Biff America: Remembering the lunkhead in the mirror
February 26, 2016
"You saved my husband's life. If you weren't there, I'm sure he would have died."
Many scientists contend the human brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s. For that reason, I contend that young people who do stupid things should not be punished to a degree that their lives are inextricably altered. Personally, I'm very grateful that much of the stupid stuff I did was before the invention of cellphone cameras. When I look back at what seemed reasonable to me at the time, I can only wonder, who was that lunkhead in the mirror?
I learned the Heimlich maneuver from the side of a milk carton in the mid-'70s. I was working the summer season on Cape Cod and enjoying a healthy 3 a.m. meal of Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes when I noticed some lifesavings tips on the side of the milk carton. I didn't purposely study it, but the information must have found a foothold in my brainpan.
'Turn 'em and burn 'em'
The wife was a couple of months pregnant with their first child. She said that what she kept thinking as her husband turned blue was that her child would be an orphan before he was born. She added, “You saved my husband’s life. If you weren’t there, I’m sure he would have died. We would like to give you something, but how can we ever put a price tag on my husband’s life?”
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The following winter, I was waiting tables at a steakhouse in Colorado. It was one of those high-volume type joints with an open kitchen and a salad bar where wait staff were expected to "turn 'em and burn 'em." Some nights, I would wait on 80 customers, providing good food and marginal service. While hurrying through the dining room with a tray full of beef, I noticed some big guy bent over coughing. It wasn't my table, so I mostly ignored him. I served my food, took a drink order and headed toward the bar.
I had to step around the big guy, who was now on his knees surrounded by his friends. I heard someone say, "He's choking."
It was just after I put in my drink order when I wondered, "What did I read recently about choking?" The gravity of the situation hit me. I ran back to the dining room. By now the guy was lying on his back and turning blue. It took a couple of the bigger waiters to get him on his feet and I came up behind him.
I never was a good student — I couldn't remember exactly where to squeeze or how hard. So I yanked up and back violently and a hunk of beef the size of golf ball shot out and hit the guy's wife in the chest.
What had I done?
I was both elated and scared. First of all, I wasn't 100 percent sure it was food that came out — I worried I might have squeezed out a kidney and or broken a few ribs.
As I recall, the guy sat back down and continued his meal with his family. I was juggling about six tables of my own, and the incident really put me in the weeds. The dining room was so large and the restaurant so busy, I think, other than those in the immediate proximity, few knew what had occurred.
I don't think it hit me that I might have saved a life until the end of the evening, while the staff and I were sitting around a large table having a post-shift cocktail. It was then that I got a few congrats and atta-boys.
When I look back now, I'm very proud of what I did, but back then, my 24-year-old self was more disturbed that it wasn't my table, and hence, my actions didn't result in a good tip. I swear sometimes when I look back at stuff like that it is like I'm looking at a totally different, clueless and selfish person.
But all that said, that following day, after some reflection, it dawned upon me that what I did was probably the best thing I had ever done in my life. That high-minded outlook lasted a few hours.
The Jerk I used to be
The next night was a Saturday and we were setting up for what was to be another crazy night. Between our employee meal and my first table, the choking man and his wife came in and asked to speak to me. They were holding hands and told me something that they had yet to share with their even closest friends and family.
The wife was a couple of months pregnant with their first child. She said that what she kept thinking as her husband turned blue was that her child would be an orphan before he was born. She added, "You saved my husband's life. If you weren't there, I'm sure he would have died. We would like to give you something, but how can we ever put a price tag on my husband's life?"
That's when that jerk (who used to be me) replied, "One hundred dollars sounds fair."
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff's new book, "Mind, Body, Soul," is available at local shops and bookstores and at backcountrymagazine.com/store.