Watching the Oscars on television a couple weeks back, I saw a busload of tourists from Chicago walk across the stage in Los Angeles.
It was a great moment in an annual gathering in Hollywood which normally fills me with about as much anticipation as a visit to the dentist. I’m not a big fan of movies; hence, I’m not a big fan of gatherings to celebrate those who make movies.
But, I thought, “why not?” There was little else on the tube that interested me and, I’ll be honest, I thought maybe, just maybe, there would be some of the expected political asides that would make the long program worthwhile for viewing.
While there were no in-your-face type comments like the one delivered by Meryl Streep in another recent awards ceremony, there were several remarks that were directed at our country’s new “administration.”
There was one moment, however, that brought the elites at the ceremony to laughter, also amusing the millions of folks watching on television. I was one of those. When “Gary from Chicago” led the group of stunned tourists from outside and across the room at the invitation of host Jimmy Kimmel, the audience was as amused as the tourists were surprised. You could see that in the eyes of those on that tourist bus; suddenly their faces showed a stunned amazement as they saw people heretofore recognizable to them only through the silver screen.
It was a classic moment for live television and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
It also took me back in time more than half-a-century when I, too, was among a group of young folks thrust suddenly into the spotlight, albeit a somewhat different spotlight. I was part of a group of young folks who “crashed” a congressional gathering in Washington, D.C.
The “great adventure” began two days earlier when a group of about 40 seniors boarded a bus and headed out on a Senior Class Trip in late April of 1961. We went to Chicago to spend part of our first day, then traveled overnight to Philadelphia where, again, we visited several historical sites, seeing the Liberty Bell, visiting the U.S. Mint, Independence Hall and others. Finally, we arrived in Washington, D.C. early in the morning of May 1, 1961, a group already worn out from travel but one facing a very busy first day in our nation’s capital.
Visits to places like the Washington Monument, the White House, Ford Theater and the Lincoln Museum, we had dinner at 6 p.m., then headed to our final stop of the day, a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Upon arriving at the center, however, we learned that our plans were unexpectedly derailed. The National Symphony Orchestra’s performance that evening had been canceled, replaced by an invitation-only poetry reading by the great American poet Robert Frost. The invited guests included only members of Congress and their spouses.
There we stood in the entry, listening to one of the guides tell us that our plans would have to be changed. Standing nearby, however, was a short little man, distinguished in appearance who was listening intently to our tale of traveling half-way across America as a senior class. Quietly, the old man walked to our group and introduced himself. “I’m Robert Frost,” he said. “I would like to invite you to hear my poetry tonight, if you’d like.”
It took a moment to digest things. There I was, among a group of young people, standing face-to-face with a true American legend. If anything, I wasn’t shy when it came to those types of situations and I seized the moment, quickly rushing up to the man, extending my hand. Without hesitation, he responded, holding out his right hand. We shook hands there in the large entry way, America’s poet Robert Frost and me, a 17-year-old high school senior who couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Naturally, we accepted.
We sat in a great balcony while members of congress filed in and took seats in the main auditorium, all of us there to hear Robert Frost, the one and only, read his poetry.
As noted, everyone in my group was beyond tired by that point. Although I had some trouble with droopy eyelids, I was intent to listen to this man read his wonderful words that have become such an important part of America’s literary history. It was a little embarrassing, at least to me, when I saw some of my classmates fall fast asleep during the reading. It was difficult for me not to join them in slumber – our first night’s sleep in a bed after a night “sleeping” in a bus would soon follow.
But, it’s a moment I’ll remember and treasure forever. It was almost like, for a moment, I was Gary-from-Chicago, thrust unexpectedly into the national spotlight.