Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Letters From Home

"I have no need to write letters to communicate with children. I have you for that, Pierce."

Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers)

On this day in 1980, M*A*S*H's second episode of the season aired. Traditionally, a network television series begins its new season in September.

Why the delay? Well, there was this three–month strike by the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA against television and movie studios, and it delayed the start of most series by a month or two.

At the time, as I recall, the public angst was over having to wait to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas. There certainly was no shortage of suspects, and the subject sparked some pretty intense debates while impatient viewers waited for the strike to be resolved.

But perhaps the greater tragedy was the fact that the delay deprived TV viewers of some top–quality writing and acting, such as was displayed on M*A*S*H on this night in 1980.

It was the ninth of what turned out to be 11 seasons on the air for M*A*S*H. The show was a fixture in the Top 10, and its producers knew it had nothing to prove. That is truly a rare opportunity in television — or in any human endeavor, for that matter — to be able to pursue any creative angle you desire, knowing that you can get away with it even if it bombs — but, because you are who you are, such a failure is not likely.

(Sort of like Apple Inc., I guess.)

It can encourage people to push the envelope, which is what the folks at M*A*S*H did in an episode called "Letters."

Speaking of envelopes ...

In the episode that aired on this night in 1980, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) had received a package from home. It was from a friend of his who was teaching fourth grade in Hawkeye's hometown of Crabapple Cove, Maine. In the package were letters from this friend's pupils, who had been assigned to write letters to the people serving in Korea. Hawkeye had written a letter to his friend telling him how boring life could be around the compound — between those chaotic periods when casualties kept the surgeons on their feet for 18 or 20 hours — so his friend had the idea of perhaps sparking some pen pal relationships between the kids and the folks in the M*A*S*H unit.

Hawkeye distributed handfuls of letters to the familiar gang — B.J., Col. Potter, Charles, Hot Lips, Klinger, Father Mulcahy — and made only one rule: They all had to answer the letters they had been given. No swapping, trading or stealing.

Even though Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) had already opened a letter that asked if he had saved many lives. "A doctor really should answer that one," he noted. "I specialize in saving souls, not lives."

Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) reminded Mulcahy of his efforts with someone named Irving, which inspired Mulcahy's response. Turned out Irving was a homeless dog who showed up around the compound — and had a bit of a taste for booze. Well, more than a taste. Irving was a lush.

Mulcahy recalled that there had been a dog like that when he was in seminary. The way the seminary students had cured him was to make him drink bowl after bowl of whiskey until he was sick, then give him more whiskey when he was hung over. It worked on Irving.

"If people only had the horse sense dogs do," Mulcahy wrote.

One of the best vignettes of the episode focused on Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) and the attachment she formed to some of the patients who came through the compound — even, or perhaps especially, the ones who died. The viewing audience saw her sitting next to a mortally wounded soldier, smiling even though she knew he only had an hour or two to live. It was a rare glimpse into what touched Hot Lips on a personal level.

Col. Potter shared his exploits as "Hoops" Potter and his near miss at tying the camp record for making consecutive free throws.

"Take a word of advice from a retired bucketeer," Col. Potter wrote in his reply to one of the students. "If you take up a sport, make it horseshoes where you don't have to be perfect."

Klinger (Jamie Farr), the first–class Army scrounge, told one of the correspondents about his latest get–rich–quick scheme. He had acquired a couple of chinchillas and was planning to breed them for their fur — until Charles (David Ogden Stiers), who had worked with lab rodents when in medical school, informed Klinger that both of his chinchillas were male.

Hawkeye found himself having to answer a letter that struck a nerve. It was from a youngster whose older brother had served in Korea. He had been wounded and was sent to a M*A*S*H unit that patched him up and sent him back to his unit, where he was killed in combat.

"You doctors just make people better so they can end up dead. I hate you all," the letter concluded.

Hawkeye tried to get Father Mulcahy to write the reply, but Mulcahy refused. He said the letter had stirred up deep emotions within Hawkeye, and he would have to deal with them whether he wrote the letter or not. So Hawkeye answered the letter.

"It's not a good idea to take the love you had for your brother and turn it into hate," Hawkeye wrote in his reply. "Hate makes war, and war is what killed him. I understand your feelings. Sometimes I hate myself for being here, but once in awhile in the midst of this insanity a very small event can make my being here seem almost bearable."

That was good, but I think my very favorite part of the episode involved Charles. He had been enjoying penning sarcastic replies to the letters he had been given, but one letter made him pause. It was from a young girl who wrote about autumn in Maine and the beauty of the leaves. She enclosed a leaf from a birch tree because she wasn't sure if Korea had an autumn, and she wanted to share the beauty with the person who got her letter.

Charles, a native of Boston, knew about autumn in New England. "It is with indescribable joy," he wrote, "that I accept your gift. It is indeed testimony to the beauty that exists in all creation, but perhaps nowhere more than in a young girl's heart."

From time to time, M*A*S*H aired episodes that followed a similar structure. A single thing, like the receipt of all those letters, was an opportunity to look into the hearts and souls of the leading characters. I don't think it was a new technique, but I believe M*A*S*H perfected it.

Perhaps on this night 35 years ago.