Fame and the mountain

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It is fitting that a famous place is the backdrop for a handful of personal stories about fame - fame sought and unsought, fame unbestowed on the deserving, and showered (well, let's say "drizzled") on the not-really-deserving.

As a child at my daddy's knee, I heard his story: the climbing of Washington State's 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier. It was 1912. The Tacoma, Wash., branch of the Mountaineers had just opened its doors. Dad was with the group in its icy climb.

But during the ascent, one of Dad's companions dropped down upon the snow beside him and whispered that he could not go on. Dad knelt down, talked to him, lifted him to his feet. Slowly they negotiated the mountain together, behind the others. Arriving at the summit, they beheld the sure reward of self-sacrifice and persistence. It was Dad's closest brush with public fame; he was already quite famous in the hearts of those who loved him.

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Years later, I found myself on the mountainside as well, but with a different kind of climber. Social climbers, some of them.

I was a waitress at Paradise Inn, in Mt. Rainier National Park. Frequent celebrity guests were seated by the hostess at tables attended by waitresses who had proved themselves. It was well into the summer before I got my first celebrity: Actor Charles Laughton was at the height of his career. I did the best waitressing I could while bedazzled. Other guests in the dining room paid not the slightest attention to him. That would have been gauche.

After a commendable meal, Mr. Laughton retired to a leather lounge chair in front of one of the two stone fireplaces that anchored either end of the lobby.

It was the habit of the inn's guests to congregate in this magnificent timbered room, with its polished dance floor, high ceiling, and wraparound balcony. At Laughton's entrance, however, eyes turned aside; nonchalance prevailed.

The actor was unable to abide the unnatural quietness, apparently. He rose from his chair and, with the great fireplace as his backdrop, delivered a marvelous soliloquy in a booming voice that enveloped the place. The cheers and applause were immediate. All became camaraderie. No more looks that said, "Who are you, sir?"

Another surprise awaited that season. An employee, a quiet man who had kept mostly to himself, sat at the piano in the great room and began to play, as others had.

At first, no one took notice. Then ears began to prick up and eyes to turn. He was playing "Malaguena," by Ernesto Lecuona - and beautifully! He was a concert pianist. He'd needed time to get away from it all for a while. He'd assumed the guise of a summer worker. Now he performed his repertoire to the delight of the cultured guests (and his uncultured fellow employees).

The sunny slopes by the inn attracted tourists and off-duty employees. One day a girlfriend and I settled down in a spot with a breathtaking view of Mt. Tacoma, as the Puget Sound Indians had named Rainier.

A gentleman with a movie camera approached us. "Would you care to be in a newsreel?" he queried irresistibly. We nodded our instant assent, and he proceeded to instruct us as to how to look "natural" and lovely for a film. My friend saw our newsreel, but I missed it. I know that somewhere out there, still waiting to be discovered, I dwell in celluloid space. I'm an almost-was among those who were famous and those who should have been.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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