Sunday, December 25, 2016
If a TV show makes it to its seventh season, it is likely to be running out of material.
But the writers for All in the Family were still hitting the ball out of the park in the show's seventh season as the Christmas episode that aired on this night in 1976, "The Draft Dodger," clearly demonstrated. It may have been the most poignant episode of that groundbreaking series.
In 1976, America's recently concluded involvement in the Vietnam War was an open wound for many Americans. It had been a divisive war, sparking much social upheaval, and it was no less so once America's participation had ended. My memory is that, more than a year later, people were still being judged by others according to their positions on the war.
On this night 40 years ago, Christmas Night 1976, the Bunkers (Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton) were hosting Christmas dinner for the Stivics (Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers), Teresa (the Bunkers' boarder played by Liz Torres), Archie's buddy Pinky (character actor Eugene Roche) who was a Gold Star father, and David (Renny Temple), a friend of Mike's who, unknown to most of the people at the table on that occasion, fled to Canada to avoid the draft.
David's presence was unexpected. He just showed up on the Bunkers' doorstep. It hadn't been his original destination. He had intended to see his father, but his father wasn't ready to face his son so David went to see his old friend. It was in their conversation that the audience learned he was a draft dodger.
David agreed to join the family for Christmas dinner after being assured by both Mike and Gloria that they would not spill the beans. That was easier said than done when Archie met David and asked him questions about where he lived and why he was spending Christmas with them instead of his own family.
Gloria ran interference for David, but their objective was helped considerably when the doorbell rang, and the audience learned that it was Pinky. Before opening the door, Archie cautioned everyone that if Pinky started talking about Stevie, that was his only son who had been killed in the war.
Pinky was still in shock over that, and Archie told his family that if Pinky started talking about his son, they should steer the conversation in another direction.
During Christmas dinner Archie asked David if he had any Christmas memories to share. David's reply contradicted information Archie had been given earlier, and that led to the revelation that David was a draft dodger.
Archie found that very disturbing, and that sparked an argument between the conservative Archie and the liberal Mike, who asked Archie when he was going to admit that the war had been wrong. Archie replied that he wasn't talking about the war. He was talking about doing one's duty to one's country. That was a position with which many viewers no doubt sympathized in 1976.
Many other people in America sympathized with David. They believed the war was wrong and refused to participate in it. David wasn't the only young American who fled to Canada. There were tens of thousands of others. The conflict created a huge rip in the fabric of America.
Pinky asked Archie if he wanted to know what Pinky thought, and Archie responded enthusiastically, certain that Pinky would take his side.
But Pinky surprised Archie, everyone else at the table and the audience when he observed that both his son and David did what they thought they had to do. The difference, he said, was that his son wasn't alive to share Christmas dinner with them, and David was. If his son could be there, Pinky mused, he would want to sit down to dinner with David.
"And that's what I want to do," he said, turning to David and extending his hand as the audience burst into spontaneous, heartfelt applause. "Merry Christmas, David," Pinky said.
"Merry Christmas, sir," David replied.
Even today the memory of that moment has great emotional power. I have seen reruns of that episode from time to time. I have watched it with people who supported the war and people who opposed it. And what I have seen convinced me that, while they disagree on most things, nearly all Americans prefer peace to conflict, whether it is between nations or between people.
Given the choice and the opportunity to act on that choice, most people prefer whatever promotes healing and harmony, not whatever sows discord.
On this night 40 years ago, All in the Family took a giant step toward healing the wounds of war.