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Robert Vaughn and David McCallum
in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

In late 1966 my mom went into the hospital. She went in for what they
called a “nervous breakdown” back then. She had been having problems for
a good number of years with various things. So her stay in Methodist
Hospital in Indianapolis was hopefully what she needed to get her psyche
back on track.

Since my dad had his job at the bank to consider too, me and my sister
went to stay with our grandmother Piercy. The place wasn’t all that big,
only two bedrooms, so our dad spent his nights at home. We were
essentially under the care of our grandmother for that period. I was
10 years old at the time. My sister was six. Eventually we started attending school again too at Our Lady of
Lourdes so that our education wouldn’t suffer. We had to get up really
early to get to classes at OLOL, which had an early daily mass that we
were required to attend. I remember those long walks through the cold
and the dark to the warm and brightly lit church, where I would try my
best to stay awake given the early hour. Then we would walk across the
lot for classes. I hated it, actually. I never minded attending mass at
the previous schools that I had attended, but that was on a weekly basis.
Having to attend every day and that early in the morning was I felt way
over the top.

My mom had entered the hospital in early December. So it wasn’t that
many days later that Christmas rolled around. In spite of the difficult
circumstances my dad somehow managed to find the time to go Christmas
shopping and stick some presents under the tree for us. So Christmas
morning me and my sister got up and opened our presents. I got a
“Man from U.N.C.L.E.” toy pistol set. It was very cool. The pistol also
came with add-on barrel and stock extensions, as well as a slide-on
scope. There was also a bogus I.D. card which, when I filled it out,
officially made me a secret agent with the United Network Command for
Law Enforcement. Beside the Man from U.N.C.L.E. pistol, I also got a
bunch of clothes. Which of course wasn’t nearly as exciting.


The Man from U.N.C.L.E. pistol set.

After attending mass (yet again) my dad took us to Methodist Hospital
to visit our mom. Since kids weren’t allowed up on the ward, special
permission had been obtained for my mom to get a kind of afternoon pass
so that she could come down to the lobby and visit us. For some reason
that isn’t quite clear to me today I had to stay down in the lobby while
my dad went up the elevator with my sister to get our mom.

I was on my own for a brief while. I had put the Man from U.N.C.L.E.
pistol in my winter coat, which at that time was a heavy trench coat. I
wandered around the hospital lobby, and then a bit further, back into the
rear of the hospital. I was playing spy, and the fact that I wasn’t
supposed to really be in some of the areas that I wandered into only
made it that much more exciting.

I eventually returned to the lobby proper. My mom and dad and sister
were there at that point. My mom was dressed really nice and looked very
healthy. But I also remember that she was a bit “out of it” — I know
today that was the medication.

My mom gave me and my sister our Christmas presents from her, which I
was pretty sure had been purchased at the hospital gift shop. My mom
handed me my present, which was big and flat and heavy. I opened it
slowly. It was a book, The Schweitzer Album: A Portrait in Words and
Pictures
by Erica Anderson. It was of course about the famous Albert
Schweitzer, who I was to discover had been this totally amazing
human who had been a doctor, a musicologist, and a philosopher. As for
my sister, I think she got some more Barbie and Skipper doll stuff. She
had tons of that stuff. My dad had also picked up a present for my mom
from all of us. Strangely, or perhaps rather narcissistically, I don’t
remember what her present was.

After the gift exchange we talked for a while. Then wa all took a walk
over to another building in the hospital complex where they were having
a Christmas party for the Mental Ward patients. It was cold and overcast
as we walked down the dirty access street between the grimy buildings,
but there was a gentle snow falling which seemed to give it all a type
of grace.

It wasn’t much of a party really. Just punch and cookies and a couple of
choral groups singing Christmas songs. But it was the first time my mom
had been out in a couple of weeks. And I was glad that it all made her
happy.

Over the next months I had lots of fun playing with my Man from
U.N.C.L.E. pistol. But it was the Schweitzer book that was to have the
real impact. Through the years I read through the book and looked at the
wonderful photos over and over again. By 1970, due to Schweitzer’s
influence and his philosophy of Reverence of Life, I became a vegetarian
and was to continue being a vegetarian for seven years, in spite of the
great difficulty back than of staying on that kind of diet. I also read a
bit of his book on Bach, and eventually found his incredible organ recordings
made in 1938. Schweitzer was a lasting influence, and one of the heroes of
my youth.

Through the next years, I was to be much more the kid from Lambarene
than the kid form U.N.C.L.E. In fact looking back on my early experiences
and the influence of Schweitzer, it is really kind of surprising that I
didn’t become a doctor, perhaps eventually ending up in something like
Medecins Sans Frontiers. But I don’t regret it. To each life there
is a unique path — and my path in this life, I now know, turned out to
be the right one. These days, I am perhaps closer to being the kid from
U.N.C.L.E. once again. I guess I’ve seen too much and have read too
much. One evil simply seems to replace another. But there is no doubt
that I still admire Schweitzer. I can’t share his idealism. But I do know
that what he did, giving aid and comfort to so many with the use of
his skilled hands and mind, is something that is always needed in the
world — and a positive force much broader in scope than a pistol can
ever be in fighting against the world’s many evils.

My mom got out of the hospital in February. And then a new phase of our
lives began. I wish I could say that it was a happier phase, but I can’t.


Albert Schweitzer with a patient.


Working on a manuscript.

 

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