Saturday, May 18, 2013

Graves and Grills (Memorial Day)

When it originated in the South following the Civil War, it was called Decoration Day. Back then, flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Now it’s called Memorial Day. In modern times, you're more likely to see hot dogs on a grill than flowers on a grave.

On a morning TV show, a chef was interviewed who said Oscar Meyer’s hot dogs taste the best. Apparently mustard and onions are the most popular toppings. The chef was followed by a woman offering tips for your Memorial Day party. This is what Memorial Day has become: a scaled down Fourth of July, a time for parties and picnics.

The only genuine acknowledgment of the day’s purpose is on PBS where they air the National Memorial Day Concert, now hosted by actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna who stepped in after Ossie Davis passed away. Sinise and Mantegna lack Davis’ “gravitas,” but they share his sincerity. The viewer gets the impression that they are present because they respect the veterans who sacrificed their youth and, in many cases, their lives, when the country called on them to preserve our freedom. 

Of course, some of us know better. Many of those men and women were mere cannon fodder for reasons that had less to do with freedom than the promotion of the New World Order whose full horrors will soon be upon us. No matter. They put their lives on the line firmly believing they were fighting for a worthy cause. That’s enough to make them deserving of every honor they receive. It’s what’s in your heart that counts, not what’s in the blackened hearts of those who exploit the noble motives of others for ignoble purposes.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, May 6, 2013

And When the Sky Was Opened. . . They Were Gone

Twilight Zone specialized in tales of the supernatural, of nightmares that haunt the waking hours, and of time travel. But now that the show is more than 50 years old, watching any episode puts the viewer in the Twilight Zone as the dead are brought to life on film.

“And When the Sky Was Opened,” the episode that Me TV is repeating on May 14, opens in a military hospital where two astronauts are recovering after their experimental spacecraft crash-landed in the desert. One lies in bed, while the other nervously paces the room, insisting to his colleague that there was a third man aboard the ship who has mysteriously vanished. Indeed, he did, and before the show ends the other two will also disappear with no evidence remaining that they ever existed.

The episode features a superb performance from Rod Taylor, a very popular actor in the 1960s (The Time Machine, The Birds) who is still alive, occasionally working (he played Winston Churchill in Inglorious Bastards) and presumably kicking in his 80s. There’s also Charles Aidman as the first of the astronauts to disappear. He passed on in 1993 at age 68, too young, perhaps, to die, but not exactly young either.

But there’s also Jim Hutton, young and unaware, as this viewer in 2013 is not, that his would be a short life. On June 2, 1979, less than twenty years after this episode first aired (on December 11, 1959), Hutton died of liver cancer at age 45. The boyish looking actor’s best role was probably as Ellery Queen which had a one season run on NBC in 1975-76. None of his movies could be considered classics, but he has some notable credits. He was the co-star in Cary Grant’s final film, 1966’s Walk, Don’t Run, and he made two movies back-to-back with John Wayne (1968’s The Green Berets and 1969’s Hellfighters. Ironically, Wayne, 17 years his senior, died at age 72 only 11 days after Hutton. (Hutton's son, Timothy, would win an Oscar almost two years later for his supporting role in Ordinary People.

Then there’s Sue Randall who has a small role as a nurse. She’s more familiar from her recurring role as a young teacher on Leave It to Beaver. Back then who would have guessed that this lovely actress would die of lung cancer at age 49?

Let’s not overlook Rod Serling, our tour guide to the Twilight Zone and the man who created the series and wrote many of its episodes. Serling was only 50 when he died in 1975. I was 18 at the time, and though 50 seemed young to me then, it seems even younger now that I’ve passed it myself. I realize now just how brief was Serling’s time on earth.

There they were, alive and well - and young - on the TV screen. And now, they’re gone, not unlike the astronauts in the Twilight Zone teleplay. As Rod Serling intones in the closing narration:

“They used to exist, but they don’t any longer. Someone – or something – took them somewhere.”


© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"A Beautiful Day"

It’s what people like to call a “beautiful day.” There are clouds in the sky, but they’re white and fluffy, magic carpets for the souls of the dead. The sun is bright enough to blind anyone bold enough to stare directly at it, but not quite hot enough to make your skin sizzle.

The fact that such a “beautiful” day brightens other people’s mood only makes mine darker. Somehow, I feel more in tune with the world when the clouds are dark and threatening rain. More than anything else, a warm, sunny day like today seems tailor made for a funeral.

It was on a day very much like today, only twice as gorgeous, that a 12-year-old girl, one of my classmates at St. Procop, an elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio, was laid to rest, as they say, in Calvary Cemetery. It was May 1, 1970. Only a few days before her death, she had spent recess outside in the rain, collecting worms in a plastic bag for use in a science project. I can still see her, wearing a blue jacket, showing the worms to the nun who was angry that she had brought these slimy creatures into our seventh grade classroom (“DON’T! YOU! BRING! THOSE! THINGS! IN! HERE!”). That was a Friday, exactly one week before her funeral. Sometime over the weekend, she became ill with pneumonia, probably caught when she was collecting those worms in the rain.

By Monday, when the entire school assembled in the gymnasium/cafeteria for a tribute to our fat (and mean-as-hell) principal, the girl was probably dead, but the news didn’t reach us until Tuesday morning. As always, I was late for the mass that started every school day. A classmate whispered the news to me, and the priest performing the mass confirmed the sad report when offering a prayer for her from the altar. After mass, the girls in the class gathered outside, rallying around the fat (and mean-as-hell, but not this morning) principal who visited our classroom along with the priest to comfort the dead girl’s classmates.

“Safely Home,” the heartbreaking poem written from the perspective of someone who has just arrived in Heaven, was distributed to each of us, and the principal tried to cheer us up, telling us how lucky this girl was because she no longer had to go to school. No mention was made of the fact that she could no longer breathe, eat, see, think, feel, fall in love, and could never do any of those things ever again, but the comment did bring smiles to a few faces.

Even at that age, a person’s character was revealed in the way they reacted to this tragedy. The two bullies in the class snickered at the solemnity of these sad days and expressed indifference. They would also bow their heads in mock respect when passing her family’s home. A bully is a coward at heart, and one of them later admitted that when the class visited the funeral home, he was afraid to look at the corpse. I did look at the corpse and was appalled at what I saw. The girl’s breasts had been padded and were far too prominent for a 12-year-old. Her jaw jutted out in a way it never had in life, and I remember the grim expression on her face that seemed to suggest she did not go peacefully.

The class attended her funeral that first day of May. The sun was ablaze in the sky, the birds were chirping in the trees, and the humidity made my shirt stick to my skin. Here we were, perspiring with the sun at our backs, watching a 12-year-old girl’s lifeless body lowered into the ground. Summer, the season whose arrival we welcomed like no other, was right around the corner, but this girl would spend it and every summer since under six feet of earth.

Such are the thoughts that a “beautiful day” inspires.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks