In his 1987 film, “Radio Days,” Woody Allen weaves in a small story that really has nothing to do with the movie’s plot, such as it is. Over twenty years later, that small story results in the one scene from the film that is truly memorable.
The film itself is Allen’s homage to the era in American history when radio broadcasts were the principal form of stay-at-home entertainment. The era lasted no more than 30 years, from the early 1920s to the early 1950s, and the film focuses on the middle of that period, in the years leading up to the second world war.
The small story that still resonates at first seems almost a throwaway tidbit. The community where Allen’s character (a young boy here) lives is suddenly caught up in the drama of a little child who has fallen into one of those narrow wells somewhere in Texas (as I recall). The radio reports the news of the attempted rescue, as frantic efforts are undertaken to extricate the child.
The story recedes as the main plot continues; then it returns when a news broadcast, this time with an eyewitness reporter, crackles on the family radios in Allen’s community. The scene shows parents seated by their radios (the big, clunky consoles of old) while children play on the floor or mill around aimlessly.
Again, the little story recedes. But it returns a few scenes later, this time with more gravitas. The on-scene reporter is telling his listening audience that the rescue crew is now very close to the child. Allen’s camera now focuses on one of his characters, a father (played by Michael Tucker). The father is seated by the radio, holding his own little son in his arms.
Now the reporter announces the news. The little child has been recovered, and she is – lifeless. Tucker cries openly, as he hugs his child ever more tightly.
That scene was repeated with a different set of circumstances last week as the world (literally, with reports of one billion viewers) watched the rescue of the Chilean miners. This time the ending was a happy one, but the feelings were no less meaningful, and the universal connection that took place as one miner after another emerged from the depths of the earth was no less real.
Enough has been written about the story, to be sure, and many had followed the drama from the first days of the mine collapse that trapped the 33 miners almost a half mile beneath the surface. For seventeen days, their fate was unknown, with many fearing, if not assuming, the worst.
Then, on that seventeenth day, they were found, almost miraculously, as a small hole broke through to their cavern. They were all alive, and, with food and water quickly sent down through the hole, they could remain alive for a foreseeable period, while a national commitment (by the Chilean president) began to get them all out.
During the nearly two months it took to drill the escape route, the news was a mix of hope and anxiety. Could all of these men (ranging in age from 19 to 63) really survive such isolation? Wouldn’t they eventually be overwhelmed with claustrophobia, if not downright depression? How could anyone live in those kinds of conditions for so long?
And then, finally, the night of deliverance arrived. As the capsule went down for the first time, many of those billion viewers undoubtedly said a prayer, maybe many prayers, for men they had never met, would never know, and wouldn’t have ever thought of in any way had they not been stuck 2000 feet underground for 70 days.
And it didn’t matter that some of the 33 may well be scoundrels, heathens, reprobates or even just plain evil. All we wanted (“we” here meaning the rest of humanity) was to know that they had been rescued and would survive to resume their normal lives until some other fate brought their lives to an end.
But not to die now, that was the hope, the prayer. To be saved from that fate this time, that was the wish, the dream.
What is it that brings human beings of all stripes, irrespective of ethnic, nationalistic, religious, gender, age, skin color, cultural, geographic, or any other kinds of differences, together at a time like the one we all experienced last week with the rescue of the Chilean miners? Can it be that there is some common bond that transcends ideology and everything else that all too often have us hating or at least ignoring each other?
I suppose the answer is obvious. We’re all human; we all understand, on some innate level, that we are born to die, that we have only so long to experience the known reality of our existence, that before we know it, in the seeming blink of an eye, the years given to us have passed and we are no more.
And so, if we see a few of our number saved from the destiny we all share, saved through some seeming miracle of fate, saved, dare we say it, by the grace of God, we rejoice, as if we have conquered the inevitable, at least for a moment.
That’s the happy side of the universal experience we all shared last week. The less sanguine side is the fact that we all too quickly return to our “normal” state of disinterest with those who aren’t in our immediate circle of concern, to the self-centered lives that create apathy (or even disgust) for those less fortunate, less blessed than us.
And, in our selfishness, we grow impatient with our leaders, distrustful of our neighbors, and downright disdainful of those who seem opposed to what we believe, what we want, what we think is right.
The miners were just like the rest of us, struggling to survive. For a few precious months we cared about them, and in their rescue, we rejoiced with them, almost as if they were family.
If only we could always feel that way.