My June 1989 week of Missouri Boys' State is winding down. Content to spend my days in the TV studio, learning everything I can about TV news production, I find I can also pull a fast one...
C.A., mayor of Coontz City, sits in the most enviable position of Boys' State -- on television, surrounded by a gaggle of shapely girls wearing tight Boys' State t-shirts as he plugs our city trying to pick up awards points. The diminutive young mayor projects both humility and sex appeal onto the screen under a pork-pie hat.
Towards the end of Boys' State week, the commercials on the TV newscasts go from talking heads to pep rallies featuring many of those young college ladies serving us three meals a day.
"I can find you some girls," says James as we kick around ideas for a commercial.
"Good looking girls?" someone asks.
"Yeah, great looking."
The cafeteria ladies pick up on the raving testosterone. "They're supposed to be learning about government," one of them tells a Boys' State newspaper reporter, "not picking up girls." But many of them happily play along, starring in our spots and stoking our hormones.
I watch in the VTR room as Matthew cues the crew to roll tape for the Coontz spot. Mayor C.A. and his harem fade onto the screen, and he gives his pitch for the town. Then a young curvy brunette with long hair steps into the frame.
"Coontz does it better," she says with a sultry pout.
Matthew nearly leaps out of his chair. "That [expletive] [expletive] has been in every commercial on this station." he mumbled.
He turns on his intercom button. "That [expletive] [expletive] has been in every commercial on this station!" he growls into the mic.
As hot as it was, it doesn't get Coontz into the winners' circle. That honor goes to another town that devises its own scat-chant, led by the mayor and repeated by the citizenry:
"Ex-a-meenie, eenie-meeny, oo-bop-a-beasta!" "Ex-a-meenie, eenie-meeny, oo-bop-a-beasta!"
"Oh, no, no, no, not the neesta!" "Oh, no, no, no, not the neesta!"
"Boo-bop, biddy-bop, boo-bappa beasta!" "Boo-bop, biddy-bop, boo-bappa beasta!"
"A whop-bop, biddy-bop, boo-bap, boo bah!" "A whop-bop, biddy-bop, boo-bap, boo bah!"
They call it "Elvis." (I recently googled the lyrics and found out it's a variation on an old Boy Scout song called "Flea.")
Victory is theirs, but we have pizza for our final night of the session.
"Just think of what you did," James reminds us as we bite into the slices and sip cans of soda taken from a dorm bathtub converted into a cooler. "You built a city government, a county government and a state government in a week."
He digs up a boom box and a covert cassette. "These are actual phone pranks!" he says as he pushes the play button.
We revel in the glory and the fun. Some of the guys are going on to Boys' Nation as delegates, where they will do it all over again on a bigger scale. The rest of us are going back to our homes and the rest of summer.
I went back for seconds and thirds and fourths of pizza. "You wouldn't think a little guy could eat so much!" James observes.
And yet I do, slinking down into a chair and kicking back. Somebody thinks I looked sick... and I hatch a prank of my own. Recognizing most of my fellow citizens had seen me lunging into a trash barrel on Sunday, I decide the time is right for an encore.
I prop myself up and drag myself over to the big grey bin, perching at the rim. Heads turn as boys steel themselves for what is about to happen.
"Are you sick?" somebody asks.
I say nothing but let my face droop into the barrel. Almost instantly, boys with the weaker constitutions flee the room in fright, leaving a few to gather next to me as I play up the moment.
"You all right?" Matthew asks. I wink at him.
"Was that a wink?" he asks.
I let my head drop all the way into the barrel before I snap it back up.
"PSYCH!" The smile on my face is as wide as the Missouri River.
The acting job draws applause and cheers from my peers, and a trophy.
"That was worthy of an Oscar," another boy says, "and on behalf of the Academy I would like to present this to Chris!" He hands me a fresh can of Mountain Dew. I lifted up in toast and victory.
We end it all in the same gym where I'd said goodbye to the outside world a week before. The floor is filled with exhibits from our exercises in democracy like a science fair. Parents wander around, geeking out at our accomplishments. Mom and Dad catch up to me and we head home.
Mother can't take her eyes off of me. I'd been gone before, out of her eyesight for a week at a time, but this time dug deeper. I'd had absolutely no contact with her or Dad. She was waking up to the realization her first-born is going off to college in about a year or so.
I come home to find problems with the summer job I had lined up, but Mom doesn't want to hear me griping about it. "The important thing is that you're home and you're here."
About a month or so later, the Raytown Rotary Club asks me to speak about my experience at one of their luncheons, and I do. I encourage them to keep sponsoring students, playing up the benefits. I don't talk about my lack of a clear focus on what I want, or my lack of legislative role. I made TV, while other boys made laws. I had my role as they had theirs.
The teenage years are supposed to be a defining period, but some people take longer. In June of 1999, I was in a transition phase, about to move from the Kansas City area to St. Louis and change my career focus from computer science to journalism. So much ahead was uncertain, undefined and scary. I didn't feel completely assured of my change in direction, and the ambiguity bled over into what should have been a molding and shaping experience.
It probably was, in ways I don't understand. But if I had the chance to go back and catch up to myself in that gym, on that first hot Saturday, I would've told myself to forget about journalism school. "You are a patriot in training," I would've said. "Trust me. You have more in common with Patrick Henry than Walter Cronkite. I want you to put it on the line. Speak from your heart what you believe about leadership. Run for office. Go be a lawmaker. Maybe you won't win, but don't stop running. Help others where you can. Build the foundation. Your tricorn hat awaits you. Put it on, and go forth into this world!"