"When I was very young, my little brother died. I couldn't fully comprehend it at the time. But for months after the ... accident, I was unable to pass his room without this ... nameless fear. I would get this, uh, tingling sensation in my chest and my arms. And then yesterday, when I found out that I indeed had come close, very close, to death myself, that sensation returned."
Charles (David Ogden Stiers)
I am reasonably certain that just about everyone, at some time in his or her life, wonders what happens when we die. The more spiritual among us probably muse about it more often than the rest of us — and more intensely when they do.
I always suspected that M*A*S*H's Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) was a spiritual person. He was pompous, to be sure, but I always sensed that his character was very spiritual as well. His predecessor at the 4077th, Frank Burns, wore his faith on his sleeve; he always seemed phony to me, and that was almost certainly intentional. But Winchester, while the same as Burns in some ways, was quite different in others.
And that is the way life is, isn't it? Whenever there is an opening at your workplace, it is never filled with a clone of the person who worked there before, is it? The replacement may have some things in common with the person he/she replaces, but the new person is a unique individual. That's the way it always was on M*A*S*H whenever a character had to be replaced — and I can think of at least four of the original cast members who left the show.
Winchester's personal quest for the truths of life always seemed genuine — and I thought that was clear to see in the episode of M*A*S*H that aired on this night in 1981, "The Life You Save."
Charles had a near–death experience when a sniper's bullet pierced the cap he was wearing, apparently missing his skull by centimeters at best. It prompted him to embark on an earnest but painful — and, ultimately, futile — journey to find out what really waits for us after death. There have been few scenes on TV as gripping as the one in which Charles badgered a patient who had been clinically dead for a few minutes to tell him what he had seen, what he had felt.
That proved to be unsatisfying, and Charles continued on his quest, which took him in some unexpected directions.
For example, while in charge of the motor pool, Charles instructed Rizzo (G.W. Bailey), the smarmy sergeant from Louisiana, to take a vehicle apart.
"Major, I don't understand; why am I taking this Jeep apart?" Rizzo asked. "It was working just fine!"
"Don't you understand the power you have here?" Charles asked. "You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk, and whenever you want — at a whim — you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life. If only we could do that with human beings. They wouldn't die."
None of Charles' efforts paid off, though, so he went to Battalion Aid to witness — and participate in — the treatment of the freshly wounded. No doubt he would encounter some soldiers who were mortally wounded, and he could ask them what they were experiencing.
Once he was at Battalion Aid, Charles had a telephone conversation with Col. Potter (Harry Morgan), who asked him, "Are you aware that you could get killed up there?"
"Actually no, that thought hadn't occurred to me," Charles replied. "That would be interesting, wouldn't it?" At that point, he went off in search of a dying soldier.
And, indeed, he did encounter a dying soldier, and he tried to find out what the soldier was feeling, seeing, experiencing — but, although the soldier was aware of the fact that he was dying, he could not feel Charles holding his hand, and the only thing he could say to Charles was "I smell bread."
That, of course, gave Charles no insight, and he left Battalion Aid after the soldier died.
He also left his cap with the bullet hole at Battalion Aid — apparently concluding that, whatever waits for us after death, if anything does, he would find out what it was soon enough.
As I mentioned, Charles was temporarily in charge of the motor pool during this episode. That was Col. Potter's doing. Potter decided to rotate the additional duty assignments among his officers, and Hawkeye (Alan Alda) was put in charge of the mess tent. Upon taking his assignment, Hawkeye found himself responsible for dozens of missing trays — apparent cogs in Army bureaucracy.
It was an interesting side plot, and it probably had some relevance to the main story, but I have never been able to figure out what it was.
An interesting piece of trivia for you here. M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons, Charles appeared in a little more than half of those seasons, and this was the only time Charles ever mentioned a sibling other than his sister Honoria. His younger brother was never mentioned again.
This episode was originally scheduled to air the day that Ronald Reagan was shot. Network executives figured — probably correctly — that the nation was in no mood to watch an episode about death hours after the president narrowly avoided death in an assassination attempt.
So it was delayed five weeks — and served as the season finale for M*A*S*H's ninth season, a season whose start was delayed by a three–month strike against TV and movie studios.