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A Lesson in Democracy

delivered at Asian Express Toastmasters, 1-14-15

By Max Millard

In 1972, a few years after college, I came down to the Virgin Islands with practically no money in my pocket. I worked for one week scraping barnacles off a boat. Then I got a few short-term jobs cruising around the islands with families from the States.

When the Christmas holidays arrived, I had to attend an Army Reserve meeting on the island of St. Thomas. It was in the city of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the Virgin Islands. The city was named in 1691 after the queen consort of Denmark. That's consort, not concubine. Consort: it means she was the wife of a reigning king, Christian V. At that time the island was a haven for pirates. Nowadays it's the number one port for cruise ships in the Caribbean Sea.

There was only one other white guy at the meeting. He was a teacher at Charlotte Amalie High School, the oldest high school in the Virgin Islands. It graduated its first class in 1931, which was 437 years after Columbus landed on the islands. That might give up an idea of the educational level there. Well, this man grew up there, but he got his education somewhere else. (Show Hamilton on $10 bill)

When I told the white guy I was looking for a job, he said, "Oh, one of the English teachers just quit, halfway through the year. Show up on Monday and they'll probably hire you." I did, and they did.

My only qualification was that I could speak English. They said they'd start me at a very low salary, and raise it when my college transcripts arrived. They gave me three classes of English and two of typing.

The average temperature in the Virgin Islands in January is 84 degrees. My first day of class it must have been 95. I walked into the room dressed in my casual sailing clothes, which was all I had. I gazed out at 55 dark faces. They looked back in amusement, as if I were a circus clown.

The room didn't have nearly enough desks. The girls sat in the first three rows, all wearing neat yellow blouses with white trim, and short yellow skirts. On top they looked like nuns. On the bottom they looked like cheerleaders. I had to turn away quickly to avoid staring at their legs.

The boys wore starched yellow shirts with black ties, and they sat all around the edge of the room, squeezing onto the wide sills of windows, which were wide open to let in the breeze. Some boys were about six foot six.

I introduced myself and asked everyone to go up to the blackboard and write their name and age. Some of the boys didn't write anything. I asked, "How old are you?" but they didn't answer. One of the girls said, "He 26." I asked what he was doing there, and she said, "He just here for the girls."

I told him, "That's not the way to do it. What you should do is get a job, buy a convertible, show up here at 3:30 when school gets out, and all the girls will jump in." A few people laughed. But most people couldn't hear me because of the noise in the room: four or five boys had ghetto blasters with the volume turned up full. They played a cacophony of different radio stations. It sounded something like this.


I shouted over the din: "Today we're going to have a lesson in democracy!" Everyone roared with laughter.

I thought, what's so funny about that? But later I realized the islands had never known democracy. First they were colonized by Spain, which wiped out the native population and replaced them with African slaves to grow sugar cane. Then they were sold to Denmark and renamed the Danish West Indies. In 1916 Denmark sold them to the United States for $25 million, and the name was changed again. They became a U.S. territory, with no voting power for Congress or President.

But I didn't give up. I shouted, "At least in this room, we're going to have a democracy. You guys are all playing different radio stations. Let's have an election. First, vote for your favorite station." They voted, and I asked everyone to tune their radio to the same station.

Next I said, "That sounds great. But you know what? You're wasting batteries. Let's vote for the best machine." They did, and the winner was -- guess what -- the biggest and loudest ghetto blaster. Everyone else shut their radio off.

Now we had one station and one machine. I went up to the owner and said, "Our next lesson is English. Would you mind turning that down just a little?"


Happy Hour at the Tonga Room

delivered at Asian Express Toastmasters, 2-11-15

By Max Millard

Did you ever want to sail the seas with Sinbad, swing through the trees with Tarzan, or get drunk with the pirates of the Caribbean? Well now you can, sort of. It's called happy hour at the Tonga Room.

If you don't know the Tonga Room, it's in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. It was originally built as a swimming pool, but it was so creepy down there that nobody came. So they made it into a Fantasy Island tiki hut fern bar. It's got a talking skeleton at the entrance, a Venus fly trap on every table, and lamps made by Yaqui Indians on peyote. You half expect to see Indiana Jones crashing through the wall. It's the kind of place to go when you want to disappear from the planet for 5 or 6 hours.

Last time I went, I thought I'd accidentally stumbled into a planetarium, because the ceiling was painted black and dotted with tiny pinpoints of light. I felt my way to a table and tripped into a wicker chair big enough to hold an elephant. I reached out in the darkness and my hand came back covered with green slime that smelled like dead frogs. I'd just finished wiping it on the tablecloth when the waitress appeared, wearing nothing but a grass skirt and two coconut shells.

She handed me a cocktail menu as thick as a James Michener novel. They all had names like Singapore Suicide, Zanzibar Zombie and Polynesian Paralysis. She took my order, then went out to do her laundry and get her nails done. At least that's what I thought, because she was gone for 45 minutes. I was about to put her picture on a milk carton.

Finally she arrived with a barrel-size Easter Island statue cup filled with parasols and a small banana tree. I cleared out the rubble and took a swallow. Tasted like Gatorade with a dash of rubbing alcohol.

After downing a couple of those brain scramblers, I became aware of some weird noise in the background. In my condition, I couldn't tell whether it was music or a missionary being boiled alive.

This awakened my appetite, so I headed for the hors d'oeuvres table. They had hard rubbery zucchini sticks that could erase indelible ink, shiitaki mushrooms floating in Everglades swamp water, and multicolored pork balls so dry that they would bounce. I ordered catch of the day, but forgot to ask which day. By the time it arrived, I didn't know whether to eat it or mount it on the wall.

Suddenly a thousand shower heads sprang to life over the pool, filling the air with fine mist like a tropical rain forest. Fireworks exploded on the ceiling, and the room shook with thunder.

I ordered more drinks. The room started rolling from side to side. I couldn't help myself: I climbed the rigging to the crow's nest and began quoting lines from "Mutiny on the Bounty." "Cap'n Bligh, I'm takin' this ship!" I did a belly flop into the pool and hit my head on the bottom. When I came to, I started talking to the voodoo dolls and shrunken heads, and they answered back! I stayed till 5 o'clock in the morning and spent $2420 on the greatest adventure I'd ever known.

I woke up a few days later feeling like they'd borrowed my head for the NBA slam dunk contest. My Visa bill arrived in two envelopes. But I didn't care. Because for once in my life, I had a chance to fall off the face of the earth.


Bill and Johnny

delivered at San Francisco Bilingual Cantonese-English Toastmasters, 6-17-15

By Max Millard

Back in 1952, two of the finest high school athletes in the San Francisco Bay Area were Bill and Johnny. Bill grew up in a housing project in West Oakland and attended McClymonds High School. He was 6 feet 9 inches tall. Johnny grew up on 32nd Avenue in San Francisco's Richmond district and attended Roosevelt Middle School, then George Washington High School. He was 5 foot 7.

They were both on their school basketball team, and both were outstanding runners on their school track team -- Bill in the quarter mile and Johnny in the hurdles. But where they really excelled was in the high jump. They were the two best high school high jumpers in California. Bill held the state record, and Johnny wasn't far behind. They met at a track meet and became instant friends. They respected each other's talents, and there was no jealousy between them.

In 1954, Johnny finally beat Bill's record with a jump of 6 feet 5 inches -- more than 10 inches above his own head. Then they went on to college, Bill to the University of San Francisco and Johnny to San Francisco State, where he planned to become a teacher. They continued their friendly rivalry on a collegiate level. Bill had an old Buick, and he and his girlfriend and Johnny would jump in and drive all over California to attend track meets together.

In 1956 Bill jumped 6 feet 9 inches -- his own height -- which ranked him among the best high jumpers in the world. He and Johnny were both invited to take part in the 1956 Olympic trials. Now here's where their story diverges.

Bill accepted the invitation, made the team, and came back from Australia with a gold medal around his neck. Then he returned to USF, graduated, and immediately began a brilliant career.

Johnny skipped the Olympic trials, dropped out of college, and never again took part in competitive athletics.

Now, with only this information, you might conclude that Bill was an achiever and Johnny was a loser. But you'd be only half right.

Yes, Bill was a winner. But he didn't win his gold medal in running or jumping. He won it as a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. At USF, he was the centerpiece of a team that won 60 consecutive games and two national championships. Then he joined the Boston Celtics. He was named an NBA all-star 12 times and the Most Valuable Player five times. He led the Celtics to 11 championships -- almost twice as many as Michael Jordan. For his last three years on the team, he was the Celtics' player/coach, becoming the first African American ever to coach a major sport. Later he coached the Seattle SuperSonics and the Sacramento Kings. In 2009 the Most Valuable Award for the NBA Finals was renamed the Bill Russell Award. If you watched the Warriors win the championship last night, you would have seen him presenting the award to Andre Iguodala. That's Bill's story. (fold arms)

But what about Johnny, you wonder? Well, he also had another big talent: singing. He dropped out of college to become a professional singer, and he missed the Olympic trials because at the same time he got an offer to go to New York City and record his first album. Johnny Mathis went on to sell more records than any solo artist of the 20th century except for these two gentlemen. His hits include "Misty," "Chances Are," and Christmas classics like "The Little Drummer Boy." His Greatest Hits album is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being on the Billboard chart for 490 consecutive weeks -- almost 10 years. He's had a top-40 hit in each of the last seven decades. He's been invited to the White House to sing for three different presidents, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Today, at the age of 79, he's still performing. Bill Russell is 81. He's written several books, including "Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the 20th Century's Greatest Winner." In 2011 he was also invited to the White House -- not to sing, but to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

And yes, Bill and Johnny are still friends. In 2013 Johnny went to Boston to sing at the dedication of a life-size statue of Bill in City Hall Plaza.

For decades, Johnny has been living in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. In February 2015 he was doing a phone interview for the San Francisco Chronicle, and the reporter asked him: "When is the last time you've come back here and just driven around?"

Johnny said "I do quite a lot when I come back to sing. The last few times I've been singing with the San Francisco Symphony, I try to get here a day early, and that's when I sort of drive around and have a look, and see if the same places are there. And of course they aren't. But those are still the places in my heart that I treasure."