The Crimp in My Talent Contest

By Bill Rathje

The summer I turned nine, the family -- mom, dad, and I -- took a cruise. That was 1954 and the adventure wasn't on the Love Boat or in the Caribbean or along the coast of Alaska. No, indeed. It was on a ship that methodically made its way down the newly opened, semi-man-made, economic thoroughfare called the St. Lawrence Seaway that skirted along the eastern border of Canada and the U.S.

I had a great time, with only one disappointment - the kid's talent contest. The ship's Social Director invited all the children on board to display their talents. The Captain would give the kid who he believed had the best act a prize. I always actively sought prizes.

Mom had encouraged me in a wide variety of ways to develop my talent potential. What would I do, I wondered. I could draw well, since I had been taking art lessons since I could remember - literally; but holding up a pencil sketch was not likely to fit a performance format. I'd been given trumpet lessons, which at that time I loved, but there was no band on the boat, and thus there was a shortage of trumpets. There was a piano in the activities room, and I had taken the piano lessons that mom considered mandatory for a happy life, but I didn't like to play and wasn't much good when I did. I had taken both tap and ballet dancing lessons, but I didn't have the requisite shoes. I had even taken singing lessons for a short time from Mrs. Ament, and knew a great song I wanted to sing. It wasn't "The State Song of Illinois" that Mrs. Ament so dearly loved. In fact, I had never sung it to her, since it wasn't really her style.

The song was called "Old Skyball Paint," and I still remember the words:

Old Skyball Paint was a Devil's Saint,
And his eyes were fiery red.
Good men have tried that horse to ride,
But most of them are dead.
Now, I won't brag, but I rode that nag
'Til his blood began to boil.
Then I hit the ground and ate ten pounds
Of good old Western soil.

Whoa ho, whoopee tie yo!
Ride 'em high and down you go,
Sons of the Western soil!

In town one day, I chanced to stray
On good old Sheriff Jim
For a whoop and a holler and a counterfeit dollar,
I sold the old nag to him.
But when he plants, the seat of his pants
In Skyball's leather chair,
I'll bet four bits when Skyball quits
Old Jim will not be there!

Whoa ho, whoopee tie yo!
Ride 'em high and down you go,
Sons of the Western soil!

What a rousing Western ballad. Very popular with my age group.

When I told mom my choice and sang it to her, I was shocked at her response. She informed me that "Old Skyball Paint" was not at all appropriate for a talent show that would probably feature Chopin and Mozart and similar highbrow numbers. She didn't want me to embarrass myself, so she suggested in the strongest possible terms that I not participate, especially since I had taken my last singing lesson two years before and since I vigorously insisted that I could not remember the words to "The State Song of Illinois," other than "With your rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois . . ."

So I didn't sign up to perform. It didn't really break my heart until I watched the efforts of the five entrants who performed in the contest. The winner, and most sophisticated performer, was a twelve-year-old girl who sang, with appropriate hand motions . . .

I'm a little teapot, short and stout.
Here is my handle
(her right elbow was stuck out to the side at this point with her right hand on her waist),
Here is my spout (her left arm now formed a "V" with her left hand pointing away from her body),
Just tip me over to pour me out (she now bent at the waist to the left side)!

Applause. And for that she won the big prize! I don't remember what it was now, but I remember that I had wanted to win it.

Mother rolled her eyes toward me, and life went on.

There's only one reason I still remember that day. That's because in fifty-five years of life with mother, that was the only time she seriously discouraged me from doing anything active and creative that wasn't potentially physically dangerous. She didn't want me to ride motorcycles, but just about everything else was fair game.

Yes, I remember the St. Lawrence Seaway talent contest since it was the one time mom wasn't Oh-So-Jane.