At the time I was too busy wielding a six foot flame and trying to avoid being stripped naked in front of two hundred Baptists to recognize the formative nature of the moment. Thirty years later, it’s become one of my signature stories at Microsoft.
I often seem to arrive at those formative moments by torturous paths. It was my burden to be born a Baptist in Southern California but it was my choice to accept the position of Skit Chairman for BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship) in my senior year of high school. At the time it seemed a harmless choice; in retrospect, it led inevitably to that moment on stage wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a look of chagrin.
We were supposed to promote the weekly BYF activity – in this case a luau, a properly sanitized luau, something you might see on Lawrence Welk. I had a loosely formed group of guys who helped. Typically we didn’t even begin working on a skit until Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the drop dead line. Desperation may not have improved our creativity but it certainly drove production.
I think the idea was first sparked by a Hawaiian war chant that my father played Sunday mornings to get us kids out of bed. (His alternative was whistling reveille at deafening volume.) Wonders volunteered to wear the grass skirt and coconut brassiere. I ended up with the torch.
Rick Wonders was a big guy – north of six foot and 200 pounds. He could tuck a 60-pound surf board beneath his arm like a loaf of French bread. He had an irreverent sense of humor and no sense of discretion which made him perfect for the part of the Hawaiian maiden. I was less than 160 pounds with no sense at all which made me perfect for the part of torch-bearer.
We never questioned the wisdom of carrying a live flame onto a wooden stage. Apparently, neither did the adults.
The torch was a rag soaked in kerosene and stapled to a stick. Once the music started, the torch was lit and we leaped onto the stage. There was no dialog, no choreography, and little planning but the visual impact was stunning. We were such a success that we were invited to perform in front of the college kids.
This was a sophisticated audience – mature, refined, educated. The same shtick that worked for high school wouldn’t fly here. We needed to dial our presentation up a notch.
In retrospect, saturating the torch with more kerosene was probably not the best response nor ripping off Wonders’ coconut brassiere during the performance. (In my defense, it was an extemporaneous moment.) Wonders retaliated by pulling off the plaid towel that was part of my authentic Hawaiian costume. I was left wearing only a pair of white boxers and a look of animal panic.
To this day the question haunts me: Would a scraggly naked kid on stage be funny to an audience of Baptists?
My only defense was a flame that was now like a gas flare vomiting from an oil refinery. I thrust the torch at Wonders like a animal trainer trying to keep an unleashed tiger at bay. The flame traveled up the torch and engulfed my hand with each forward thrust. I was crucified between pain and humiliation. The Hawaiian war chant drove toward a climax. The audience sat transfixed, mouths gaping, pinned like butterflies to black velvet. The front row gasped as the fly of my boxers billowed open.
The performance ended when I exited stage left, screaming, trailing a plume of flame and smoke. We were not asked to repeat our performance.
Post Script: Afterward there was a private moment when I stood in the courtyard, the discarded torch burning on the flagstones, nursing my wounded hand. A gentle woman working in the kitchen next door came to my aid and treated my hand, crisp as the skin of a broiled chicken, with butter. I am forever grateful that she didn’t ask me why I was dressed only in underwear.