Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jim Nabors, Carl Yastrzemski, Abraham Lincoln, and Me

I am a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox, yet I was only four years old during their magical 1967 season, when they competed through to the seventh game of the World Series after having finished the previous season in last place. Therefore, I have no first-hand memories of the team nicknamed the Cardiac Kids, or their remarkable season, dubbed the Impossible Dream. Yet as I came of age and followed the team more closely, my hero became Carl Yastrzemski, who had the most incredible year in that most improbable season. Leading the major league in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average, he remains 43 years later the last player to win the Triple Crown.

But the crux of this story begins closer to the time of the Impossible Dream, and at its core is the song of the same name, which was the show-stopper of Man of La Mancha, the musical version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I suppose it makes sense to go back briefly to the very beginning. By chance, I was born on February 12, 1963 – the 154th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. My family made a rather big deal over this coincidence, as if it were a positive omen of some kind. Perhaps no relative of mine was more instrumental in drumming the connection into my psyche than my Uncle Arnold, a teacher who shared a birthday with the far less notable Millard Fillmore. He would grill me on the Gettysburg Address, asking me to correct his intentional mistakes (“Four score and 11 years ago,” “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or subtract.”).

So, suffice to say, I quickly became, and remain to this day, a certifiable Lincoln nut. Fast forward to 1967. Shortly after the unhappy conclusion of the World Series – which the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals (though they finally got their revenge in 2004) – on November 3, to be exact, a new episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired. It was episode number 99 of the series, which was in its fourth season. The episode was titled “The Show Must Go On.” In it, the cast is in Washington, DC, to perform a show. Gomer (played by Jim Nabors) is supposed to sing but he develops severe stage fright and loses his voice. Sgt. Carter, naturally, loses his temper. Gomer walks distraught through the nation’s capital, eventually finding himself at the Lincoln Memorial. He enters and striking close-ups of the Lincoln statue are shown. Gomer walks to the left, where, carved into the marble wall, are the words of the Gettysburg Address. He begins to read them in a raspy voice, which gradually – magically – begins to regain its full strength and sonority. He is cured at Lincoln Lourdes! The show does indeed go on, and Gomer performs – what else? – “The Impossible Dream” (a big hit in real life for Nabors).

As I was too young to experience the 1967 Red Sox season first hand, I was also unable to experience first-run episodes of Gomer Pyle. However, I know I was still of single-digit age when I first watched the episode in re-runs. I was transfixed. Around that time, maybe later, I got an album with broadcast highlights of the Red Sox’ 1967 season. It was titled The Impossible Dream and featured an instrumental arrangement of the tune, along with a groovy little ditty about my hero’s heroics that year, called “Yaz Song.”

Thanks to photographic evidence, I know that I first visited Washington, DC in 1971, when I was eight years old. I recall clearly how I felt ascending the seemingly endless stairs leading to the temple. My heart was beating wildly. I was somewhat fearful of seeing the huge statue up close. I must have seen the episode of Gomer Pyle by then, for I was in awe of its apparent power. My father took a photograph of me looking up at the statue. My face is not seen but it is not unreasonable to assume that my mouth was fully agape. I have returned to the Memorial several times since then, most recently in 2005, when I took a photograph of my oldest daughter – then-eight, like me when I first visited DC – melodramatically recreating my pose from 34 years before.

Just about everyone who knows me well knows that I’m a Lincoln nut and that Yaz is my all-time #1 sports hero. In fact, I hope to meet Yaz next week when he does a public signing. But there are not many people who know that I have Jim Nabors on my iPod. Fewer would even care to know the reason why. I don’t mind. I know Jim Nabors is not what you might call hip. But I can’t help it. To this day, when I hear him singing that song, I truly feel like I can reach the unreachable star.

1 comment:

Geoff Gehman said...

Dear Jason: Anyone who likes Yaz, Lincoln and Yes is definitely a member of my club. I'm an arts journalist and former pitcher who recently finished a memoir of growing up on Long Island's South Fork in the late '60s to early '70s. One of the chapters is on Yaz in '67 and how folks in his native Bridgehampton and the area went crazy over his daily miracles. Just wondering if you'd like to read it.
All best,
Geoff Gehman
Bethlehem, Pa.