Hush My Mouth

by John Delach

A recent piece in The New York Times brought back a bizarre memory of a night many years ago when my big mouth combined with alcohol and a dose of New York sarcasm came close to getting me thrown off the Waterman Steamship Account.

The piece ran under the headline: “Which States Are the Safest?” It detailed a study produced by an outfit known as WalletHub that focused on five categories of safety concerns. The maximum total for all five categories was 100 points but it was heavily weighted by the first category, “Personal and Residential Safety,” worth 40 of those points. The other four categories, “Financial Safety, Road Safety, Workplace Safety and Emergency Preparedness,” were each worth 15 points. No states finished higher than 64.43 points (Minnesota) while Mississippi finished last with 33.11 points.

Curiously, I noted that five of the six New England states finished in the top ten (Rhode Island was 16) and all five of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico finished dead last joined by Arkansas. This last fact is the one that resurrected memories of my unfortunate experience.

On one of my early trips to Mobile, Alabama to visit Waterman I hosted a dinner at the Epicurean Café for Robert Parker, Waterman’s risk manager, his wife Betty and his boss, Robert Haskins, Waterman’s treasure. This fine dining restaurant occupied an ante bellum mansion on Government Boulevard just outside of downtown Mobile. The restaurant was Mr. Parker’s favorite so long as it was on someone else’s dime. Fine dining indeed, with a glimpse of the white-gloved south. It was here that I discovered stone crab claws and Marsh & McLennan proudly picked up the tab.

Making conversation, Mr. Haskins reached into the inside pocket of his jacket to produce a sheet of paper. Waving it in the air he asked, “This is a list of each state and the total cost to live there. Can any of you tell me what state is the least costly?”

With youthful enthusiasm, I announced: “I believe that would be Mississippi.”

“Why, that’s correct. My, my,” Haskins exclaimed, “Tell me John, how did you come to know that?”

“Well, Bob, I thought about the quality of life and how much the state spent on their police force, public works and education and it seemed to me that these expenditures in Mississippi are so low that taxes must also be very low too.”

With that, I had dug myself into a hole but one that I could still climb out of so long as I stopped yakking away.  But: No, No, No; not good ole John Delach. Instead, I continued: “I am curious, Bob, what is the second least costly state on the list?”

When he replied, “Alabama,” my heart, soul and confidence dropped under the table.

I had no place to run to and no place to hide. I waited for the inevitable but nothing more was made of my remarks by any of my guests and the conversation moved on to other subjects. I was left in a state of remorse and confusion; had nobody noticed what I said?

We said our goodbyes; the Haskins drove off and the Parkers drove me back to the Admiral Simms Hotel (named after the loser for the Battle of Mobile Bay.) Bob Parker didn’t express any indication that he was upset, and Betty was her charming self. I said goodnight and retreated to the bar for a nightcap wondering if the shit would hit the fan at next day’s meeting.

It didn’t. Neither Bob ever brought it up and, of course, neither did I. To this day, I don’t know exactly why I survived committing hara-kiri, but my best guess is their manners were such that my New York sarcasm was inconceivable to them and what I was implying went right over their heads.

Delta upgraded me to first class on both the flight to Atlanta and the second to LaGuardia giving time to reflect on my near miss in comfort.

Since I couldn’t prove how I ducked the bullet, I invented my personal quip to describe how sometimes fate lets us out of a jam:

                                            “Only the good.”

                                                        Dy Yung