Columbus AFB, Mississippi… Vietnam War: I’d just finished my first hour doing split-esses in the Air Force’s twin-jet trainer, the T-37. There aren’t words to describe the experience, except maybe playing hide-and-go-seek in fluffy white clouds, right-side up, upside-down…sideways.
Back on the ground, I stopped to check mail. My girlfriend, Pam, had sent me a package. Felt like a paperback. It was, indeed, Love Story, by Eric Segal. Since we were just transitioning to a different plane, there wasn’t any homework that day, so I lay down on my bunk and started reading. Pamela and I had been dating for close to four years and she was trying to “keep me cool” while I was away. An hour and a half later, I put the book down (quick read), and began searching around in my desk for some change. In the barracks hallway, I put three bucks worth of quarters in and dialed.
I won’t nauseate you with the details. It involved my invoking The Magic Telephone and within ten minutes I was asking Pamela to marry me. Did Love Story somehow hypnotize me through its superb writing? No. Would I have asked Pam…sometime later? Yeah. But the fact is, a four ounce 4″ by 6″ paperback was the trigger that changed both of our lives…right then and there…and forever. That’s powerful stuff.
We all like to think that our outlook, our philosophy and our moral approach to life is something achieved slowly over the decades, like an oak tree maturing, twisting, turning…branching out. And yet, very often things don’t work out that way. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. We wander into someone or something. We see a movie or read a book…and whether we choose it or not we come away subtly and often permanently changed.
Now, I’m pretty much 1000% sure that my book or movie choices won’t overlap with yours. But mine just might make you ponder your own wisdom, your own conclusions and the graciousness of your actions on this planet. So bear with me, if only for the purpose of you saying (thinking) Oooh! Oooh! No, Henry. I’ve got one that’s really cool!
You Can’t Take it With You: Old black & white movie featuring Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore. GREAT movie even today. Probably on Netflix. A wildly Bohemian, free-spirited family runs head-on into a wealthy conservative family at the prospect of an up-coming wedding. What’d I learn? For some reason, it stuck at the tender age of seven that it was OK to be different…to beat your own drum…follow your own star. What is the assessed value of a life lesson like that? For me it was a deal-maker.
The Rainmaker: This is the original movie with Bert Lancaster, a charismatic actor in every role he’s played…but particularly so in this one. He’s a shyster, a charlatan, riding his wagon from farm town to farm town, guaranteeing he can make it rain…for a small fee. Ole Bert works his magic as always…but the pivotal line of the whole movie is a throw-away made by a father to his son. The son has just belittled, nearly destroyed his spinster sister because she’s fallen for the Charlatan. The father says to his son: “You’re so worried about what’s right…..You’ve forgotten about what’s good.” I was a teenager at the time and even then I found the distinction to be fascinating. It probably was a contributing factor in my majoring in philosophy.
Siddhartha: by Hermann Hesse I was prepared not to like the book although it’s short and simple (at least on the surface). It was assigned reading and being accustomed to diving into 995-page door stops for British Lit, this one at 153 pages was a relative Twinkie. And then I started to begin to commence to understand some things I’d never thought about before. I came away feeling quite wise, indeed, though it took 10 years and several more readings to figure out what it was I had learned. If you zip though it and think…So what? you missed the mark. If you hit the mark, you’ll have to savor it and re-read it again…later. It’s worth it.
Nobody’s Fool, by Pulitzer prize-winning Richard Russo: The movie by the same name was nominated for an Academy Award though you’ve probably never heard of it. Watch the movie first: It’s one of Newman’s last great roles and he hammers it. If you’ve read any of my novels you already know that I like to gravitate toward little towns, real people with real problems. No somersaulting firey buses. Nothing transforms into a Camaro. No nukes.
Russo delves deeply into the souls of six or eight small-town people and one, Donald Sullivan, (Sully) to be specific. What did I learn? I learned what Sully eventually learns the hard way. Maybe we all do, though it’s so simple. Are you a cop? an office worker? a CEO? a doctor? a housewife? Sure, that’s part of it. But eventually we learn that our real roles are much bigger. You are a mother…a father. You are a sister. You are an uncle. You are…a best friend. You are a grandfather and you are also a little child and a teenager. You are all these things and that alone can make your life worthwhile. Big lesson? Oh yeah.
The Juggler of Notre Dame: This is to a movie what a novella is to a novel. It’s short but incredibly potent. You will feel very, very good and you will feel very, very sad. And ultimately that which makes you a grown-up falls away and you are a little kid again…or an old man. They’re both the same. You will learn the meaning of these words way down in your guts: I have value. I have something of worth to give others. And that’s what it’s all about.
Yes, I have left out the Bible from this list, not to make a statement, but I think it comes under a different category. It’s the only topic on this planet that is taboo to such an extent that any serious analysis is tantamount to touching the third rail. I’ll leave that to others…to touch or not to touch. I’m a secular humanist anyway…or possibly a deist…or maybe a teapot agnostic. Things really got complicated in the past ten years. Live and let live works for me. The Golden Rule.
From Steinbeck’s “little books” Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row I learned that you have to be a fool for somebody. If you can’t do that…you’re the one who suffers. I also learned how to spot a lie. Steinbeck describes it so simply. The best liars sandwich a lie between two truths. Watch for it. It’s usually there.
Good Will Hunting: One of my all-time favorite movies. The message (for me) came at the very end, though it’s still hard to accept and extremely hard for me to watch. It’s delivered by Robin Williams to Matt Damon. It’s….not…..your…..fault….
Finally, to shift gears a bit, I learned from Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, that one’s liver tastes best with fava beans and a nice chianti. Hisss……..
I’m most of all curious what books or movies affected you and how…and why. Are you ready to fess up? It takes cajones, psychic or otherwise.
If you just respond to this e-mail it will be posted.