Gone with America

April 06, 1994|By Russell Baker

CHARLES Kuralt is gone.

What is going to happen to America? The barber pole is vanishing, and Charles Kuralt is gone.

America is vanishing bit by bit. The barber pole is vanishing, the last telephone booths are even now headed down the bay aboard garbage scows, the very fate mehitabel envisioned for herself, and now mehitabel herself is vanishing from the American memory. And Charles Kuralt is gone.

Going, going, so much of America is going, like Charles Kuralt.

The Princess telephone is headed for the Smithsonian. Gone are the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Doc Savage, The Shadow. America, you are slipping away fast. So fast. And now Charles Kuralt is gone.

What has happened to the baseball crowds of men, vast crowds of men wearing suits and neckties and hats? Gone. Gone with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Charles Kuralt is not so gone as those crowds of suited, necktied men watching baseball in snap-brim fedoras are gone, but he is gone nonetheless. Yes, Charles Kuralt is gone.

Gone is Guy Lombardo playing the New Year in at the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel. Since his death New Year's Eve has turned its back on America, leaving millions no way to celebrate on that famous midnight except to watch an electrical display on a building in Times Square. Guy Lombardo has gone and taken New Year's Eve with him. Thus America vanishes bit by bit.

And now Charles Kuralt . . . gone.

Chesterfields, which satisfied, and Camels, for which men once would walk a mile, and Lucky Strikes, which sent Lucky Strike green to war -- all are going, if not gone. Worse, the great black-and-white movies in which everybody smoked and smoked until the action was obscured behind curtains of smoke -- gone are those movies that once made America what it was.

Charles Kuralt, who must have loved those movies because they were so vital to the American character, is gone as they are gone. Fortunately Charles Kuralt, unlike those movies, can never be colorized by Ted Turner.

How quickly, how finally it all goes. The indestructible Royal manual desk-model typewriter, gone. Gone with the Underwood. Gone with the straight-up telephone with the earpiece you lifted off the hook, bringing on the Operator, to whom you said, "Operator, get me Central," or -- if you were covering the police beat -- "Hiya, sweetheart, give me the city desk."

The city desk is gone, alas, crushed under the great sprawling mass of the metropolitan desk. And now, gone too is Charles Kuralt.

Brushless shaving cream in a jar, one of the great American inventions that should survive forever, can no longer be found.

One thousand miles of American highway can you drive without once sighting a Burma Shave roadside verse like

Pity all

The mighty Caesars

They pulled

Each whisker out

With tweezers

Burma Shave.

What will become of a nation that has quit providing motorists with roadside poetry, and forgotten mehitabel, and disposed of the Operator whom you could call "Sweetheart" without risking trial for sexual harassment?

What hope is there for a nation that let Charles Kuralt go -- for he is gone, all right -- yes, gone is Charles Kuralt, whose language art was such that he would have known whether it is correct to end this absurd sentence with a question mark, though so great that he would never have written it in the first place?

As with so much of vanishing America, we took it for granted that Charles Kuralt would always be with us, so failed to cherish him sufficiently, just as we failed to cherish mehitabel, and brushless shaving cream in a jar, and the movie stars who smoked, and the barber pole whose beauty had to be revealed to us by Edward Hopper, all of which now belong to America the Gone.

In the same way we failed to treasure the gone Edward R. Murrow, the great TV newsman who showed us how fine TV news could be until TV discovered that it could also be a troublesome, no-profit use of valuable entertainment time. Murrow would have approved of Charles Kuralt, who is now gone, alas.

Russell Baker is gone from Baltimore, but he writes a column for the New York Times.

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