Have you ever been in a situation where somebody said something to you and you had no idea what to say? Then being the schmuck that you are, you went right ahead and said something anyway and as soon as you said it, you knew it was the wrong thing to say. You did it not because you had something to say, but because you knew you had to say something… or at least you thought you did. Don’t feel bad if you answered, “Yes.” I’ve done it too. More than once.
That’s why I’ve come to admire people who could think on their feet and handle tough situations in such a way that they diffuse them and win the day gracefully. What Admiral Hornblower would call, “cool under fire.”
I can remember two such situations where I saw someone do just that, and I figured, “Boy, things would have gone a lot better for me if I’d used that approach instead of the one I used the last time I was in that kind of situation. A time when basically I had, as my brother Mark used to say, “Opened mouth and inserted foot.”
Why? Because I didn’t stop for just a second, take a deep breath and ask myself, “What do I really want to accomplish here?”
The two moments that stand out for me occurred back in the 70’s. The first occasion was on the shores of Lake Huron in beautiful downtown Bright’s Grove, where I used to rent a cottage for my wife and three kids in the summer. There was a very interesting group of cottagers, kids and adults, and we all hung out together. The guy in the cottage beside us was from Detroit. He was 2nd generation American, of German heritage, and his name was Harry. Harry was a very charismatic fellow and he owned a large and very high-tech photo lab in Troy, Michigan. He did a lot of work for advertising people and had clients like Ford, GM, Vanity Fair and the Detroit Lions. “A very impressive rolodex,” as we used to say. Whenever we had our group barbeque/pot luck dinners on the beach followed by huge campfires, Harry was usually the guy with the best stories and the most contagious and infectious laughter. He also had the coolest fireworks. But, I had the best music. That’s why Harry liked to have me around.
One summer there was an Australian fellow named Mick who was hanging around. He was a doctor and he was doing some sort of residency program over here. He was a handsome devil, and he felt that his rightful place as number one in our hearts, (especially our ladies’ hearts), was challenged by Harry. Mick didn’t seem to like that very much. One particular night, about thirty of us were sitting around the campfire having some drinks, listening to music, (that summer it was The Doobie Brothers and the Eagles), and spinning yarns.
Mick had had a few more drinks than the rest of us and every time Harry said something funny, Mick would say something somewhat derogatory and challenging about things like Detroit, the USA and especially people of German heritage. It eventually got kind of sticky, and every time Mick made one of his snide comments that centered Harry out, the guys would all sort of look at the ground and shake our heads with dismay as we sensed that this situation could go sideways at any moment. But Harry seemed totally nonplussed by all this, which only seemed to make Mick more verbally abusive.
Finally, after Harry told a funny story about Bob Seger and the Detroit Auto Show, Mick said, “Oy don’t know why Oy hate Detroit so much. Oy think it must be that Oy just don’t like Americans.” Looking right at Harry as he said it. Every guy figured that Harry could not let that one slide by. He had to respond. Harry seemed to know it to.
What would you have done? I know what I would have done and I might have got knocked on my ass for doing it, but I would have felt like I had to do it anyway.
Not Harry. He just looked right at Mick and smiled as he reached over and patted him on the knee. Then he said, “Y’a know what Mick? I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I think I can live with that… mate.” Then reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a quarter and gave it to him saying, “So why don’t you take this quarter and use it to call somebody who gives a shit.” Everybody started to laugh. It was perfect. Mick knew that he couldn’t move on Harry or we all would have stopped him. He knew that he was the one trying to pull the big swinging dick thing and that Harry had been a class act and had us all on his side.
I never saw Mick again after that. Didn’t much care either. But I always thought that was Harry’s shining moment, the one I will never forget. Truly… “cool under fire.”
The other time was when I helped my father take his new (for him) sailboat Summer Wind up to the North Channel, between Manitoulin Island and the mainland in the north end of Lake Huron. We anchored in a place called Croker Island late in the afternoon and spent some time squaring the boat away. My father was following his friend John Blunt’s drinking policy for the cruising sailor, “No drinking at all until the boat is safely secured for the night and properly squared away.” He said, “I think we’re properly squared away. Is the sun over the yardarm yet?”
I replied, “Aye skipper, that it is.”
At this point, he went down below and emerged a few minuets later with two beers and a small pennant-type flag – a Royal Canadian Naval Ensign. It was the one he flew from the stern of his last ship in the Royal Canadian Navy. After the war ended and the fleet was back in Halifax, the “boys” had a huge party to celebrate that they had survived World War II. In the spirit, (or heat), of the moment, a lot of them took along a few things to help them remember their wonderful - or at least unforgettable - times together. My dad got his ensign, and for some strange reason the ship’s bell. He put the ensign in his socks and underwear drawer and mounted the bell by the back door of the house he built on the lake. It was used to summon us kids when mother wanted us home for dinner. The ensign remained in the socks and underwear drawer until 1971 when he bought the sailboat of his dreams, and now here we were anchored in this beautiful harbour and ceremoniously raising his Royal Canadian Naval Ensign.
Across the harbour was a somewhat larger sailboat. On the stern, under the name of the boat, were the letters: R.C.Y.C. – the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The skipper was on deck and he had obviously been watching us, because upon seeing the Royal Canadian Naval Ensign being raised on the lanyard of what was obviously not a ship of the line, he immediately went below. A few minutes later he came back on deck sporting a navy-blue blazer, navy blue captain’s hat, white shorts and a white shirt with a gold and blue striped tie that was de rigueur for the RCYC types. Then he got in his wooden dinghy and with great vigour, he rowed over to us for a closer inspection. He was an older gent and I suspected he very well might have been in the war himself. He also seemed a tad peeved.
My father and I were standing by the mast watching him as he rowed around our boat, inspecting our rig in an effort to assure himself that my father was - in fact - flying a real Royal Canadian Naval Ensign. That done, he stopped in front of us and looked up at my father as if he wanted to have him flogged for such a flagrant violation of Canadian Naval regulations. Then he indignantly asked my father, “Sir, by whose authority do you fly the Royal Canadian Naval Ensign from your mast?”
I remember thinking, “Uh oh. This guy’s probably an admiral or something.”
My dad took a slow, casual pull on his beer and glared sternly at the guy as he said unto him, “Sir, by whose authority do you question my right to fly this flag?”
The guy was shocked but had no idea what to say next, and with a huge “Harumpf,” he turned his dinghy around and rowed – even more vigorously – back to his boat. A few minutes later he started his engine, hauled his anchor and steamed out of there. Never to be seen again… by us anyway.
“He’s probably trying to arrange for you to be keel-hauled,” I said.
My dad just smiled and said, “All I did was ask him a simple question. Let’s grab another beer and go fishing.”
My dad was not always the coolest guy under pressure, but that day was his day and he was truly, “cool under fire.”
And that – give or take a couple of lies – is exactly how it all happened. Why am I telling you all this?
Honestly I just think they are such great stories that I had to tell someone.
Now that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong – but if you think I am, then in the words of my old friend Harry, “I’m sorry, but I think I can live with that… mate!”