Here’s a prime example of how badly I can mess up things! 

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In early 1992 news came that my friend and former graduate adviser at Ohio State University, Bob Warmbrod, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was convalescing after surgery. My concern about this was heightened by the rapid death of a former colleague in Illinois from a prostate cancer that had only been diagnosed a couple of months after his retirement.

My wife Ellen had worked with Bob as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Agricultural Education in Secondary Schools from 1985 to 1988.  She had come to know and greatly respect him as well.

As soon as we could block some time out of our schedules, we arranged a time to go to Columbus to see him and his wife Cathy. Our visit would be brief and then I would show Ellen the places I had lived and worked in Columbus and where my children Joy and Bob had grown up during their early years.

We left home in Danville, Illinois, heading east on Interstate 74 toward Indianapolis.  As often happens with us, we got hungry soon after getting on the road. There was a relatively new upscale shopping center in north Indianapolis called Keystone at the Crossing and we stopped to have lunch there at a sandwich shop called Daltons.

This was no ordinary place to grab a sandwich. White tablecloths graced the tables. The wait staff wore black and white uniforms. People spoke in low voices as soothing music wafted through the place. There was a level of refinement in Daltons that you could feel when you walked in the door.

Fortunately for me, Ellen was fashionably dressed and with her regal way of carrying herself, I could walk in with her and no one would notice that I was more appropriately dressed for eating at a dirty table in a roadside park. She wore a red and white striped blouse with crisp white jeans, a white belt, white socks, and white tennis shoes. She was—as she almost always is—simply dazzling.

No one would ever have guessed what was about to happen.

We placed our order and began to relax as our food was prepared. We had never been to Daltons before and so far we were really impressed. In a few minutes our food arrived and it was beautifully presented. My sandwich was accompanied by battered and spiced French fries that made me salivate more than normal.

I reached for the ketchup bottle and started to shake it to break up the surface tension so it would pour easier, but I caught myself and stopped. It somehow did not seem right to vigorously shake a ketchup bottle in such a refined place where the mood called for everything to move in a slow, controlled way. So I simply reached under the table to shake the bottle unobtrusively.

This is what the ketchup bottle on our table at Dalton's looked like.

This is what the ketchup bottle on our table at Daltons looked like, except the cap wasn’t on tight.

When I brought the bottle up to put ketchup on my French fries I noticed that the cap was missing and the bottle was only half full. I pushed my chair back, lifted the tablecloth, and looked under the table. Ellen was coated in ketchup from her knees all the way down to the tips of her shoes. I pushed further back to inspect myself and I did not have a drop on me.

In a very low voice I explained to her what had just happened. Her facial expression never changed. She pushed her chair back far enough to see for herself.  She was absolutely calm and unruffled. I wondered at what instant she would grab a fork and bury it in my eye, but she kept her composure completely, never raising her voice in the slightest.

Remarkably, all of this happened so quietly that our waiter and none of our fellow diners seemed to notice. Or maybe they did notice but were so appalled that they were frozen in time or were just repulsed.

Ellen excused herself to go to the ladies’ room while I recovered the cap to the ketchup bottle and proceeded to eat my lunch alone. I did not expect her back at the table anytime soon.

When she did return she had a forgiving smile on her face. She had used a goodly number of paper towels to clean up the ketchup and had succeeded in pressing the ketchup deeply into every fiber below the knees of her white jeans, socks, and shoes. In fact, it looked as though she had just finished slaughtering a large hog.

I had moved her plate and silverware to another side of the table so her feet wouldn’t be in the ketchup. Still the waiter and other customers seemed unaware of this calamity, and we had no intention of calling attention to it. She then finished her lunch while I, very quietly, apologized profusely.

We paid our bill and as we left I apologized to the waiter for the spilled ketchup under the table. We were in the parking lot on the way to the car before he had a chance to see what I meant by “spilled.”

By the time we got on the road Ellen and I began to laugh about the ketchup bottle incident. It would have been even funnier if someone else had borne the burden of it.

We checked into a motel in Columbus in the early evening. Ellen savored a shower and a change of clothes.

The next day we went to visit the Warmbrods. To my relief, he looked great, sounded great, and was obviously feeling good considering his recent surgery.

Bob asked how our trip was. Then I began to recount the ketchup bottle story from the day before. When I got to the part of the story about discovering large amounts of ketchup on Ellen’s jeans, socks, and shoes, he and Cathy began to laugh uncontrollably. Suddenly, Bob grabbed his abdomen because laughing was causing sharp pain in the vicinity of his incision. Luckily he did not rupture anything as we all tried to squelch our laughing.

So finding Bob recovering well was a huge relief to me. He had been my steady and inspiring mentor since I began to study under his direction in 1969, and he had continued to play an active role as a colleague and friend throughout the progression of my career. He gets a lot of credit for whatever career success I have had.

With the addition of the ketchup bottle story to my repertoire, I indirectly am indebted to him for triggering our trip to Columbus and, therefore, the lunch stop at Daltons in Indianapolis. As I think about it, I’m not sure I properly thanked him.

Bob Warmbrod survived prostate cancer and remains hale and hearty.  He also survived the ketchup bottle story.  He’s tough.

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Special thanks to J. Robert Warmbrod, professor emeritus at Ohio State University, who previously reviewed a draft of this story. 

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