During my senior year at Marietta High School, one of the final classes I took was Public Speaking, under Mr. Tom Miller. (I had been on cruise control academically for most of my secondary school career, and this was a class, I knew, that would provide maximum grades for minimal effort. That was pretty much the story of my entire high school experience.)
One class activity screamed “I don’t have a lesson plan in mind!” in letters four stories high. That was when we came to class and found the day would be for impromptu speeches. Mr. Miller would call your name, you’d go up to the podium, and he would hand you a slip of paper with a topic. So, without notes or preparation, you were supposed to discourse, while he kept one eye on you and the other on the second hand of his watch.
(I thought of this because when I logged onto Blogspot tonight, I logged on without the slightest idea of what the hell I would write about. I just felt guilty that I haven’t posted for a few days. That was when I wish someone had handed me such a paper, so I’d be able to write about something. That’s how I ended up writing this impromptu about impromptus.)
I distinctly remember the one he handed me. It was Mud. That required some major effort on my part. I discoursed for about a minute on the mud that was on the cuffs of the jeans I was wearing that day. (The mud came from my walk the previous Saturday from Marietta up Route 550 to a bookstore a guy had in his garage, along with the chickens he raised.)
Then I added a second D to the word, and ended up giving a very pedagogic and exceedingly pedantic speech about Samuel A. Mudd, M.D. (The M.D. could stand both for his native state of Maryland and the fact that he was a medical doctor.) He was the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. (Booth had broken his leg while jumping to the stage from President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater.) For this, Mudd was arrested and found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment.
At the time, I’m pretty sure I was convinced of the usual take on his case. He was a humble country doctor fulfilling his Hippocratic Oath by taking in and treating an injured stranger, and for this he almost paid with his life. I am more aware now that he was quite active in the Confederate underground in that part of Maryland, and that he knew Booth before the assassination, and that once he realized who his house guests were (Booth was with David Herold, who knew that part of Maryland intimately because he had hunted there since childhood), he did not tell the Federal authorities and Secret Service that were scouring the area. I did emphasize that he did leave prison four years into his sentence, imprisoned at a hellhole on Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida. (He saved the lives of hundreds of prisoners and guards during a yellow fever epidemic. President Andrew Johnson pardoned him shortly before leaving office in 1869.)
I think even the teacher was impressed that I had managed to achieve this feat. I think I went over the designated time allotted for my impromptu speech. I think my classmates, whether interested in Dr. Mudd’s life and trial or not, were hoping that I would keep on running off at the mouth until it was time for the final bell (and the end of the school day). It was a weird type of Scheherazade situation. The longer I kept up there telling the story, the less likely those that hadn’t been up to the podium would be called.
There ought to be an Impromptu Website for us bloggers who want to write almost daily, but come up short with subject material on any given day.