It all came down to a tomato. A cherry tomato, to be exact.
I had received my rejection letter from the United States Military Academy at West Point a few weeks earlier, yet I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—accept the fact that I had been rejected. I had worked too hard for too long and I convinced myself that it was some sort of mistake—a cosmic joke.
And now, here I sat in the summer of my junior year of high school, at a luncheon with Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, and a four-star general from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Surely, G-d and the universe loved irony!
I was participating in an American Legion program called Boys’ State, and the day before I had been elected to the programs highest office: Governor of Buckeye Boys State. As the mock-Governor, I was allowed to welcome the SecDef upon his arrival in the President’s Marine One helicopter, and now, I was at lunch with him.
To my left sat a four-star Army general, who smiled at me politely but didn’t seem to quite understand why this 17-year-old with a non-matching pant and suit jacket was sitting with him at all. He grinned cordially and nodded at me none the less. So, I grinned cordially and nodded back.
To his left, and directly across from me was Secretary Weinberger, smart in a navy-blue suit and tie. To my right sat the president of the American Legion, Luther Liggett—a fiery WW2 veteran who was my mentor at Boys State.
I started to pull my seat out to sit down and Luther shot me a quick look and nodded “No” to me.
I was completely out of my element and felt my temperature begin to rise.
The SecDef and Luther shared small talk, and the General and I just nodded and grinned at each other again.
Finally, the SecDef pulled out his chair to be seated, and we all followed suit.
“Note to self,” I said to myself. “Always wait for the Senior person to sit before you do.”
I had a busy morning and hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I wasn’t surprise to hear and feel my stomach rumble. I couldn’t wait to eat!
That’s when I noticed the ridiculous amount of silverware spread out on each side of my fine china dishware. I was used to Chinette!
In a jiffy, a delicious looking salad appeared in front of me, and I couldn’t wait to dig in to it. I grabbed my fork and started to dive in when I sensed Luther looking at me again. I gave him a sidelong glance and saw him nodding “no” to me. As if to say, “Not yet.”
I put my fork down, then smiled and nodded at the General next to me again. He seemed amused.
Finally, after copying everyone else by laying my napkin ever so lightly across my lap, I picked up the same fork they did and began to shovel fork-full after fork-full of salad into my mouth. I had never had a better salad in my life!
I didn’t put my fork down once, which I realized was not how the others were doing it, but I didn’t care anymore. I was hungry!
The last thing left on my plate was little cherry tomato…it sat so lovely and shiny, drenched in olive oil and reflecting the lights above. Normally, I would just grab it and pop it into my mouth, but something told me that this wouldn’t be the right time to do that.
My stomach growled again, so I gripped my fork tighter and I moved to stick it.
The darned thing slipped out from under my fork and slid to the other side of my salad plate. No problem, just stick it in the middle, I thought to myself. But the darned thing slipped out from under my fork again, this time catching the lip of the plate and going in circles.
I thought I heard a pause in the very serious conversation the adults were having, but when I looked up they all politely resumed their conversation and acted like they weren’t watching me.
I made one more attempt and grew frustrated when the tomato slipped again. Hoping no one would notice, I reached up with my left hand, pinned the tomato down, and then slowly, surely stuck my fork deep into the meatiest part of it.
“I got you now!” I thought to myself as my fork plunged deeper and deeper.
“Victory was mine!”
I moved my hand and lifted the delicious looking tomato to my mouth when I heard a strange, high pitched sound coming from…my plate!
I had apparently pushed down on my plate too hard and lifted it up when I was stabbing the tomato, and now, the plate began a slow-motion spin cycle.
I plunged the tomato into my mouth and watched in horror as the little plate spun slow at first, then with each dip and roll gain speed and increase in pitch. I sat frozen with the cherry tomato stuck in my cheek like a chipmunk, and all eyes focused on me and my plate.
Surely it would stop soon, I thought, as it began to spin faster and louder.
Surely, anytime now, it would just…stop!
But it didn’t stop, in fact, it got faster and faster, louder and louder and everyone, the General, the Sec of Defense, and my very embarrassed mentor just watched the little plate spin.
I forced the tomato down and felt my temperature rise, as sweat beads appeared on my forehead.
Finally, I laid my left hand on the plate and it came to an abrupt halt.
I smiled and nodded. They all smiled and nodded back.
A waiter saved me when he removed my plate and replaced it with the main course—chicken dumplings.
The SecDef said something about how hungry he is as he stuck a dumpling with his fork, then he brought it towards him and the gravy from the dumpling dripped onto his tie.
“Look what I just did,” he said, laughing. “I’m so clumsy!”
The General and president Liggett laughed on cue, too. So, I joined in. I was sure that he had done that on purpose, and that made me respect him.
“So,” Secretary Weinberger asked me, “What do you want to do after high school, Little Governor?”
I nearly choked on my dumpling.
For a moment, I saw another chance at West Point appear miraculously before my eyes. Surely, he saw my persistence with the tomato and thought, “You’re just the kind of guy we need leading our Soldiers, son!”
So, it was with great pride when I said, “Well, Sir, I’m hoping to go to West Point.”
The SecDef smiled and said, “Let me know if you need any help with that…”