Commonplace moonwalkers remain forever young


Alan B. Shepard, Jr. Robert Young. Martin Luther King, Jr. Famous names, people we think we know rather well.

In reality, we probably did not and do not. Most of us really knew them only from television.

But it doesn't matter. Their public personae rendered them icons, people we admire, look up toward, hope to emulate.

Both you and I remain forever in their debt, not because of their marketability, but because of their remarkability. Their heroics raised the standard for the ordinary.

Alan Shepard strapped himself to a few tons of the world's highest explosives and blasted off without blasting apart to become America's first man in space. Pretty soon, the stuff of science fiction became commonplace.

Rev. King had a tougher row to hoe. Seeing any black person on television took some getting used to back in the 1950s. Reno-Sparks holds an annual nostalgiafest celebrating this so-called simpler time and celebrates it in an oversimplified way.

We forget that African-Americans didn't appear on television commercials until the 1960s, making the still-racist major league baseball look progressive by comparison.

Eventually, we got used to Rev. King. It became commonplace for him and many who followed to get invited into our homes with the flick of a switch, progress without a fight.

Actor Robert Young may seem like the odd man out in this retrograde retrospective. Not at all.

He was the understanding dad, even-tempered and unruffled at all times, ready with instant wisdom on cue.

I know of few dads who were like that. My dad was on occasion. But Robert Young gave us something to look forward to, something to become when we grew up.

And that's really the point to be learned from all three of these great men. Their very public lives gave us the reachable, the achievable, the belief that we could do a common thing uncommonly well - like becoming a good father and husband, a kind and generous friend, a hard worker. And with persistence and perspiration, a success in love and life.

As a kid in front of a small black and white screen late at night, I remember watching Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers commanding Rogers' Rangers in the 1940 movie "Northwest Passage." Robert Young played Langdon Towne, a handsome, well-dressed writer not long out of some fancy college.

Towne goes along on Rogers' most famous raid of the French and Indian War. He gets a helluva of a story and almost killed in the process.

Major Rogers confronts a bleeding Towne with the awful truth: wound in the gut and all, you either get up and get moving or get left behind to get carved up by the enemy. Spencer Tracy's growling prodding and a picture of the girl he left behind inspire the young man to go forward.

He suffers pain and hardship, but survives to write another day and win the love of his dreams.

Fast forward to "Father Knows Best" and behold a mature Robert Young as Jim Anderson, perfect dad in a perfect house with a perfect family and very, very few problems behind that gorgeous white picket fence which never needed painting.

I knew as a kid that it was only make-believe from Hollywood where no one ever sweats. But just like the 10 commandments, the Anderson household gave us a model, a base upon which to build.

And therein lies the legacy of Shepard and Young, both of whom died last week at ages 74 and 91, respectively.

The moon pilot and TV's Dr. Welby lived much longer than their contemporary, Dr. King.

But some 30 years after he was gunned down by some sad soul, the good reverend still impacts our daily lives.

Last Friday, July 24, after years of work by a lot of people, a stretch of U.S. 395 through northwestern Nevada was named in King's honor.

In the end, it will prove wonderfully commonplace and unremarkable, as the greatest achievements often become. Call it quiet strength built on solid foundation, a lesson for everyone who drives by.

We've gotten used to the idea of regularly flying into space because Alan Shepard did the remarkable and made it so. We've gotten used to high-flying expectations of becoming a richer, more diverse, more tolerant nation because Rev. King took the radical and reduced it to an achievable but higher standard.

And somewhere, dear old doctor dad is smiling because his TV kids are learning so well.

Thank you all, so very much.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 7/26/98.