The Super Bowl was yesterday (you may have heard) and some friends & I were talking about how the players must be feeling before the game - we decided it was probably a combination of excited, determined, some macho-man "we're gonna kill 'em" stuff, nervous, and a couple of them were probably scared. And then somebody asked me when the last time I was "scared in public" was - and I had to think. I get nervous all the time, and I'd been scared a couple of times with some of the people in that room (remind me to tell you about mechanical failures on the way home from Vegas, that's a good story) - but not because I was about to do something publicly. And then, a memory from a long time ago popped into my head - the most scared I've ever been in public? That's easy. The speech.
I've always had a knack for public speaking, probably because it doesn't scare me. When I was 16, I was competing in public speaking competitions constantly, aiming for Future Farmers of America Nationals (just like my dad!) later that year. Most of my speeches were about farming & water rights - which was a hot topic at the time (it's a hot topic all the time in California farming towns, but it was really hot then - there was lots of talk about funneling Central California's water to L.A. via aqueduct, and folks were not happy.) As it turns out, it was a pretty big deal for the whole state, which affects the whole nation, so the Secretary of Agriculture - the one from President Clinton's cabinet - was coming to check the whole thing out. He was stopping in L.A., Sacramento, and my hometown, Madera, CA (if you can figure out why he chose Madera, I'll buy you dinner. I've got theories, but I'm still confused.)
There's gonna be a Town-Hall style meeting, with scheduled speakers and public comment. It turns out that every politician within a 250-mile radius wants a piece of this deal, so they schedule a congressman, a couple of state senators, an assemblyman, the head of the Farm Bureau, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors and some other really important folks to talk, with public comments between every three speakers. Along the way, somebody decides that they really need to add the voice of the next generation of farmers to the mix -somebody who'll really hit home that this is a multi-generational issue. When they asked me, I had no idea what I was agreeing to. They had already called my dad to see if it was OK with him.
I got my 3 minute speech ready. I put on my FFA jacket, as requested, and my lucky cowboy boots that my dad had custom-made for me in the 8th grade. As my mother & I pulled up to the fairgrounds, I saw a huge line. Could this be for the meeting? It was. As we walked up, I see a couple of TV cameras - no big deal, I thought. I've been on TV before, and they'll probably film the politicians anyway. This line isn't a big deal either - if I can talk in front of 3000 kids at school rallies, I can handle this crowd. As I walked by, people started yelling "Give 'em hell, KC" and "You tell 'em, KC" - along with a bunch of good wishes & encouragement. Turns out they had listed the speakers in all the local papers. News cameras from every TV station & a group of reporters were inside. They sat my mom in the third row of the reserved section, and I go on stage with a bunch of important people. How in the world did I get here? The nerves began to set in.
The lady in charge comes up to me with the list of speakers, in order. "We've got you last, KC. That way, if the meeting runs too long, all the electeds will have time to talk." Thank you, Jesus. "And," she continues, "that way you'll be able to really close this up with how important farming is to every future generation of the Valley." Um, do y'all know I just learned to drive? People began to file in, and some quick math tells me they've put out 500 chairs. Within 15 minutes, they're full, and people are standing in the back. My mom gives me a quick wave to tell me she's going outside - and I know she's calling my dad so he can get himself there. Oh Lord, she's nervous about all these people. I'm done for.
The meeting starts. The crowd is cheering some people, booing others. It's loud. They have to call for order roughly 157 times. The line for public comments stretches the whole length of the building, and they're cutting people off. More attendees are piling in the back of the room. The judge sitting next to me pats me on the knee at one point, and says: "you OK, kid?" Um, no. Because in addition to these people eating each other alive, I have a bigger problem: they are eating up my speech. I'm looking out at a sea of mostly angry faces, not one of them leaving - so I'm not getting out of this. My big closing statement: "If you're going to take water from the farmers, don't do it with your mouth full" has already been used, in some form, 3 times. (My coach had tried to warn me about using a farming clichè, but that one always got me a round of applause so I put it in anyway. Point taken.) I stared down at my cowboy boots, my personal-power boots. I looked at the judge: "Have you got a pen, sir?" A'int no way out of this but through it.
By the time it was my turn to speak, we'd covered all the water-rights bases several times. I got up & talked about my future, the future of my friends in the crowd, the future of farming - and how everybody in our industry knows it's our responsibility to feed the nation, it's just too bad the rest of the nation wasn't real clear on that fact. It wasn't the most well-thought out speech I'd ever given, or the most concise - I was just glad I didn't cry, cuss, stutter or throw up. About half of the audience stood up and clapped for me, too - maybe because of what I said, maybe because they were glad the meeting was over. Either way, I survived being as scared as I've ever been. And I still have those boots. I wear them all the time.