I told one of the more memorable episodes in my life, long ago, in a story published in the opinion pages of the Washington Post on Sunday, June 11, 2017.
Hope you enjoy it and it inspires you to tell me one or more of your unforgettable stories.
The other day, I came across my typewritten transcript of an interview I did with my great-uncle, the entertainer Ted Lewis, after he turned 80 in 1970.
I was a young reporter for United Press International in New York when I interviewed Uncle Ted in his apartment on Central Park West at 72nd Street in Manhattan.
Ted Lewis was a big star in his time – a top bandleader during The Jazz Age of the 1920s, a showman who appeared dozens of times in TV shows and movies. His trademarks were a battered top hat, the opening line, “Is everybody happy?” and the songs When My Baby Smiles at Me and Me and My Shadow.
We talked for an hour or so. Of course, only a small fraction of his words, the most newsworthy ones, wound up in my story for UPI-client newspapers .
Nowadays, writing Life Stories, I am more interested in a fuller picture of my famous uncle, to share with surviving family members and long-devoted fans.
So, today, on the 127th anniversary of his birth, here are some cherished quotes from my interview in December 1970:
“I’m very proud of my hometown (Circleville, Ohio). Of course, I wasn’t before I left there, because my people were very embarrassed to have me leave town while my brothers all stayed and were graduates of Ohio State University. I used to run away from home all the time. At 16 years old, I was a spieler for a girlie-girlie show at a county fair.”
“Since 1906, I’ve been through every phase of show business.
I’ve been with what they used to call street carnivals, sold cotton candy, blew up gas balloons, slept with the other roustabouts around the carnival.”
“After the opening number (at Rector’s restaurant, on Broadway, in 1916) something told me to say, ‘Is everybody happy?’ – and the house came down, everybody started to applaud. I was making 90 bucks a week and doing wonderful. We were living in a furnished apartment on 109th Street and Mrs. Lewis did all the cooking, made the beds and cleaned the house. I went to work every night from 9 until 1.”
“W.C. Fields taught me many of my hat tricks. I’m using the same top hat since 1916 – and it was secondhand when I got it. And this hat has been stitched, re-stitched, and double-lined and relined, and sewed – I don’t think a piece of the original hat is left. The brim is so feeble it’s hard to do anything with it at all. But I still use the same old high hat and clarinet – my second clarinet – which is about 35 or 40 years old.”
“When I walk down 72nd Street to Broadway, it’s like being in my home town in Circleville. Everybody says, ‘How are you, Ted? Hello, boy, how are you?’ It gives you a wonderful feeling that people haven’t forgotten you no matter how many years you’ve been away.”
“I want another five years of living. I’ll settle for two, but I’d like to have five.”
What do you want to do in those five years?
“I want to repent for the terrible sins done in the past 60 years.” He laughed.
My Uncle Ted didn’t make it through another year. He died August 25, 1971 at the age of 81.
I’ve often thought how my life, and the lives of others I love, would be different if my only son had not died 35 years ago.
My wife Linda and I were living in Maine when our first child, Sean David Becker, was born on Sunday, May 23, 1982.
I spent Monday with Linda and our baby, an apparently healthy six-and-a-half pounds, at the hospital in Waterville, a small city in central Maine where I worked on the newspaper.
On Tuesday, at about 6 a.m., I was awakened by Linda phoning from the hospital.
“Are you OK? The baby?” I asked.
“I heard them screaming ‘Code Blue’ in the middle of the night. The nurses told me he wasn’t breathing.”
Sean had been taken by ambulance to the Maine Medical Center in Portland, about an hour away.
When Linda and I got there, we found our tiny baby in the neo-natal intensive care unit, hooked up to machines, eyes closed, barely moving, except for the occasional spasm.
His doctor told us Sean had stopped breathing the previous night in the nursery in Waterville, had been resuscitated, but not soon enough to prevent severe brain damage. He’d had seizures. His vital signs were weak.
The doctor said it was unlikely Sean would survive more than a day.
Late that night, a nurse placed Sean in Linda’s arms. She held our baby. I held her. Sean hardly moved, didn’t make a sound.
The nurse came back a couple of times to check his heart and respiration. The third time, she shook her head. “He’s gone.” It was 11:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 25, 1982.
The next day, we watched the tiny white coffin placed in a tiny burial plot in a cemetery in Portland.
Linda and I would soon leave Maine, go home to Toronto.
We had ordered an autopsy but the results were inconclusive. Sean’s death remains a mystery.
A little more than a year later, our daughter Jodie was born. If Sean had not died, I doubt we would have had another baby that soon.
Would Jodie still be Jodie if she was born another time? Would she be a different person if she had a big brother?
Our daughter Lacey was born three years later. Would we have had a third child if Sean had lived? If not, we would not have our granddaughters, Annie and Zoey.
And what would it have been like, for me, to have a son?
I wonder what kind of boy he would have been. What kind of man.
What would he be doing now? Would he be a journalist, like his old man? (God, I hope not.)
Would he have his own business, like his sisters? Would he be playing third base for the Red Sox?
Would he be married? Have kids?
I often think about such things, especially at this time of year.
If you are thinking about having me writing a Life Story for you, we can start with a Turning Point, at a fraction of the cost, and go from there.