Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)

Surprises

All afternoon I had the sense that I had forgotten to do something. I couldn’t figure out what it was until I wandered out to the pool and saw Arlene in the water, standing in the shallow end, between laps, picking tiny patches of calcium crystals off the tiles just above the water line. Suddenly I thought of what it was: it was about Arlene, of course.

I would have asked her right then, but she barely looked up. I got a friendly, “Hey you,” and then she was back to business.

She was so focused on chip-chip-chipping away that she didn’t notice that a couple of her knuckles were bleeding, never mind that I was standing there with something to ask her. She had been fixated on removing these crystals for the past week, explaining she was addicted to the gratification she felt when she was able to see the original indigo-blue pool tile. I think she was on day five of this obsession. The pool did look beautiful—I had to give her that.

As I recall, it was a gorgeous day. In June 2010 there was a sapphire-blue sky overhead and songbirds in the trees. I thought about how to capture her attention. I started to whistle a tune—that did it.

She looked up with an inviting grin and asked, “Yes?”

At that point if I had been sixty years younger—no, maybe just thirty years younger—I might have dropped down to one knee and said I had something important to ask her.

Instead, I remained upright, poised solidly on two feet but smiling that kind of broad, genuinely happy grin that can only be inspired by a beautiful young woman. I put my hands in my pockets and shifted my weight from one foot to the other.

“Yes?” she repeated.

“I have something to ask you,” I said.

Again Arlene asked, “Yes?” only now her smile was larger, amused and interested. Then, for the twelfth or twenty-seventh or sixty-fifth time, I asked her to marry me.

It wasn’t a joke, but it had become a sort of through-line of the past year of our relationship. I had popped the question only a couple of nights earlier, in fact, while we watched Jeopardy after dinner, and as always, she laughed at me.

It was a laugh filled with love, and though not exactly a rebuff, it was more or less a response that said, “Are you crazy?” Yes, in fact, I was crazy—crazy about her. What is that old saying about the definition of insanity? Doing something over and over again and expecting a different result? Well, I guess I was partially insane. But I was also an adherent of the old English proverb about perseverance.

’Tis a lesson you should heed:

Try, try, try again.

If at first you don’t succeed,

Try, try, try again.

So I had tried again—and this time, after I asked, she looked up from the pool and said, “Where’s the ring?”

“Do you want to go to Tiffany’s today?” I asked.

She smiled. “Okay.”

The reason Arlene finally said yes? As she later explained, despite her fears about our age difference and worries that a marriage as far-fetched as ours would never work, her gut told her to take the risk. Stranger things happened to people. Plus, her feelings, like mine, were genuine.

So later that afternoon we walked into Tiffany’s on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Arlene said she felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I felt even luckier. Another couple was also at the counter picking out a ring. They appeared to be in their early thirties and quite indecisive. The bride-to-be tried on every diamond ring in the case.

By contrast, Arlene, whose knuckles were still tinged with blood, studied the options for a few minutes, then tapped the top of the display case and said, “That one.” It was a platinum band with tiny diamonds all the way around. We were out of there within twenty minutes. The other couple was still trying on rings.

Back out on Rodeo Drive I held Arlene’s hand and walked with a spring in my step. I was tickled as I thought about what had just happened. I was engaged. Who would have guessed? However, after ninety years on this planet, I can confirm one absolute, fundamental, inarguable truth about life: it is an endless series of surprises. We old people—no, make that us folks who have lived a long time—have learned this basic truth: no one knows what is going to happen next. It’s all a mystery wrapped in a gift box that you only find when you least expect it.

Think about it: life starts as a surprise, we spend our childhood pretty much in the moment, and then, after a certain point, we spend a good amount of energy planning for the future, wondering but never actually knowing when, how, or why we will head for the exit. All the years in between are best summed up by that oft-quoted line, which I will say again here: if you want to amuse God, make plans. If anyone who tells you they have everything mapped out, check back with them five years later. You can say, “I told you so.”

Philosopher Alan Watts said as much in The Wisdom of Insecurity, a favorite book of mine that postulates that security does not exist, not in life and definitely not in the way people want and spend their time trying to ensure it—my younger self included. Watts argued what he called “the wisdom of insecurity.” He said that in order to live with less anxiety and a freer mind, you have to accept that insecurity is the rule. The best you could do, he said, was be fully present in the here and now—and get ready to be surprised.

As I always say, my life has been a series of surprises—lucky breaks, I call them—starting with what was and remains one of the best experiences of my life. I was a freshman in junior high, and my dad was transferred in his sales job, from Danville to Crawfordsville, Indiana. We lived across from Wabash College, and on Sundays they had track meets there. I was on my school’s freshman track team, and our coach was one of the officials at those weekend events. I always went over and watched the races. One weekend I went there to see Wabash run against Purdue University.

As I sat on the wall, my coach came over and asked whether I would help out. “The anchorman on the relay team just turned his ankle,” he said. “Do you want to run it?”

Even though I wasn’t yet fifteen years old and would be running against guys eighteen years and older, I said, “Sure.”

I had to run in my bare feet because I didn’t have any shoes, and luckily I was wearing short pants. But none of that was even remotely on my mind as the guy from Wabash handed me the baton. I could have been wearing a three-piece suit at that point, and it wouldn’t have mattered. My only thought was to run and to run fast—and I did.

When I took off, the guy from Purdue was five yards ahead of me. I caught him before the last turn then passed him on the outside and crossed the finish line five yards ahead of him. I was more excited than I had ever been in my entire life. I took my blue ribbon home and told my parents.

My father never believed me. I knew it was far-fetched too, but it happened, and that night, as I went to bed, I thought, “My God, I am on my way to the Olympics.”

That didn’t happen, but the surprises kept coming. As a high school junior, I was elected class president—and I didn’t even run! Someone else put my name on the ballot, and I arrived at school the next morning and saw my name on the bulletin board: Class President: Dick Van Dyke. The next year someone put my name on the ballot again, and I lost by two votes to Chuck Linley, a guy who said I hadn’t done a thing the previous year—and he was right! I was too busy socializing.

A few months later, in the middle of my senior year, I left high school to join the Air Force—another unexpected twist. And so it has gone.

I never had an agenda. I didn’t know I was going to sing or dance. I went from radio to nightclubs to TV to singing and dancing onstage in Bye Bye Birdie. It was all about feeding my family, not developing a career. I nearly got canned from Bye Bye Birdie; they considered letting me go as we workshopped it in Philadelphia. I had no idea.

In my audition I had confessed that I didn’t know how to dance. Gower Champion, the show’s director, had said, “We’ll teach you.” Still, I was a novice—and nervous.

A year and a half later I won the Tony Award as Best Featured Actor, which was not only a surprise but a total shock. Adding to that, by then I had left the play and was shooting The Dick Van Dyke Show in Los Angeles. Charles Nelson Reilly accepted the award for me, but he didn’t call afterward, and the telegram notifying me got stuck under our front doormat. Our housekeeper found it three days later.

Mary Poppins is yet another example of life saying, “Surprise!” Walt Disney heard me say during an interview that I thought there was a paucity of children’s entertainment. From that, I got the job. And look at the way things worked out. Believe me, when I think of all the things that happened raising four children—the grades and graduations, the phone calls from family and friends about engagements, babies, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, jobs, promotions, and so on—the list of surprises that comprise life, my life, has been constant.

And then came the latest: marriage. Eight months after getting engaged, on Leap Day 2012, Arlene and I drove up the canyon in the hills behind us to the Serra Retreat, a serene spot embodying the philosophy of its namesake, Blessed Junipero Serra: “Always go forward, never turn back.” I couldn’t have moved forward fast enough. As I told the retreat’s longtime priest, Father Warren Rouse, I was in a hurry—I wanted to make sure Arlene didn’t get away.

I wasn’t joking either. Our prenup had taken longer than expected, then our marriage license expired and had to be renewed, and getting family and friends together was nearly as hard as convincing Arlene to say yes. In the end that extra twenty-ninth day in February proved useful, as we finally traded “I Dos” in front of a handful of family and friends. Arlene looked beautiful in a simple red dress, while I went for understated elegance in a black suit with a festive silver tie.

“This was one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made,” I told everyone as we celebrated at our house with high tea sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, and red velvet cake.

In September we celebrated with family and friends in a blowout at our friends Fay and Frank Mancuso’s beachfront home. Arlene created what she called “a sea-foam circus theme” party: “It’s Jules Verne meets Moulin Rouge meets Fellini,” she told me. Under a giant tent the extravaganza featured a circus barker who changed accents and languages as the night went on, jugglers, fan dancers, a dancing bear, dancing jelly fish, special lighting effects, popcorn, cotton candy, a sea of cupcakes, a gorgeous mermaid playing a harp, and a contortionist who floated in a crystal ball in the swimming pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

There was also a stack of hula hoops that all the guests took a spin with. Even the catering staff gave them a whirl! One of the many highlights of the evening was watching Arlene’s mother hula-hoop to the song “Walking on Sunshine” in its entirety. Arlene and I capped the evening with a duet of the Annie Get Your Gun tune “Old Fashioned Wedding.” It was the best wedding I’d ever been to—and best of all, I was in it!

In the weeks and months afterward I was asked the same question, repeatedly, but in umpteen different ways. Sometimes it came at me from behind embarrassed grins; other times it followed nervous hemming and hawing. Sometimes it was asked directly. Other times I had to decipher the round-about-ness of curiosity cloaked in a maze of modesty. But all wanted to know the same thing: Was there was still romance at my age? I’m sure my response gave a lot of people hope, as I said, “There’s a reason these years are called the golden years.”

This is the biggest surprise of all, I suppose. Love is everything when you are thirteen. It is everything when you are in your twenties and thirties. Finding it again is everything if you lose it in your forties or fifties. You cherish it in your sixties and seventies. And it is just as powerful and intoxicating if you are lucky enough to have it in your eighties and nineties.

It is all about love.

Maybe that should not be a surprise.

Love in the Afternoon

For me, having lived for a long time, having been through relationships, I have gotten over the romantic notion about love. Oh, there is still plenty of romance—flowers, dancing, moonlight walks. What I’m talking about is the possessiveness, the jealousy, all the evil and vain things. Real love, as I have come to know it, is when you care about the other person as much as you care about yourself. You can’t make another person happy, but you can pave the way for them to make themselves happy.