There were not a lot of options for eating out while growing up in Lima in the 1950s and 60s.
Not that it would have made much difference to our large family. In fact, the only time I can recall the Seggerson clan ever going out to eat was when my older brothers Art and Pat left home to join the Navy. We piled into the family station wagon and headed out to a restaurant called Ralph’s on Elida Road, where we were astounded to discover there existed a course called a salad. My mother’s lesson on table manners was reinforced on the ride over but in all likelihood it failed to dent her brood’s performance on dining etiquette.
When I was recruited to play basketball at St. Joseph’s College, Jim Holstein, their head coach, paid a visit to our home. Holstein pointed out the basketball team traveled first class and often ate in fine restaurants after games. In his pitch, Coach Holstein also mentioned that once a year his wife, Mary, taught an evening class to all the basketball players on dining decorum. I recall this item had a special appeal to my mother. My mom, who truly qualifies as a saint, tried her best to teach us table manners. But with a tribe that included eight ornery sons (and one angelic daughter), she was often forced to surrender on that front. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for mom as she sat near the head of our large picnic style dinning table and watched her boys battle for the meat and potatoes that were our nightly fare. The fork was often our only eating utensil and we used it stab our food and occasionally the hand of any brother who wandered too close to our cuisine.
After my arrival at St. Joe’s, coach Holstein was true to his word and shortly before the basketball season began, all members of the team were required to attend two night time classes taught by his wife. When we filed into the classroom we discovered a dining table covered with linen and a full table setting including more forks, knives and spoons than I had ever seen, placed on both sides of each plate. Coach Holstein and his wife were polar opposites. He was as tough as they come and when he barked, we responded without hesitation. His wife was a kind and gentle woman, the very definition of class. We players adored her, partially because even coach Holstein was subdued and tame in her presence. Mrs. Holstein was very patient with us as she explained how to work from the outside toward the inside when selecting the proper eating utensil and where to place them when not in use. Most of the players were from similar backgrounds and the information she imparted over those two classes was new and intriguing.
Following our first road trip in my freshman year we were able to put Mrs. Holstein’s lessons to practice. After our game against Purdue University our team bus steered its way to a posh steak house in West Lafayette, Ind. We filed in and took our seats at several tables that looked strikingly similar to the one Mrs. Holstein had prepared for our etiquette classes. Lagging behind cost me as my chair was located directly across from the coaches' table in a direct line of sight of coach Holstein and his wife. Talk about pressure. This was worse than trying to nail free throws in the final seconds of a tight ball game.
All the players were resplendent in our white dress shirts, ties and maroon sports jackets with the St. Joseph’s College logo on the breast pocket. I carefully worked my way through the meal that night knowing any breach in manners would be instantly noticed by the coaches and their wives at the next table.
The meal was going smoothly and at one point I even received an approving nod from Mrs. Holstein. I was thinking, this wasn’t so bad after all. When the filet was served, I was confident enough to pour a large portion of steak sauce on the meat and began to cut into the juicy slab. All went well until I encountered a piece of grizzle I had to cut away from the meat. Faced with this dilemma I decided to use blunt force, which proved to be a catastrophic mistake. While carefully applying pressure with my knife and fork, I attempted to create the torque that would successfully free the meat from the grizzle. When it wouldn’t budge, I made the fateful error of applying full force to the instruments and when the separation occurred, it happened so fast I accidentally slingshot the entire steak off my plate and directly on to the front of my shirt and sport coat. Time stood still and it seemed in slow motion I watched the sauce-covered steak slide slowly down the front of my clean white shirt and tie.
I don’t know what was more painful: The kind look of pity on Mrs. Holstein’s face, the disgusted glare from coach Holstein or the wide mocking grins of my teammates who now had a great story for the bus ride home. There’s nothing like a rookie’s blunder to liven up a team’s chemistry. Indeed, my gaffe became part of team lore that season, and I was forced to relive my nightmare countless times as the upperclassmen reenacted the scene whenever they needed a comical distraction.
But the lesson was well learned. I was deliberate, focused and meticulous when dining out with the team after that fateful night. However, as a precaution, I did make it a habit to sit as far away from the coaches' table as possible.
(To contact Bob Seggerson, email to firstname.lastname@example.org)