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Finding Moosewood, Finding GodWhat happened when a TV newsman abandoned his career for life on an island
By Jack Perkins
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Jack Perkins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHY THOREAU IT ALL AWAY?
"Commentator Jack Perkins Leaving NBC for an Island"
—Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, front page headline
After 25 years as a TV correspondent, anchorman and commentator, Jack Perkins said Friday he plans to retire from broadcast journalism next month to move to a small island off the coast of Maine.
—Los Angeles Times, p. 12
"Jack Perkins Leaves for Maine after Leaving His Mark." Jack started doing TV when TV started doing news. He is one of the founding fathers of TV journalism. He helped give it direction and purpose. TV news is important in our society because people like Jack covered news as if it were important and as if we viewers were able to understand and learn from it.
"Newsman Perkins Ankling in June"
The day those stories appeared, five questions tickled. (1) Why did the Herald-Examiner think the story deserved front page? (2) Why didn't the LA Times think it deserved front page? (3) Why was the Leader so embarrassingly effusive? (4) Why did Variety talk that way? And (5) just plain why?
Why, in the midst of a successful and satisfying television career, was I chucking it—trading West Coast for East; megalopolis of eight million for island, population two; airline schedules for tide table; TV Guide for Peterson Field Guides; Saks for L. L. Bean; fourteen local TV stations and eighty-two local radio stations for none of either; three newspapers delivered to the front gate each morning and three more waiting at work, for a trip across the bay to Sherman's to buy the local weekly; smog for fog; mockingbirds for loons; new BMW for used Jeep; convenient public utilities for woodstove and solar power; monthly bills and paychecks for monthly bills; sounds of sounds for sounds of quiet; and freeways for free ways? Why?
For a quarter century, I had been a swimmer in the magic aquarium, an electronic image that flickered and fled. Correspondent/ commentator/anchorman for NBC News is how I described myself.
"Noted actor/reporter," mocked a non-TV colleague, in envy, I assumed.
"That blankety-blank Jack Perkins," muttered a certain president of the United States, not in envy, I assumed.
Chaser of big doings, teller of grand tales, dweller among great cities, I not only loved my job but loved myself for having it. So what happened? Didn't I still enjoy the recognition? When approached on the street by a stranger to whom—I could tell from the knowing glint in his eyes—I was not a stranger but a familiar somebody from somewhere to whom he had to say something, that wasn't unpleasant, was it?
Even better was being recognized by someone who really was a somebody. Like approaching Bob Newhart at a party to tell him how much I admired his work, only to find him approaching me to tell me how much he admired mine; or when someone on the phone told me his friends had been praising a commentary I'd delivered on the air that day, and those friends were Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, and Cary Grant, and the someone on the phone was Frank Sinatra. Why would I choose to "ankle" away from moments like those and become a certifiable nobody?
Beyond its superficial satisfaction, TV reporting offered joys of substance—the pleasure of a story well told, a persuasive commentary. A reporter had the rare and enviable power to shine light into the dark corners where land developers readied blueprints for urban blight, where con men schemed "Christian book sales" to separate the gullible from their nest eggs, where malingerers feigned disabilities to bilk taxpayers, the shadowy back rooms where frauds, quacks, and never-rich-enough billionaires plotted and conspired. That flickering blue light in a distant window really could dispel darkness. In an ephemeral medium, you actually could do lasting good.
Why abandon that? Why would an ego fed on fame decide to diet? Why the introvert, dependent on recognition to grease social ways, withdraw to anonymity? Having persuaded himself that the spotlight shining on him really did make him brighter, why, while that light still shone, would the actor, midplay, exit grinning and head for a deserted island?
Or as pastor Dr. Robert Schuller, a man who loved wordplay, asked us in California one day, "Jack, Mary Jo, with all you have here, why do you want to Thoreau it away?"
Clever line, which at that moment I couldn't answer. I didn't know.
Thinking about it today, I realize that while I certainly enjoyed the touch of celebrity back then, something inside me, yet unacknowledged, was nagging: You're known, Big Guy. Hooray. But is that enough? Is it enough to have recognition if you don't use it? And how should you use it? Well, think of it this way, TV Man: Where did everything come from; who allowed you to enjoy such recognition? Might it have been the grace of a holy God, giving you gifts not just to have but also to use? You've sung the hymn "To God Be the Glory." Might that be a purpose for what you have?
Again, these were thoughts I should have been thinking years back, but at least at a conscious level was not. In those golden-ego days, dazzled by the spotlight of celebrity, vanity, and self-satisfaction, I was lost in the dark of my own illumination. Never did it occur to me that the flukes, impulses, and happenstances that seemed to be directing my life were, in fact, the guidance of a generous hand—indeed, the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I didn't know and wouldn't know for a while, the ultimate acknowledgment coming only slowly, a reluctant revelation.
I've heard people ask, often sourly after a painful ordeal, "Where was God all this time?" My times had been far from painful, and I didn't ask that question back then. My answer today, with the clear eyes of retrospection, would be, He was there, always there, patiently waiting for me to know it.
I beg the reader, then, to be patient as I recount happenings without seeming at first to appreciate their profound, hidden meaning.
A reporter learns early that behind every small headline lurks a long story, perhaps a sequence of stories and sometimes unconscious decisions that only in the floodlight of a headline appear to be the product of forethought.
As a teenager, you accept an undefined job and decades later realize that at that moment, your career was chosen. You flirt with a stranger and later realize you were meeting your soul mate. One day you go for a walk in the woods with no destination, and on another, very distant day you look back over your footsteps and notice they led to your destiny. You call in sick one time—a little fib—and before you know it, you're emptying your desk, your awards for past work and notes for future work, into a cardboard box and setting out for the horizon.
A good newsman can't resist digging into that chain of little stories, those coincidences and offhand decisions, in pursuit of the why. That's what this book is about.
The day the first reports of our departing LA hit the headlines was also the day of the Emmy Awards. I was nominated for Best Commentary because of a piece that I had written in anger, disregarding the likelihood that it also might anger my own bosses. I wasn't sure they would let it be aired, but I was determined to try.
The explosion in illegal drugs was one of the greatest problems our society faced while trying not to face it. The media, I believed, were morally culpable for condoning drug use through the snickering humor of movies and late-night TV, rock songs, and rock star behavior. Wouldn't John Belushi's recent death by overdose be a lesson to NBC, my employer, which for years had profited from his and his buddies' stoner humor on Saturday Night Live? One hoped. I hoped.
But as SNL began its new season, what was its very first skit? A skit cynically joking about cast members taking drug tests. The scene was an office with a table full of specimen cups. And who presided over this urinous moment, making a cameo appearance in the skit? None other than the president of NBC Entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff. I thought it reprehensible and felt compelled to say so in my nightly TV commentary on the network's flagship station, KNBC. My commentaries were broadcast from NBC Burbank, Tartikoff 's home base, but when I turned in my copy, to the credit of network and station, there were some gulps and hesitations, but not a single person censored or softened a word.
Tartikoff heard it. A few days later, he issued a public apology and announced a new policy: NBC Entertainment would no longer treat drug abuse as a laughing matter. And somebody—I don't know who—nominated that commentary for an Emmy.
* * *
Dressed for the awards banquet in cerise silk overblouse and white silk trousers, Jo was hardly the backwoods recluse the morning papers had our friends expecting to see. In a hall of a thousand industry insiders, there was an eveningful of astonishment to be expressed (or feigned), congratulations sincerely offered, and, of course, genuine puzzlement as to why we were leaving all this behind. Not that our colleagues and friends in tuxes and evening gowns wouldn't want to do it themselves, many of them said.
So why don't you? we asked.
It was as hard for them to explain why they weren't going to run away and live in a cabin in the woods as it was for us to say why we were.
* * *
Idaho—We'd met the real thing once, a genuine back-to-basics hermit. He and his story were engaging and, in a twisted way, even inspiring. He lived in the northern Idaho wilderness and was called Buckskin Bill.
Once, decades earlier, he had carried another name, Sylvan Ambrose, and had been an eager young man with an engineering degree from Cornell whose family tradition was that each boy-child, completing college, went to the wilderness to survive by himself for a year—nature's graduate school. The difference with Sylvan was that he never went back.
He met us at the end of the narrow, swaying suspension bridge he had engineered across a roaring tributary. Everything about him smelled of the bear grease he used for hair tonic, salve, and boot oil. A short man, his belly was ample, his face weathered to leather. His mouth was small, as if, living alone with no one to talk to, he had little use for it. His eyes were large, overworked in a wilderness paradise with so much to see.
We spent a day with him, walking his proud empire and constantly wondering what kept him here. Was it a twisted religious fervor? Did this man worship nature? Reporters often ran across religious zealots whose eccentricities encouraged the biases many journalists already held against religion. Reporters tended to think the only things that matter are those that are known, not vaguely believed. Accordingly, most journalists I knew were agnostics, if not atheists. So was I.
It was late in the afternoon, sitting out on the riverbank, when I finally got around to asking him, "Don't you miss a lot you left behind?"
"What should I miss?" he countered, not brushing me off but genuinely interested in hearing something he hadn't considered.
Knowing he'd been raised amid culture, I said, "Theater, art, the symphony—"
"Let me tell ya about that," he jumped in, eyes a-twinkle. He pointed toward the craggy cliff across the river. "Up there's the stage, see? Goats, Dall sheep, hawks, eagles, sometimes a bear shamblin' along. Those are the players, and they put on a heck of a show. Different ever' day, ever' night. Never the same twice." He swept his hand back toward the meadow beside his garden. It was spattered with tiny milfoil waving in the breeze. Overhead darted a mountain bluebird. "There's all the art gallery I need. Ya understand?"
"And, hey, far as sym-phony," pronouncing it like the synonym for fraud, "who wants to sit there listening to folks up on some platform goin' tweedle-tweedle and oompah-oompah? I figger if he's worth anythin' at all, a man's gotta make his own oompahs."
I knew at the time I could never adopt Buckskin Bill's lifestyle, but I understood what he was saying. And I remembered. When finally, after more than thirty years of reporting other people's stories and I found myself ready to live my own, that's how I thought of it: I was going to make my own oompahs!
* * *
Emmy night was a poignant time of camaraderie, love, and farewells. It was also a long night, since every recipient of every award, betraying his or her professional responsibility to put the interests of the audience first, blathered on until it was near midnight when the prize for commentaries finally came up.
The professional thing is to have an acceptance speech prepared, timed and trimmed, with allowance for the obligatory claim of incredulity. I had not prepared. I had so much in my heart, overflowing gratitudes and fond recollections all overlaid with excited anticipation, I never could have written them in a speech.
The five nominees were called to the stage, and I stood there among them looking out over that dressy crowd and feeling curiously disembodied, there but not there. Through the vast hall were mirrored columns, and in one of them I could see us, five tuxed-up monkeys with spotlights shining on us. I stood up here looking at me standing out there and knew something no one else knew: that fellow out there in the mirror wasn't I. It couldn't be. Not puffed up like that, swilling with the swells. At the least, that guy out there, I knew for certain, was not who I wanted to be. That was the person I was leaving behind, that was Jack "Perkins of NBC." Applause. Raucous yelling from the table down front where my colleagues were looking up at me. Jo beaming up, that beautiful face.
I stepped forward, shook hands with someone, received the statuette from someone else, walked to a podium, took a deep breath, and, looking out across the faces of friends and colleagues, acquaintances and competitors, companions of the last twenty-five years, I spoke just five words. The shortest speech of the night, maybe the shortest Emmy acceptance on record.
"Thanks," I said, pausing to savor the delicious moment that would have to last a long while. "But we're still going."
Chapter TwoHORRIBLE MAN, SMALL TOWNS, AND A STORYTELLER MAKES IT TO TV
Center Lovell, Maine—I was on my way to meet a horrible man—and, unwittingly, taking the first step on a path that would lead to an island, a new life, and God.
Getting to Horrible Man wasn't easy. Maine isn't on the way from any here to any there. You don't happen upon it on the way to someplace else. You have to seek it out, travel intentionally. For me, from Los Angeles, it was as far as I could go without crossing an international border or an ocean. For most people, that kind of remoteness is a pain; for Mainers, it's a blessing.
Horrid, horrendous, horrible—the adjectives were all warranted. As any bookseller and millions of book readers could attest, even back then, there was no one as horrific ("causing horror"), horrendous ("fitted to excite horror"), and horrible ("exciting horror") as young Stephen King of Bangor and Center Lovell, Maine.
His Center Lovell summer home was on Kezar Lake, a true Golden Pond where the movie of that play would have been shot but for the lack of accommodations and ser vices. (Instead, the film about a pond in Maine was shot in New Hampshire.) Getting to Kezar Lake required traveling from city airport to freeway to highway to winding two-lane road past general store to rutted dirt track through deep woods until finally, vectoring on hope and the glints of sunlight from a calm face of water, the TV crew and I found an aging but proud compound of gray-shingled buildings with forest green shutters: our first destination, the lodge called Westways.
Stepping from the car, smelling the piney perfume and listening to the lake lapping on the shore, I was smitten. This wasn't a place of pretense; the buildings were neat, the rooms clean but simple, natural. Last hotel I'd been in was a gaudy excess in Miami Beach, where a card was placed on your evening pillow instructing you how much to tip. There was no card on the pillow at Westways.
The inn was run by Stephen's friends Don and Barbara Tripp, who had their own fascinating story. Don had been an executive with General Motors in Michigan until he and Barbara decided, suddenly in midlife, they needed a change. So they overturned their lives and started anew. Don enjoyed handiwork; Barbara liked cooking. Their seven children were game for anything. So the family moved here to Maine to manage this inn in the woods. The joy of their transformation was still infectious years later.
Excerpted from Finding Moosewood, Finding God by Jack Perkins Copyright © 2013 by Jack Perkins . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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