Saturday, August 23, 2008
It’s 1955. We’re at 45th and Broadway, in the heart of the old Times Square. It’s a chilly Spring evening; women are still bundled up in their furs, men still wearing their overcoats. We’re standing under the great marquee of the venerable old Astor Theater (long gone now), watching a tall skinny young usher, all dressed up like an admiral, marching back and forth under the bright neon lights, spouting off his repetitive spiel to the endless throngs of cold, disinterested passersby:
“Step right this way, folks! Immediate seating in the balcony! Tonight we have ‘East of Eden’, with James Dean, Julie Harris and Raymond Massey! Next show begins in fifteen minutes!”
That’s me. The eighteen-year old version. Living the big life in the Big Apple, and doing my best to live up to those stringent requirements for becoming a full-fledged, legitimate Bohemian (that “free-thinking, anti-establishment” movement that came onto the scene a generation before those infinitely more numerous and infamous Hippies). I was already breaking one of the cardinal rules by working. But you have to eat and pay the rent so you compromise a little. With the exception of those evenings at the Astor, however, the rest of my life was pure unadulterated Bohemian. I was a struggling young art student, living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. My girlfriend, also an art student, although somewhat less struggling, was the pretty, blond eighteen-year old daughter of a Brazilian embassy official. On those nights when I didn’t have to work at the Astor, we’d visit one of the local coffeehouses or bars, and spend the night engaged in long, passionate discussions with our friends about -- art, or religion, or something like that.
I shared a cramped second floor “studio” on Grove Street with my best buddy, a fellow artist and boxer who earned his money sparring at Stillman’s Gym. All of my friends were (to one degree or another) artists, writers, poets, musicians, or just plain Bohemians. During all this, I was, although I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, involved in the subliminal process of constructing a persona, a persona that would, barring a few adjustments, and sometimes lengthy, inadvertent interruptions, last almost a lifetime. Almost.
On those rare occasions when I actually voted, I of course voted Democratic. If you had asked me why I considered myself a Democrat I would have probably answered something to the effect that the Democrats were the “party of the people”, that they were caring and tolerant and “had concern for the little guy”. And most importantly, though I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, that they were the polar opposite of the Republicans who were, to me, the corporate embodiment of my stern, materialistic Main Line stockbroker father -- against whom I would spend the greater part of a lifetime in unnecessary and self-destructive rebellion.
It's 2001. I'm sleeping late, the phone ringing wakes me up. It's my son Geoff, from North Carolina. Geoff is a former Army Ranger, fought in Desert Storm, he seldom gets rattled. He sounded rattled. “Dad!” He said. “Turn on the TV. Some crazy bastard just crashed into the World Trade Center!” I turned on CNN. We watched CNN together, he in North Carolina, me in Massachusetts. We hardly spoke. We just listened to the TV. Then, “Jesus Christ!” He said.
Both towers! All those people! Who did it? And why? Are we at war? Who are we at war with? Who the hell is Osama bin Laden? And who are these fanatical Muslims? What the hell does Islam have to do with the World Trade Center? And, most frightening of all, what’s going to happen next?
What happened next was the Pentagon.
Immediately following the attacks on New York City, the Peace Protesters were out in force, filing into Manhattan’s parks and squares with their obligatory candles and guitars, singing for Peace, and intimating, through their homemade signs and baleful comments that somehow we, the United States, through our purported self-interested imperialist aggressions, had brought all this on ourselves. These inflammatory pronouncements of course generated loud, angry counter-protests from some offended citizens among the surrounding crowd. The painful debate had begun. Like some catastrophic earthquake, the horrific events of that awful day generated a gigantic fault line that stretched across the entire continent, dividing one half of our nation from the other by a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.
It's 2008. Where are we now? Still divided, still conflicted, a nation torn asunder, struggling to find its identity. And where am I now? Who am I now? This old deconstructed Greenwich Village liberal? What's happened? How did I change so much? How did I become this angry old right-winger? this indefatigable alarmist? this anti-Islamist warmonger? Was it those buildings coming down? Was it all of those people jumping out of those windows? Was it reading the Koran? Am I getting wiser with old age, or am I just getting harder? Did America change? Or was it just me?
That old Times Square is long gone now. All of those things are gone now. All gone. Sometimes late at night when I'm lying alone in the darkness they come back, those ghosts of Times Square. That great glowing neon marquee, the venerable old Astor, our doomed hero James Dean and my pretty blond girlfriend, and all of those good friends and all of those long, passionate discussions, and that tall skinny young usher, all dressed up like an admiral, marching back and forth under the bright neon lights, spouting off his repetitive spiel to the endless throngs of cold, disinterested passersby:
“Step right this way, folks! Immediate seating in the balcony! Tonight we have -- "
What do we have tonight, folks? What will we have tomorrow? What, I wonder, would James Dean have to say about all this?
Here's another great pic: http://images.google.com/hosted/life/f?q=parade++source:life&imgurl=fb3f7f50707ebdf5
Maggie M. Thornton said...
I'm not sure what James Dean would have said, but I've read many of your writings now, and you are still having those long, impassioned conversations - it's just that the friends and the subjects have changed.May I ask when you became more conservative than more liberal? Was it at 9/11 or long before?This is a beautiful read, as is all of your work. Now that I know you were an art student, I understand why (and how) you have so many incredible photos and works of art on your blogs.MaggieMaggie's Notebook
August 22, 2008 8:17 PM
Roger W. Gardner said...
Thank you Maggie.I am glad you enjoyed my Ghosts.I became a conservative after 9/11 because the Republicans were the only party willing to face the truth about our enemies and actually do something about it. But the more I got involved with the conservative viewpoint, the more I found myself agreeing with it on many other issues as well. I might also say that by calling my previous liberalism 'knee-jerk', I merely meant that they weren't particularly deeply held convictions. Whereas my present views are the result of a lot of the research I've done since that awful day. So, I suppose I could be described as a late but passionate convert.
August 22, 2008 8:32 PM
My talent, he said, is the little red flower I wear in my lapel on the way to the gallows.
And of course what he meant by this was, that at this particular time, in this particular state of mind, his talent seemed irrelevant and inconsequential: an innocuous little thing which in itself had no power, and therefore could not in any way alter the factual conditions of his life or forestall its inevitable conclusion.
Friday, August 22, 2008
I had brought with me to the Academy an adequate supply of artistic talent, an enormous capacity for loneliness, and an almost total ignorance of everything my fellow students deemed worthy of discussion. They were discussing Freud and Adler, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Stravinsky and Bach. They were holding long involved debates on the relative merits of Romanticism versus Neo-Classicism, and having passionate arguments about Botticelli and the Bauhaus. I didn't have the slightest idea what they were talking about.
But I loved them and I wanted to fit in. I wanted to know what they were all talking about and I was determined to find out. So I spent the next two years at the Philadelphia Public Library.
I went there every day. I read everything I could find on Freud. I read Kant and Adler and Jung. I read books on art and mythology and religion and philosophy. I sat at one of those long wooden tables in the music room with earphones on my head in impregnable isolation listening to all of the music that they were talking about at school (the only music I had ever heard was my own -- the sad formless stuff I made up and played on the big baby grand in our living room, or my collection of Rhythm and Blues records, or my Doris Day albums -- my parents listened to Mantovani, Percy Faith and Guy Lombardo). Now, suddenly, here was Prokoviev, Tschaikovsky, Stravinsky. I had never dreamt there could be such sounds. Powerful, frightening, heart-rending sounds: Romeo and Juliet, The Rites of Spring.
Everything my high school teachers had tried so unsuccessfully to interest me in, that I had refused to even consider, I was now devouring like a starving man. I read Shakespeare with the dictionary right next to the book, taking copious notes, making long lists of characters, sometimes having to look up almost every other word. But I wouldn't stop until I had gone back and repeated the phrase over and over in my head, until I had understood every word, every sentence, every paragraph. I read all of Shakespeare's plays this way, and all of the sonnets, memorizing long stanzas --"Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."
Then I started Goethe.
All this, just because I loved them and I wanted to fit in; and because I wanted to know what they were all talking about; and because -- and maybe this was the biggest thing -- I wanted to be able to say something too, something that they wouldn't all laugh at, something that would dazzle them and make me an interesting person, someone to be reckoned with. And I must have wanted this pretty badly, because I worked awfully hard to get it.
Then I read A Tale of Two Cities. I didn't know anything about the French Revolution, and even less about English literature; but I knew a lot about loneliness, and I recognized Sydney Carton immediately. I suppose I had thought that I was the only person in the whole world who had ever suffered loneliness. I was surprised, and thrilled, and hooked. What had started out to be just a means of fitting in had now become a compulsion. I read Crime and Punishment and I became Raskolnikov, a bitter, brilliant, anti-social recluse, hell-bent on self-destruction. I became almost anyone I read. I became, successively, Hamlet, Kafka, and Winston Smith. All the great insane and rational loners struggling against a sane and irrational world.
It wasn't that I hated this world. I didn't; I loved it. But I also loved my fantasies. I was a romantic and a loner, and I guess that's just the way I wanted it, because at least I was becoming something. Maybe not something to be reckoned with yet, but something. And something is better than nothing. So I was Raskolnikov or Winston Smith, and it was all right, nobody minded. Nobody even knew but me. And after a while I even forgot, I forgot who I was being. And eventually they all became me.
In 1968, a Belgian diver discovered the site of the wreck of the Spanish galleon, Girosa, where it had sunk off Duncase Castle, Ireland, in 1588. Among the jewelry and artifacts brought up from the deep was a golden lover's ring, embossed with a hand and a heart with the inscription: No tengo mas que dar te -- 'I have no more to give thee'.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Newburgh, New York, 1959
I remember… my landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Kravitz who lived downstairs, who’d been in a concentration camp and yelled at each other all the time, and fat Bertha who woke me up every morning on her way to work at the hotel, and one-legged Biggy who never left his room, and quiet Rose the librarian, with whom I had a quiet affair, the Newburgh-Beacon Ferry that I took just for the ride, the Old City where I walked at night, those lonesome railroad tracks that I followed aimlessly into lost November days, the Yesterday Inn where I drank all night long till I forgot where I was, and sleeping with Jean the dancer and the taut coolness of her skin, and the portrait commissions, and painting Linda, my patron’s unhappily married daughter, and falling in love with her to the sounds of Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, and crying over Steinbeck‘s “Cannery Row”, and the first time I heard Scriabin, and my buddy Phil, the Irish carpenter who lived in the room next to mine, and his obnoxious record player, and his drunken telephone calls to his old mother in Ireland, and his crying on my shoulder over his girlfriend Marge, and his crazy Irish friends, and the night we tried to watch dirty movies up in my room but they were upside down and backwards because Kravitz couldn’t work the projector, and that night in the lounge of the Lafayette Hotel when we got the whole place singing, and the time we stole that city bus and drove it through the suburbs, waving at fat men in shorts who were out mowing their lawns, laughing, drinking whiskey, singing wild Irish songs, feeling supremely young, and supremely old.
And I remember reading Faust, and reciting Hamlet to myself out loud in that old Quaker cemetery that overlooked the Hudson River where they had fireworks displays from floating barges on the Fourth of July, and the drunkenness, and the love, and the poetry of those lonely nights, so dark, so wonderful, so long ago.
I'd been pounding the pavement all day. My feet hurt and I was hot and tired and sick of filling our endless forms and now this little man across the desk was asking me what my other qualifications were. So I told him I could float. And by the time he'd figured out what it was I said I was about three inches off the chair and rising. I leveled off at about five feet and drifted out the open window. I sailed out over the empty parking lot and over the trees and landed in that little park down by the river.
I had just blown another interview.
Deets is sick. In the hospital. Maybe dying, I don't know. I don't know anything. And I forgot to ask Jeb her last name. For Christ's sake, what's her last name? His name's Farley. But Farley what? I can't remember. I've never met Farley but I picture him -- short, stocky, thick neck, bald head, cold gray eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses -- that's how I picture him, Farley. But what's his last name? Jesus, I can't remember anything anymore. I should've asked Jeb.
I'm going through that little red address book, looking for someone to call, someone who'd know her name. The Aronsons. Peter Brennan, Cindy -- I get to the 'h's' and Sissy Hellman -- Deets' cousin? Her aunt? I can't remember which. I call her anyway and she asks me about my leg. How the hell did she know about my leg? Have we met? I tell her about how Jeb just called from the hospital and Deets is there, maybe dying. I tell her how I can't remember Deets' new name -- the new one she's had for fifteen years.
Sissy's voice is soft and sweet and I wish I could remember her but I can't. She gives me Deets' last name, Farley's last name, and I call the hospital in Connecticut and ask for her.
But the receptionist is wary, protective, she wants to know who I am. I tell her I'm Deets' ex-husband and there's a pause.
I don't want to cause any trouble, I just want to know how she is, that's all. She's so suspicious. I feel like saying, Look, you officious little bitch, we lived together for eight years, we made love every night, we've got a son named Jeb who looks just like me. I've got a right, goddammit.
The receptionist says she can't take any calls. Her condition is serious but stable. She'll give her the message that I called. I hang up and call the florist. The card will read, Get well soon. What else do you say? Farley might get mad. Fuck Farley. I put on my coat and go out for coffee.
We had her mother's car that day, that broken-down old Plymouth. It was summer and we were sick of it, sick of all the bills and the heat and the city, so we got in the car and we drove, all the way out to the country, through Valley Forge and Brandywine and King-of-Prussia, and Deets was smiling, smiling again, the prettiest girl in the school, passing me cold Millers from the plastic cooler in the back seat and I drove right the hell off the highway, into a pasture and up a hill, through the tall green grass, past great, sad, unastonished cows, and Deets was screaming, screaming I was CRAZY -- but she was laughing.
Jesus, I can remember her laughing.
I'm walking home and I see that old German Shepherd coming towards me, trotting kind of sideways, rump sloping, hind legs strangely out of sync. I reach down for him as he passes but he eludes me somehow and all I get is a handful of air.
There was a sickness there, the relationship was dying. Why couldn't I just accept it? Somehow I must have thought my loyalty would prevail, that my constancy would wear her down. She expected me to quit, but she'd be wrong; I'd never quit, I'd always be there, waiting, like a rock, like a planet; and eventually, inexorably, she'd be drawn into my orbit, drawn by the irresistible pull of my love.
But somehow the magnetic poles reversed, my very stability was pushing her away, and the power of my love was frightening her, only serving to increase that inherent sense of anxiety. She was slipping away, and all I could do was accept it, all I could do was let her go, and that was impossible.
So I survived on hope. The last resort of reason. That false sustenance that deludes the starving heart.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
When I picture Ernie's Famous Diner I picture it the way it used to look when you were on your way there, maybe on a nice summer night, going for a coffee and a piece of coconut custard pie and maybe some converstation with Gus. Coming down Cherry Street, past Saint Clements, past all the narrow brick buildings (mostly filled with art students and old men), looking down the elm-lined street, down to the corner, you could see this little green displaced railroad car, looking like there should be a train attached at the other end, huddled in indigo shadows, spilling out warm yellow light into the summer night from its little windows, looking so friendly under street lamps. with this blue-green neon sign up there, over that old sliding wooden door, that said, "Ernie's Famous Diner".
I don't know who Ernie was, I never met him. Maybe there never was an Ernie. But somebody decided to call it Ernie's' Famous Diner and it wasn't Gus -- I know because I asked him. And the more I thought about it, it was a kind of inappropriate name, considering that no one knew who Ernie was, and the only people who knew about the diner at all were some of the art students and a few old men.
Horn and Hardarts automat was open all night and could have been one of the loneliest places in the world, considering the fact that you hardly ever saw anyone who worked there, only an occasional hand slipping quickly in and out of one of those little window boxes to replace a piece of pie. But at three o'clock in the morning it was the only place to go; and there was always an interesting assortment of characters there, and fascinating conversations. Writers and poets, actors and artists, cab drivers, hookers, cops, and old men who just sat there looking out the window, nursing a pot of tea, just waiting, because they had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. You could stay there all night if you wanted to and no one ever bothered you because there was no one ever there, except the hands in the boxes, and they never bothered anybody.
I am not here now, I am in my hand; and my hand is in the drawing, and the drawing is in her eyes. She is all that’s here now; I am gone, forgotten, lost. She is in the drawing, breathing on my hand.
And now my hand is gone and there is only her and the sound of her breathing. And now she, too, is gone; and the table is gone and the room is gone and its all over and the drawing is done.
It’s three o’clock in the morning -- I push the pad away. I cannot look at her now, not yet. I have done with her and I am spent, I am drained and empty. The hand rests, flaccid and limp upon the table. I feel…a sense of loss, a sadness.
The spectator returns and sits down inside me: I am the spectator now; the artist disappears. I look at the artist’s work -- it is incomplete: it is her, and it is him, it is her having passed through him. She exists now, she is real. But she exists in nothing, not even a nebulous mist, she exists in blankness, in whiteness, in nothing: the background exists in the artist’s head -- not in the front of his head like an image, but in the back of his head like a half-remembered dream, like a name on the tip of your tongue.
And the name is Lara.
She was remembering the summer of '78. Carla, Sue, Crazy Amy, the bar at the Skipper's Galley -- sipping frozen margaritas through candy cane straws, flirting with the fishermen, gossiping, trading dirty jokes, dumping on men in general -- "the Girls". Inseparable. Buddies forever. All gone.
Carla in Montreal, never writes. Sue in Boston with that artist creep, pretending to be an intellectual. And Amy. Dear Crazy Amy. She still thought about Amy almost every day, still avoided 495 like the plague; and when she had to use it, when she absolutely had no choice, she'd still get that terrible knot in the pit of her stomach every time she passed that damned Ramada Inn, and the tears would well up, and her fingers would tighten round the steering wheel when she came to that curve, that awful curve.
Oh, Amy -- why? She was doing eighty miles an hour, they said. No skid marks: she never even hit the brakes.
But all this was long ago, way back then, when life was an endless promise and death was only a rumor. When your most serious problems were how you looked in your new bikini and whether or not you were going to that party at Brad's on Friday night. When under all those cruel, sophomoric jokes and that self-defensive cynicism, under all that clever iconoclastic babble, they still believed in possibilities.
Then she wanted to be married. And she must have really wanted that and she got married. And then she wanted children -- perhaps, she thought, she could have pressed him more on that; but now, she thought, maybe it was just as well.
But nothing is a total loss, no effort spent is completely wasted. And when she walked across a room, conscious of her supple grace, the controlled economy of her movements, she felt grateful and proud of all that she had learned from dancing.
Sometimes people even said she looked like a dancer -- whatever that meant. It was some sort of compliment. Better, she thought, than saying she looked cute. She never felt cute. Even when she was little she never felt cute.
She was perhaps pretty. Pretty in a subtle way. Not the kind of pretty people talked about, not the kind of pretty workmen whistled at; but that special kind of pretty that was delicate and rare, discernible only to those special few, those connoisseurs of souls.
And it was this vulnerability that he loved so, that he wanted to protect. But it was her self-control, her self-assurance, the way she stood, so tall and proud and lovely; that placid Nordic stillness, that almost regal self-possession, for which he lusted. And like some mute and brutish peasant ravishing the Lady of the Manor in his rude, lascivious dreams, he ravished her in his.
And it was this subtle blending of these disparate passions that formed the burning core of his obsession, this insatiable hunger that always left him wanting more -- even when she had given him all that she could there was always something left, something deep inside her, something that she could not give away; and he wanted that, too. He wanted everything.
If only they knew
how little I know
while so solemnly they record
my vague replies,
transforming them into
and imperial decrees.
If only they knew
their Emperor's confusion
while they all applaud
and the stalwart navies sail,
and the mighty legions march
across the foreign soil
to meet their bloody destiny.
If only they knew
that the decisions were made
in the secrecy of my privy chamber
by the toss of a small gold coin.
Happiness, someone once said, is a thing remembered. But haven't there been times when I have said, I am happy, truly happy, here right now at this very moment? And this wonderful awareness, this perfect moment of unadulterated joy, this spiritual union with some transcendental truth made me feel somehow complete; and yet, strange to say, not the least bit covetous of this present life, this particular consciousness which enabled me to experience this particular joy; but on the contrary, sated my appetite for living as a fine meal appeased one's hunger; as though my whole life had been but a striving towards that single moment, and having found it, was complete.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Poor Vincent, he died unknown and penniless. All those lonely hours, the madness, the poverty, the pain of unrequited love -- and yet, imagine for a moment how it must have felt to be in that little room surrounded by all those van Goghs.
I grew up in the 1940s and 50s. My mother worked as a full-time mom, my brother was in the service, and my stern, officious, lapsed-Quaker father was a Philadelphia stockbroker who took the same train into town every weekday at exactly the same time, and said exactly the same thing to the same old conductor every morning for exactly twenty-five years.
As I recall it, I sent away for my first secret decoder ring when I was about eight or nine years old. This was probably in 1945 or 1946. For those of you who don’t know what a secret decoder ring is, first of all, I genuinely feel sorry for you. By this simple error of bad timing you have unfortunately missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures — the exhilarating thrill of being able to understand something that no one else in the whole world can understand. Secondly, I’d suggest that you go out and rent that wonderful little holiday movie “A Christmas Story”, and let little Ralphie explain it all to you.
Just as with little Ralphie, it seemed to take forever for my decoder ring to arrive in the mail; but when it finally came, those first few days were absolutely thrilling. Every evening, I’d scrunch down by our big Philco, next to the fireplace, and tune in to my favorite program and eagerly receive and decode my secret messages — which I was firmly convinced were meant for me alone.
Unfortunately, given the infamous attention span of nine year olds, I started to lose interest in my decoder ring after about three or four weeks.
Now, I had a favorite uncle named Uncle Bill. I bet you all had your own favorite Uncle Bill. He was flamboyant and optimistic and funny and profane and I loved him. Uncle Bill sold Lincolns, and he’d show up in a dazzling canary yellow Continental about a half a block long, with a jazzy metal tire casing on the trunk, and honk his specially-made musical horn. He called me Spanky, as everyone did in those days; and every time he came to visit he’d bring me a present. One time, he brought me a beautiful Chinese brass box with dragons carved on the lid.
I, like so many kids that age, was obsessed with death and burial. Unknown to most adults, kids have their own private rituals, one of which involves the mysterious and solemn act of burying things. And nothing is more gratifying and meaningful than burying a secret treasure. A short time after I received my Chinese Dragon Box from Uncle Bill, I got out my poor abused decoder ring and gathered together some of my other small and broken but meaningful mementos and took them out to the backyard. I dug a hole in the soil about a foot deep and buried the brass box with its secret contents and soon forgot all about them.
A couple of summers ago I made the long trip back to that small suburban town and visited the house where I had grown up. It had been fifty years since I had been back there and the tree in front of our house had become huge and thick-waisted. But the house looked pretty much the same.
Graciously, the new owners allowed me to come in and tour my old home — the living room with the big granite fireplace, the dining room, the kitchen, and of course, best of all, my own little room upstairs, which was now, appropriately, their little nine year old girl’s room. Before I left they took me out back and showed me their new patio. They had constructed one of the most beautiful and impressive patios I had ever seen, on a large concrete foundation. It was then that I remembered my long-buried Dragon Box. For a moment I was tempted to tell them about it, but for some reason I didn’t.
Later that afternoon I visited our local movie theater, grandly named the Egyptian, which we kids referred to disrespectfully as the Eggpit. The lady manager kindly let me in to see how it had changed. It had been divided into two separate cinemas, each with their own screen; but the walls and the ceilings still had their elaborate and fanciful bas-reliefs and that suave and elegant 1930s Art Deco decor. The manager left me alone for awhile; and as I stood there in the semi-darkened theater, I tried to remember what it was like in this magical temple of make-believe way back then, when whole families would get all dressed up to come here and sit through two feature films, three cartoons, a comedy serial, a travelogue, two or three previews and a newsreel.
Yet, through all this, The War was never far away and certainly not forgotten. Before the show started we all stood to attention with unabashed patriotism while they played the “Star-Spangled Banner” to stirring scenes of our proud American flag unfurling in the breeze and endless squadrons of khaki-clad GIs marching in parade. After the movie, we’d sign up for War Bonds and give our precious coins to those hard-working Red Cross ladies and receive that little white pin for our lapel.
That evening, before I started the long trip back home, I went back to my old neighborhood and walked up that quiet street once again that I hadn’t walked up in fifty years, that street that I knew so well. It was a warm, balmy night and it had just gotten dark, and I tried to remember what it had sounded like to hear all of those radios playing, coming from all of those open windows, everyone listening to the same programs. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny and Rochester...
I tried to remember the unity of it all. The sureness and the clarity.
I thought about my secret decoder ring, buried in my beautiful brass Dragon Box, under a stranger’s patio, patiently waiting in the dark for a half of a century for a new message to decode.
What, I wondered, would that new message be?
Earlier this week a Hollywood legend passed away, and with him passed the legend of Hollywood, or at least a large part of it. John Charles Carter, better known as Charlton Heston died on April 5, 2008 at the age of 84. Although he was perhaps never considered the greatest actor in Hollywood, he was most certainly Hollywood's most formidable presence, and was at one time easily the most recognized American actor in the world. This recent loss got me thinking about Hollywood and the movies, our Hollywood and our movies, and how they -- and we -- have, for better or for worse, changed over the years.
As a kid growing up in America during the Second World War, long before the internet, well before the advent of television, our movies, and our beloved movie theaters, played an essential and integral part in our lives. It was where we went to be together as a people, as citizens, as Americans. Some people went to ball games, some people went to church, and some people went to the bars -- but everyone went to the movies. Going to the movies was an act of community participation -- especially during the War. A chance for us to all be together and to share our anxieties and our common hopes and dreams. Through our movies we got to see the world, and the world got to see us -- at least that hopeful vision of us that we all still believed in.
It is said that the story of a people is told through its myths. In today’s America, our myths are told through our movies. There are no more persuasive nor effective advocates in the Court of Public Opinion than our movies. Those movies that we’ve watched and loved and grown up with over the years have, I propose, played a significant and underrated role in the development of the conceptions we have ultimately formed of ourselves and our role in the world.
In 1942, it is estimated that 16,000 theaters entertained two-thirds of the American Public each week. Throughout the darkest days of that catastrophic war, America never lost its spirit and its hunger for fun and adventure, and we flocked to our wondrous Art Deco Orpheums and Bijous in record numbers. With gas rationed at five gallons a week there was nowhere else to go. Life on the American homefront during WWII was, what could best be described as, sparse. In addition to gas, in 1942, sugar and coffee began to be rationed, followed in 1943, by rationing of shoes, meat, cheese, fats and all canned foods. We, all of us, in one way or another felt that we were involved and committed to The Effort in ways which would seem utterly incomprehensible to most people today.
Today we are engaged in heated arguments about the rising costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The historical reality of our situation seems curiously irrelevant to these arguments. The facts are just ignored to prove the point. Here, for example, are some interesting comparitive statistics concerning our exorbitant economic committment to our present day military:
During those years, we experienced daily discomforts that reminded us of the necessity of sacrifice. And some of us -- all too many of us -- experienced the personal tragedies of the loss of fathers and sons and brothers. Yet we persevered. Somehow we held it all together and we never gave up our hope or our dreams. There can be, I believe, no serious discussion of America or American culture without acknowledging this uniquely American trait—our deep, abiding and absolutely genuine sense of optimism. And nowhere was this unflagging sense of communal optimism more strongly experienced than in our magnificent movies.
Whole families got all dressed up to go to the local theater and sit through two feature films, three cartoons, a comedy serial, a travelogue, two or three previews, and a newsreel. Yet through all this the war was never far away, and certainly not forgotten. Before the show started, we all stood to attention with unabashed patriotism while they played the “Star Spangled Banner” to stirring scenes of our proud American flag unfurling in the breeze and endless squadrons of khaki-clad GIs marching in parade. During the intermissions we signed up for War Bonds and gave our precious coins to those hardworking Red Cross ladies. And sometimes, if we were lucky, there would be a sing-along.
How to explain a 1940s sign-along to a 21st century audience?
Picture this: The theater would darken and suddenly the words to some old familiar song would flash up on the screen. Then this big friendly voice would come booming out from somewhere, “Okay, now, everybody sing along with me!” And up there on the screen this little white ball would start bouncing up and down over the words as they were to be sung; and with an innocence and enthusiasm which in today’s cynical world is simply inconceivable, the whole damn theater would start to sing, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream...” Young lovers and old people holding hands, moms and dads and little freckle-faced kids, all together sitting in the darkness, swaying to the rhythm of the music, singing, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream...”
For some of course the dream had been a nightmare. The world had lost somewhere between 40 to 60 million people and countless millions more were left homeless or severely injured, or both. Half of the major cities in Europe and Japan lay in ruins. Fourteen million Americans had served their country in uniform (more than ten percent of a wartime population of 135 million). Over 400,000 Americans had given their lives (including a staggering 4,000 GIs killed in a single day—D-Day, June 6, 1944).
The Second World War had been a clash of titans, an epic battle between the colossal forces of Good and Evil, and we were the Good and the Good had prevailed. For a whole generation of American kids who had grown up earnestly following the adventures of Superman, Batman and Robin, and Captain Marvel as they fought the Germans and the Japs (and occasionally the Italians), never again in their lifetimes would their adversaries be so clearly defined or the issues involved so easily discernible.
Our great nation had been redefined by our victories, but we had been changed forever. Our defensive Post-World War One isolationist shell had been shattered. Our place in a fearsome new Nuclear Age was, to say the least, uncertain. There would of course be new enemies and new wars and new personal losses. But the world had become more complex, our enemies less easy to define. The battle lines have become more obscure and the issues murky. We no longer feel personally involved or committed, and, far from being drawn together, we feel that we are being torn further apart every day.
So, goodbye, Charleton Heston. Thank you for all you have given us. You have become a part of our American story now, and we will miss you. And, have no doubt, sir, we will persevere.