(Bob Urban steps aside this week from his usual Back Again column. And back again, pinch hitting, is veteran journalist Bruce Frassinelli, a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School and an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)

By BRUCE FRASSINELLI

tneditor@tnonline.com

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan invited me to a White House Press Conference.

Part of that unforgettable day included a luncheon hosted by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the father of former President George W. Bush. The luncheon was held in the elegant White House dining room, the one and only time I have ever been there as a guest of the president and vice president of the United States.

President Reagan decided to hold a series of news conferences attended by editors of smaller newspapers and news directors of radio and television stations. This was his way to circumvent the exclusivity of the TV networks, the major wire services and the Washington-insider newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. At the time, I was the editor of The Express (now The Express-Times) in Easton, Pa - circulation 53,000.

This was a major occasion for us small-town news officials. We're used to paper plates and plastic cutlery, but here we were sitting down under spectacular chandeliers with three forks, three spoons and two knives spread out on three sides of an attractive and decorative place setting chosen by Nancy Reagan, the president's wife, for his term of office.

A battalion of waiters stood at attention waiting for this rabble to come to order. Vice President Bush welcomed us to the event. "Please enjoy yourself and the meal prepared especially for you," he said to us. "Bon appetit."

Our waiter was impeccably dressed in a tux and black tie. He was super efficient, wore a professional smile and deftly delivered the opening course a fruit compote in a silver chalice.

We reached for our spoons simultaneously. I chose the dead-north spoon; so did two other tablemates. Two chose the outside spoon to the left, and one chose the inside spoon to the right.

When we finished, our waiter arrived and whisked away the chalices. In a moment or two, he returned with another silver receptacle filled with a clear liquid into which a small celery stalk had been deposited.

We looked at each other quizzically, again hoping that someone knew what had been placed before us. "Do you know what this is?" I whispered to the editor next to me. He was from a small newspaper in Vermont. "No," he replied sheepishly. "I was going to ask you."

Two seats away from me, a burly, garrulous editor from a small paper in Rhode Island was convinced he had solved the mystery. "I'm pretty sure it's soup," he said confidently. "Maybe something like consommé?"

I pretended to fool with the linen napkin in my lap and took a big whiff as I lowered my face as if I were getting a good look at the napkin. I was hoping my nose would unlock what my eyes couldn't, but I could detect nothing except the slight aroma of celery.

It probably is a clear broth, I reasoned, since it had come as a second course of sorts on the heels of the fruit cup. As I fooled nervously with my spoon, I inconspicuously stuck my pinky finger into the bowl.

Lukewarm. Hmmm. Let's see. I think I had cold soup once - believe it was vichyssoise. Maybe this was a soup meant to be eaten cold, but, honestly, I was stumped. So were my tablemates. We made small talk for a couple of minutes, each hoping the other would make a move.

Finally, the brave Rhode Island editor sent his spoon diving into the bowl. "What the heck," he said, as he scooped up the first spoonful. "Mmm," he proclaimed, "not bad."

"What is it?" I asked.

"Not much taste," he replied, clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth. "Kinda lukewarm, too. Broth, maybe."

I happened to notice our waiter standing at attention against a nearby wall. He seemed to have a slight smile and apparently had been watching and enjoying the comedy unfolding before him.

I caught his eye and beckoned him. He marched to my right side. "May I help you, sir?" he asked.

"Can you tell me what this is?" I asked, pointing to the liquid in the silver bowl before me.

He looked down, then turned and looked me straight in the eye. "That, sir, is the finger bowl," he announced. "Thank you," I mumbled as I felt my face turning crimson.

My Rhode Island tablemate had just scooped another spoonful of the mystery liquid into his mouth. In horror, he stopped in mid-stride, dropped the spoon and grabbed his napkin into which he deposited the lukewarm water.

We were all mortified at our social gaffe. I have never gone to a fancy restaurant or dinner party since then without thinking of this classic White House experience.