Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reagan and the Magic 77

My Father at 100--Ron Reagan's touching new memorial to his father--reminds me of nothing so much of Geoffrey Wolff's unforgettable memoir of his own father, The Duke of Deception. Wolff's is more ambitious and searching work, more polished--Wolff is, after all, a seasoned professional.  But no matter.  Each book is a courageous effort by a likable man to come to terms with the ghost of a much-loved but  notably flawed parent.  Anybody who has ever had or been a flawed parent can relate, and let's stipulate that that takes in most of us.

Ron clearly does like the great iconic celebrity who used to carry him to bed and race him in the swimming pool.  And you'd have to concede that celebrity papa, whatever his vices, was never quite the same emotional train wreck as Wolff's lying, cheating, con artist.   But as others have remarked, Reagan senior did have that hard impenetrable emotional core.  It is Reagan junior's job to try to understand how it came into being, and just how it worked to complicate their lives.  The inquiry takes him back to Dixon, IL, where papa grew up and to Ireland, the home of their ancestors, and to a variety of insights into their common past.

There are a number of well-crafted anecdotes in this highly readable account but I think two define the story, and remarkably, they are borne up on a common structure.  One is the story of how the 11-year-old Reagan came home alone to find his father drunk on the front porch, and single-handedly maneuvered father's helpless body upstairs to bed.  The other is how Reagan as a lifeguard over seven seasons on the Rock River saved the lives of 77 people.  That would be one a week for every week of his service.

The core commonality is perhaps obvious: plucky young loner drags helpless adult to safety.  So as not to be misunderstood, young Ron provides the interpretation.  Of the drunken-papa incident, young Ron says that "Dutch [i.e., his father] did what heroes do.  he manned up, took charge, muscled his pop to bed, and spared his mother's feelings besides."   Of lifeguarding, he waxes more expansive:
Picture yourself at 17.  Give it a second--really take yourself back to the insecure, somewhat awkward, not-nearly-as-adult-as-you-thought self that was the actual 17-year-old you.  Now, imagine yourself sprinting through the night toward the bank of a rushing river.  To make things more interesting, let's toss nearsightedness into the picture.  You've slung aside your glasses--along with your shoes and clothes--as you race to the river's edge. ... Tonight, the rescuer will be you.  Saving him is your summer job. Go.
So in each case Dutch mans up and saves the day.  And actually, there's one more common theme, although it may not be evident so far. That is: in neither episode, did the object of the benefaction show gratitude to the savior.   Or at least, if his father showed gratitude, it has been edited out of the story: grandpa emerges in papa's stories as, at best, an object of a kind of amused contempt.  As to to the swimmers, the point is clearer.  As Dutch appears to have said, and as young Ron is at pains to repeat--of all the lucky 77, only one ever thanked their rescuer. The rest either shrugged it off or tried to tell him how they hadn't really needed the help.

So, revised version: Dutch is the person who mans up and saves the day, even for people who do not want to be saved (there is actually a third such story, a coda,  involving Dutch and a five-year-old in a pool in Sacramento--her father, like so many before him did not appreciate the favor).  But there is a surprising discontinuity with respect to young Ron's treatment of these iconic yarns. That is: of the first--the drunk-on-the-porch story--young Ron does not believe it.
Only it didn't happen that way--it couldn't have happened that way. My father, just turned 11, was small for his age; he'd have stood maybe five feet tall and weighed barely 90 pounds. Jack, nearing 40, probably tipped the scales at 180. Dutch wasn't big or strong enough to drag Jack anywhere...
Young Ron's skepticism seems entirely justified here.  All the moreso because it is of a piece with the book's larger theme.  For young Ron entertains no illusions about his father's more general character. He recognizes him as most people do today: as a fabulist, an illusionist, a master of Irish blarney, the man who never let the facts get in the way of a good story, the man who thought World War II was a movie.  All the more remarkable, then, that Ron thinks the 77-saves story is true.
By hurling  himself into the river to save the lives of drowning strangers, he was not only proving his worth, he was setting the world aright.  How many of his rescues were legitimate (allowing for a handful of young women desperate enough to be saved by such a handsome lifeguard that they got themselves in as bit more trouble than they'd bargained for)?  I'd put the number at ... 77.
bona fide rescues, not just shoulders through the megaphone--over seven seasons at a smalltime river park in Illinois--that guy would have been in Ripley's Believe it or Not.

It's the precision that raises the eyebrows.  If he'd said "five," I suppose I wouldn't have blinked.  If he'd said "a lot," I couldn't have quarreled.  If he'd said "a lot--and some of them were actually drowning," I probably would have joined in the good-natured hilarity. But exactly 77?  It's the numerological sum of the letters in "Christ."  It's the number of branches of learning in Islam. It was Red Grange's number at the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears.  Maybe we could retire Dutch's lifeguard shirt.

I should clarify my purposes here.  I have no interest in playing "gotcha" with a guy who died seven (sic!) years ago (and I certainly don't doubt that Reagan believed his own story, as he seems to have believed all of his stories).  I don't really want to make trouble for young Ron, who, as I suggest, comes across as an enormously likable man and who in any event wrote a gripping book.   I guess my point is to remark (once again?) on the extraordinary durability of stories, particularly in families, and how much we find ourselves to cling to them, no matter how skeptical and clear-sighted we may seem to be.

Footnote:  another part of the swimming story involves the retrieval of a set of false teeth.  The beneficiary, according to young Ron's account, was a certain Gus Whiffleberg.  As of this writing, Google recognizes no instances of the name "Whiffleberg"--except references to the Reagan story. 

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