I have seen "The Wizard of Oz" 41 times and am not finished with it yet. I cannot explain the pull that this 1939 movie has on me, except to say that, if I am passing through a room and notice it on the tube, I will drop everything, plop down on the sofa, and savor.
In the years before the videocassette, I often went through heroics to chase down this film. Once, while I was in the Navy, it played at the base theater (on the big screen!). As soon as my ship pulled into port, I hopped onto my motorcycle and high-tailed it to the movies. The place was packed with children; but I wedged myself in among them, hugged my sack of popcorn close, and the rest was heaven.
On another occasion, I was on the road somewhere in the Southeast and learned that the movie would be on TV that very evening. I promptly sought out a motel, hunkered down for the night, and warmed to the overture to what someone once called the greatest movie ever made.
Why do I respond so viscerally to "The Wizard of Oz"? I'm sure my attachment to this film was seeded very early, at the age of 5 or so. This movie had everything: beautiful music, vibrant colors, fanciful characters, and just enough darkness to assure me that, yep, there certainly was no place like home.
Later in my childhood, I fell prey to the other tender messages of the film: It sometimes takes courage to run from danger; there are people at great universities who have no more brains than you or I; when bad weather threatens, the cellar is a good place to hide; hearts will not be practical until they're made unbreakable. Pretty sound lessons for a young boy finding his way in life.
Like any zealot, I wanted to share my enthusiasm with anyone within shouting distance. As the years passed, such comrades-in-arms became fewer and farther between as they relegated "The Wizard of Oz" to the attic of childhood affinities.
I couldn't let go, however. I finally found an unsuspecting - and uninitiated - person about eight years ago, when I adopted my first son, Alyosha, from Russia. I wanted to watch "The Wizard of Oz" with him as a way of sharing something that meant a lot to me. I also felt that it would show him that his new country, at root, was made of pretty good stuff.
So one autumn evening when he was 8, as darkness set in and the wind whooshed about the eaves, I made some popcorn, dimmed the lights, and cuddled with him on the sofa. Then I pressed the button on the remote and - magic.
By the end of the film - after I had shed my gentle tear at Dorothy's departure from Oz - we compared notes. My favorite character was the Tin Man, but Alyosha had lost his heart to the Cowardly Lion. I swooned to Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," but Alyosha had only rolled his eyes.
We both agreed that the entrance of our heroes into the Emerald City was great, rollicking fun, but Alyosha pulled himself close to me when the Wicked Witch of the West first appeared in a ball of fire.
"It's OK," I assured him as one long inured to the Witch's bluster. "Don't worry. I'm here."
When I tucked Alyosha in that night I softly sang "Over the Rainbow" to him, at which point he commented, just before drifting off, "You're better than that lady, Dad."
Has a father ever received higher praise from his child?
Sad to say, Alyosha, at 16, seems to have outgrown "The Wizard of Oz" (if such a thing is possible). If I were to ask him to watch it with me today, he would look at me as if I had offered to tar and feather him.
But I am neither offended nor dissuaded by his response. You see, a little while ago I adopted a second son, a 5-1/2-year-old from Ukraine. Back at the orphanage, the height of entertainment for Anton was going outside to gather walnuts in a paper basket.
Little does he know what lies in store for him now that he is in America, now that he lives with me. As I look outside at the clear, cold, winter sky, with its almost-full moon illuminating the snowy Maine landscape, I listen for the wind about the eaves. Yes, it's there, and what it is saying is, "Yes, do it now. The time is right."
We're already on the sofa, the lights are low, the popcorn is crisp. Ah, those sepia-tone scenes of Kansas. Cuddle close, Anton, and hold on tight. This, my son, is America.