January 2, 2015
It's not surprising that the end of the year, combined with the fact that this is the season when the days begin to grow longer, is a time during which we celebrate with friends and family, and recognize the priceless gift of their presence. Unless you're five years old, that aspect far outweighs the new iPad, the jewelry, and the books. Inevitably we recognize that we don't have each other forever. I remember pointing out to several of my classes at Woodrow Wilson HS in Bucks County, PA, back in the sixties, that I understood schools can be irritating and we tend to be anxious to get out the door and go home. "But the day will come," I explained, "when you'll drive by with your family, and the school will have been replaced by a parking lot and a retirement home. Your friends from these years will mostly have disappeared, and you'd give almost anything to be able to come back into this classroom and sit with them again and just be able to feel their presence."
What I didn't realize when I was going through that routine was that eventually I'd also drive past that parking lot. And that I'd want just as desperately to be able to relive one of those days and see those kids again, and the people who at that time were an intrinsic part of my life. Most of us don't appreciate what we have until it's gone. And I think we get a sense of that during this mystical season. On some level, that's why it can be such an emotional time, giving gifts, going to parties, hanging mistletoe, reminding ourselves what life is really about. It really has nothing to do with Bob Cratchett's paycheck.
One of the people from that time who got lost was Jack Kennedy. He was charismatic, and many of us thought of him as almost a personal acquaintance. I was in a classroom on November 22, 1963, when we were told he had been killed in Dallas.
The sixties were a scary time. Among problems with assassinations and civil rights and Vietnam, it was also the height of the Cold War. I honestly did not expect that the country would survive into the 21st century.
We may owe that happy outcome largely to JFK. In October, 1962, he showed up on TV to inform the country that the USSR had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and that we were establishing a naval blockade to prevent any more from arriving. Kennedy had been a lieutenant j.g. during World War II, and he was accustomed to treating the opinions of officers wearing stars with a considerable amount of respect.
The senior chiefs at the Pentagon generally thought that Khrushchev could only be dealt with through confrontation and force. Kennedy did what he had to, but he also stayed with diplomacy. And ultimately it worked. We're well into the third millennium, and we're still alive. JFK had his faults, but we're extraordinarily fortunate he was in the White House at the time.
During those years, I was addicted to James Thurber, who invariably broke me up. I first learned about him while watching Danny Kaye playing Walter Mitty. Shortly afterward, I read "The Greatest Man in the World," which remains the funniest story I've ever come across. I became addicted to the guy. So I was delighted last week when I found a copy of the Library of America Thurber volume under the tree.
But I was surprised to discover how little I knew about his life. The buoyant tone of his fiction had led me to assume he'd cruised through life, laughing all the way. But in fact he had a difficult run. At the age of eight, he was accidentally shot in the eye with an arrow by his older brother William. The eye had to be removed., and he had vision problems the rest of his life. He was ostracized in college. Didn't do well with grades. His first marriage broke down. He started drinking heavily. Major health problems showed up. He quarreled with editors. His remaining eye deteriorated and, by the time he hit fifty, he was virtually blind. Maybe that makes it understandable why he developed a reputation for erratic and occasionally violent behavior.
But the artist who gave us Walter Mitty, or My World—and Welcome To It clearly got a lot of laughs out of life. I guess ultimately it demonstrates that you can't always judge the writer by the book.