When I was a young, I thought my Dad was the wisest, most thoughtful, and hilarious man in the world. Like many young girls I suspect I was not alone in my whole hearted adoration for their Father. It was simple really, when I was growing up if you were to ask who the best person in the world might be; my answer would’ve come immediately and without hesitation. My gangly, skinny body (he nicknamed me Bones- due to my boney knees) would’ve stood at attention and my Olivia Newton John, “Let’s get Physical” hairstyle would have bobbed once in affirmation before stating, “The best man in the world? That would be my Dad, obviously.” I thought he hung the moon and stars. I tried to make him proud with every opportunity. If he liked basketball, I played basketball; he sang like a bird, I joined the church choir. If he wanted to be told great stories then guess who got straight A’s in Speech Class? You see where this is headed.
My Dad always equated humor with intelligence. He once told me, “Always surround yourself with people who have a good sense of humor. If your friends can’t laugh at themselves or understand sarcasm they’re either not very smart or overly confident.” In our family dry wit and sarcasm was the litmus test for intelligence. At my childhood supper table it wasn’t good enough to just speak about information or blather on about just any old thing. If you had something you wanted to share or had a story to tell it had better be well crafted. Storytelling was an art form and my parents never coddled or put up with a story that didn’t have a point. My Mom studied journalism, my Dad was a teacher and coach and they were all about presentation and getting the point across succinctly while at the same time entertaining the audience. This behavior might sound harsh in these modern times, but I never minded and I never felt hurt- these were the facts- no one wanted to hear a story that wasn’t offering something in exchange for their time, whether it be something learned or humorous, or even sad. The point was simple, “If you insist on sharing, share wisely.” Well maybe that wasn’t said in so many words, but as you may know in this life; often the things that go unsaid speak the loudest. So I paid attention to the great stories told at dinner and bided my time.
My Father’s influence on me was so great that I would do everything in my power to ingratiate myself to him. His favorite TV shows became mine. If I wanted to make him laugh, these shows would be my tutor. Yes, I watched “He-Man”, “Chips”, and later “Chips Patrol” and some other great kid dramas. However, my Dad introduced me to Danny DeVito in “Taxi”, Ted Danson from “Cheers” and of course the gang from Korea, the Emmy winning sitcom, “MASH”. This leads me to the other leading man in my young life; the smart, wisecracking, moral yet scamp-ish; the incomparable Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, AKA Mr. Alan Alda. Under my Dad’s tutelage I was introduced to the only other man who could hold a candle to his own charm and wit. These two men were the most influential individuals in my young life. They sculpted my psyche and molded my brain more than any type of peer pressure or “After School Special” ever could. In a lot of ways they were the same. Both men shared the same rakish good looks; tall, dark, and blue eyed and both were extremely funny. If my Father was worried about the possibility of Mr. Alda usurping his Kingdom, he showed no signs…
But after that fateful introduction a new tradition began. Every night at 5:00 and 5:30 I could be found unblinking in front of the TV. I soaked in the nuanced humor, the witty banter, and the clever plot twists. My Mom would call for my brother and me to come to dinner, but she knew I would not darken the dining room walls until Hawkeye saved the day and single handedly won the war- five nights a week. I thought Hawkeye Pierce; the dashing Army surgeon from Maine was about the best person in the world … besides my Dad – of course.
Which is why what happened next injured me to my core. This childhood incident single-handedly opened up my eyes to the harsh reality of the world, a world of injustice and cruelty. When I was in third grade dear Readers, I had a wonderful teacher named Ms. Lantz. I loved her and was amazed at how much she knew; Math, Science, English -she knew it all. Under her supervision we grew beans in a mason jar, made cheese, painted a Christmas plate for my Grandparents and every Wednesday she would immerse us into different worlds of wonder and mystery by reading us books of every variety.
Then mid- year she gave us the mother of all assignments. “If you could grow up to be anyone in the world, who would you like to be?” She paused, allowing us to consider before continuing, “I want you to write a letter to the person you most admire.” Ms. Lantz gave us two weeks to come up with a name, polish up a letter, and bring in a stamped envelope. My beloved Ms. Lantz would do the rest. She explained she had hundreds of addresses of the most important people and she would find a way to get each letter sent to the appropriate person. I never loved anyone so much as I did Ms. Lantz. So my classmates wrote to President Regan, child author Judy Blume, anthropologist Jane Goodall, etc. All worthy candidates, if that’s your cup of tea. Not me my faithful Readers, I wrote to my future husband Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, AKA Alan Alda the star of the greatest sitcom ever.
The funny thing is before my Dad introduced me to “MASH” my letter would’ve been written to him; no postage needed. But now, now Dad had some competition. For two weeks I wrote and rewrote my letter, I went through dozens of drafts. I struggled to find just the right balance of dry wit, respect and admiration. I posed questions that were both entertaining as well as insightful. For instance:
“Dear Mr. Alda,
Although you only play an Army surgeon on TV, you seem very knowledgeable about anatomy and medicine. Do you think you would ever want to go to school to be a doctor? Your character often talks about his hometown Crabapple Cove, Maine. Does that town really exist and if so have you ever visited? I know this isn’t my business, but will you and “Hot Lips” ever get married?
I fretted over every word and finally the night before it was due I completed the winning draft. I painstakingly wrote it out in my finest cursive and with several careful folds, I slipped the letter into the stamped envelope with my return address emblazoned at the left top corner and sealed it with a kiss. I went to bed that night with visions of Mr. Alda strolling to his mailbox, getting my letter, pausing to read, and then throwing his head back with that great unabashed way he has and bark out a laugh. Then after reading every single word, I imagined him refolding the letter and tucking it into his coat pocket for safe keeping and with a nod of his head and slight smile on his lips he would turn back towards his house with the knowledge that he was admired, loved, and respected by Sundi Lynn Daugherty.
Did I expect to get a letter in return? I dare not hope for such a triumph, but as the other kids in class began getting return letters from Presidents Regan and Carter, random children authors, and some other celebrity types from Hollywood I began to get my hopes up. Every day I came to class with a hopeful swelling in my chest. Maybe today would be the day I would get my letter from Hollywood with an autographed photo just like that kid who sat in the back row and always wore “Chips” t-shirts. He got a black and white glossy from none other than Poncherello himself; the star of “Chips”, Erik Estrada- great teeth.
Weeks passed and then months, no letter ever arrived. Ms. Lantz encouraged me to write to President Regan or Judy Blume and eventually I did write to the latter and to be honest I can’t remember if I ever got anything back. Hers was not the letter I was looking for… Was this my punishment for betraying my Dad? He would’ve written me back. He would’ve laughed at my witty note and patted my head in approval. “Good job Bones.” I could hear him say to my upturned smiling face.
Eventually, the school year came to a close and my beloved Ms. Lantz asked if I could help her pack up a few last things from the classroom. I washed the chalk board, banged the erasers one last time and helped empty her wooden desk drawers. Can you guess what I found in her bottom right drawer? My letter to Alan Alda. The letter I spent days forming and month’s afterword consumed with heartbreak and betrayal. All this time, I thought my beloved “Hawkeye” didn’t care. In reality he was clueless to my third grade drama. For months I felt the sting of rejection from my first great crush. The man who taught me how to spin a tale and nail a punch line, the great actor who taught me that a man can be both outlandish and sensitive was an innocent victim in this story. Relief washed over me, but only for a minute until I realized my favorite teacher had never even sent the letter. Month after month she stood by and watched me hope and wish for a letter that never came. She made me question my loyalties to Hawkeye and my Dad and opened my eyes to life’s cruelties. I slammed the drawer shut with indignation and squeezed the letter in my hand as I searched the classroom for my traitorous Ms. Lantz. I found her across the room taking down the blue ribbon paintings in which I was a contestant earlier that year. My submission was of a shakily painted picture of my Dad and I; he with a ball cap and whistle around his neck while my amateur and poorly drawn face gazed up at him with what I hoped looked like adoration. I didn’t win a blue ribbon, I didn’t even get an honorable mention, but I remember thinking that my Dad would’ve been proud. My anger drained from my fingertips with that memory and I dropped the letter in to the trash and helped Ms. Lantz load boxes into the trunk of her car.
These two great men battled it out my third grade year without ever realizing. Alan Alda will always hold a special place in my heart and I still stop whatever I’m doing when I come across an old episode of “MASH” or “West Wing”, but my Dad is the one that I think of when I’m in a bind. His lessons are what I turn to when I need motivation or strength. He still sings like a bird and tells the best stories. And every once in a while if I try my best and on those rare occasions succeed, he’ll give me a call and say “Good job, Bones.”
Originally posted in PineStraw Magazine 2013