a short story by Jerry Zinn
“If we could all gather ourselves. I would like to begin the proceedings. My name is Charles Swift, and I am the President of the Rogers County Chapter of Kiwanis International,” a spruce of a man said from behind a podium of plywood and peeling laminate. His balding head was inflated, bulged out at the temples, and on the end of his branch nose sat half-moon spectacles through which he strained.
“Charles are we going to start now?” a member yelled from the back corner where he occupied two of the cafeteria’s structurally unsound plastic chairs.
“That’s what he’s doing, Martin!” another shouted back.
“Thank you, Fred,” Charles said. “I’d like to welcome everyone here to Parker Baptist School for today’s installment of our speaker series, ‘Bringing the World to You At Home.’ But first I would like to thank Parker Baptist for allowing us use of their fine dining hall.” He raised his arms and made a sweeping gesture to inspire eyes to scan the 1960s relic with harsh, triangular windows and stained office panel ceiling in an unfortunate green. The floor was black-speckled concrete, polished dangerously for the Rogers County Chapter. “Some of the wonderful ladies here prepared excellent Folgers’s coffee, which is on the back table along with lemonade and an assortment of truly flavorful doughnut holes,” Charles added.
The information swept over the room of multi-genarians like a cool fall breeze, eliciting expressions as glazed-over as the fried snacks. A few adjusted hearing aids, fidget spinners of the WWII contingency.
“When did he say they were serving the coffee?” a man in a wheelchair with a baggy button-down whispered loudly.
“We’ll make sure you get a cup,” Charles replied, leaning forward. “Hey Rick! Would you get Al some coffee please?”
“Does he want anything in it?”
“Al, do you want anything in your cup?”
“Coffee, you moron,” Al replied.
“Black! Now really, gentlemen, let’s move this along. Before I call up our speaker, as we traditionally do, I’d like any guests we have today to introduce themselves.”
Three men, sufficiently old to be mistaken for Rogers County Chapter of Kiwanis members and a young man of twenty slowly rose.
“I guess I’ll go ahead and speak first,” one of the men said, doffing his brown trilby. “My name is Gerhardt Sven Matthews, and I was roommates with your friend Sal here at the University of Tulsa back in ’52. Before I retired I was an insurance man,” he said. The introduction was met with piecemeal applause.
“Thank you, Mr. Matthews. And next, you sir?”
“Well hell, I don’t know if I can follow that one. I’m Ralph Almondson. I’m old as dirt, and George here told me they were serving coffee. Also I know the accused.”
“Mr. Almondson…” Charles’s voice trailed off. “And Sam, in the pink jacket?”
“Samuel Benet. I’ve known Charles here since, well, long before he was all ‘higher than thou’ as president of this fancy club. No, I am only joking. Charles is a good man. We served together, and he thought I’d be interested in today’s talk. Thank you, and I’m sorry about my joke, Charles is a good, honest, man,” his voice was high-pitched and gravelly like he’d smoked a pack of unfiltereds and huffed a balloon.
“Thank you Sam. If only more members were able to hear you! And finally, we have a young man in our midst. Son, would you mind telling us a little about yourself?”
“I’m Bradley. I’m a student at Oklahoma State, and I’ve known the speaker, Mr. Hill, for several years. We belong to the same gym, and we’ve had many great conversations in the sauna.”
“All the way from Oklahoma City! Welcome, it sounds like you have a great future ahead. Earn your degree, and I’m sure Kiwanis would be thrilled to accept your application for membership. Now I’d like to introduce our speaker. The man I’m about to invite to take the podium is an old friend of mine, a man I played poker with regularly in the 80s and 90s, and those are years not ages!” Charles paused for the chuckles.
“This individual is one of the most accomplished and highly respected men I’ve ever known. He fought in the Army in WWII and Korea, earning three Purple Hearts for his daring service. In civilian life, the man returned to his chemistry roots to work for the pharmaceutical company, Haynes-Bayton, and retired as the president of their research and development division after 30 years. But today, having recently turned 95, he joins us to talk about one of his many expeditions. Today he will tell us about the trials and excitement of making the push to the South Pole. Please give a warm welcome to Mr. Graham Jennings Hill.”
There was muted applause in the crowd and a fair measure of bewilderment. At the back of the room where the artisanal Folgers was percolating, three men laughed and added coffee to their cream, blissfully unaware. Graham Jennings Hill made his way to the front of the room with a swiftness belying his age, stimulating envy from those a great deal younger. Graham wore a hound’s-tooth jacket with straight, pink pocket square, black pants, and black penny-loafers. Nestled perfectly in the notch of his neck, set against a starched dress shirt, he wore an expertly tied bowtie. Though 95, Graham required no lenses to correct his sight. In a more refined setting, Graham could easily have been mistaken for a star from Hollywood’s “Golden Era.”
“Thank you Charles, for that very kind and thoughtful introduction. Of all the times I’ve been introduced, that was by far the most recent. It is an honor to be invited here to Rogers Country, a place etched into my bucket list between Singapore and Australia. As Charles said, I will be speaking with you all today about an expedition to the South Pole three years ago of which I was fortunate to be a part. The journey was trying, and deadly cold, but ultimately one of incredible adventure. I’ve put together here a Power Point which will show images as I recount the expedition.”
Charles turned on the projector, which released a puff of smoke from the vents strangled by vines of dust. Onto the pull-down screen materialized from a blurry haze the title slide, “To the Bottom of the Earth: An Expedition to the South Pole by Graham Jennings Hill.” The projector buzzed at a frequency low enough to bother some but high enough to go unnoticed by others. The backdrop to the title slide was an image of a massive black ship with a shark’s mouth across the bow.
“This is the Russian icebreaker, the Stalin, a poorly named vessel that should have been decommissioned after the war. I thought after Yalta I’d never have to fight Stalin again, but this ship gave us plenty to fuss about, including the night when my room flooded up to my waist, and I discovered very quickly which of my belongings were sea worthy. I’d have been more upset about my stuff if the water weren’t so damn cold. It ripped the breath right out of me,” Graham tried to use the clicker, “Next slide please.”
Charles pressed the button on the computer several times, applying greater force with each attempt. When the image on the screen didn’t move, Graham sighed. “What’s the issue?”
“I’m not sure. It won’t move forward.”
“Is he done already?” Al yelled.
“Fred, would you come up here? Fred is our tech expert, and he’s very savvy,” Charles said, reassuring Graham. It took Fred, at eighty-five, a minute to shuffle his way to the front, head pointed down from a pronounced slump.
“He is your tech expert?” Graham quipped.
“This may take a bit!” Charles said to the room as Fred settled into the seat and unsheathed his readers. “Does anyone have anything they’d like to offer while Fred takes care of this technological problem?”
A hand shot up a few rows back. “I’ve got something, Charles!”
“Oh hell, is Rick going to ramble about some nonsense again?” Martin barked.
“Come on up, Rick,” Charles said.
As Rick replaced Graham Jennings Hill at the podium, he pulled a document from his breast pocket. “You all are going to love this. Remember Harry Truman? Well this is a story about Truman that will knock your socks off. We all know aliens are real of course, but do you know the story of MJ-12?” As Rick continued, Graham cradled his head.
The conspiracy theory continued for a few minutes before Fred called out, “OK we fixed it!”
“If I could…” Graham interjected.
“Now let me just finish this,” Rick replied reaching the end of the page before turning to the next. “And then they got ahold of a leaked, top-secret document singed by none other than Harry S. Truman himself!” He went on absent the interest of the crowd. But he was determined to reach the conclusion several pages away.
“Rick! They fixed the thing!” someone yelled.
“Shut the hell up and sit down!” another called out.
“We’re not here to listen to you. I have to put up with that at all these meetings already!” contributed a third.
But none of the shouts phased Rick, who by the time he’d completed his thesis on alien cover-up by Harry S. Truman, had killed twenty minutes and several members.
“Than you, Rick,” Graham said toeing the podium, “They say time is wasted on youth, but you found away to waste it on us. Now as I was saying, this is the Stalin. We boarded the Stalin in Argentina from where we headed south to the ice shelf. Joining me on the expedition were several U.S. military vets, a group of scientists from Argentina, and a man who was doing reconnaissance work and training for a solo attempt at crossing Antarctica. The Stalin was staffed with former Russian naval men who, based on their enthusiastic approach to taking on nature’s challenges, were likely discharged dishonorably for recklessness and purchased the once fallow ship at auction in Ivory Coast.”
“Charles, we’ve got to be done here in 5 minutes!” Martin called out.
“I’ve only just begun,” Graham protested.
“I know, and I’m terribly sorry, Graham, but unfortunately we are bound by our time-constraint, and Rick ate a rather large portion of your time.”
“He spoke for twenty minutes, and I’ve only talked for three. He didn’t have a portion, he ate my whole damn meal!”
“I’m so sorry Graham.”
“We want to ask some questions.” A man said through a mouthful of doughnut holes.
“Yes, Graham, I feel awful, but they were promised five minutes of Q & A.”
“Well, before I move to questions, let me just blurt out a summary. It was a difficult journey, it was cold, some people got frostbite, sadly one gentleman died, and the rest of us made it to the South Pole and back safely. And here are some pictures,” he said clicking through the remaining slides so quickly they could barely be seen. “There that’s it. What do you want to know? Yes, you.”
“Now, you said you went to the South Pole?”
“So not the North Pole?”
“I just wanted to clarify that because I’m sure many of us thought you were talking about the North Pole, which is the famous one.”
“I sincerely hope you are mistaken, but I doubt it. Others?”
“You said it was cold?”
“And how did you know that?”
“Because we were all freezing.”
“Oh, so you actually went there? These aren’t just pictures you found on the Internet? Because my grandson can find anything on the Internet.”
“I’m in many of the images… Yes, I went to the South Pole. The temperature was many degrees below zero, which I was able to discern because we were equipped with a thermometer, a device which, if you all were not aware, measures the temperature.”
“Were there many reindeer there? Or perhaps the better question is, did you eat anything other than reindeer when you were there?” The member was impressed with the pertinent humor of his query.
“Frankly that isn’t a better question. Both queries are ludicrous. There are no reindeer in Antarctica, and as for what we ate, it was mostly soups and beans, generally canned fare. Our refrigerator was actually heated to keep the food from turning rock solid in the cold.”
“Is it true that the Eskimos are cannibals?”
“First of all, there are no Eskimos in Antarctica. Secondly, none of them are cannibals. I find you all to be terribly uninformed. Perhaps it is best I didn’t get to deliver my talk. I’m afraid to wonder what questions my full account would inspire.”
“Graham, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind fielding just one more question before we close?” Charles asked timidly.
“I’m nearly breathless in anticipation.”
“What does the South Pole look like?”
“Thank you, actually that’s a very good question. There is a sign indicating the geographic South Pole, but in fact the magnetic South Pole is not a fixed point. We used a GPS to locate it when we were there. Everything around was barren and icy, so the topography was not a reliable source of information.”
“You used a gypsy?” Al called out.
“G P S!”
“I don’t trust those people! Sell your shirt off your back and tell you you always wanted to get sunburned.”
“It has been a great joy speaking with you all today, something I look forward to forgetting in the years to come. Perhaps aging has its benefits. Thank you. Charles, adieu” Graham taking his collected notes to the coffee.
“Let’s give Mr. Graham Jennings Hill a big round of applause. I’m sure it would have been a wonderful talk had Rick not shanghaied the entire session. That concludes today’s speaker series. Next month the subsequent installment of ‘Bringing the World to You At Home,’ will be a talk by Edward Foster on what the difference is between a continent and a country. I’m sure that will prove very informative for all of us. Thank you, and we hope to see those among you who are still with us back here at Parker Baptist School at that time. Graham you’re invited to join us.”
After blowing steam off his styrofoam cup, Graham Jennings Hill smiled. “Not for all the gold in Fort Knox. Cheers gentlemen.”