|About the presenter: Howard K. Hodges is a 56 y/o Staff Sergeant in the Army National Guard with over 21 years of service (17 in reserves; 4 on Active Duty, including a tour of duty in Bosnia and 3 years with the elite Army Parachute Team, the "Golden Knights.") As a civilian he's spent over 13 years as a corporate sales rep with Fortune 500 Companies (last with GE Information Services as Eastern Regional Sales Consultant.) He has a B.S. in Psychology (1974) from Charleston Southern University (SC) and worked towards his Masters (Counseling & Personnel Services) at Univ. of Maryland. He spent two summers at the Univ. of Michigan Speech Camp, "Shady Trails." Howard is currently looking for work in Europe.|
"Good morning, Major Plummer. I'm the new Public Relations writer and photographer," I confidently addressed the commander of my new military unit, the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the "Golden Knights."
The Knights are an aerial demonstration team -- "the Army's Roving Ambassadors" -- that performs the world over, just like the Air Force "Thunderbirds" and the Navy "Blue Angels," except our area of expertise is free-fall parachuting (sky diving.)
"No," he calmly replied as he stared back. "You're the narrator, Sergeant. I already have an experienced photographer, who even films in free-fall and runs our photo lab."
As I quietly stood outside our headquarters, I was already beginning to experience stage fright.
"I don't think you understand, sir" I tried to explain, "but I have a speech problem."
"Sergeant, I don't think you understand. I'm the team commander, you're the narrator (announcer). Here's the script. I expect you to learn it and report tomorrow to our DZ (drop zone) at the back of the team complex. When they jump in at the end of the day, you can do a practice narration."
I swallowed -- then silently let out a breath of air. So began an odyssey that started in Germany in 1947.
My parents were stationed in Germany by the Army right after WWII, where my father also earned his doctorate in Industrial Psychology at the University of Munich. At the same time my mother became renown as "The Angel in a Jeep" for her work helping destitute Germans as she traveled in that country. So both of them learned to speak German well. Additionally we were fortunate to have a German speaking household staff of three (postwar Germany made hiring help very inexpensive for everyone), so it was no accident that my "native" language at birth was German. My parents might've hoped that I'd be bilingual. I certainly wish that I'd been. It didn't work out that way even though we had four German speakers in my home when we returned to the states (my parents and a German woman and her daughter who had came with us). I was not quite 4.
I spoke only German at that time, although I was making attempts to learn English. That's about the time my speech difficulties began. According to my maternal grandmother and mother, kids would call me names and get frustrated since I spoke primarily German. Like most school children they were probably not comfortable with this kid in their midst who didn't speak their language -- and I was equally frustrated by my inability to understand them. That might explain a story that I had once heard -- but my mother denies -- that a child psychologist allegedly said, "The boy wants to only speak English, so let him." To this day I don't speak German. I barely passed a semester of it in college. So much for speaking German as a child.
Obviously I don't recall when I began stuttering. I only have memories of trying to say "Ha...ha...ha...hello?" on the phone -- only to have the caller hang up before I got the word out. Or once going to a store to order Crest toothpaste but instead settling for "Cre-cre-cre-Gleem." That word was easier to say.
Then there were always those well-meaning folks who would tell me to "Think first and count to 10 before you speak." I did receive some speech therapy at Stewart-Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia and in 1955 went to Shady Trails Speech Camp, located on Grand Travers Bay, under the sponsorship of the University of Michigan. I was an eight year old "marine" there (a bed wetter: "on land and sea") in their entry level cabin called "Park Avenue." I was to return a second summer when I turned 15 to join the "Wolverines." There I gained as much help with my insecurities, perhaps, as I did with my speech. At the time we were taught how to "tally" our speech blocks, how to handle those blocks with techniques such as "bouncing" (which my cabin mates called "intentional stuttering") as we repeated the opening syllable until the rest of the word came through. Then there was vowel prolongation (or "sliding") as we eased into a difficult word. Of course there were many other techniques taught -- but those stick in my memory to this day as well as the trips made to nearby towns where we practiced our speech techniques. Those kind people. They must have had thousands of campers for over 60 years "practicing" their speech on them, but I always remembered them as patient. Years later I imagined them seeing our camp T-shirts as we got off the buses and saying to each other, "Gladys, it's those stutterers again. Be sure and be nice to them."
College and the draft:
After returning from three years in Tokyo, Japan where my father had been stationed, I then attended Fork Union Military Academy in southern Virginia during the mid-60's (8th through 11th grades; I graduated from Seoul American High School in Korea). At Fork Union I joined the Athenian Literary Society, really a declamation group, where we gave dramatic readings of speeches of the famous, a bit of poetry, and some debating and individual speech writing. Though my speech suffered from the occasional stuttering block, I excelled at the readings and reveled in any positive feedback I received.
Later at Oklahoma Baptist University, I was a ministerial student and my speech pattern involved overly rapid speaking with an occasional block. I didn't really consider myself a stutterer then, except when the occasional "hard" block came up -- almost as if to remind me "it" was still lurking underneath somewhere.
After several years of college, I was drafted in 1970 -- but quickly enlisted for an extra year in the Army the very next day. That way I could choose my own military career instead of having it chosen for me. I remember thinking at the time that I didn't want to be a cook or a rifleman and becoming a "military journalist" seemed much closer to my aptitude. Upon graduating from the Department of Defense Information School, a multi-service school that teaches military PR (public relations), journalism, and photography, I interviewed with both the Army's "Old Guard" ceremonial unit in Washington, D.C. that performs in military funerals, parades, and watches over the Tomb of the Unknowns, as well as the Army Parachute Team. After four years at a military academy, I didn't really want any more "drill and ceremonies," so I was hoping to get into the Parachute Team. Besides I had belonged to the college skydiving club at what would later become my alma mater, Charleston Southern University (South Carolina.) When I was later selected to become the Knights' Public Relations NCO (Sergeant), I expected to be writing stories and taking pictures; until I met the Major that day who had different ideas. And it would make all the difference in the world.
"Ladies and Gentleman, what you are about to see...:"
For three years I used those opening words as I traveled to 110 cities in 42 states narrating half-hour air shows at military bases and public arenas ranging from stadiums and airports to open fields, fair grounds, shopping center parking lots, and just about everything else in between. A hillside at a county fair in Tennessee or a rodeo ground in Wyoming were no more unusual than shows of 90,000 along a flight line at Point Mugu, California or millions watching or listening by radio/TV in Seattle. All this time, in addition to writing news releases, handling PR, and taking the occasional photo, I was normally one of two primary narrators that traveled with the two demonstration teams for the Golden Knights: the Black and the Gold teams. Along with the half-hour or so air shows, our travels were also coupled with visits and talks to businessmen's associations, school groups, civic clubs, children's hospitals, Radio/TV stations, and various charitable organizations and activities.
During our air shows my monologue normally had some structure to it -- but not much. I would memorize a one minute or so "opening" introduction (who we were, my rank/name/hometown, and what we were going to do); then I would ad-lib the rest of the air show, depending on what was happening -- and occasionally not happening -- in the air. Normally I would describe the four major jumps that we made, which entailed the parachutists exiting an aircraft 2-1/2 miles high (depending on weather of course.) As they fell to earth performing various aerial maneuvers with colored smoke canisters attached to their boots, the audience could follow their 120 mph+ formations as I described what they were seeing. Afterwards I used a "closing" wrap-up followed by our traditional lineup of jumpers in front of the crowd. After the Knights had formed up in a single rank, I glanced at my 3x5 index cards as I introduced each jumper by name, hometown, and personal statistics like medals earned, total free-fall jumps made, and competitive or military accomplishments. Nine jumpers in all. However you never knew when something would go wrong: winds would pick up that would delay the "drop," aircraft troubles, or other problems. If I was already on the air or had begun my live narration, and couldn't postpone my spiel, I often used a handful of backup 3x5 cards I made containing stock information to fill in air time: the Team's heritage, the history of the C-47 we flew (as a sort of 'living' WWII memorial) or any other bit of trivia I could remember. In several cases there were delays of nearly an hour where I had to do my best to keep the audience from leaving or becoming bored. Those were the toughest of times.
But things went smoothly for the most part. I had learned a trick from a radio announcer to cup my hand around one of my ears, then I could "hear myself as others did." It worked quite well -- especially in modulating my rate of speech, my biggest remaining problem; and even worked when I was getting a voice delay from an audio speaker. Rapid speech was something that I might have developed as an overcompensation years ago for my stuttering: that is, the faster I spoke, the more likely I would make it through any "speech roadblocks" that I encountered. Another concept that I've considered recently is that my rapid speech is just an inherent part of my personality and "communication style:" sort of an ADD-like trait. Even one of my speech therapists at Shady Trails, Dr. Lew Shupe, had written on the back of my old camp photo: "Slow down!" Later a friend and neighbor, when we were in our 20's, had nicknamed me "Hyper Howie." During that same time I got a joke sales "award" at an office party: "The Emery Express Fast Talking Award," in reference to an '80's TV ad spokesman who spoke unbelievably fast. The image -- and speech pattern -- were undeniably there.
Yet despite all that, my experience with the Army paid off. After I had left the Team, and graduated from college, I went into corporate sales, primarily Fortune 500 firms in the hi-tech data communications sector. I later won District sales presentation competitions at two different corporations. At one, Vydec (later Exxon Office Systems), a fellow sales rep congratulated me by quipping out loud to the office that "when you made your sales pitch, I didn't know whether to buy or give my soul to Jesus'" (some of my college ministerial training must have seeped in). A decade later perhaps because of my hyper speech, my department head selected me to give the very last presentation in a three-day conference for my employer at the time, GE Information Services -- on corporate publications (a decidedly boring subject.) I was initially dismayed. After all, we had G.E. representatives from all over the U.S. attending, and everyone would be looking at their watch, waiting to catch their plane home for the weekend. I was determined to make that presentation stand out despite the topic and timing. Using what I had learned in three years of narrating air shows, I did what I knew best. Not only did I get kudos from the audience -- always a morale booster -- but my boss said afterwards, "Howard, you speak so fast when you normally talk, but your presentation -- and humor -- well, it was amazing!"
Deep inside somewhere, an insecure little boy with a "speech impediment" smiled.
Just this year, when I made a presentation for an Army National Guard training class, one of my fellow military students leaned over afterwards and said -- almost in a mirror statement of that made years ago, "You sold me. I didn't know whether to clap -- or hand over my credit card." My speech, once something that I had considered a "handicap," had become one of my strongest assets, at least as a platform (public) speaker.
It has been a long way from Shady Trails to Fortune 500 corporate sales and other ventures -- through the path of narrating air shows for the Army. Not a normal "speech therapy" or communications program, but it worked. However the "fast speech" pattern remains to this day. In fact the words of my high school track coach occasionally reverberate in my ears: "Hodges, how can you run so fast...and TALK so fast -- yet be so slow getting anywhere." Well, some things Shady Trails, a military academy, and even the Army couldn't completely correct.