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Jack Smith

Making the great escape from the clutches of 1984 into the brave new world

January 29, 1985|JACK SMITH

On New Year's Eve I had a hard time controlling my emotions; I was overcome by the wonder of being alive, of having made it through the year.

And I felt confident that I was going to make it through 1985. The worst year of my life was over, and I had survived it.

I felt sure that the man in the dark suit was discouraged; he had let me slip away on our last appointment, and he knew I wasn't likely to get that close again for a while.

While my wife was preparing dinner I got out some Beethoven albums, thinking it would be good to finish off the old year in a burst of fine music, then enter the new one on the great turbulent wave of the Ninth Symphony, rolling in on that magnificent supercharged chorus singing the "Ode to Joy."

I played the Seventh first. It is so splendid; it would show that I still had some respect for the old year. But it was too much for me. My emotions were too close to the surface. That rhythmic buildup toward melodic splendors to come was more than I could handle. I was overcome, near tears; and when the phone rang I turned it off, so I could talk.

It was Herb Caen, calling from San Francisco. We are supposed to be adversaries, he being the voice of San Francisco, Bagdad by the Bay, the Paris of the West, and I the defender of Los Angeles, the great wasteland. Of course it is nonsense. I admire Caen as one of the nation's most popular and skillful columnists; and personally, I love him.

He wanted to know how I was, and to wish me a happy new year.

I told him I was all right and was going to go back to work soon.

"Don't you think you ought to slow down?" he said.

"Herb," I said, knowing he had been around as long as I had, "have you ever slowed down?"

"Well, no," he said, "I guess not."

"We can't slow down, Herb."

"I know it," he said.

I put the Beethoven albums away and got out an album of Irving Berlin, and one of Cole Porter, and the sound track of "Pennies From Heaven," with all that wonderful old stuff in it.

That was more like it. Beethoven was the music of the spheres. Irving Berlin and Porter were the music of my life, of the streets and alleys and bars and proms and rumble seats and barracks and living rooms I knew.

"Cheek to Cheek" . . . "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" . . . "All Alone" . . . "What'll I Do" . . . "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" . . . "Let's Fly Away" . . . "Just One of Those Things." I decided to open a bottle of champagne. We were going to celebrate alone. We had had to turn down our usual New Year's Eve parties, and our sons and daughters-in-law were going to be with friends of their own generation.

I went into the kitchen and asked my wife: "If I opened a bottle of champagne, could you drink three-quarters of it?"

She said: "I can sure try."

That's one thing I have always liked about her. She was always willing to do more than her share, and cheerfully.

I got out a bottle of the champagne I usually have in stock for festive occasions, and started to open it. But I had been warned against doing anything strenuous, and I noticed I was straining, trying to get the cork out.

"I'm afraid I can't do it," I said to her. "You think you could?"

"I'll try," she said. "I really don't know how. I've never opened champagne. I've always been afraid of it."

I felt a little surge of pride. You couldn't say a man was a complete failure as a husband if in 45 years of marriage his wife hadn't once had to open a bottle of champagne.

She struggled with it, but finally there was a gratifying pop; she didn't even get a spillover.

I got out two champagne flutes and filled one for her and poured just enough in the other to make a toast.

We raised our glasses, and I said, "Happy New Year." I don't believe in elaborating on the traditional language of such occasions. We drank.

On the phonograph Rudy Vallee was singing "Let's Put Out the Lights and Go to Sleep" in that reedy but strangely vital and exhilarating voice of his.

As it turned out my wife drank seven-eighths of the champagne, and after dinner she got to talking about our recent experience. She had been so emotionally strung out that she couldn't remember much more about the first day than I could.

But she remembered coming home from the hospital Monday morning to get some fresh clothes and seeing an envelope that I had left Sunday morning, before I was stricken, for the postman to pick up. It was a renewal of my subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer.

At first she was going to take it back. That was her French frugality. Why waste it, if I might not be coming home? Then she realized that that was a betrayal. She let it go. I was entitled, even at the end, to renew my faith in skepticism.

We put out the lights and went to sleep before the year ended.

At midnight we were awakened by the whistling and merrymaking in the neighborhood.

"Is that it?" she said.

"That's it," I said, feeling safe.

I had escaped 1984 entirely.

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