On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

JFK, Charlton Heston, Johnny Cash, et al: Close Encounters of the Famous Kind

First of all, I am not a celebrity hound.  In fact, I go out of my way to appear unfazed at the appearance of anyone of note who comes within my ken, and there have been more than a few.  Living for many years as I have in the Nashville area, celebrities are bound to show up no matter where one goes.  At one time, our suburb boasted over sixty country music stars in residence, including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Barbara Mandrell, and Boots Randolph.  (Tammy Wynette lived two doors down from our first house, and William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys lived across the street from our second one.)
    My own personal experience with celebrities began earlier, however, after my January graduation from high school in Des Moines, Iowa ( at that time they had midyear students).  I didn’t want to start college until the fall, so I got a job in the advertising department of the Des Moines Register and Tribune.  One day a buzz went around the office that Charlton Heston was in the building and would be signing autographs in a certain room at a certain time.  My co-workers all wanted to see him up close, so I too went along out of curiosity.   
    The great actor was in his prime then, having just finished making The Ten Commandments, but my first glimpse of him after standing (foolishly, I felt) in a long line was a little disappointing.  He had on a khaki jacket and casual shirt, sitting behind a desk and looking singularly bored.  Finally, I approached him, standing mutely by his side.  I don’t think he more than glanced at me before he signed his name on a tiny slip of paper.  The only other thing I recall as he bent his head to write was seeing a wart on his neck.  Then it was over.  I put the slip away in my box of mementos, along with letters from old boyfriends and dance programs.  As time went on, those mementos got thrown out, as did the autograph.
Jeanne seated in the communications tent
    A few years later, my husband and I were living in Cedar Rapids where I was employed in the business office of the telephone company.  One day, my manager tapped me and two other account representatives to take charge of the communications tent at a multi-state event called the Corn Picking Contest.  President Eisenhower would be there to say a few words to the crowd of over 100,000, and also putting in an appearance was the Democrat hopeful for the upcoming election, Senator John F. Kennedy.  The communications tent was a hub of activity in those low-tech days, for all the reporters called in news from one of the many phone booths in the large tent.  I and my co-workers would then get a call-back from the operator with charges. 
    Soon after we got set up, a flurry of activity outside the yet virtually empty tent heralded the arrival of someone important.  In walked a tall gentleman, who scanned the area, followed by the man himself.  Senator Kennedy immediately spotted us at our desks and with a friendly (and no doubt practiced) smile approached us with hand outstretched.  He introduced himself and chatted briefly about the venue and then departed.  It was over in a few minutes, but later I could say I shook the hand of a President of the United States in a rather intimate setting.  As far as Ike was concerned, I only saw him from a distance when someone lifted me onto the bed of a truck for a minute when he was speaking.
    It wasn’t until several years later that we made our home in Tennessee and I again came face to face with notables.  As I mentioned, this area was a hotbed of celebrities of a certain kind–and still is to a lesser extent today.  Shortly after taking up residence in the town, which was only about 16,000 at the time (it’s now about 50,000), I took our young boys to a small public pool.  It was there that I began to see Johnny Cash with his (or rather June’s) daughters, about the same age as my sons.   No one ever paid any attention to him, and he usually wandered around the perimeter while the girls swam.  I liked to take a rug and sit on the nearby grassy bank.  Occasionally, he also sat down, sometimes close, sometime far from me.  He might nod a little greeting, but never spoke; nor did I.  Hardly the man in black, he invariably wore jump suits in various colors.
    In reflecting about these brushes with the famous, I’ve decided that though we get a kick out of mentioning our encounters, they are really quite meaningless; we know these people are no different from anyone else, only more accomplished in certain areas.  One can admire them for their talents or even for their character, if indicated, such as my observation recently of Reba McEntire at a local restaurant.  As is my wont, I refused to stare, but I couldn’t help but observe that when she saw a young sailor dining alone, she sent word for him to join her party.  It was a thoughtful, entirely unnecessary act, one that probably went unnoticed by most people in the restaurant, but it will always color my regard for her.  That kind of memory is more meaningful, from my standpoint, than clustering around for an autograph that will probably fade or get lost over time.

1 comment:

  1. Jeanne, I really enjoyed this post. I always like to read these first person accounts of brushes with the famous, hoping for a different take on their characters. That wart on Heston was an excellent detail and made him very human. And the bit about Reba's invitation to the sailor says a lot about her character. That's a "welcome home" and a "thanks for your service" he'll never forget.

    Dapper Dan in TX