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The Master Toastmaster

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Anne M. Plant is a recent widow with two young daughters, 13 and 8, who traded their E! entourage lifestyle in Los Angeles for stability and structure in a provincial town on the Virginian peninsula. This is the true unfolding story of an urbanite's adjustment from the heady heights of Hollywood to the solid roots of Colonial Town. Life outside the limelight is not as milk toast as some might think.

Herschel Herscher is the master Toastmaster of Colonial Town. The 6'2", milky-eyed retired New Yorker is driven to distraction by a chorus of sensual muses singing inside him. He joined Toastmasters about three months after I did. I joined the nationwide club to hone my speaking skills and potentially network in this small town. He joined for a chat. Herschel loves the ladies. Each morning he never fails to greet me with a big smile and some encouraging, flirtatious comment. Aphrodite must be one of his muses. Occasionally one of these internal sirens escapes and he lends them a voice during our meetings.

Herschel was a high school math teacher in Brooklyn. In my mind that makes him smart and brave. Despite his penchant for being exceedingly long winded, his stories have enraptured and amused me. I am taken with the irony of how he appears on the outside and who he is on the inside. In one of his epic speeches, entitled "Inspiration," Herschel described three operas that instantly came to him when a bolt of lightning ripped through the sky on July 4th, 1967. He described the vision of dancers, their choreography and the detailed musical score. One of his operas was about Creation and Science. Another was about Life and Love in which pairs of dancers moved along a circle repeating the same three gestures over and over again. In the center a lone dancer exhorted them to break free. Slowly the couples broke out in spontaneous, heartfelt expression; some later returned to the known path of the perimeter. In the end many had joined the joyous dance but a lifeless few continued their empty, rote motions round and round. It was a beautiful allegory. I know a few of those couples today and I guess Herschel does too. We cut him off before he got to the third opera.

Herschel is a funny guy who can get lost in himself. I will never forget the story he told of giving a speech at his nephew's Bar Mitzvah. His brother had asked him to do the honors and Herschel was enthusiastic for the job. During his speech he handed out a math problem which immediately set off a riot at the children's table. "It was a good math problem," Herschel defended himself. "I know math." Fortunately, he had had a back-up plan and pitched a football into the unruly crowd, saving the Bar Mitzvah day memory.

Ironically, Herschel's quintessential speech was his shortest ever. It was during the Table Topic competition during which each member gives a one minute speech on a surprise topic and a vote is taken to determine the winner. This is a fun way to give a quick speech and hear from many different speakers. Herschel usually doesn't do well because he blows the sixty second limit every time. The topic was "Vacation." I spoke about a cruise through the Amazon. A prim and proper retired gentleman reminisced of racing along the winding roads of Northern California, pushing the limits of his rented Chevy and challenging the cars as he climbed and descended the mountains. (Turns out he is a former race car driver of some small fame.) When it was Herschel's turn he stood up in front of the room, wearing a baseball cap to suppress his wiry unwashed hair, khaki wrinkled shorts and a zip-up hoodie with "Brooklyn" arched across the front. A shekinah glow emanated from his face and the focus of his eyes fell beyond the horizon of the room. "None of you," he said, "Can beat the vacation I had some fifty years ago." The room fell silent.

"I had a friend, Isaac. He was the son of an Orthodox rabbi, who said to me, 'Hey Herschel, I hear they're having a revolution in Cuba. C'mon let's go.' So, I said, shrugging my shoulders, 'Why not?' Isaac and I, two dumb kids from Brooklyn, hopped on a plane and headed for Havana. For five dollars we had the best room and the best food. On the first night a man from the hotel came to our room and took us out in a limo. There were tanks and gunfire and chaos everywhere. Though Batista had said he had defeated Castro that simply wasn't true. " Herschel was unaware even of his own smile and his breath quickened as he continued.

"The limo took us out of the city and the man took us to a home of ill repute. Isaac and I were so shocked we didn't know what to do. 'Oh, I see, said the man, you like a better class of girl.' Then we were taken to another place and it was a night of revolution and debauchery and excitement like I've never known since. The next day we went to the Jewish Consulate as the country was imploding. They were shocked we had even come to Cuba wondering what kind of shmendriks we were and told us to take our tickets and get back to the US. It was the most exciting vacation I have ever had." With that, Herschel sat down, the undisputed winner.

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