Tragic Implications

I work in television, a medium that thrives on a steady diet of hyperbole.  In our lexicon, if something awful happens, we command attention by pronouncing it a tragedy.  If someone staggers out of the rubble in good shape, it’s not just a fortunate circumstance, it's a miracle.  Bystanders who stop to lend a hand, are more than good people doing the right thing, they're heroes.

Thanks to our need to meet a daily quota of inflated words, the three I've italicized above don't make much of an impact these days.  They’ve gone flat with overuse, like that stale movie trailer voice-over in which some gravelly-voiced announcer informs us solemnly that such-and-such “will change everything... forever!”  That said, the 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” did change television forever, if by “forever” you mean about three or four years.  That’s how long the TV miniseries craze lasted.  It began to unravel one summer when NBC tried to repeat a five-part adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s “Wheels,” and viewership trailed off so rapidly that the network pulled the plug before the finale, substituting a brief narration to wrap up the story for the small number still watching.  However, one of the things “Rich Man, Poor Man" did change for me, if not forever, then at least from then until now, is how I think about tragedy.

In “Rich Man, Poor Man,” Ed Asner plays Axel Jordache, a dour German immigrant who reveals an ugly secret about his past.  Decades earlier, he was able to board a ship bound for America by taking the place of a man he stabbed at the dock and tossed into the drink.  His boys, Rudy and Tom Jordache are the rich man and the poor man of the title, the former a budding politician played by Peter Strauss, the latter a fighter with his father’s violent temper, played by Nick Nolte.  Their lives follow tortuous, sometimes torrid, and dangerous paths that occasionally intertwine.  In the final episode, with Tom Jordache's fortunes on the upswing, he rescues his brother’s drunken wife from being raped by the villain of the series, Falconetti (William Smith).  Given the opportunity to kill Falconetti, Tom allows him to live.  In return, Falconetti has a couple of his goons stab Tom to death as he waves to friends from the end of a dock.

The killing of Tom Jordache is a sad turn of events.  But because it mirrors the story we’ve heard his father tell, we feel it at a deeper level, as if we’ve witnessed the cosmos keeping the books balanced according to a set of rules we can’t fathom.  We can only call it tragic.    

Thomas Lovewell’s life always seemed to have a Shakespearan contour, and it’s not simply that, toward the end of his life, about the time he began to divide his kingdom by giving away or selling off most of the acreage he had accumulated, he was an old man with three daughters, one whose middle name was Desdimona (Yes, Cordelia would have been more suitable, but you can’t have everything).  There are also those family stories about a pair of perfect Shakespearan foils, a Deschutes chief of scouts who was given the funeral honors due a faithful soldier, and Jim Jones, the white captive who finally gave up trying to be a good Indian.  

If anythng about Thomas Lovewell’s long and apparently charmed life strikes us as tragic, it might be the cruel irony of reuniting with the long-lost daughter he knew as “Julany," just in time to bring her home from St. Louis to languish and die at Lovewell, and be interred at White Rock.  Her first husband, Edward McCaul,  had died of pneumonia only a few weeks earlier.  Her surviving partner, the mysterious John Robinson, met a suitably shadowy end less than two years later.  It’s not quite the last scene of “Hamlet,” but the bodies did seem to pile up.

Reading Dave Lovewell's account of the death of his aunt Edna, reminded me of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and the feeling viewers got while watching the wheel of fate swing around again.  People who knew them both, thought Stephen Lovewell was the very image of his father, who was sixty-seven when he brought his eldest daughter home from St. Louis for a bittersweet reunion which was cut short by cancer.  Stephen was sixty-five when he drove his pickup to Chicago to claim Edna Lovewell's body.  Both daughters died in their thirties.  Any real similarities end there, although rumors of foul play circulated through the two families.  The descendants of Julany and John Robinson believe that he may have been killed by a rival contractor in Kansas City.  There were whispers in Stephen Lovewell’s family that instead of being hit by a car, Edna was bludgeoned with a blackjack.

I’m not sure whether randomness terrifies us or merely irritates us, but we don’t like it.  We prefer events to be connected to each other, to make sense, to happen for a reason, even if, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what the reason is.

© Dale Switzer 2023