I am a lily-livered, sniveling coward. Not always, mind you. But put me on an airplane or in front of a room of 300 people, and watch as I turn into mush.
     Everyone needs a phobia or two, and those are mine. I hate flying, and I hate public speaking when I have to think on my feet. On the plus side, I have no problems with tunnels, bridges, bugs or snakes.
    My public speaking phobia painfully surfaced last week when I attended my sonís Senior Awards Banquet for his high school. I happily signed in at the door to the Embassy Suites ballroom and was handed a program for the evening, which I quickly scanned.
    "Damnit!" I said to my wife as my heartbeat immediately jumped 50%. "I was afraid of this. Iím supposed to say something tonight."
    She snickered, knowing me well enough to realize my evening was ruined. "You can do it. Youíre a big boy."
    No, Iím not. I was suddenly a mess. I looked into the ballroom at the sea of tables, with about 300 people circling and finding seats. Most of them were strangers, and I wanted nothing to do with them.
    She squeezed my clammy hand as she inspected the program. "Itís not a big deal. It says youíre supposed to give a synopsis of your season and introduce your senior players."
    I was a first-year tennis coach. This was my first Awards Banquet. I didnít know I had to speak. "My God, woman, you just donít get it. Iím unprepared. Itís going to be a disaster."
    She rolled her eyes and led me and my son to a table. I nodded to a few people I knew, secretly hating them for being able to eat dinner in comfort, knowing they didnít have to speak.
    We sat at a table in the back of the enormous room, which was a mistake. I could see everything, and it only increased my anxiety. I searched the table for a bottle of wine to calm my nerves but sadly realized they were only serving iced tea and Coca-cola. Damn high schools.
    "Now Iím really sunk," I said as I slumped in my chair. "Iíve got to go up to that podium without a drop of alcohol in my system."
    "Gee, poor boy," replied my wife. "Maybe I could score a dose of heroin for you instead."
    I ignored her as I scanned the faces of my tablemates, wondering which one might carry some Valium. One woman looked like a candidate, but I didnít have the nerve to ask. I didnít want any of them to know how pathetically nervous I was.
    Dinner came and went as an army of other coaches hiked up to the podium and gave eloquent and entertaining speeches about their season and senior players. I was intensely jealous of how they could put sentences together so easily.
    Meanwhile, I spent my time scribbling notes on a blank page of the program as I waited for my turn. Unfortunately, none of the notes were intelligible.
    Finally, the master of ceremonies announced my name, and my heartbeat hit about 175. I stood up to a smattering of applause and headed for the podium, secretly hoping that I wouldnít topple over with a heart attack on the way. That would be embarrassing.
    Once I reached the stage, I looked out over the room. It was one big blur. I couldnít focus on anyone or anything. I felt all the eyes on me, and I wanted them to just leave me alone.
    Give me something to read, and I love public speaking. But I had to come up with my own sentences, on the spot, and I was a mess. I leaned over the microphone and began blabbering about our season. I tried a funny anecdote here and there, and I think I heard some chuckles, but Iím not sure. Everything was out of focus, including my hearing.
    I managed to remember my playerís names, including my sonís, and said something nice about each one of them. I think. Then I mumbled something about how that was about all I had to say, and I found my way back to the safe harbor of my table.
    Everyone at my table was nodding their approval. One or two reached over to shake my sweaty little hand. Hypocrites, all of them.
   "You were great," whispered my wife into my ear. "No one knew you were an absolute wreck."
    My heartbeat was slowly returning to human status. Another coach was on the stage, cool as a cucumber, having a blast as he entertained the crowd.
    I didnít know him, but I hated him.

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