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

The Dreams of an Old Man

This is really all about ordering a teepee. But you’re going to have to wait before I get to that part.

When I was fourteen years old, Wendell Willkie came through Danville on a whistle-stop tour. The liberal Republican was drumming up support for his presidential run against FDR. My grandfather took me to the train station to hear him speak. This was a big event in our small town, and hundreds of people turned out. I had a hard time grasping his criticisms of the New Deal, but his notion of a One World government struck me as something novel. To a boy my age, that was a big wow!

We went home, and sometime later I saw my great-grandmother. She was a memorable character. As a young woman, one of her hands had been cut off in a thrasher, but that didn’t stop her from doing anything. She raised a family, cooked, and knitted up a warehouse-worth of sweaters, scarves, and blankets. She was a hillbilly—tough stock. She sat on the back porch and smoked an old clay pipe and spouted off on things in a peculiar jargon. For instance, to her, junk food was “truck.”

I can still hear her say, “Dickie, don’t eat that truck.”

Sitting in her chair, puffing on her pipe, she listened to me talk about Willkie and his One World idea, and then, when I finished, she widened her eyes, leaned forward, and, in her Southern Illinois accent, said, “When I was a little girl, long about your age, my dad took me to the train station to hear Abraham Lincoln. He was also running for president.” Though we lived in the land of Lincoln, I could not imagine anyone, let alone my great-grandmother, having actually seen this American icon, the president who freed the slaves. I was impressed.

But not as impressed as I am today—a hundred and fifty years after Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre—knowing that my great-great-grandfather and great-grandmother listened to his speech and, in some minute, tangential manner, provided me with a direct link to that chapter in history. It is so long ago, almost unfathomably long ago, yet I can clearly remember the sound of my great-grandmother’s voice as she said his name.

Over the years I have met my share of US presidents. Lyndon Johnson was the first. It was Columbus Day, and Julie Andrews and I were in a parade in San Francisco. We ended up at a lectern in Golden Gate Park, where Johnson was supposed to give a speech. But he was late; word came that he was stuck in Long Beach. “He’s on his way,” an official assured us, though he didn’t know when the president would arrive.

As I stared out at the forty thousand people in the crowd, I saw an opportunity. I went to the microphone and pretended to give a campaign-type speech. “If I were president . . .” I then listed off the things I’d do: Get us out of Vietnam, promote civil rights, women’s rights, environmental rights. . . . I was so far to the left that all I talked about was rights. As you can imagine, it went over big with that crowd.

Johnson eventually showed up with his hand wrapped in bandages. We were told his skin had been rubbed raw from shaking so many hands. After he spoke, I waited in line to present him a plaque from the Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Just ahead of me was a Boy Scout presenting another award. As they shook hands, Johnson spotted something out of the corner of his eye and suddenly said, “Goddamnit, I said no pictures!” He was reputed to be a salty curmudgeon, and apparently he really was.

I met Richard Nixon at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, and I shook hands with his more genial successor, Gerald Ford, at a fundraiser that was memorable for the waltz I did with his wife, Betty. At the time she was not yet sober. I don’t know what she was taking or drinking, but she was on it. When we danced, I took hold of her with a vice-like grip and did not let go until the music ended. I was not going to lose the First Lady in front of all those people.

As unsteady as she was on her feet, her smile never wavered. Nor did her poise or pleasantness. I liked her. Her goodness and moral centeredness were apparent, despite the private demons she battled. Politically she was always on my side of issues like equal rights, abortion, and gun control. Personally she became an inspiration to me and many others when she got sober, following an intervention from her family. She was sixty years old at the time.

Four years later, in 1982, she founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. And in 1999, at age eighty-one, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Her candor, courage, and determination to help people transformed and saved countless lives, and she did much of that vital work in the senior years of her life. She kept moving.

Bill Clinton lived up to advance billing. He ignored me when we met in the Oval Office. Instead, he walked in, looked directly at Michelle, and said, “At last we meet.” She was a tough one who had met everyone—and she melted. He gave her a hug and spoke only to her. I was wallpaper. He never even said hello to me, and Michelle was fine with that. So was I.

As many have noted, the man is the best speaker I’ve ever heard. FDR was a great orator and Reagan knew how to deliver a message, but Clinton had the ability to stand in front of any sized audience and speak to just one person.

Sometimes he did exactly that. After Carl Reiner received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000, he and his wife, Estelle, spent the night in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. At about 1 A.M. they heard a knock on the door. In walked Bill Clinton, wearing a sweatshirt. He sat and talked to them through the night about world issues, American history, anything Carl brought up. My friend was blown away. I would vote to reelect him again—I think he was that good at the job.

Obama, also impressive, drives me crazy. But I am a fan. I voted for him twice and thanked him once after he straightened my tie following a 2010 Fourth of July celebration in Washington, DC, where I performed with my a cappella group the Vantastix at Ford’s Theatre. Which brings me back to Abraham Lincoln, a president who sits in a whole other realm from the others I have mentioned. My slender link to him resonates even more powerfully with me now, at age ninety. When I think about the future, my own and the years ahead that will not include me, I understand how intricately it is shaped by the past and how important it is to share the good things we had so we don’t lose them.

I think this was a defining characteristic of my generation. We got through the Great Depression and pulled through World War II. We fought to defend the freedom others had died for in the past and to preserve it for future generations. We made tough decisions and learned and grew from them. I think we made the world a better place. Have subsequent generations done the same?

To me, the biggest deficiency today is trust. I would very much like to see trust make a comeback. I’ll tell you something that made a lifelong impression on me. When I was a kid, in the middle of the Great Depression, there were a lot of homeless people on the street. “They aren’t all bums,” I remember hearing. “They’re just down on their luck.” People regularly knocked on our back door asking for food, which my mom always gave them. Everybody helped out if they could. I remember seeing a mark on the fence behind our house and others nearby. It meant that a softy lived in that house. Ours had a big X. Times were hard, and there was a sense that we all had to help each other get through it.

Trust was assumed where I grew up. Nobody ever thought about locking their door. On Saturday night, when we went to the movies, we simply walked out of the house. We left a light on, but otherwise the screen door slammed shut behind us, and that was it. You saw the same thing in houses on every block. When I was five years old, my mother would give me a nickel and send me on the streetcar four miles away to my grandparents’ house. If something happened, she trusted that I’d be okay, that someone would help out.

I probably sound double my age when I go on about such things, an old man on a soapbox, but remembering the way people used to trust each other, along with other basic values, like kindness and manners, those are exactly the sorts of good things from the past we don’t want to lose. Trust is not like a Norman Rockwell painting that people can see in a museum—once it’s gone, it’s hard to get it back.

I say this not as a warning but as an invitation to younger people. Talk to people my age. Don’t let the gray hair, the brittle legs, or the long pauses between thoughts scare you. As stewards of the future, it’s important to know the past was full of good stuff too—and to know what that was.

My great-grandparents’ farm in southern Illinois comes to mind. Even my brother was born too late to know about it, but I went there a number of times. They had no electricity, no water—no anything. They had kerosene lamps for light and a pump in the kitchen for water. My great-grandfather got up at 4 A.M., ate steak and apple pie for breakfast, and then worked all day in the field. Their days were built around sustenance. They had an old pump organ in the living room that I banged on until they yelled at me to stop.

“We have to get up in the morning, Dickie! There’s gonna be work to do.”

Back then I thought it was incredible people could live that way; it’s even more so now. There was something about the simplicity of that life that stands out to me as pure and perhaps more genuine than the clutter we drown in today. How much of what we have is essential to a good life? What is essential?

I might even ask: What is necessary to provide the best life going forward to future generations? Are we making those choices? Or are we erring on the side of commerce and clutter?

This has been on my mind since last Christmas when Arlene said she wanted a teepee for the backyard. (Yes, this is the aforementioned teepee part of this story—finally.) I said, “How about a nice necklace?” But I was joking—my wife doesn’t wear jewelry. She’s a creative person, like me, and her tastes are practical and playful, along the lines of dance lessons, arts and crafts materials, or even a new hula hoop. It’s one of the things we have in common.

But a teepee?

Arlene explained that she had seen a kids-sized version in a catalog and thought it would it would be a fun novelty on the patio as the weather got warmer. “Rocky can hang out in there,” she said.

Because this was a gift, I took the lead, did some research, and ordered a beautiful handmade teepee. Instead of the Boy Scout–sized tent we expected, the teepee that arrived measured sixteen feet tall and eighteen feet in diameter. The new addition now sits on a custom-built platform halfway up our backyard hill and fits into the landscape surprisingly well.

But that wasn’t only half the surprise. Arriving with the teepee was a copy of a letter that Suquamish Indian leader Chief Seattle allegedly wrote to President Franklin Pierce in 1855 in response to the United States’ determination to purchase the tribe’s land. This popular and poetic homage to the environment begins, “The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

It goes on to ask even more profound and prophetic questions. “Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.”

Interestingly, this oft-quoted letter did not prove to be authentic. In the course of researching its context, I learned a screenwriter had penned it in the 1970s, and its authenticity was simply assumed. But I found the real letter, the one that inspired the screenwriter, and it’s equally powerful, if not more so due to the chief’s anger and resignation that the white men didn’t get it:

Your religion was written on the tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, so you would not forget it. The red man could never understand it or remember it. Our religion is in the ways of our forefathers, the dreams of our old men, sent them by the Great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems. And it is written in the hearts of our people.

Your dead forget you and the country of their birth as soon as they go beyond the grave and walk among the stars. They are quickly forgotten and they never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth. It is their mother. They always remember and love her rivers, her great mountains, her valleys. They long for the living, who are lonely too and who long for the dead. And their spirits often return to visit and console us.

What are the dreams of this old man?

That we don’t lose all the ways of our forefathers.

That younger generations realize we all are part of a continuum and act accordingly.

That young people talk to old people and hear their stories before they are gone.

That compassion becomes a priority, and cost is not a consideration.

That trust makes a comeback.

That young people watch Laurel and Hardy movies.

That they listen to Frank Sinatra records.

That they explore the pioneers of jazz.

That they appreciate the way Cary Grant dressed.

That people smile at strangers and say hello to each other more often than not.

That people of all ages cherish and revere the generosity and beauty of the earth as our home and mother and do everything they can to protect and preserve its health for future generations.

That someone writes a song about all this.

That the Vantastix record it. Soon.

That you order a teepee and see whether it doesn’t make you think too.

Wiping the Slate Clean

Like everyone, I have my share of regrets, things I would do differently if given a chance. As I said, when I was a kid, the church organist noticed me playing, said I had talent, and offered to give me free piano lessons. But I only went twice. Mistake. Around that same time my mother signed me up for tap dance lessons. I got the chicken pox and never went back. Later those lessons would’ve come in handy.

As a teenager, I hung out with guys who started me smoking cigarettes. I wish I had never started. I didn’t have the sense to quit until I was in my sixties. In my thirties, when I began to sing and dance, I should’ve taken singing and dancing lessons. I didn’t. I was offered the lead in the movie The Omen, but I thought it was too dark, and the role went to Gregory Peck instead.

There are more, but there’s only one regret on my list that I still have the ability to change, and I want to do it before it’s too late. I was in fifth grade at Garfield Grade School. We were in class, and a friend of mine broke wind. The teacher smelled something funny and said, “Who lit a match in here?” No one raised a hand. The teacher got mad. They called each kid to the principal’s office.

When it was my turn, I said, “It was Earl Copner.”

I was going to also say, “He didn’t light a match. He farted.” But I didn’t know how to say the word in front of the principal. I was embarrassed. I clammed up instead and left the poor guy hanging.

All these years later I want to finally say, “I’m sorry, Earl. It was my fault you got in trouble.”