I was nearly tossed off a horse at summer camp when I was six years old. And for the last 20 years, I’ve tried to tell myself that it wasn’t as embarrassing as it felt then. Instead I thought: “I probably looked like the cowboy in one of those old Busch beer commercials.” The ones where the weathered, majestic wrangler holds up an ice-cold six-pack he just pulled out of a clear mountain stream, just as the huge stud he’s riding kicks up onto its hind legs in celebration of the find.
Truth is, I looked like a six-year-old who was letting out a series of high-pitched screams and had lost his shorts in front of 30 other campers as he awkwardly held on to “Blackie,” the camp’s nasty old mare that was reserved for the husky kids (I’d have been mad too, if I got stuck on chub detail all the time).
But to pretend that I was Sam Elliott, breaking wild stallions as he headed for the mountains of Busch, made the painful memory almost painless.
But as bad as embarrassment often is, we can take solace in knowing it was probably way more painful for everyone who witnessed our folly. That’s got to be torture. Way worse than getting caught in a stirrup and dragged a few feet with your pants down.
It must be a helpless feeling. Seeing someone so vulnerable. Like when someone gives a terrible speech. Or sings a lousy version of the national anthem. Or writes a weird column about a suppressed memory that’s obviously had a devastating impact on their psyche. All you want is for it to end, but it just keeps going – getting worse and harder to bear with every second. The longer it goes, the more it feels like your insides are going to burst. And there’s nothing you can do but sit there and suffer. At least when I fell off the horse I could cry about it, for weeks. Those other campers are probably still holding in the anxiety they felt that day (no wonder none of them can look up at me when they yell, “Hey look everybody, it’s Roy Rogers!”).
Why is it so hard to be embarrassed for others? Honestly, as much as we don’t want to admit it, it’s hard for us to watch another human dig themselves into a hole – we’re not as spiteful as we might think. Plus, it’s about karma. In the back of our minds, we know that could just as easily be us someday. Someday soon.
So sure, seeing a chubby kid tumble off a horse might produce some laughs, but deep down, there’s a long-lasting shame that goes with it. I hope.
This month I’m scheduled to start taking a firefighter training course. The newspaper thought it would be a good experience for editorial purposes. The idea is kind of scary, because being a fireman has never been an aspiration of mine. First, because breathing in masks makes my nose run. Second, because fire is hot, and I’m already hot enough. Third, I wasn’t built to crawl and climb around in and on unsturdy structures. I’m more of a, “I’ll just suck it in and hang out on the ladder,” kind of guy. Not to mention, it takes me 4 minutes to get on a pair of socks. How am I going to throw on 60 pounds of gear in one minute? Nonetheless, I’ve got a feeling that 20 years from now I’ll be telling myself my firefighter training wasn’t so bad. That I looked like Kurt Russell in “Backdraft.”
McGuire is believed to be “Client #270” at Taco Bell. His column appears on Thursdays.