Culture Watch

Tieless at gala

Nobody seems to have been embarrassed for Barbara Walters when, during her post-election interview with the Carters, she exacted a pledge that the new President wouldn’t show up at state dinners in jeans. And since then I’ve come upon other evidence that—despite sixties permissiveness and demystifying—the old correct-costume hang-ups survive. Shortly before the Inauguration the outgoing secretary of health, education and welfare, David Mathews, convened, in association with the American Council on Education, a hundred souls at Airlie, Virginia, to discuss “The Changing Agenda of Higher Education,” and to suggest directions for the next occupant of his post. Besides a scattering of editors, professors, and celebrities (Margaret Mead, for one), the guest list included a Carter Cabinet appointee (Juanita Kreps) and a Carter transition team member, a governor, some corporate board chairmen and congressmen, a half-dozen foundation heads, two dozen university presidents, and several high government officials of yesteryear.

After a break at the end of the first day’s work, the conferees returned for a pre-dinner reception and drinks—and hit a bump. Everybody from the president of duPont to a dean of Radcliffe had changed during the break into fancier dashikis or white shirts or long gowns; everyone, that is, except the Secretary himself. He came to us tieless, cardiganed, and plaid-shirted, occasioning a good-humored but nevertheless distinctly critical hum and buzz. One critic harked back thirty years to the Japanese surrender, when emissaries from the Sun Emperor were met by an open-necked shirt: “Who’s he think he is, MacArthur?”

Countless obsessions and neuroses figure here, no doubt. Worry about being taken lightly by the top person. Suspicion, rooted in awareness of the thinness of the line in most lives between informality and dishevelment, that relaxed public people may forget to ask a certain height of themselves. A touch of the emotion children feel on first glimpsing a tipsy parent. (Who will take care of me?) But at the center, by my reckoning, is plain distaste for interruptions, occurrences that want placing and explaining. Suiting up “properly” supports faith that mysteries are the exception, that dinner is ready and the salt will come, like tomorrow, to anyone who remembers to say please. If it’s a shaky faith, it’s what we have.

Pure history

The new National Air and Space Museum on Independence Avenue in Washington. D.C., a few steps along from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, has emerged as a major tourist hit, and no wonder. The entrance hall, featuring two matching tanker-length murals, promises splendors. “A Cosmic View” shows a moon-walker in a haze of moon dust, bubbles, and asteroids with Old Glory in the background; “Earthflight Environment” shows a friendly skies airliner making tracks above the desert stone piles where, in the time when Westerns meant Arizona, not Andalusia, Coop, the Duke, and others holed up. And the insides—a dozen exhibition halls and galleries, including a “Spacearium” donated by “the people of the Federal Republic of Germany”— deliver in full. There’s an extraordinary collection, brilliantly displayed, of aeronautical objects, many suspended aloft, as though in full flight, in glassen, girderless, six-story-high chambers: The Spirit of St. Louis, a slew of mail planes, a DC-3, a P40, German rockets dating from the V-1 and V-2 period, an X-15 (rocket-powered research plane), Friendship 7 (John Glenn), Columbia (the Apollo 11 spacecraft), exact replicas of Eagle (lunar module), a skylab, much more.

In addition, there are Disneyland-style entertainments—a “World War I gallery,” for instance, that retells, by means of lifesize props, the story of a German fighter pilot who landed his new Fokker at an American “forward airfield near Verdun" a day or so before the Armistice. The “set” includes sandbagged briefing and interrogation rooms, “some mechanics in a larger tent [talking] about the war,” and an authentic SPAD fighter upside down in the air above the authentic Fokker (the SPAD pilot is executing a Victory Roll); the corridor cases roundabout are chockablock with period mementoes—braid, medals, pilots’ caps, puttees.

Then, on the education side, there’s a gallery of flight technology in which five puppets, aided by a miniature wind tunnel and “computer animated films,” teach the fundamentals of flight. The puppets—Ace Blue and Wheeler King, boyhood chums who become a pilot and a manufacturer; Bulldog Powers, propulsion expert; structures engineer Reginald Pick; and Slick Camber, aerodynamicist— grow old with us during the presentation. Spectacle movies about flight are shown in a theater with a giant projection screen ("you tumble through the sky in the passenger seat ahead of the pilot of a barnstormer’s biplane . . . you sail past island cliffs hanging freely in the air from a solitary hang glider”). The public dining room has, what else, a “carousel serving arrangement”; the museum gift shop offers a smashing selection of kites, models, slides, and books; museum guides can provide special-theme tours on notice.

It’s all stunning and glossy, also (predictably) abstract and untrue. Like most museum people and a horde of historians, the Air and Space folks are, in their hearts, sanitizers. We pick up the Great War at a final curtain, missing trenches and the puke and rot of mustard gas. England’s buzz bomb season, that murderous depleting absurdity, becomes but a way station to the moon. (Thank you, people of the Third Reich; different people, presumably, from those who brought us the Spacearium.) And the costs and entailments of NASA—risk, accident, mistaken priorities, muck, mess, men burned to cinders in dry runs, Headstart nutrition programs phased out— come in for scarcely a word.

One consequence for the visitor strolling this steel garden is a subtle growth of deference to Them, the Foreordainers—an odd, impersonally optimistic assurance that all along They’ve had things in hand, from the primitive beginnings to these contemporary triumphs of progress. Here above, in the Milestones of Flight chamber, is the spindly, makeshift Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer, 12 hp engine with bike-chain drive; directly below stands the Apollo 11 spacecraft, flown by the moon-walkers of ‘69, massive, burnished—inevitable. They knew. Here, next to The Spirit of St. Louis, is the gleaming, pointed X-15. Had to come. The Wright brothers, the SPAD, Lindy, mail planes, Hughes, Turner, Earhart, Post, wingwalkers, air races, airliners, Sputnik. “The Eagle Has Landed” . . . every item in the bunch predestined.

Including oneself. Because under the pressure of the march of reason dramatized in these marble mansions, visitors of middle years catch an image of their own lives as essentially orderly if minor affairs, intelligible as footnotes to the history and future of aviation. What was Youth, after all, but Sunday trips to Roosevelt Field, Long Island, to watch the planes (always the reminder: “Lindy left from here!”)? What has one ever been able to draw up as swiftly from memory—no hesitation, no stress—as the detritus of this particular mythy past? (The name of the Lockheed Vega in which Wiley Post set a transcontinental speed record? “Winnie Mae!” Correct, advance one space.) Life passages once obscure become causally connected. Because in your youth you designed and colored airplanes hour after hour, on rainy weekend afternoons, playing school with your elder sister . . . Because, a bit older, you built models of Roscoe Turner’s planes (Remember the incredible puffy weightlessness of balsa? Those cuts on your fingers from the razor blade?) . . . Therefore you fell into the endless boredom of aircraft identification classes for range-setters in anti-aircraft artillery battalions, before graduating to the infantry, during World War II. The history of aviation is you, soldier, it was laid on, had to be, couldn’t stop it, nobody started it, que sera, always gestating, always evolving—

I think it might help if voices were added to the Space and Air exhibits (voices less knowing than those of the guides recorded on the exhibit tapes), some means of intruding the possibility that deep disorder can exist in this, as in any, sector of personal, national, cultural life. Nor would it be wrong if the matter chosen were unmomentous, or played in comic styles. (Perhaps balloons above certain exhibits, as in the funnies.) I think of a story Lindy told in his Spirit of St. Louis (1953) about the night before the takeoff to Paris. He didn’t get to bed until very late and posted a friend to stand guard outside his hotel room door to assure him a decent patch of rest. Barely asleep (he was to be awakened at 2:15 A.M ), he saw the door open. The friend on guard came in, sat down on the bed. “Has something gone wrong? . . . Trouble at the field?” No, the friend was there simply to ask. “Slim, what am I going to do when you’re gone?” “Good Lord!” Lindy cried out within: “Is that why he came in at such a time? . . . Why did [he] have to ask such a fool question, just as I was dozing off?” —A trivial but useful bit, worth attaching to the periscope that Charles Lindbergh, Lone Eagle, peered out of during his next sleepless day and a half. A sign of the seamless chaos enfolding us all, including Them.

A voice would help Skylab too. As you pass through the tiny corridor of this glistening cylinder (price: billions) inhabited by spacepersons living for months Out There, the first human sight you see is a pair of technicians asleep in their “beds,” slung like bats in canvas racks against the wall, bound in so that they won’t float loose in slumber. (What haven’t They thought of?) I can imagine a wraith of a voice emanating from the slumberers, peeping from those dreams, noting and questioning the strangeness. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, friends, this feels funny. Really. Not to weigh anything, not to press into the world withthe hard heels of being . . . If you blow away your substance, if we’re just fluff all of a sudden . . . Well, I just wanted to say: Don’t take us for granted. This is a trip.

Most urgent is the need for a voice or two of overheard prayer, somebody frightened, somebody imploring. Dear Lord, Yea, though I walk . . . Either a prayer or a voice of mad protest, of Lenny Bruce-like tone. A clue to the admissibility of terror. Let a Bruce-like character play John Glenn, and have him monologue in front of Friendship 7. Lenny Glenn saying, Jesus Christ, this thing is small. Man, it’s too small! How the . . . You think I’m gonna get into a little shitass crib like that and go around the world, how’m I gonna find my joint in a thing like that? Wha—?

The need for lunacy arises because the effect of these series and juxtapositions, these endless successions of triumphs, is to banish the very notion of defeat and failure. They always knew it’d work. They knew that the Apollos were coming—so much bigger, so much more impressive. Did Glenn know? Friendship 7 is a fearfully tiny object, but only by canceling its surroundings in the Space Gallery can you sense the guts that trip must have taken. The big Columbia next door wasn’t present the day Glenn lifted off. Nor was the Space Gallery. Just people playing catch-up Cold War ball, with not one Expert in the lot brainy enough to foresee the crisis of municipal indebtedness of the cities of New York, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, or the closings of the public schools in the small towns of Oregon, or you name the ruins to come.

In a word, the new museum, this great and astonishing assemblage of proofs of great and astonishing human events, needs resisting—like all imposing orders, few or none of which, not even “the road” from Impressionism to Dada, are more inevitable than a line drawn from, say, Ace Blue to jock lib and the OPEC nations. The place is a poem of a sort, but truly to feel the events it chronicles, and the obscurities it hides, you have to uncreate it. Otherwise, Their fantasy takes over, a towering, bullying competence that never stops lying to itself, that excludes all hints of meaninglessness, and allows nothing unsettled—nothing human—in the room.

Reprise

“The archaeologist who puts his find in a museum so that everyone can see it accomplishes the reverse of his expectations. The result of his action is that no one can see it now but the archaeologist. He would have done better to keep it in his pocket and show it now and then to strangers. . . . Does this mean that we should get rid of museums? No, but it means that the sightseer should be prepared to enter into a struggle to recover a sight from a museum.”— Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle.

Storytime

Occasionally a piece of short fiction thrusts clear of the blur, stakes a claim even before it has seen a book setting of the author’s own choice. Harold Brodkey’s “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft" appears to be having such a career. Published in August 1975 as an excerpt from a novel in progress, this highly arresting invocation-celebration-critique of filial feeling was reprinted soon after in the 1976 O. Henry collection (it won first prize), has just been reprinted again in a new selection of Esquire fiction (All Our Secrets Are the Same), and will shortly be entering upon a new life as part of a completed first novel.

Mannered, circular, densely textured, “His Son" focuses on a spoiled father and spoiled son, a duo at once interdependent, animated, vulnerable, morally vain, and—here lies the human penetration— perfectly normal. The narrator “perceives" as a one-year-old in this sentence, as a veteran ironist in the next. The events are, without exception, acts of impulse—huge sulks by the child, erratic bursts by the father (he scatters thousands in cash, business profits, about the living room as wife and child watch). And the distinctions are various. “His Son" is among the most strongly sexed pieces of writing I’ve read for some time, charged with physical appetite and vibrant desiring. It’s remarkable also for shrewd readings of parent—child hyper-selfconsciousness:

. . . I was his innocence—as long as I was not an accusation, that is. I censored him—in that when he felt himself being, consciously, a father, he held back part of his other life, of his whole self: his shadows, his impressions, his adventures . . . he was careful—he walked on eggs—there was an odd courtesy of his withdrawal behind his secrets, his secret sorrows and horrors, behind the curtain of what-is-suitable-for-achild.

Best by far, the author lives for sensation. A central metaphorical operation of his tale is the rendering of a child’s experience of being picked up, swung aloft; time and again Brodkey’s son experiences paternal love as physical trip, and on each flight the writer carries the reader (as they say) with him:

He is rising, jerkily, to his feet and holding me at the same time. I do not have to stir to save myself—I only have to believe him. He rocks me into a sad-edged relief and an achingly melancholy delight with the peculiar lurch as he stands erect of establishing his balance and rectifying the way he holds me, so he can go on holding me, holding me aloft, against his chest: I am airborne: I liked to have that man hold me—in the air: I knew it was worth a great deal, the embrace, the gift of altitude.

Meditative short fiction has been out of fashion in recent days: “His Son" restores vivid life to the form.

Dare he eat a peach?

One of my sons forgets to pack his basketball after a holiday visit, and I promise to drop it off in midtown when I’m next in New York. On the morning of this trip I cast around, unsuccessfully, for a shopping bag or Hefty in which to carry the ball. (A man of years may improve his appearance by carrying a tennis or squash racket, but a naked basketball is something else: better a cardigan and jeans at Blair House.) On the way to the drop, though, I see that this finickiness of mine is wrongheaded. A stewardess speaks as though assured I’m on my way to a tournament, and not to officiate. Walking up Fifth Avenue, striding tall, I catch approving glances, hear piquant invitations. ("See it, man.”“Hey, man, shoot.”) When I reach the appointed checkroom, I’m almost reluctant to let the ball go— and, as it happens, there’s another turn ahead. Entering the Boston shuttle at LaGuardia at the end of the day, I spy Dave Cowens with a friend in the first seat—the leg-room seat—on the left by the bulkhead.

Cowens. The idea that I no longer have the ball leaves my head for some reason, magazine and suit bag vanish, and I’m palming an NBA Spalding Official TopFlite 100, showing Dave how I can palm. Dave grins and nods appreciatively, a marvelous smile. The others still don’t recognize him. — The bench is up and around us, we’re together in front of Heinsohn just before overtime, Hondo pooped, still toweling, whole team touching hands on the ball. It’s physical out there suddenly, somebody pushing off from behind, and Walter Mitty—stopped dead, setting a pick for the Celtics’ hero

—awakens, looks round in embarrassment, recovers fast, darts forward . . . snags the last nonsmoking seat on the aisle.