Monday, March 31, 2014

The Legend of John Wayne

A confluence of things recently reminded me of John Wayne and a story my grandfather used to tell.  Before the story, there is the confluence.

I was in front of a class recently when I made reference to John Wayne.  Not one student knew him or his work.  As a cultural touchstone, he was lost.  That bothered me a bit seeing that he was one of the most prevalent screen personas in the twentieth century.  So much for cinematic history.  By the way, Wayne would have been 107 years old this year.

The actor’s name came up again when I was reading the Sunday papers and noticed a new biography of Wayne by Scott Eyman.  I haven’t read the book yet, but I hope to soon.  John Wayne was a favorite actor in my family and I liked his westerns as well as The Green Berets (1968).  It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized he was a notorious right-winger and advocate for the war in Vietnam.  Like most of America, we all loved the character of John Wayne rather than the person known originally as Marion Morrison.  In fact, the character was inseparable from the name.  One of the criticisms of Wayne’s acting is that he always played himself in his films, which of course begs the question, who was the real John Wayne?  Many Americans believed he was simply what he appeared to be on screen.  In short, no one had a problem with Wayne playing every role as himself, and although many people in the industry doubted he was anything more than an action figure, he was quite well-read and intelligent.  Although he rarely died on film, John Wayne succumbed to cancer in 1979.

That last fact is where my grandfather’s story begins.  Edward Martin, after a long career working in the Skunk Works at Lockheed in Burbank, found himself retired and facing significant health issues.  Cancer had spread throughout his body, specifically his colon, and although he fought valiantly against the disease, he passed on Good Friday, 1980.

At one point toward the end of his illness, my grandfather was at the UCLA Medical Center here in Los Angeles.  One day, while walking the halls to keep himself mobile during treatment, he saw a man in a bathroom, using a walker, and gingerly making the rounds through the wards.  Something about the man’s walk was familiar.  My grandfather caught up to him and realized that the man wore two baseball caps:  the one facing front was a UCLA cap; the one worn backward was from USC.  Then my grandfather saw the man’s face.  Although he was pale, drawn, and in obvious pain, there was no mistaking John Wayne.

I imagine my grandfather sticking out his hand and offering a hearty, “How’s it going, Duke?”  I don’t know how the relationship started, but I know it was a highlight of my grandfather’s life to meet John Wayne in the flesh.  For a brief time, the two struck up a friendship.  When my grandfather asked about the two baseball caps, Wayne told him that UCLA was treating his cancer, but USC would always have his heart.

I have always wondered if the two men ever talked about anything else.  Did they discuss death?  Heroism?  Family?  If somehow they had survived cancer, would they have kept in touch?  Probably not.  I only know that my grandfather told the story many times, and relished his brush with celebrity.

My grandfather was eventually discharged to finish his days at home, something he requested of his doctors.  I was there the day he died, and sat with him in his final hours even though the shadow of death in the room made me almost desperately afraid.  Add to that the fact that my grandfather was incoherent, eyes wide open, mumbling and moaning.  His breath rasped in and out of his bony chest, the well-known death rattle that so many health care workers can describe firsthand.  I mowed the lawns that day and did some clean up around the yard.  My grandfather loved his property, and planted huge vegetable gardens and multiple flower beds, turning his home into a paradise.  My job was to keep it up until he could resume his work, but everyone knew those days were gone and would never come again.  Late in the afternoon, my father took me home.  My grandfather died later that night.

Our heroes are never supposed to die, but they do.  Every one.  The first John Wayne movie I ever saw was The Cowboys (1972).  In that film, Wayne must draft a bunch of kids for a cattle drive after his ranch hands abandon him to work the gold rush.  On the trail, cattle thieves ambush the green crew and kill John Wayne’s character.  Bruce Dern, the most psychotic of antagonists, shoots our hero in the back.  While watching the film, I could not believe John Wayne was dead.  My father kept saying that John Wayne never dies in his pictures, therefore, we both kept waiting for him to make a return, jump out from behind a tree or rock and take out Bruce Dern.  It did not happen.  In the end, the youngsters matured enough to save the day and exact revenge on the bad guys.

For so long, I identified with those young cowboys.  I hoped when the moment came, I would be brave and do what is necessary.  I am still trying, in every moment, across the years.

John Wayne and Edward Martin are gone now, relegated to history and the back pages of memory.  May they rest in peace.

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