|In Search of the Stand Up Guy|
Photo Credit: Vicky van Santen
It should have been called off or postponed for another day. Instead thousands of students and their sharply-dressed friends and family were told—in the interest of time—to please hold their applause. As the barometric pressure fell, the university's white-haired president sped up the process. The anxiety in the crowd collected itself into a confused beast that neither wanted to get caught in a downpour nor return to do it all over again. The gloomy skies turned threatening, but a graduation ceremony already in progress couldn't be cancelled. There was no turning back; instead, diplomas became relay batons and the congratulatory handshakes resembled high fives.
"Thanks for the hundred thousand bucks," I mumbled nasally into the camcorder. "Down low."
When the rain finally did come, it fell hard and all at once. A moan passed through the crowd, people ran, umbrellas opened, and jackets were held overhead. The granny in a wheelchair next to me was escorted away to shelter. I casually pulled my cap low, took a responsible-sized tug from the hip flask, and scanned the crowd for my wife. She needed to know I was here and that, in spite of the rough weather, I was sticking around. Things had changed. I was becoming rock solid and not even rumor of the purest, pearly white Bolivian Marching Powder was going to get in my way. Cold rain stretched its fingers through my suede jacket and I smiled in response.
Finally those receiving bachelor degrees in philosophy made their way to the podium. My son was towards the back of the group trying hard to keep his body under control and concentrating carefully on each step.
But Vic couldn't blend in, and all eyes in the crowd were suddenly drawn in to his facial spasms and jerking involuntary movements. What was the matter with him? Would he embarrass himself? How could he be receiving a degree when it didn't look like he could even hold a pen in his hand?
I don't know how many onlookers there were: six, eight, or ten thousand. Not one of them could understand how hard it was for Vic just to keep his feet moving in the right direction. I wanted to dance down the aisles and slap their stupid, staring faces. My son had worked ten times harder than anyone else up there.
Here were a bunch of collegiate family snobs. What were they all looking at? Vic's mind was still sharp; after his accident it was just no longer connected as well to all of the other parts of his body.
When I saw him climb those steps and make his way across the stage I had to look away from the camera, just for a second, to capture the moment through my own eyes. Thin gray hairs glued themselves flat onto my forehead. It was raining too hard for anyone to tell, but I cried for the first time since he was born. Maybe I hadn't been there for all of it, but I understood what Vic had gone through to get to that moment. These gaping-mouthed jackasses had no idea, not a goddamned clue.
Three years ago, this was the exact moment when the tall guy in the blue raincoat stood up and started to clap his hands.
The Stand Up Guy was only a few rows from the front. I've watched the video dozens of times.
Vic grabs his diploma, then turns towards the crowd, trying to identify the person who is cheering for him. Who the hell is he? Twenty seconds pass by and the man doesn't sit down, he just keeps clapping. Finally a few others start to rise and join in. By this time I am screaming so loudly that the camera shakes and the video looks like earthquake footage. Methodically, the rest of the wet, cold crowd rises to its feet. Even the most miserable become swept up in a sudden addictive torrent of good spirits.
Standing self-consciously, Vic waves once then turns to go, but the cheering continues, louder, much louder. The steady rain pours down and still no one wants to let him leave the stage. After two minutes my son finally holds both jittery arms aloft and everyone goes crazy, just nuts.
The applause lasts for three minutes and fifty seconds.
Watching it still gives me chills. Electric. That sounds cliché, but that was the certainly the feeling. For four unbelievable minutes one giant, wet, wretched mass—hot moms, teenage freaks, cute little kids, old grumps, shitheads, everyone—was plugged into the same high voltage source.
Once Vic descends the steps, the plug is pulled and the cheerless monotony instantly returns. Silence.
It was over. It was impossible. Had it even happened?
Tom Fletcher is the name of the poor soul who is next in line.
The remaining half-hour is a procession of unfamiliar figures and names accompanied by the recorded static noise of rain. The ceremony settles into an efficient pace with applause willingly held until all of the names have been called for each degree program.
From behind I zoom in on this person who started the standing ovation. There he is. Here is the spark that brought a dismal crowd to its feet. But he's always impossible to identify. The image is just a blurred, shadowy blue raincoat.
The Stand up Guy. He could be anyone.
Jonathan Slusher is a Garden State native now living in the San Francisco Bay area. He is a stay at home father who writes mostly during late nights and naptimes. You can find more work from Jonathan in Paper Darts Magazine and at waterlanding.net. Email: jonathan[at]waterlanding.net