Days of Innocence, afternoons of Knowledge

 

Days of Innocence, afternoons of knowledge

 

(From my Op Ed column published July 5,1997- The Stockton Record)

 

     From my September perch in life, I watch the grandkids romp under hot July skies. Preoccupied with the gigantic bumblebee buzzing our backyard hollyhocks, they are oblivious to the ticking away of life’s precious moments. They cannot wait to grow up.

     Bulletin from Grown-Upland: Time flies, whether or not you’re having fun!

     The recent deaths of two silver-screen idols from the Technicolor world of my childhood saddens us all. These heroes ushered many of us from days of innocence to afternoons of knowledge. And while their passing strikes that familiar chord of grief within our hearts, it also fosters thoughts of our own mortality. The impermanence of life becomes emboldened when someone special leaves this Earth.

     I remember Robert Mitchum as the sleepy-eyed screen tough guy. All the girls had a crush on him. There was that Mitchum mystique--a rakish, devil-may-care attitude. It overshadowed the Beatniks’, the Hippies’ and the Boomers’. It came through in the way his precariously dangling cigarette stayed glued to his mouth when he talked. We saw even more of it in his defiant, scandalous off-screen persona, and were intrigued by this maverick who refused to play by society’s antiquated rules.

     Jimmy Stewart always seemed like a guy who needed help and made you want to be the one to give it to him. His was the special appeal of a helpless boy in a man’s body. His performance in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” made me a Stewart devotee. As a patriot, I marveled at his real-life war-hero status and his having achieved the rank of brigadier general in the postwar Air Force Reserve. 

     Our heroes flitted across those downtown movie-theater screens of yesteryear: the Esquire, the Fox Ritz and the Fox California--all located on Main Street, all favorite weekend retreats for yesterday’s children. We had it all on those smallish screens--Movietone news with its silly, crowing rooster; cartoon features; cliffhanger serials ending in those three familiar words, “to be continued”; previews of coming attractions; and double features.

     Saturday matinees in the hot theaters before “refrigerated” air conditioning that beckoned us inside were especially exciting. Nothing quite equals the scent of restless preadolescents running up and down the aisles looking for buddies, or the unique blend of stolen kisses and popcorn.

     Best of all, the movies were an oasis away from the watchful eyes of overzealous parents. Where else could you sneak a cigarette, even if you were a minor? It was dark and--who cared? The heroes all smoked, didn’t they?

     Last week, in Rapid City, South Dakota, we lost the lovely Isabel. Tethered to an oxygen tank for the last few years of her life, Isabel owed her condition to that round, cylindrical piece of glamorized poison. It was not her fault. Even our sluggish judicial system--steeped in politics--is beginning to acknowledge that. No, Isabel was a child of the early 20th Century who took, quite literally, the message foisted by movies, TV commercials and the tobacco companies themselves. The ads promised female liberation, macho masculinity, and a perpetual state of tranquility. We still wrestle with the real rewards.

     A beauty in her youth, Isabel was petite, kind, and made wonderful pie crusts--using lard for the magical texture. Her apple pies could have taken first prize at any county fair!

     Like most of us who evolved from an earlier version of the 20th century, Izzy knew nothing of cholesterol and trusted the tobacco proponents. We heard from her every Christmas. She always remembered birthdays. We’d look for the beautiful penmanship on the envelopes from South Dakota. She was my sister-in-law.  We’ll miss you Izzy.

     Outside, the children play. The crookneck and zucchini squash consume vacant spaces near struggling tomato vines. A giant sunflower droops its heavy head over the lone pumpkin. In the distance, thunderclouds herald the coming of a summer storm.