Oh, Manuel Noriega, you were one of my first introductions to international current events. In fact, it seemed like most of my knowledge of foreign affairs surrounded Central America. I remember watching the Iran-Contra hearings on TV, which was a big deal, because they were broadcast live on the major networks, back before C-SPAN was a thing. For something to be cutting into “The Young and the Restless” for weeks at a time had to be a big deal. And then there was you, Manuel Noriega. It’s fascinating to me now thinking back to what I knew about you around the time this particular bit was recorded off the radio. And what I knew about you was practically nothing. All I knew is what I gleaned from the nightly network news, and I wasn’t really even paying that much attention. So all I knew was that you were a Bad Guy. I didn’t know WHY you were a Bad Guy. I didn’t even really know where Panama was. Although I did know there was a canal there. So when the U.S. invaded Panama shortly before I recorded this off the radio, it made sense to me. You were a Bad Guy.
I’m not going to even pretend that I really know that much more about you now than I did then. I do know that I’ve become much more cynical about just who exactly is a Bad Guy, especially as I get older and discover that a lot of U.S. tax dollars have funded many a Bad Guy. Including Bad Guys like you, Manuel Noriega.
But this ain’t that type of blog. So let’s just talk about how my exposure to Central America shaped my sense of humor. This was 1990, which means I was in 8th grade, which means it was about the time I started my career competing in Speech competitions. I think it might be called Forensics elsewhere, but anyway, it was where a bunch of kids got in front of a bunch of other kids and talked. There were many categories, including Discussion, which was where a bunch of kids sat around a table and talked about current events. I’d done that the previous year and failed miserably at it. Mostly because I never studied up on the topics, but also because getting an introvert to speak up in a room full of strangers is a hefty task.
But I went out for Speech the following year, and the nice thing about going to a school that has a grand total of 117 kids from 7th through 12th grade is that you don’t have to compete too hard to get on a team of any kind. I mean, they let me play basketball, for God’s sake. But anyway, I signed up for Creative Expression, which was a category where you wrote and performed your own 8-minute speech. I’m sure we’ll talk more about my years in speech later on, Manuel Noriega, because honestly, it’s where I peaked in life, but we’ll just focus on my first year.
So the speech I performed my first year was called “A Ding Dong Christmas”. It was the story of Gerald, a high-strung, neurotic elf with a New Yawk accent who’s just discovered that Santa is sick right before Christmas! And Santa has hand-picked his replacement. None other than Ding Dong Clutzowitz, a strange, clumsy elf who sounds a lot like Disney’s Goofy. And with Ding Dong in charge, things go bananas! Instead of reindeer, Ding Dong’s sleigh is pulled by twelve neon white and green Guatemalan jungle skunks! He fills kids’ stockings with liverwurst and posters that declare “Come Visit Beautiful, Sunny Nicaragua”! And I can’t remember what it was, but there was a Manuel Noriega joke in there somewhere. The end of the speech has Santa telling Gerald that he was never sick, he just wanted Gerald to learn that Christmas was what’s in your heart, followed by Gerald telling Santa that that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. And scene.
Maybe not the most auspicious debut, but I did all right. I don’t know that I won any medals or anything that first year, but I got a chuckle or two.
The thing you have to remember about Speech is that you have a judge sitting there critiquing you, and these judges are sometimes college students who used to compete themselves, or high school teachers or even college professors. And the one critique I remember the most vividly was a judge’s comment asking what I had against Central America. At the time, I was flummoxed. I had absolutely nothing against Central America, but now that I look back, yeah, I’m sure it certainly did look that way. The thing is, Manuel Noriega, I’m not a very original guy. If you wanted to call me derivative, I would not argue with you, whether you were talking about “A Ding Dong Christmas” or this blog. And when I wrote “A Ding Dong Christmas”, I was just snatching little snippets here and there of random crap I saw on TV and heard on the radio. And frankly, Manuel Noriega, I thought those names were funny. Yes, I understand that using the name of a country as a punchline is (probably) not that funny and also quite annoying to those who live there. But cut me some slack. I was a dumb 14-year-old farm kid who might has well have been living in a bubble. But yeah, when I said “Guatemalan jungle skunk”, I literally meant a made-up skunk from the jungles of Guatemala. Even though I didn’t even know if Guatemala had jungles. But it also sounds like a fantastically creative racial slur. And Ding Dong Clutzowitz is also very likely anti-Semitic.
So what have we learned today, Manuel Noriega? It’s that Christmas isn’t about the presents under the tree. It’s about what’s in your heart.
That’s right. I just quoted a line from a speech I wrote when I was 14 years old.