Time Out For the Duke

By

I always tried to be most prompt, precise, and punctual when returning to work after lunch.

In 1972 I was working in a basement of a Boston department store, folding damaged clothes, placing them in boxes, closing the boxes, and putting a label on top. I stacked the boxes on a dolly and wheeled the dolly to the freight elevator. The operator would take them up to street level where the loading dock was, and the boxes would be returned to the manufacturer.

Lunch was usually two slices of pizza or two hot dogs. I ate, window-shopped, and came back on time. The boss was very picky about workers returning on time. I had been the model of obedience.

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But newspapers were saying that John Wayne was coming to town for a visit. He was to be at Harvard, over the river in Cambridge, for some sort of press conference.

I continued to fold defective ladies' apparel, placing each item neatly in a carton. An elderly fellow who worked at the counter next to me was named Elmer. He had to remind me several times to put the correct label on the correct box, so it would go back to the correct clothing company. My mind was not on the job. I was wondering why John Wayne was coming to Cambridge, a legendary Republican conservative in a state full of liberal Democrats. The newspaper said he would be interviewed and say a lot of hellos and shake hands in the early afternoon.

I looked at the clock - 11:15 a.m. Lunch was approaching. Maybe I could get to Harvard Square. It would mean stretching the lunch hour. Coming back late from lunch would have consequences. Of all the temptations that I've had to contend with, this was one of the most intense.

My mind was made up. I would put my job on the line so I could go see the Duke. When noon came, I took the freight elevator up to the street. The double doors opened, and I ran like a loony toward the subway entrance. The subway ride seemed to take an eternity. But I made it to Central Square.

John Wayne was in a parade, riding atop an armored personnel carrier. He looked right at home, grinning wide and waving to people all over. The convoy halted at Harvard. I was running my legs off, dodging people, cars, baby carriages, bicycles. Wayne spent 20 minutes or so shaking hands with a gathering crowd, answering shouted questions.

Everything I wanted to hear was there: his booming voice, his hearty laughter, his unabashed love of America. The man and the star were one. Many Hollywood types lived two lives, a dedicated professional in one life, a shunner of fans in the other.

Not John Wayne.

Audiences and fans were life to him. He never seemed to forget the link between filmgoers and success, and he had generations' worth of fans, from little kids to grandfathers.

Students fired questions at him, and he swatted back replies as though he were hitting shuttlecocks in a game of badminton.

I had seen nearly all of his 150 major features, and I had a thousand questions about each one. But his chat outside was brief. He waved goodbye and went inside.

The fun was over, and I was headed for hot water at work.

ONCE again I ran my feet off to reach the subway entrance, clopped down the steel stairs, inserted a token in the turnstile, and waited for the train. It took its time arriving. I had to figure out what to tell my boss, and I had no talent for deceit.

As the subway car swayed and clacked rapidly along, I didn't want to think about the boss. I was still thinking about John Wayne. He was making some rare TV appearance, as a guest on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and playing a dinner guest on the sitcom "Maude." (On the show, he was asked what he thought of "women's lib." His reply was not what the women at the table wanted to hear. The sudden silence was frosty, and the studio audience roared with laughter.)

When I came back into the basement, all the workers turned and looked at me. Half of them began humming a funeral march. Others sang a snappy tune from "Dragnet." The boss saw me, and asked me to follow him into the hall. I felt as though I were back in grade school.

There was a 10-minute lecture on being thoughtful and showing responsibility. I was silent, and looked apologetic. It seemed the best way to handle it. If I told the boss I went to see John Wayne I would have been fired for sure.

Now I could work. The attention was off me now, and nobody knew where I had gone. There was speculation though, from buying a car to having a new girlfriend. But nobody knew except Elmer, the man who worked next to me. He knew all the secrets in this place. He handed me an empty box to be filled with more defective clothing. Then he greeted me in his best Wayne manner:

"Welcome back, pilgrim."

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