Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Ode to Jack Arnold

One of my favorite television shows growing up was The Wonder Years. It was a nostalgic show that today works for me on two levels. Its pilot debuted just after the Super Bowl in January, 1988 and the show ran through 1993, covering a narrative time span about twenty years prior. And while it works on that level, it has a secondary layer of nostalgia today because it cannot be found in its original version in high-quality, modern-day home viewing. Understandably, music rights to this classic show became prohibitively expensive after its initial airing and most updated releases of the show have included different songs, which totally changes the experience. So in many ways, this additional layer of nostalgia has to do with a show that has essentially become "lost." Perhaps fitting of its coming-of-age themes.

While the protagonist and narrator (voiced by Daniel Stern) was Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), the Arnold family itself and specifically the Dad, Jack Arnold (Dan Lauria), has gained more attention and a newfound appreciation as I've gotten older. 

In one episode when Kevin brought home a school assignment to write a biography of themselves that was stumping him, he posed the question instead to his father to sum up his life: "I get up at 5am, I fight traffic, I bust my hump all day, I fight traffic again, and come home... And I pay my taxes." 

In episodes three and four of the debut season his stoic demeanor receives greater depth and nuance. Episode three, "My Father's Office", Kevin goes to work with his Dad and sees firsthand the daily side of his grumpiness. Berated by superiors in his middle management supervisor position at a company called NORCOM, Jack Arnold begins revealing his secondary arc to the audience of a stoic and quiet hero, both to his children and as a symbol of the traditionalistic men of the age. 

Jack Arnold served in Korea, in the Marines, went to college, got married, took on a mortgage, and raised three children. In the canon of the show he did not reach the age of 50, dying at 49. His youngest, protagonist Kevin, finished high school and no doubt had his father on a pedestal through the very narration we hear throughout, even if not at the time of the events. If the men of America today could be even half the man Jack Arnold was depicted as -- we'd be just fine.

In one of these father-son episodes Kevin asked Jack what he wanted to do, after the standard mid-century American male answer of, "you mean other than professional baseball player?" - the senior Arnold went on to talk about how he wanted to be a captain of a ship, one of those big ocean liners. "Be out there on the ocean in the middle of the night, navigating by the stars. Course, they use instruments for all that now, but... I didn't know that. Yeah, I thought it would be the greatest thing in the world."

Kevin then for a moment defended his father's youthful dream with "you'd have made a great ship's captain, Dad."

Jack demurred, "nah, probably not... You can't do every silly thing you want to in life. You have to make your choices... You have to try and be happy with them. I think we've done pretty well, don't you?"

Yeah, I think we've done great. 

You relate to Kevin when you're young and think the adults of the world are squares, then when you get older you rally around the instinctive and old reliable conservative tradition of men like Jack Arnold, whose early in death mentioned in the show's finale need not be the fate of American fathers raising sons and daughters. 

Our renewal, victory, and greatness -- must rest first and foremost -- in our presence within the home life of the next generation of Americans so that they might hold the line and defeat the twin evil forces of postmodernism and relativism, which have added nothing of lasting value to the historical conversation and human experience. 

Save your sons and daughters, and be a father. Doing so will save and renew this country. 


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