It was a cold, blustery night. I had invited them over to see what, if anything, could be done to knit this black hole of a group together. The firm called the various groups of law practice “clusters.” To this day, I am not sure if someone familiar with military slang named us that catchall phrase. I had been offered the position of Cluster Lead, which, translated to “herd these cats that-a-way.”
I had poured them wine, fed them spaghetti, salad, french bread. All twenty or so of ’em. These women were the legal support, secretaries and paralegals, of the cluster that handled the worst of insurance defense cases. The truly awful, horrific accidents to the bizarre. My first day as a temporary secretary, I had plugged in a tape to transcribe and typed a letter that began something to the effect of:
“Dear Mr. Clevesdon,
This letter is to give a status update on the Pennington matter. As you can see from the enclosed pictures, the toe transplant to the thumb went well. …”
WHAT? The toe transplant? I could no more resist looking at the pictures than eating a large slice of chocolate cake. I stared at the photos in fascination. The toe transplanted was the man’s big toe – his left big toe to his left hand where his thumb had once been. Some nasty accident had removed his thumb and we were responsible for settling his case.
Or, later on, there was the case of the young Irish immigrant working overtime on Valentine’s Day in some type of nuclear plant facility that contained nuclear-type vats – my memory is of pictures similar to a winery – huge steel circular units filled with some type of large balls instead of wine, but in this case, they were there to clean the vats and perhaps to place items into them. They were so large, the workers were transported via a crane in an open basket or cage, which crossed the ceiling and would hover over one of the vats, gently lowering the worker into the vat to do whatever he was supposed to do, then bringing him back up and once again, traversing to the next vat or back across the ceiling to the starting area. Unbeknownst to anyone, there were two different groups working in two different areas outside of sight of one another, working on very different tasks. The second group was responsible for steam cleaning the vats by triggering the steam sprayers in the ceiling. One of the workers from the first group was being transported from one vat across the ceiling on his way back when the steam vents went off – essential stripping this poor man of his skin. And, he lived. His recovery was as terrifying and gruesome as any image your mind might conjure. There was no argument from anyone that full payment of the claim was to be made and made as expeditiously as humanly possible. I had to type up the reports on his recovery, which made the toe transplant seem like a picnic on a sunny day.
Or, the day, one of the secretaries started laughing as she was transcribing – that, in and of itself, was so unusual, everybody stopped to hear. She read out from the summary, which had to do with a burial. On the day of the funeral, everyone assembled at the graveside, ready to lower the casket into the ground when there was a glitch. The woman being buried was of an unusual girth (we did not say obese back then). She had had to have a specially ordered coffin to accommodate her size, but no one had thought to inform the grave diggers, thus… the hole was not big enough. Needless to say, the ceremony comes to an abrupt halt to be resumed the next day when the hole would be increased width-wise to accommodate the coffin. That was not the reason for the lawsuit. The mother of the woman who had died was driving away from the cemetery and glanced through her car window to see that the coffin was still situated over the top of the grave. The two men assigned to expand the hole had apparently walked twenty paces in opposite directions, faced one another, saluted their shovels and began running back as fast they could to jump on the coffin to squeeze it into the ground…. Granted, a horrible sight, but not compared to the steamed cleaned immigrant on Valentine’s Day.
Aside from confidentiality, there was good reason why none of us talked about our work with people outside the firm. Well, there we were, at my small apartment, milling around after dinner when I suggested they might want to play The UnGame. The rules of the UnGame are simple enough. It is a board game, you get a little marker just like you do in Monopoly, but not as stylized. You chose between two types of deck cards. The first is for people unacquainted with one another. The other is for people who do know one another, at least to a certain extent. Second group of cards then for my cluster of people. On your turn, you roll the dice and advance the number of the dice to land on a particular square. The square might be blank, or it might have the UnGame emblem on it. If you land on an UnGame square, you draw a card, read it out loud and then answer it. Not so tough, eh? Here’s the key: no one can talk until their turn. They cannot comment on your answer. They cannot ask questions. They must simply maintain silence and listen to your answer. Until the dice are passed to the next person, the only person allowed to speak is the player with the dice.
The first fifteen minutes are the most uncomfortable as silence is so rare, everyone forgets and starts commenting or asking questions about the person’s response. The only time you get to follow up with a question or comment is if you land on a square marked Questions/Comment…. That is it for rules. Oh, except around the board it is printed, “Be Honest.” I have had a player who began shaking when we started to play. I asked why and she said, “It says to be honest…” I remember looking over at her, seeing her quivering and I said, “Lie. If it makes you that nervous, just lie.” “But the board says…” hmmm……
With 15-20 of us, we were sort of sprawled around a loose circle, some sitting on the floor, some on chairs, some sprawled in all different directions. If you couldn’t move your gismo, someone obliged and moved it for you. You did have to be able to roll the dice. Overall, the women surprised me by their willingness to play and be honest in front of one another. Some questions are easy and others not. The questions always seem to find just the right player for their particular needs.
At first, people will speak rapidly, so accustom to being cut-off, but as the time goes on, they become more comfortable in thinking their answer out loud and the answers become clearer and shorter as they realize no one will interrupt, mock, or nay say them. One of the women, however, refused to take it seriously and responded flippantly to whatever question she got. Once, twice, and on the third time, she caved. She landed on a Question/Comment square and paused before clearing her throat and flushing. “I would like to apologize to all of you. I have not respected the rules and you all have been generous and honest in your answers. I will play fairly from here on out.” hmmm….
Out of that whole night, the question I recall for one of the women was “What is your best skill?” She thought for a bit and said, “My best skill is that I shoot a gun very well.” And, she slapped the card down and passed the dice. …. turns out she was an ex-cop and no one had known that before. Others were truthful, often vulnerable in their answers.
The thing about the UnGame is the person you learn the most about is yourself.