Growing Up

The first two paragraphs of actress Mary Astor’s autobiography My Story, ©1959:

People have often said to me, “You haven’t changed a bit!” They meant it as a compliment, but I could hear it only as an accusation, a statement of brutal fact.

And I have thought bitterly, “You are so right!” For I knew that if I had not changed I had not grown. To be a perennial child, an ethereal Peter Pan playing with pirates and Indians through all eternity, can be a lovely thing in the never-never land of fantasy, but it is an unhappy thing in life. The child is born so that he may become a man. It is his destiny to grow– to learn, to understand, to assume responsibilities. Growth can be painful, I know; but I have found that a stunted and retarded growth can be a pain beyond belief.


Time, Time, Time; Look What’s Become of Me…

Excerpted from Toward One World: The Life of Wendell Willkie by Bill Severn, ©1967:

Another difficulty was his lack of any sense of time. When he was interested in something, time meant little to him and he found it hard to become used to the military day with activities regulated to specific hours. In later years he never wore or carried a watch, refusing to be made conscious of the pressure of minutes by any ticking device on his person. He said that if it was ever really vital to know what time it was, he could always ask somebody.

When you’re doing something with other people, scheduling becomes important.  If you get up early to go church at eight-o’clock, but the service doesn’t start until ten-o’clock because the pastor is engrossed in playing his banjo, you’ll be understandably (and justifiably) upset.

But there is a certain undeniable charm in not having to look at a clock, so I think it’s important to schedule some unscheduled time just to fart around in.

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Actor James Dean used to show up at a lot of the same parties as Sammy Davis Jr., and wanted to befriend him, but Sammy was enjoying his first blush of success and wrote him off as just another starry-eyed kid with dreams of stardom.  After seeing the movie Giant he realized how much talent Dean really had, and was looking forward to telling him so.  But:

When we got off (the stage) I saw Freddie Robbins standing in the wings– a buddy from New York, one of the first disc jockeys to play my records, when I’d needed it. I walked over to him, smiling.

“Great show, Sammy. Wonderful. Hey, Jimmy Dean just died.” I searched his face for a sign that it was a joke. “It just came over the air. Car crash. He was…”

I went into the dressing room and closed the door. Dave was standing in front of the radio, his face ashen, listening to the report of how it had happened.

I never got a chance to tell him. I never gave him the pleasure of hearing it. And he didn’t have that many people who told it to him.

They started the commercial. A jingle. I ripped the plug out of the socket and the sound died.

I sat down and looked at Dave. “We had him and all we did was brush him off. I did to him what I wouldn’t want anybody to do to me. I tolerated him. I treated him like a kook.”

“But he never knew that.”

“Of course he knew. He was a sensitive man. He felt everything. And I made jokes about him.”

How could I have judged a man before I knew what he was all about? Me, who’s suffered from prejudgment. Oh, God, I just hope– as corny as it sounds– I hope he knows I mean it, that I wish I’d said to him, “I know you were my friend and I wish I’d been your friend, too.”

After the second show, I borrowed a car and went for a drive by myself, circling through the winding road in the park, trying to shake the guilt that was ripping me like an iron claw. I’d been so busy being Charley Star that I hadn’t seen a guy who was reaching out to be my friend. Even on the hill when I could have said something— I could have yelled, “Hey, you were great”– but I’d wanted the pleasure of telling him just right.

Why don’t you tell someone you appreciate them while you still can?

Excerpted from Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can, ©1965.

The cause of an incident

I bought Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can at a charity sale for $1, and it has far exceeded my expectations.  I had no idea of the hell he went through on his way to becoming a headliner.

In this excerpt he has just begun to have some success as an entertainer, but is acutely aware of the racism that surrounds him.  He has been turned away from clubs and motels in the past because of his race, and was once severely beaten for a friendship with a white woman:

I finished my main course and asked for a check. Pete the headwaiter came over. “Compliments of Mr. Danny (Stradella).” On the way out I thanked him but he brushed it off. “Cut it out, willya? Thank you for coming in.” He put his arm around my shoulders and walked us to the door. “Now, don’t be a stranger. Please, I want you to think of this as your home away from home– y’know what I mean?”

Danny and Marty Mills caught the late show that night and drove me back to New York. Marty said, “How about a sandwich?”

The last thing I wanted was to be the cause of an incident somewhere. Especially in front of Danny. He thought of me as a winner…

He was saying, “Let’s go over to Longchamps, at 59th and Madison. They’re open all night. Most of the kids from the shows drop in. We’ll have some laughs.”

As we reached the East Side I asked them to let me out at 61st Street. “I’ll meet you in a little while. There’s something I’ve gotta do.”

“We’ll wait for you in the car.”

“No, please. You guys go ahead. Everything’s fine, no problem.”

They had to think I was crazy but they dropped me off at Fifth Avenue and 61st. I started walking toward a dark building as if I really had something to do there. When they were out of sight I looked for a phone so I could call Longchamps and leave word I couldn’t make it. But I was repulsed by the indignity of backing away. It was the defeat of everything I wanted. I killed twenty minutes walking around the block, and headed for the restaurant. At least if it’s a turn-away maybe nobody’ll see it.

I looked through the plate-glass window. Marty was sitting at the table talking to someone, but his eyes were glued to the entrance. By the time I went through the revolving door he was at my side, leading me to our table. Four showgirls from the Riviera were sitting there with Danny. I pointed to a table for two right next to it. “Let’s you and me take this one.” I didn’t wait for him to answer. He shrugged, not understanding, but he sat with me.

Danny gaped at us. “What the hell are y’doing?”

I gave it a Jack Benny reading.  “I hope you won’t take it personally but I can’t sit with those girls. They’re only in the chorus and I’m a star! I mean, you understand–” The girls laughed and I played it like I had something private to tell Marty and somehow I got lucky and Danny wasn’t insulted. Or, maybe he understood.

Paper, paper everywhere…

In this excerpt from A Journey For Our Times © 1983,  Harrison E. Salisbury describes visiting the Russian front after the battle to free the Crimea:

We went to the Crimea, the Germans finally driven out, corpses bobbing on the rock shores of the slim peninsula where the last stand was made, and over the stony land the Limburger stench of putrescent bodies; heavy, it got into your clothes, it clogged your throat, it hung in the air like plague. Here I inhaled the essence of war. I saw the pig-bellied bodies, eyes staring out of rotting heads, flaxen hair like wigs on a Kewpie doll, and the smell of piss-clotted uniforms, pants cruddy with excrement, with the pale worms of intestines, dirt, slime, paper, paper everywhere, brown-stained toilet paper, brown-stained newspapers with their Gothic print, broken bottles, jagged edges sparkling in the sun, rusty cans, the sleek white wood of ammo boxes, coppered coils of machine gun bullets, unmailed postcards, photos of girls stained with blood, here a splintered bone, the flesh torn like cotton rags, orders, commands, penalties, sentences (a sergeant sentenced to be shot; he had been apprehended trying to copulate with the captain’s mare on the village street), surrender leaflets, bits of green grass and dandelions, stinking fish floating in the gentle waves beside corpses gas-filled, buttons burst from faded green uniforms.

The Crimea did it. I had seen the winter corpses at Katyn, at Leningrad, in the Ukraine. Death in winter is clean. The bodies freeze in rigid forms. There is little stench. Except for the horses. The horses were the worst, winter or summer. They blew up like titanic counterfeits, the eyes still alive with terror. Snow quickly covered the winter dead. Now in the Crimea the dead were omnipresent.

German prisoners with dead eyes stumbled among the corpses, carting them off to endless trenches under the tommy guns of sullen Red Army men. I could not tell whether either Russians or Germans knew what they were doing. The Germans moved like sleepwalkers. The hardest thing, they told us, was the moment of surrender. Unless you were in a big group, a hundred or a thousand, you didn’t have a chance. The Soviet tommy gunners just mowed you down. The Nazis had been waiting for the boats to take them off, the boats that never came.

This was war and now I understood it. War was the garbage heap of humanity. It was shit and piss and gas from the rump; terror and bowels that ran without control. Here Hitler’s Aryan man died, a worse death than any he devised in the ovens of Auschwitz, anus open, spewing out his gut until a Red tommy gunner ended it with a lazy sweep of his chattering weapon.

There’s a reason governments censor the press.

There are things they don’t want us to know, stories they don’t want us to hear, sights they don’t want us to see.

The Better Thing

(One thing I’m very seldom asked, “So, what are you reading these days?”)

In this excerpt from The Year of Living Biblically  ©2007,  A.J. Jacobs is discussing prayer with one of his many spiritual advisors, a  trained Rabbi named Yossi:

Yossi tells me this story:

Two men do their daily prayers while at work. One spends twenty minutes in his office behind a closed door and afterward feels refreshed and uplifted, like he just had a therapy session. The other is so busy, he can squeeze in only a five-minute prayer session between phone calls. He recites his prayers superfast in a supply closet.

Who has done the better thing?

“The first,” I say.

“No,” says Yossi. “The second.”

The second guy was doing it only for God. He was sacrificing his time. There was no benefit for himself.

I like that.  I like the idea that it’s not always about me and what I want.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the futility of waiting for The Perfect Moment, and how overrated motivation can be.  Waiting for inspiration to strike is a set-up for watching life from the sidelines.

Sometimes you just need to get in there and do it anyway.