LC's Take: When Charles Kuralt died

Posted Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Features

LC's Take: When Charles Kuralt died

by LC Van Savage

Have you ever been asked that ancient question, "If you had to spend a long time in a hospital, who would you want in the bed next to you?" 

I'd have to be on a ward. I'd want a lot of people, but for starters I'd take Gore Vidal, Noel Coward, Grandma Moses, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mike Royko, Dorothy Parker, Mel Torme for his music, and the remarkable Charles Kuralt for the music of his words. 

Now why on earth did he have to die? People who enrich our lives and transport us with their language, their ideas and their being there, shouldn't die, or at least not until they've lived well over a century, or at least not until we've died ourselves.

You know, people like Charles Kuralt.

He's gone and even though it’s been 16 years, I’m still into some serious grieving about that. If one of the stages of grief, as the therapists say, is anger, then I'm definitely totally pissed that Charles had the gall to leave us when he was too young, had so many more places to tell us about, to make us see with his words, to make us wonder about, when he had so many more people to interview, so many more smiles and yearnings to give to us, so many more manys. I didn't even know the man was sick. Nobody ever tells me anything.

Charles Kuralt was a comfortable-looking guy, non-threatening, sweet-faced, balding, with a seriously bad comb-over, short, "stout" as they used to say, rumpled, frequently grinning and always looking and sounding like a big, warm, deep-squeaking worn-smooth leather chair, and you know how good it feels to sink into a chair like that and to sit and dream in it. His CV was huge. He’d been everywhere after leaving his beloved Wilmington, N.C., having been born there in 1934. The cliché of a person’s having been-there-done-that fit him perfectly. Kuralt had been everywhere and had reported on everything (he regarded being a reporter as a “higher calling”) and it surely seemed to this writer that he never met a man he didn’t like and he never met anyone who didn’t like him.

He was the only man I ever gave serious thought to stalking. I had fantasies of hiding in bushes outside of his home if I actually knew where his home was and watching him as he came and went. That's all. Just watching and maybe hoping he might speak to someone, or even to himself, so I could experience the thrill of hearing the mellow bell of his voice. 

I am not at all ashamed to say that I also had fantasies of secretly stowing away in that big Winnebago in which he toured the country, again just so I could hear his voice, so I could see him at work, watch him bring America, all of America, to our doorsteps – into our living rooms, into our lives. But I had to be content with watching him on the old "CBS News Sunday Morning" show and I wept when he said his last goodbyes. His final words there were from a poem by Clarence Day and the final words from that poem were “/… But here I go/ Goodbye.” 

And so he left and went back to wandering America in that big old Winnebago as he had for so many years, and showed us America this time in 12 perfect months and wrote one more perfect book, "Charles Kuralt’s America." 

And that voice. It was a rich milk chocolate, which, if milk chocolate could have a sound, it would be a chamber music group made up of a cello, harp, oboe and an occasional rumble of a kettle drum or two, sometimes a distant Rip Van Winkle thunder. He let all the chocoholics out there hear and taste of it, and I was his biggest junkie.

Who of us hasn't wished we could cruise all of this still remarkable country of ours and speak with the natives casually, easily, and to learn about every corner of America, how it works, why it works and what the feelings and thoughts are of the people who make it work? And to get it all on tape and to be paid for doing it! Paid for doing what one loved. Imagine! Best of all, those old Kuralt tapes are in fact not “old Kuralt tapes.” They are still today fascinating, marvelous, and compelling watching/listening.

It's still an unending dream of mine, doing what he did in that big bus of his, but because I knew I'd never get to do it (Winnebagos don't get cable, I hear, so I really couldn't go and now I’m just too old — or am I?) I always let Kuralt do that for me. I'd read his words and listen to them, and in my fantasies through him I'd get to go where he'd been, speak to the people he had, famous and not, and see and hear and smell and taste what he had, all while not budging from my living-room chair. Perfect. The gift that keeps on giving. And giving. And giving.

Charles Kuralt showed us by his meanderings that our country isn't all killings and drug dealings, breakage, violence and sickness. He showed us that there's beauty yet, new things to explore and to give us the sweetness of bliss of all that. He painted Norman Rockwell pictures with his words and gently let us know that it's OK to love corniness, schmaltz and patriotism, to love listening to the life stories or life dreams of people who live in places where outhouses are commonplace, who work the land, sweat the factories, paint the steeples, save the animals, pick the beets.

He let us hear the words of people who fish or fly or sculpt or police or dance or ski or hunt or sing or act or carve or weave or shovel or paint or pick or sail or rail or truck or wave or type or cook or print or tinker, for a living or for just the helluvit. When they spoke with Charles Kuralt, they spoke with us and we were allowed, briefly, to step into their lives and be their friends.

His books for me were often audio books, my favorite “On the Road” of course, and I loved even the paper-and-ink ones. I've read and heard them all. His last took a long time to read because I knew it was his last and I just was never ready. He speaks on that tape, telling us of his final trip, knowing it would be his last. But even knowing that, I want to hear once again of Kuralt's love of trout fishing, his love of the occasional strong belt of a little something alcoholic, his relishing of a great meal, his enjoyment of kids at play, the Rocky Mountains; his delights. All of them. And to Charles Kuralt it was all delight. 

Damn it Charles Kuralt, and damn damn and damn you. Why did you leave us? You left too soon. You were in New York City in 1997 when you left us. Why? There was so much more I wanted to hear, so many of your voice paintings I wanted to see. You went away a long time ago, and I’m still angry at you for doing that. But anyway, thank you so much for showing us an America to love, Charles. I hope it’s still here.  

         /…..But there you go/ Goodbye.

blog comments powered by Disqus