind of funny. I had around three or four English accents I do it in--ones I had practiced while walking between classes or back to my room--but I decided on the kind of low and earnest voice, what I thought a soldier might sound like. When I got into it, I felt like I was on top of the world, all these people quiet and transfixed, I even forgot about some friends of mine who said they might make obscene gesticulations (masturbating an elephant, if you can believe that) or yell "Don't shoot," when it comes to be the time in the speech when the guy lies down on the road and lets the elephant have it between the eyes. With 300 people on the edges of their seats, wearing your tuxedo and standing above them, you sort of forget who you are, you get high, and you think you really are in Burma shooting the elephant. There was this guy in the third row the whole time smiling and nodding his head--I could see him even with my glasses off--and that was how I knew I was doing well. It even gets to be, while you're speaking, that you have the whole audience by the balls, you can say anything and make any sort of gesture and they'll still believe you and gaze silently. When I got off the stage I was still in that transcendental state and the first thing to bring me back a pretty girl comes out of nowhere and grasps my hand and says I was excellent. The judges retired and went out to make their decision, and my friends came up to me and congratulated me and even some people I had never met said nice things. I was real modest and told everyone how much I liked so-and-so's selection (not mine).
THE judges picked two people; not me. It would certainly be unprofessional of me to say what I thought of some of the other contestants, but I will say right here that I thought the right people won. I was real new to this business, I could tell, because I wasn't taking the winning part seriously enough. You could tell other people were--Richard III was walking around looking like Hamlet, and Howard, who had given me the lozenge and had warmly praised my reading, seemed a bit glum. A lot of us went out to Cronin's afterwards, it was real warm out and the night was a dark blue sort of like my tuxedo, and the excitement that had been up on the stage while all the people sat and were entertained spilled out into the Yard where people milled about each other and talked eagerly. Like I said, we went to Cronin's, I sat at a table with a bunch of Loebies who talked about past glories and other dramatic doings, O'Brien showed himself to be an Irishman with many voices, but at the other end of the table we told Jesus Christ jokes. It got time to leave, and I lent my roommate my tuxedo jacket so he could go to the Porcellian Club, and I skipped home just in my suspenders.