A Belated but Sincere Thank You to James Earl Jones

Gazpacho is very popular in Arizona.

Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

Dear James Earl Jones,

I just took my kids to the new Lion King movie, and I have to say, it was just great to hear your voice again! While I did recently rewatch The Sandlot, I don’t mean this in the way that you might think. Believe it or not, you and I shared a meal together on a Friday night in Scottsdale, Arizona in the year 2000.

It’s been almost 20 years since then, but I can see my awkward, nervous, sweaty teenage self as if it was yesterday. Since a lot of time has passed, and you’ve had lots and lots of dinners since then, let me describe to you what I remember about that night and how I even got there in the first place.

In the spring of my final year of high school, I got a big fat packet in the mail notifying me that I had won a college scholarship. As a winner, I was invited to fly (expenses paid!) from my tiny farming town in upstate New York to a fancy banquet at a resort in Arizona.

I can remember running to the barn to find my parents and then combing through the details, looking for the catch. We found none, and I spent the next few weeks trying to scrape up some decent travel clothes and cleaning the dirt out from under my fingernails.

When I got to Arizona, it felt like I was on a new planet. My only travel experience in life involved a four hour drive on the NYS Thruway to visit my uncle, so when I got to take a shuttle to the hotel and then ride in a golf cart to my room where my bags were already waiting, I was already sideways with delight.

The event was sponsored by the Academy of Achievement, and its official title was “The Banquet of the Golden Plate.” Even though it sounds made up, I swear it is real. I think the goal of the event is to select a group of talented and successful adults — like you — and honor them by allowing them to hang out and chat with teenagers from around the country for a few days. Sounds fun!

Upon arrival, we were given instructions to quickly change and then go to dinner. I changed into what was one of my nicer outfits, which was a too-short blue skirt with buttons and a new white t-shirt. True, it was the type of t-shirt that comes in a 3-pack, but since I had never worn it, I thought it would pass.

I followed the map to the dinner location and…oh boy, I was over my head. Shrimp cocktail — wait, was I supposed to actually eat the tail?! The boys in jackets, and the girls in classy, tasteful dresses that I couldn’t even imagine trying on. The excitement and bravado I felt upon arrival melted as a hard knot of embarrassment grew in my stomach.

To put it in perspective, consider this: If you put all of the times I had eaten at a restaurant in my life on a pie chart, it would be 98% Pizza Hut and then one Friendly’s and one percent for the weird diner in my town.

So there I was, with my Pizza Hut manners and my Pizza Hut clothes at a Morton’s Steakhouse affair.

And as if a hundred well dressed, unimaginably cool and casual teenagers weren’t enough, the room was also swirling with a hundred or so highly accomplished adults. And some of the former group were actually engaged in animated, happy looking conversations with the latter group!

My mind was blown and I wanted to disappear. Instead, I found a table with mostly empty seats and sat down. A few minutes later, you walked over and said, “Do you mind if I sit here?”

What?!? Mufasa?!? Of course you could sit next to me!

So there I was, little me, sitting next to you — James Earl Jones!

I’m not sure if it was you or me (nope, I’m sure it was you) but our table then quickly filled up with other wildly successful but also very nice and very chatty adults. Their conversations were fast paced and dizzying and I tried to seem like I was interested, but not eavesdropping.

Under the table I dug my nails into my thighs and beads of sweat formed on my forehead. Which finally brings me to my point. At this much later date, I would like to thank you for the following three things.

  • I want to thank you for taking a few minutes and being so nice to me. You asked me where I was from and we chatted for a few minutes about growing up on a farm. I know that it was less than a five minute exchange, but I have thought about what that meant to me over the years. It wasn’t that I was starstruck, but when I was feeling small, someone big (Mufasa!) took a moment to rebalance the scales for me a little bit. I hope you still do that and although I’m not famous or well known, I try to do it when I can also.
  • I want to thank you for teaching me about gazpacho. Prior to that night, the only first course I knew about was breadsticks with butter garlic sauce. When a dapper waiter brought me a beautiful little dish of tomato soup, I slurped it up only to find that it was icy cold. Half complaining, half observing, I blurted out “My soup is cold!” You gently leaned over and explained that it was Gazpacho, it was supposed to be cold, and it was very popular in Arizona. I don’t know if that last part is fact, but I have repeated it many times and always attributed it to you.
  • I want to thank you for eating my dinner roll. Towards the end of my meal, when I still had my roll and yours was gone, you asked if you could have it. I was happy to share, but the thing is, when I flew back to my hometown, our local newspaper reporter interviewed my about my trip. I shared this trivial little detail, and several days later, an above-the-fold article appeared titled ‘James Earl Jones Eats Local Girl’s Dinner Roll.’ I have a happy full life now, but from time to time when my parents are feeling nostalgic, they’ll rock back in their chairs and make a request: “Emily, tell us about that time…”

No need to write back. Unless you want to set the record straight about Gazpacho and Arizona.

All the best,

Emily

Big fan of good books, funny looking animals, and great stories. Always ready for the next big thing.

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