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Volunteer – You Never Know Who You Will Meet

Volunteer – You Never Know Who You Will Meet

By Dave Price

It’s been said that pride often goes before a fall.

It’s true.

And sometimes, even if you’re a 65-year-old writer, that humbling can come from a book-devouring 11-year-old, with hair the color of a fresh-from-the-garden carrot and a beaming smile that could brighten even the darkest defeat.

But I’m ahead of myself. Here’s how my abrupt ego deflation actually came about.

Earlier this month, my wife Judy and I volunteered to work at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC., an annual event sponsored by The Library of Congress.

The celebration of books and writing was initiated by then-First Lady Laura Bush in 2001 and has been held every year since. The festival attracts more than 100,000 book enthusiasts, avid literary lovers who come to hear writers’ talks and get books signed by their favorite authors. There are also hallways of reading-related exhibits, book-based games and characters for young readers, and literary swag for all who attend.

We had been coming to the event since we moved to the DC area six years ago, but this year we decided to give back to the festival by volunteering.

As you might imagine, it takes a lot of volunteers to run such a large event. In fact, we were part of a group of more than 1,000 helpers who braved a steady Saturday rain to work at the huge Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Judy and I had been assigned to operate the bean bag toss station, which was located on the cavernous bottom floor of the giant convention center. We were scheduled to work the 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. shift, but we arrived at 7:30 to help set up our area. Of course, we were both wearing our special Book Festival t-shirts, which this year were purple and had a re-creation of the poster for the 17th holding of the event on the front and Event Staff in large letters emblazoned on the back.

It was a good thing we arrived early since we encountered a problem.

We quickly set up the four bases where the youngsters would attempt to toss their bean bags through the holes. But there were no bean bags to be found. While Judy and Library of Congress coordinators conducted a search for the 16 missing bean bags, I channeled my creativity to come up with a Plan B.

I noticed a worker with a large role of duct tape.

Now even someone as unhandy as myself knows duct tape can fix any problem. I thought that if the missing bean bags couldn’t be located, I could just make balls of duct tape and youngsters could then toss them. Maybe I could even get credit for inventing a new national craze – tossing balled-up duct tape into bases decorated with Dr. Seuss characters. But while I was pondering my first ESPN interview as the creator of the newest sports phenomenon sweeping the nation, the beans bags were found.

We had been told at our 90-minute training session that volunteers were assigned somewhat randomly to their stations.

However, I thought our assignment was perfect.

If asked, I would have replied that my 20 years as an English teacher and 45 years as a writer – including 10 as a journalist – and my 60 years as a reader made me well-prepared to handle the vitally important bean-bag-tossing post. My wife would probably have given a different response. I imagine she would claim I was excited about bean bag tossing because I was just a big kid who had never even attempted to grow up. Then she would have added that festival officials didn’t have to worry because she was efficient, highly organized, and had 44 years of experience in keeping me from making a complete mess of everything.

By 9 a.m., the first of our bean bag tossers arrived.

For the next three-and-a-half hours, they tossed and we gathered the bean bags and handed them to the next tosser. Since I can get bored with any routine rather quickly, I began varying my responses to each participant. Sometimes, I would say they could only throw if they would tell me the name of their favorite book. Sometimes, it was their top book character or, depending on their age, a cartoon, comic book, or movie favorite. Other times it was their main hero or most despised villain.

With some of the older kids, I tried a different approach.

I said they could only play if they would compete against me for the fabled title of Bean Bag Tossing Champion of the National Book Festival, which, of course, I had invented on the spot. To be completely fair, I warned them that as a journalist I had once placed third in the South Jersey Watermelon Seed Spitting Championship I was covering, so I was well practiced in high-profile competition.

But no matter who agreed to my challenge, it was clear on this day they were doomed.

As a writer, I’m well aware of what both authors and sports stars call the zone – that magical place where everything you do for a short period of time is golden. The words flow effortlessly. Or the baseball seems as big as a basketball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. And I was definitely in the bean bag tossing zone.

It didn’t matter if I threw overhand or underhand or with my left hand or with my right hand or even behind my back, I vanquished every comer. It was evident that my destiny was to emerge as DC’s Number One bean-bag tosser.

At 1:25, Judy tapped me on the shoulder.

We can go,” she said. “Our relief is here.”

In retrospect, I should have listened to my wife. But after 44 years of not doing so, why would I think to start then.

I turned and saw there was only one person left in my line. She was tall enough for me to challenge. There was no way a mere child could beat me, but I decided to give her a thrill and let her try.

I’m going to throw with that one, then we’ll go,” I told my wife.

I approached the young girl, four bean bags – two red, one orange, and one blue – in my hand.

I asked her if she was up to a challenge. If she beat me, which of course I knew she couldn’t, she would be the champion.

Now I come from a long line of southern gamblers. My Daddy was a gambler. His Daddy was a gambler. In fact, I’m fairly certain I’m related to the old gamblin’ man down in New Orleans that Eric Burdon of The Animals sang about in “The House of the Rising Sun.”

So, I decided to sweeten the pot.

What’s your name?” I asked.

Hannah,” she said. “Hannah Mooney.”

She told me she was 11 and my confidence soared. I mean whoever heard of an 11-year-old bean bag toss champion named Hannah.

OK, Hannah” I said cockily. “Here’s what we’ll do. If you get any one of your bean bags in, I’ll buy you any book you want over there at the Politics and Prose book area.”

Hannah began jumping up and down, beaming and clutching a bean bag to her chest. “Really?” she asked. “I mean really, you’re not kidding?

Really, Hannah,” I replied.

She looked over at her mother Dawn. “Is it OK, Mom? Can I?” she asked. Her mother nodded her approval.

Hannah tossed first. She missed the hole.

Feeling magnanimous, I deliberately missed on my first toss, too.

But despite all my years of reading and writing and teaching, mired in my arrogance and surety, I had forgotten one of life’s great lessons. It is a lesson repeated in the dramas of the great playwrights like Sophocles and Shakespeare and O’Neil and the writings of great novelists like Dostoyevsky and Faulkner and Toni Solomon – fate is fickle and can turn in an instant, especially if you let conceit and pride get in the way of being able to see your own life clearly.

Hannah tossed. The bean bag dropped through the hole. She squealed in delight.

I was still confident. It’s the nature of a gambler.

Are you a gambler, Hannah?” I asked. “How about this? Let’s make it double or nothing. If you get another bean bag in, I’ll buy you two books. But if you don’t, you won’t get any books.”

Hannah looked at her mother, who smiled and nodded once again.

Hannah tossed. The bean bag, as if propelled by an invisible hand, fluttered threw the air, sank, and fell directly in the hole.

For me, the rest of the competition was a blur. I tossed three more times. I totaled four misses. Not one of my bean bags fell in the hole.

So now not only did I have to buy Hannah two books of her choice, she would receive the coveted imaginary crown that was supposed to be mine. This was the biggest upset since Election Night 2016. And for me, the feeling of stunned disbelief was just as palpable.

I wanted to cry out. I wanted to bemoan my loss. I wanted to hate Hannah.

But it’s really hard to do any of those things when you’re walking to the book station with a beaming 11-year-old who is telling you how much she loves to read and all the books she’s read and how someday she might like to be a writer.

When we entered the temporary book store, Hannah dashed off. She returned a moment later with Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shirley, the book which served as the source for the recent popular movie about how a group of unrecognized black women helped win the space race for America.

After receiving permission from her mother to get that book, Hannah darted off again.

And when she returned, it became clear why she had beaten me.

In her hand, she held a copy of one of the Dogman books written by Dav Pilkey, the creator of the uber-popular kids’ series Captain Underpants. Ironically, earlier in the day, I had a chance to chat with Pilkey when he dropped by the bean bag toss area after speaking to a group of his fans and their parents.

That’s really sweet honey,” Hannah’s mother said. “You’re going to get a book for your brother. And Dogman is his favorite.

Hannah and Her Mother

Wait. You’re going to tell me there’s an 11-year-old girl in the world, who, when given a chance to get a free book from the hundreds on display at the Politics and Prose sales area, would actually pick one up for her younger brother?

I mean what kind of pre-teen would even think to do that?

I suddenly realized that Hannah wasn’t an ordinary girl – she was a budding Wonder Woman.

She was a mini-version in training of a super heroine who believed in truth, justice, the power of books, and even her baby brother. So, while I was still humbled, I was no longer so upset about my loss. I realized I hadn’t lost to a mere mortal. My oversized pride had attracted an up-and-coming super girl to the contest.

After thanking me profusely at least a half-dozen times, Hannah and her mother headed off.

Judy just looked at me, shaking her head with a sense of deep disbelief that I believe they must teach in wife school.

Well, did you learn a lesson?” she asked.

I certainly did,” I responded. “Next year, if I see a girl with glasses, carrot-red hair, and a blazing smile, I’m not going to challenge her. She might be Super Girl in disguise.”

You know, if I live to be 112, I don’t think I’ll ever understand women.

All I know is it’s a week later and my arm still hurts from where she struck me with that large purple C-Span bag full of books and to this day I have absolutely no idea why she did that.

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.