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Many years ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see a show in Las Vegas starring the late comedian George Burns. The only disappointment about his appearance was that it didn’t include his wonderful wife, Gracie Allen, who died in 1964.

For those not familiar with this famous couple, Burns and Allen had one of the most enduring acts in the history of show business. They were headliners in Vaudeville in the 1920s, on radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and for nearly a full decade on television in the ‘50s.

Even as a single act, Burns was his usual unflappable self. With cigar in hand, he addressed the Vegas audience and philosophized about finding just the right opening song. You may remember he had a penchant for knowing the lyrics to hundreds of songs, including the little-known verses which preceded a familiar melody. For more than an hour, Burns tried out numerous “opening songs.” But every time he got to the recognizable tune, he stopped the pit orchestra and rejected the song as not being quite appropriate to open his act. As you might surmise, he never did find the right opening song, and his performance consisted of amazing and entertaining the audience with his vast knowledge of words and music.

So, if it worked for George Burns, it should work for me in finding a topic to write about. And, like the inappropriate “opening song,” the words may not mount up enough to create a full story, so we’ll try out several ideas. Here goes:

Have you ever been at a loss for words as I appear to be now? It may have happened in school when the instructor called upon you, as he did me, to summarize the homework reading assignment for the rest of the class. Quickly formulating something worthwhile to say is a daunting experience to say the least. I remember the instructor giving me a minute or so to compose my thoughts before I spoke. I didn’t fail the course so I must have survived that abysmal moment.

Obviously, that incident was not enough to barely make a paragraph. Let’s try something else which is the opposite of being speechless and that is saying as much as possible to fill out a time period.

This incident involved another professor who assigned each member of his class an individual research assignment that counted for a big portion of the final grade. He knew everyone’s topic well enough to even assign individuals books to read on their subject. The assignment also required every student to make a 90-minute presentation on his/her topic toward the end of the semester. (It was a three-hour class). The first classmate to sort of fulfill this requirement talked for just 20 minutes. So, the professor quizzed him about his subject matter for the remaining 70 minutes. It was painful for the rest of us to watch. You can bet that the remaining members of the class each tried to keep talking for the full 90 minutes. I think I talked about my family, my hometown, my hobbies and interests – anything to fill up the time period so the prof wouldn’t interrogate me about all I didn’t discover about my topic.

Next, admittedly, I’m not good with names. Usually, when I’m introduced to someone, I’m more occupied with thinking of something clever to say that the person’s name immediately escapes me. The so-called experts say you should develop a nonmonic, a memory aid, to help you recall something. For example, let’s say the person’s name is Alice. Immediately, I should think of something like the Simon and Garfunkel song, “You Can Call Me Al,” and then picture her with a block of ice on her head: Al-ice! But I think that’s more unwieldly than just remembering a person’s name.

This last incident didn’t involve a loss of words but a lack of notes in an opening song, if you will. I was in high school and invited to play a trumpet solo at an assembly of some kind with students, parents, friends and relation all in attendance. My poor mother, who was an excellent musician, accompanied my solo on the piano. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous, so much so that my mouth dried up. When I began to play, many of the notes just didn’t sound. There was a lot of air escaping from my trumpet but not many of them were “noteworthy.” It didn’t help my embarrassment afterward when my favorite uncle said, “What I could hear sounded pretty good.”

Well, that’s it. We made it to the end of this article by writing about words and some missing notes. Let’s end with an appropriate word quote from Mark Twain. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer