A scientific investigation of contemporary superstition

(A Toastmasters presentation.)

I have a PhD in Physics.  Are you impressed?

...

I find the world is divided into two camps with respect to my education–those who are impressed and those who know me.  For example, my wife knows me.  She likes me to tell about the time I sneezed and pooped my pants, which is why I don’t take her out much.

It’s surprisingly hard to get respect if you have an advanced degree.  Those of us with PhDs are the Rodney Dangerfields of the academic world.  You especially get little respect from those who taught you.  My first degree was the Bachelor of Science, the BS, and that’s what my professors said it was–a bunch of bull stuff.  I worked hard for my Masters of Science, a MS, and my professors said it was just more of the same.  When I finally got my PhD, they just laughed and said I was just piling it higher and deeper.

It’s also hard to make connection with others who may be intimidated by an advanced degree.  Like when I go to the barber shop, for example.  The barber throws that funny cape about me and chokes me at the throat.  Then he makes conversation as he cuts my hair.  “Hot enough for you?”  Snip-snip.  “Catch that game last night?”  Snip-snip.  “So, what do you do?”

“I’m a physicist.”

Snip-snip…. Snip-snip. Snip-snip. Snip-snip. Not another word will be said.  Nothing kills a conversation faster than saying, “I’m a physicist.”

It’s hard to bridge that gap.  Like many of my generation, I was the first of my extended family to go to college and certainly the first to get a doctorate.  Frankly, my kin don’t know what to make of me.  This can lead to awkward moments.

For example, there was the time my sister-in-law and her new husband came to visit. I was in Alabama, working with NASA, and justifiably proud of my job.  My new brother-in-law drove up in a red TransAm and ran his fingers through his mullet as he climbed out.  He was sporting a gold chain he’d just bought from a dude at a gas station who’d assured him it was solid gold.  We sat awkwardly in the living room, staring across a cultural divide, trying to think of something to say.  I’ll give him credit.  He took the plunge and said, “So, you work for NASA?  Do you think they really went to the moon, or was it all just like in that movie?”

Snip-snip.

Or consider my step-father.  He was a pugnacious fireplug of a man, ex-bull rider, cowboy and truck driver.  He had little use for book learning and never missed an opportunity to give me a more practical education.  One day we were driving together in the rolling ranch land of north Texas and he points to a small cemetery on the top of a low rise near the highway.

“See that grave yard?” he asked.  “There’s an alien buried there.”

I didn’t think much of that.  This was Texas, after all.  There were immigrants, legal and otherwise, buried all over the place.

“Yep,” my step-father continued.  “His spaceship crashed out on the Triple Bar ranch.”

Snip-snip.  Oh, it was that kind of alien.  Somehow that possibility had escaped me.

“The Army and the FBI showed up to get the remains, but Sheriff Dogood was a tough son of a gun and told them to go to hell.  ‘Even little green aliens deserved a proper Christian burial,’ Dogood said.  He run ’em all off and buried the alien right up there.”

I’ll be the first to admit my step-dad was probably stretching things a bit.  He was like that. My mother, however, was more earnest.

I grew up in the midst of a whole panoply of superstitions she had me learn.  It was my own private catechism.  You can’t open an umbrella in the house, for example.  A couple must not pass on opposite sides of a pole when walking.  Walking about in one shoe is bad luck. If you sew on Sunday, you will have to rip out every stitch with your teeth before you can get in heaven.

When I left Texas for Arkansas to pursue my education, I thought I had left all that behind me.

I was wrong.

Despite my best efforts I finally graduated—and more importantly, I got a job—so my wife and I had to pack up our lives and move from Arkansas to Alabama.  My in-laws and my mother came up from Texas to make it a family affair.  We didn’t have much to pack and it easily fit in the old U-Haul truck I had rented.  The last thing we did was to sweep out the old firetrap of a trailer we’d lived in, trying to get it clean enough to get our seventy-five dollar cleaning deposit back.  After finishing that, I started to put the broom in the truck, the ceremonial last item to be packed.

When my mom saw what I was doing she screamed in terror.  “You can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“Everybody knows–” she started.

By the way, whenever anybody starts by saying ‘Everybody knows’ you know you are in trouble.

“Everybody knows,” she said, “that you can’t travel with a broom.  It brings bad luck.”

Snip-snip.  That was a new one for me.  And, frankly, I didn’t have the patience for another silly superstition.  I sat my mother down and explained the new order of the universe.  I was a PhD physicist.  I had studied quantum mechanics and relativity.  There was no Heisenberg uncertainty principle of brooms.  Nothing in general relativity talks about warping the space-time continuum to direct misfortune at traveling brooms.  To demonstrate the conviction of my words, I made a big show of putting that broom on the back of the truck, slammed and locked the doors, then turned to scowl at my mother.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure I could hear the wheels of the universe starting to spin at that moment: clank… clank… clickity-clickity-click.  I was already doomed but didn’t know it.

We went our respective ways, my relatives back to Texas, my wife and I to Alabama.  I was driving the truck and she was following in the car.  About three hours later, just before Little Rock, I don’t know why, but I happened to look down at the temperature gauge of the truck just in time to see it rapidly climb and then peg at its limit.  Smoke billowed from under the hood and the engine surged and sputtered. I rolled to a stop at mile marker eight-seven.  All I could think was… that damned broom!  The curse had struck!

Keep in mind that this was before cell phones.  Hell, it felt like it was before telegraph.  We had to drive to a run-down tavern with a bunch of tired looking ladies lounging about, call for help from a pay phone and explain to the nitwit on the other end what a mile marker was and why they were sometimes useful.

We spent four hours stranded on the side of the road that day before we were able to be on our way again.

After sundown, a day behind schedule, we limped into an Arkansas version of the Bates motel.  That night, laying in bed staring into the darkness, I could hear Hamlet’s advice to his friend Horatio echoing in my ears.  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  I went to sleep a wiser man in the comfort that my troubles were behind me.

Au contraire.  I didn’t know it, but a cursed broom is a vindictive son of a bitch.

The next morning, we rose early to make up lost time.  Then, to my horror, I couldn’t find the keys to truck.  I realized I had left them in the truck!

The broom had struck again!

I knew what would happen.  We’d have to call a lock smith.  It would take hours for him to arrive.  He’d have to punch a hole in the door.  I’d have to pay for that hole.  We were going to be stranded again!  We were never going to get out of this god-forsaken state!

Gloom!  Gloom!  Despair!

That was when my wife said, “Here they are.”  She dangled the keys before me.  “They were behind the lamp on the night stand.”

It was too late, though.  I was totally bereft of hope.  The broom was going to make us pay.  I stood trembling in the middle of the room, a useless vegetable.

My wife took me by the arm and steered me toward the truck.  I argued with her. It was useless.  Something was going to go wrong.  I knew it.  The truck wouldn’t start.  Yeah, that was it.  The truck wouldn’t start.

My wife pushed me into the driver’s seat and put the keys into the ignition.  At her urging, I gave the key a tentative turn.  The truck groaned but didn’t start.  “I knew it!  I knew it!  We’re doomed…”  She said, “Try it again!” and punctuated her words with slaps on the side of my head.  I did as she so gently suggested and the truck finally roared to life.  But then I looked at the dash and screamed, “We’re out of gas!  Aghh!”

It was a rough morning.

We finally got on the road and on our way.  I drove the next eight hours staring at the dash of that old truck, certain something was going to fail.  In the process I ran four Volkswagens off the road, scattered a herd of sheep and killed a bus load of Paraguayan nuns on their way to Graceland.  Which shows how all encompassing the curse of the broom can be.

That happened over twenty years ago.  After a successful career in Alabama, one summer I unexpectedly went crazy, changed careers and accepted a job in the high desert of Albuquerque.  Instead of a U-Haul, this time we had a full-sized moving van with a crew that said, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to me.  The last thing we did was to sweep out the garage, to leave it in tip top shape for the new owners.

At that point I took the broom and started walking to the moving van.  My wife came screaming from the house and flattened me with a clothes line tackle in the middle of the yard.  Lawrence Taylor.  Junior Seau.  Judy Germany.  All-American open field tacklers.  She glared down at me with a look of pure malevalence and, with a voice from the Dark Place, said, “The broom… STAYS!”

I lay on the ground with my broken back, blood trickling from my mouth, and considered the situation.  I could hear, ever so faintly, a familiar sound: clank… clank… clickity-clickity-click.  Then I drew upon all my education and said the smartest thing a man has ever said to a woman:  “Yes, Dear.  That’s a very good idea.”

The broom stayed.

— Postscript —

I have a confession to make.  Like my step-father, I have been known to stretch the truth a bit.  In the story above, for example, I encountered no sheep on I40, though I do feel bad about those nuns.  And when leaving for Albuquerque, not only did I put the broom on the moving van, I put another broom there as well.  Those poor saps drove off in that truck, not knowing they were doomed.  On the cross country trip the truck blew out a tire.  The tire carcass destroyed a mud flap and sheared the flap mounting bracket.  The poor driver was out several thousand dollars for tires and repairs.

So remember:  Never, ever travel with a broom!  (Unless you’re riding on it, but that’s a story for another time.)

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