Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Big Kahuna = little gills.

I wrote the following piece a few years ago, for a popular radio show. It is the most personal thing I've ever written, and they ultimately passed on it.

When the most personal thing you've ever written is professionally rejected, your ego suffers. Your writing skills and your very life itself seem somehow invalidated. I freaked out, and avoided writing anything for a few years. That shit happens.

Looking back now, I'm very proud of this story, because it is the story of my life. I have two mothers who raised me, and I am very proud of them, and I did my best to represent them here. My adopted TV father is the focus of the story, but he is peripheral in the way only representative absentee parents can be.

Have you ever suffered personal devastation by reading the New York Times? I was at work early one Monday, wasting time on the Internet, when I read the following headline: Peter Jennings, Globe-Trotting Correspondent and ABC News Anchor, Is Dead at 67. Before I knew it, I was emitting a violent thunderstorm of tears and snot. Is there a gracious way to deal with a family loss at your work desk? I did what seemed honorable; I went to hide in the company bathroom.

When I reemerged, the collective office decorum was altered. As I marched back to my desk, a heavy, awkward silence dominated, and eyes were constantly moving in my general direction. I sat down at my work station and slowly typed a letter of condolence. Then I went straight into my boss’s office. I need to leave for the day, I said. There has been a death in the family. His blessing was swift and unequivocal. I was told, in fact, to go. Now. I gathered my things, blew my nose, made sure the letter was safely in my pocket, took the elevator down to the lobby, and headed straight for the local ABC News affiliate, several blocks away.

What my co-workers could not understand was that I was mourning the death of a world famous newsman, beloved by many tens of millions of television viewers, who had also helped me to define my life. A newsman that I was related to in absolutely no real way, at least according to my company’s bereavement policy by-laws.

When did I first lay eyes on Peter Jennings? Racking my brain, I can remember him on ABC before he was an anchorman, on assignment in London, wrapped in a raincoat in front of Big Ben, looking assured and cosmopolitan. The first non-toy item I ever gave a damn about owning for myself was a raincoat, so that I could dress convincingly like Peter Jennings. I remember his voice, the melodious purr of unmistakable authority that was so difficult for me to emulate at the time. My family was living in a trailer in a rural Southern Illinois town. I was 6 years old.

I used to come home every day from school and take off my t-shirt and jeans, and put on a sport coat and clip-on tie. I was inspired by my idol. But when began I to manifest his broadcasting style in public, problems quickly arose. I would probe unsuspecting random strangers, at the grocery store, as to the credibility of President Reagan’s foreign policy. I would pontificate on the President’s recent Supreme Court nomination, in an unbiased manner, at Pizza Hut. In short, the poor souls I accosted thought I was a deeply weird child and wanted me to leave them alone. I was just too busy hectoring them with factoids about Speaker of the House Tip O’ Neill to really notice.

In my opinion, I was extremely fortunate to be an only child. I never wanted it any other way. Based on a series of candid discussions over the years with my parents, they more than share in this assessment. I can’t blame them. By the time I was 10, I was constantly organizing election night roundtable discussions in my mind with the invisible David Brinkley and Sam Donaldson across the room. My folks had the patience of saints! No surprise, as my biological mom was a cop, and my other mom, her life partner, was a junior high school English teacher. With those kinds of day jobs, they were used to dealing with the unhinged.

After 1982, when the moms and I moved to the Chicago suburbs, and away from our extended family in Southern Illinois, I didn’t have many male role models at all, outside of school and boring neighborhood dads. I had an absentee biological father whose only contact with me were legally required child support payments to my mother and a series of Christmas presents obviously purloined from hotel bathrooms and gun show kiosks. So, in addition to feverishly inspired idolatry, cold biological fact comes to the heart of the Peter Jennings Matter. Simply put, I needed a man regularly in my life; preferably an extremely glamorous man, well versed in public policy and just the click of a remote button away.

Over the years, I found many occasions to spend quality time with him… or should I say, current events found us quality time to spend together. Network news anchors are on the air the longest when the worst possible things are happening in the world. When Peter Jennings was at his desk, reporting a plane bombing, or violence in Beirut or an earthquake on the west coast that canceled the World Series and killed hundreds of people, he and I were together. I was as big a baseball fan as you could possibly imagine, and I didn’t want innocent people to die, but I had family priorities. On the rare Saturday morning when a neighborhood kid would actually come to the doorbell, I can remember hearing one of my moms say, with a tragic sigh, “I’m sorry, Brian. J.R. can’t come out and play today. There’s breaking news in Libya.”

In this way, I grew up with Peter Jennings always around. He made me feel safe by giving me useful and constantly updated information about national security threats. He was the STAR WARS defense shield between the rest of the world and me. He spoke to me with respect, just like he did with Yasser Arafat. He never told me to clean the bathroom, or walk the dog, or to clean the garage. He had great style. He was my Halloween costume ten years in a row.

When I got older, my devotion to him took on less-awkward traits. I still favored his taste in suits, but only for special occasions. I still had his haircut, perfectly manicured like Japanese shrubbery, but that was out of habit. I finally joined speech team and found friends of my own that weren’t reporting live from the U.S. State Department.

Regardless, when I was in high school, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the first Gulf War unfolded, I watched almost every moment Peter Jennings was on the air. No matter how tired I was, or what my friends wanted to go out and do, I watched. I still didn’t like to leave his company if I didn’t have to, but that didn’t last much longer. My rapid gravitation towards heavy metal music and burgeoning interest in beer and fine ass probably had something to do us suddenly breaking apart. The big news was MY life, and Peter Jennings couldn’t help me with that. By the time I entered college, just before Clinton was elected, I barely paid any attention to the news. I didn’t even own a TV anymore.

A few years later, when he was least on my mind, I saw him Peter Jennings in person, at a bookstore in downtown Chicago. I was idly flipping through a magazine, killing time after work, when I noticed a crowd in the fiction section. When I wandered over, there was a small group, and sitting alone, at a table, reading aloud, was Peter Jennings. After what seemed like just a few seconds, he was finished. The crowd applauded politely. He readied to leave, and as he walked through the store, I followed. People looked at him and then away, then quickly back in delighted recognition. I was surprised at how different he looked to me than I expected he would, how quickly he had aged, how fast all these clich├ęs were hitting me all at once. At the last second, before he got in the revolving door, I said "Mr. Jennings! Mr. Jennings!" I stuck my hand out to shake his hand, and he turned and took it. My mind was immediately cleared of anything to say, so I blurted out, "You’re the only man in America my mother trusts." He gave me a brilliant smile and said, "well, you tell her thanks from me, son". Then I watched him walk away.

On the day he died, I didn’t know with to do with the letter I had written, or who I was supposed to give it to. So I walked into 300 N. State, and up to the directory, found the floor for ABC News and took the elevator. When it opened, I walked over to the nearest person, a young woman, and asked if she worked for ABC News. Yes, she replied. "I need to give this to someone real" I replied, holding the letter up to her like an arrest warrant. "It’s my memorial to Peter Jennings, who I loved like a father". Her eyes flickered to the letter in my hand and back to me. She took it. "How did you get in here", she asked? Her eyes were kind, but I could see a distinct question in them, and it said: I am currently evaluating your very obvious lack of sanity. Instead of answering her question, I walked swiftly back to the elevator.

As I exited the building, escorted by two security guards, I felt my own grief begin to lift, at least for the rest of that particular day. How was I to know that in the next few months my mom would fight a battle with cancer, that my long-running romantic relationship would end in a fiasco I had created; that my adult defenses were dropping one by one to shambles? Here is what the letter said:

To the ABC News team: This morning I had to run out of my office and into the bathroom and bawl for a good five minutes. How to explain? I've been a news junkie my whole life. I had no real father figure and Peter Jennings was urbane in a way that I longed to be from a very young age. He was my hero. How else to put it? I think I understood the dangers of the world as a child better than most of my peers, and he was the best defense against the worst of those dangers that I could imagine. That might sound quaint or silly, but he has remained in that role, one of the most precious in my life, until now. I can't imagine another journalist will ever make me feel that way again. I don't know if I can write and do justice to my feelings about this man. I just know that the next time everyone in America gathers around their TV sets to watch as a tragedy occurs with hideous speed, as one invariably will, I suspect I will feel just a little bit lonelier than I ever have before. I'm very sorry for your loss, and for mine. Yours truly, J.R. Nelson Chicago IL