You may think a 40-odd-year-old TV show has nothing to do with growing old. I would have said that too until I took a new look at M*A*S*H, as a 78-year-old. Let me explain.
Before I settle down to sleep, I have now and then been watching a rerun of the 1970's sitcom M*A*S*H. They're short, 30 minutes, just the right length to take me out of the concerns of my day before falling off into limbo until morning.
The show had been a favorite when it was first broadcast way back when (1972-1983) and it is no less so now. It's great fun watching Hawkeye, BJ, Hot Lips, Klinger, Radar, Frank Burns, Trapper and all the rest of the cast again. Not to mention some of the best writing in the history of television.
Until this new viewing, I had not realized how much I identified – and still do - with Hawkeye.
The show specialized in my kind of gallows humor, and I don't get tired of Hawkeye's and Klinger's efforts to escape the horrors of a war neither of them believe in while tending to the often gruesome medical needs of the wounded and dying young soldiers.
The reason I'm writing about a TV show that's nearly half a century old is that it struck me a week or two ago that there is not much daylight between Hawkeye and me. Klinger too.
We each find ourselves in an impossible predicament over which we have little control and is likely to kill us at any time. North Korean bombs in the case of Hawkeye; a nasty disease in mine.
Of course, anyone's instinct is to get out of the way as fast as possible but both of us are trapped having to make the best of that predicament. Hawkeye resorts to women, pranks, mordant jokes, his beloved martinis conjured from homemade gin in the tent he shares with BJ along with a strong sense of decency and compassion.
My defenses include never pretending that my disease won't kill me, doing my best to follow my doctors' instructions, keeping myself honest about the cancer by writing about it here, some mordant jokes along with a strong sense of moral outrage aimed at the current U.S. administration.
What struck me a few nights ago after watching a M*A*S*H episode is that the sitcom is an excellent course in coping with dread in the face of Hawkeye's and my individual predicaments.
It is easy with a diagnosis of terminal cancer to feel despair, wishing even that the wait for the end be over soon. But after watching M*A*S*H, which I do two or three times a week, I feel empowered to persevere, that there are people I love I want to spend more time with, books to read and this blog where you, dear readers, allow me to hold forth on whatever crazy ideas I have.
No matter how discouraged Hawkeye and his M*A*S*H cohorts become, they rely on each other to keep going in frightening circumstances and do you think the writers and actors imagined that even 50 years later, they could inspire me to do the same in my own predicament.
Or, maybe you already know this and I am just a very slow learner.
As I was winding up writing this, I checked the web to see if anyone else had ever found such inspiration in the show. Lo, on exactly this day one year ago, Howard Fishman, writing in The New Yorker (how did I, a lifelong subscriber, miss it), was a year ahead of me.
The piece is titled, “What M*A*S*H Taught Us” and Fishman concludes:
“In 1968, the notion that our true enemy could be the callousness, hypocrisy, and small-minded ignorance of our own leaders was fashionable. Fifty years later, it’s become evergreen.”
Let's end with a fine monologue from Hawkeye, a eulogy when a nurse is killed by a landmine following a date with him, that is more explicit about the show's goals beyond exquisitely rendered entertainment.