Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The First Reality Show

Fifty years ago this week, my first wife and I were staying at my parents' house in western North Carolina.  We were recovering from a train crash a few days before on the border between Texas and Louisiana.  A woman in a pickup with her son and dog had driven into the third car back and derailed Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited from Los Angeles.  We were in the lounge car talking with new traveling friends on a sunny Sunday morning when the train car started jerking and tipping over. Aside from a few cuts and bruises, the passengers survived, but the occupants of the truck were killed instantly.

It's a peculiarly modern custom to celebrate milestones, like "fifty years," which mean little in the grand scheme of things.  We especially mark decades and quarter centuries as worthy of note to cheer or mourn.  Next summer I will turn 75 and I suppose there will have to be fireworks. The current generation now counts off the years from September 11th, 2001, when "everything changed."  But of course everything changes every day for somebody.  Two months ago we recalled the March on Washington fifty years ago that meant so much for the move of America away from its era of segregation. A week ago it was Armistice (or Veterans) Day when World War One ended. That date will get more fireworks next year on its 100th anniversary.

And yet...1963 is inescapably etched in my memory and in that of others in my cohort who remember what they were doing the day President Kennedy was killed.  My wife and I were moving from Berkeley to New York City to begin a new adventure.  Eventually we would continue on to Europe.  We were in our early 20s and relatively fearless.  The comfortable Fifties were giving way to new possibilities, and the symbol for the Sixties was our young president from Massachusetts and his fashionable wife.  I had chosen Kennedy when I voted in my first election two years before.

My parents were not particularly happy with my choice of a wife.  We'd gotten married earlier that summer by a Justice of the Peace in Laguna Beach.  "Living in sin" at our Berkeley apartment, where we pretended otherwise, made her insecure to the point of hysteria, and I imagined that legitimizing our relationship might help (it did, but only for a while).  My mother, who got up daily at dawn to mop the kitchen floor, would stand outside our bedroom door talking loudly in hopes that her new daughter-in-law would awake and join her.  But that was not to be.

I went out in the afternoon of the 22nd of November to do some errands with my mother.  We were returning from her dressmaker's and listening to the radio in the car when an announcement was made about Kennedy being shot.  It did not make sense.  When we got home, my wife, brother and father were in the living room watching our small black-and-white TV. There we stayed glued to our chairs and the screen for the next week.  Walter Cronkite (our announcer of choice) tearfully confirmed the president's death.  We learned about the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald.  And two days later, in a live broadcast from the Dallas jail, we saw strip club owner Jack Ruby shoot and kill Oswald in a room full of police in full view of the news cameras. That too did not immediately sink in. A murder live on TV in our living room.

There have since been other significant events shown live on TV. But for me the killing of Oswald by Ruby in front of millions of viewers was the first reality show.  Though I missed the first plane, I saw the second strike the World Trade Center as I drank my early morning coffee.  Now that we have YouTube, there are horrendous videos posted daily, most taken down quickly if they disturb the sensibilities of viewers (like the recent video of a beheading that I mercifully avoided).  In some ways, seeing IS believing.  We know who killed Oswald because we saw it with our own eyes.  But there is still doubt that Oswald killed Kennedy, at least not without help, and a significant portion of the population believes the collapse of the Twin Towers was an inside job.  Of course, there were many who thought the moon landing was a fake despite the live telecasts from space -- "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."  Seeing is not always believing.

There's no denying that fifty years is a long time.  I've already lived out the three score and ten years allotted to me in the book of Psalms.  The difficult part is making sense of it as a whole. Like the simplistic definition of history, it was just one damn thing after another.  A friend recently asked me to play the game of posting some little known facts about my life; her's were all fascinating.  I couldn't come up with any. One's life is never a singular event when it is contemplated from within.  We're the only animal that can stand outside itself and see how it measures up to an imaginary standard.  I can chart the distance by comparing points in time and noting the difference.  Sometimes I fear that the outcome is rigged.

In November of 1963 I was a skinny lad of 24 with a bit of experience as a journalist ready to scale the ladder of success in Manhattan (my second attempt).  By the spring we were living in a garrett apartment in Greenwich Village on Christopher Street.  I was writing for a broadcasting trade journal and my wife was a copy girl for Women's Wear Daily.  She was friends with Eric Van Lustbader who was on the staff a dozen years before his first fantasy novel.  A year later we were living in London where our son was born.  I wrote about TV shows for a regional magazine and she stayed at home as an unhappy, unfulfilled mom.

Fast forward to November 2013, fifty years later.  When I look at myself in the mirror I see past the fat, the wrinkles and the sparse white hair to the callow youth I once was.  Have I progressed? Have I learned anything about myself or about the world to justify the time spent at living?  My home is in Bangkok on the 9th floor of an apartment building with an expansive view of the city's central skyline. Sunrise is a continual joy.  Social Security from the U.S. allows me to live comfortably and I supplement this income with part-time teaching of English to monks at a large Buddhist university.  I only work one day a week but the interaction with young and enthusiastic students from a half-dozen Southeast Asian countries gives me great pleasure.  Married for the third and happiest time, my wife cares for me with a respect and love I've never deserved.  She works at an upscale hotel and on her days off we play together, eating out, shopping, going to films. On extended holidays we've traveled to a number of Thai islands as well as to the Asian capitals of Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul.

I can write easily about now and then, but it's the in-between years that escape the thread.  How did I get from there to here?  Were the choices I made at the time random and accidental, or was there a purpose to it all?  Often it's the harm I've done to family and friends that stops all thinking in its tracks.  If karma is real then punishment must be delayed for it seems I've lived a charmed life.

Now I'm an old man counting out his life in cappuccino spoons.  My two ex-wives despise me and most of my children as well as my brother no longer speak to me (or maybe I don't want to hear the judgements they have about me).  I go about my life halfway around the world from the California where I spent most of my years.  Sufficient funds and a marvelously developed social technology enable me to exist at a comfort level I could not imagine when I was younger.  Of course the sky could fall tomorrow.  The medical insurance I kept when I retired from UC is no longer sufficient to stave off emergencies, so health is the great x-factor. But until it's time to go I can enjoy my reality.  It's even documented with photos and videos on Facebook.

1 comment:

Roxanne said...

Hello, Will:

Happy (American) Thanksgiving holiday to you and Nan.

I am glad to see you are still writing your blog.