In the past few months, in the ‘time of Corona,’ I have been relieving my stress and reliving my childhood by watching one of my favorite shows, as a reminder of simpler times spent sprawled out in the living room with my dad. One of our father-daughter bonding rituals was enjoying the tv show M*A*S*H that debuted in 1972 when I was 12. Despite the fact that the 4077 was situated in wartime Korea, peace was a central theme throughout. It truly was about the horrors of war and the humor necessary to keep those who lived through it as they attempted to patch wounded people up and helplessly watch others die, sane and vertical.
The antics of the main characters, Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, B.J. Hunnicutt, Hot Lips Houlihan, Frank Burns, Henry Blake, Sherman Potter, Father Mulcahey, Radar O’Reilly, Charles Winchester III, and Max Klinger were survival techniques. The show also cast a light on the over-indulging in alcohol to wash away the pain as The Swamp (the erstwhile home of B.J., Hawkeye, Frank, Trapper, and Charles in various combinations over the years) was a gathering place where a makeshift still was in operation 24/7.
They found themselves bonding over horrible conditions, sweltering and freezing temperatures, limited medical supplies, swill-for-food, and the possibility that their unit could be attacked or expected to pack up and relocate (thus the M for Mobile in the name) at a moment’s notice.
My dad was a veteran of WWII and although he, blessedly, didn’t see combat, could identify with the gung-ho attitude of fighting for a cause. The only issues we would battle over had to do with the possibility that the world could be peaceful and people could actually get along without fighting. I suspect that he would have liked to think it could happen but he had seen too much in his lifetime that told him he had to fight for what he wanted. He was a Golden Gloves boxer in the Navy but was not a violent man; instead, a marshmallow who would cry at the drop of a hat, would give the proverbial shirt off his back for anyone and stood up for the underdog. I know he was proud of his idealistic daughter who has always been a conflict-avoidant Libra peacemaker. Through watching this iconic show, we were able to laugh and cry together and discover that it was fodder for deep-dive conversations about our values.
A few years ago, I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a man who was dying of cancer. He was a major M*A*S*H fan and when I came to visit him to plan his service since he wanted a say, he was watching the show. I sat perched on his bed as he told me he wanted a M*A*S*H funeral, and his desire was to be wheeled in to the theme song. “Suicide is Painless?” I asked incredulously. Ed smiled and replied that he just wanted the music without the lyrics.
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it’s too late, and…
The game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I’ll someday lay
so this is all I have to say.
The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I’m beat
and to another give my seat
for that’s the only painless feat.
The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn’t hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger…watch it grin, but…
A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
‘is it to be or not to be’
and I replied ‘oh why ask me?’
‘Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
…and you can do the same thing if you choose.
Side note: The theme song was written by Mike Altman, the 14-year-old son of the producer of the original film, Robert Altman.
Ed got his wish a few weeks later when I stood at the podium as his casket was indeed wheeled in to a keyboard version of the song. I stepped up to the microphone and made the “Attention, all personnel,” announcement that started the episodes and he was honored by family and friends.
The final episode of M*A*S*H on February 28, 1983, was the most-watched and highest-rated episode of a television show of all time with 125 million viewers. I was glad to be one of them. My mother was working as a switchboard operator at Sears at the time and her boss brought in a small tv so she could watch it during her shift. What I particularly enjoyed about the series was the ways in which it managed to bring heart and soul to a dismal environment that the characters found themselves in. With ironic laughter and a clear anti-war message, it got itself heard.
“Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice, pull down your pants and slide on the ice”- Dr. Sidney Freedman
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