M*A*S*H TV series photo collage with the kind courtesy of hitupmyspot.com
M*A*S*H 4077 … the people perspective
David Wesley Tonkin
It was the often the primer and sometimes a poignant reminder for learning many of life’s worthwhile attitudes, values and behaviors
M*A*S*H premiered on September 17, 1972, and concluded on February 28, 1983; the final episode was the most-watched TV episode in history with over 105 million viewers. It that time it has certainly left an indelible impression on me … and I suspect many millions of current and past fellow Earth-dwellers.
In all of that time the series earned and gathered an eclectic following; its acolytes representing dozens of global cultures, a wide viewer age spectrum and a capacious fan loyalty base that seems to be gladly handed down the generations who watch it.
The thing I loved most was that it was such a thoughtful and powerful anti-war series. The vivid, ugly and huge impact of war on the human race was a message never far from the surface in each episode. The anti-war messages were straightforward, even-handed and honest enough that both war-mongers and peaceniks in my circle of friends and acquaintances judged it evenly.
However the reason M*A*S*H soared and resonated in the minds of so many of us was the direct impact of the characters; and the lessons many of us learned from them!
Here are my “top 10” and what I think they contributed to our society …
1. An understanding of the real attributes of leadership
Harry Morgan’s Colonel Sherman T. Potter was a shining testimonial to that rare human being who was always able to bestow leadership, firm direction and a deeply imbedded and real caring and respect for everyone under his command. He could be uncompromisingly tough and bloody minded as he was the voice of true compassion in such a rich tapestry of circumstances. How could anyone forget his advice, “Listen, it’s too big a world to be in competition with everyone. The only person who I have to be better than is myself. And in your case, that’s enough.”
Harry Morgan’s acting ability and skill spanned a wide gamut; remember he also (in one early episode) portrayed the vindictively racial bigot, General Bartford Hamilton Steele.
My advice to those who personally define and deliver leadership as (subtle or unsubtle) bullying, the unrelenting substitution of football clichés for meaningful direction and hastily retreating behind the ambiguous shield of HR policy when their ineptitude is discovered is simple … Rent M*A*S*H and study Colonel Potter.
2. There is a place for the purity and simplicity of true understanding
Allan Arbus’ interpretation of the role of Major Sidney Theodore Freedman was masterful. He debunked the “myth” around psychoanalysis. He made the understanding of, and practical compassion for mental illness and battle fatigue real, compassionate and indispensable. His wicked sense of humor and choice of words and expressions was also a colossal catalyst to my learning more and appreciating what his profession did and must continue to do for our heroic veterans. I will always remember his insightful advice with glee “”Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice, pull down your pants and slide on the ice”
3. What is a totally genuine and believable human being?
Alan Alda’s Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce was that thoughtful and expertly portrayed enigma loosely labeled as a human being. Hawkeye was that totally wondrous blend of laughter, tears, wickedness, caring, intelligence, true friendship, activist, lover and circumstance manipulator many of us would wish to be; if everything was in the right proportion then you had a perfect snapshot of a real, thankfully imperfect human being; as he so often was in memorable and indelible episodes!
I have always delighted in Hawkeye’s descriptive narrative of himself “I am the essence of overconfidence! I am speculation, adventure; the spirit of pursuit; the stag howling for its winsome yet anonymous mate. I am the love call of evolution; the perfume and color of the flowers as they offer their pollen to the gentle buzz of the bees. I am sex itself, gentlemen. I am life. I am appetite!” He did not need to add … I am human!
4. Innocence, naivety and traditional values are still necessary
Gary Burghoff’s Corporal Walter Eugene “Radar” O’Reilly was the magnetic force that held the 4077 together. Most of us did not find someone like “Radar” lackluster. We enjoyed and laughed at his corn-fed, hand-raised Ottumwa, Iowa fresh country air interpretation of life and its circumstances. We were bemused by his small farm universe that revolved around his Mom, Ottumwa, the family cow, Ranger his dog, his Uncle Ed and Ed’s Studebaker. Even if we did not admit it publically; we often were proud of Radar and his baseline down home USA values … and his abiding innocence. So raise your glass of Grape Nehi to Radar and Tiger the Teddy Bear!
Personally I was pleased that his fiancé Linda Sue sent him a Dear John (Radar!) recording from the glass booth at Holzman’s Department Store saying she’s going to marry Elroy Finful instead … she did not deserve Radar!
5. The world anxiously awaits many more men of God in the image of Father Mulcahy
William Christopher’s 1st Lieutenant/Captain Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy was a colossal and spiritually powerful presence; and it was immediately recognized when B.J. said, “You know, Father, the first time I met you, I thought there’s this nice decent guy, kind of sweet and gentle, you know? How’s he ever gonna last out here? I got to tell you, you’re just about the toughest bird I know”.
He was a priest first and foremost; however he did not scuttle away to hide behind the standard “Churchyanity” dogma when confronted by a real world situation. His usually ingenuous advice was usually so simplistically real and honest that you wondered if it came from his intellect or from his compassionate soul. As he said on several occasions, “Look on the bright side: When they tell us to serve our time in Purgatory, we can say, “No thanks, I’ve done mine.”
He also treated his faith in an uncluttered and straightforward manner, “Dear Lord, I know there must be a reason for this, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I’ve devoted my life to it, and now, how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?”
Father Francis Mulcahy often demonstrated that he was far from ignorant of the corporeality of life as illustrated by his sermon on the sanctity of marriage … “The country boy then got mixed up with a young lady who lived in a trailer with three other young ladies and… a man with a whip …”
6. Be careful who you label as nuts: they may be the only sane person around!
Corporal/Sergeant Maxwell Q. Klinger (brilliantly portrayed by Jamie Farr) was very far from mentally troubled in my opinion; he was just really laser-focused on a singular mission and objective; and he explained it very lucidly to whoever would listen. He had just met the M*A*S*H’s new CO when he said “Colonel Potter, sir; Corporal Klinger. I’m section eight, Head to toe. I’m wearing a Warner bra. I like to play with dolls. My last wish is to be buried in my mother’s wedding gown. I’m nuts. I should be out”.
Max Klinger never gave up on his mission; he kept trying … remember the scene where Henry Blake reaches behind his desk for a large file and starts to read through its chronological highlights, “ Father dying last year … Mother dying last year … Mother and father dying … Mother, father, and older sister dying … Mother dying and older sister pregnant … Older sister dying and mother pregnant … Younger sister pregnant and older sister dying … Here’s an oldie but a goodie: Half of the family dying, other half pregnant. No you’re not going back to Toledo!”
Klinger planned in advance, just in case he did get a section 8; “No, sir, television. The wave of the future? Which, thanks to good old Yankee know-how, will mean busted TV sets by the millions. And Max Klinger will be there to reap the whirlwinds of outrageous repair prices”.
Then there is also the delicious irony of Max and his new wife Soon-Lee Hahn staying in Korea after the ceasefire to search for her family.
7. One of the supreme gifts in life is a great wingman!
Hawkeye Pierce was doubly fortunate to have two incredible friends and partners-in-crime in memorable multitudes of side-splittingly funny capers and haunting gut-wrenching and poignant tear-jerking moments.
First there was Wayne Rogers as Captain John Francis Xavier McIntyre (“Trapper”). Urban legend says that his nickname originated from being caught in flagrante delicto with a woman in the lavatory aboard a Boston & Maine Railway train. The woman announced when caught “He trapped me!” The only rather bizarre twist was that Trapper left Korea apparently without making too much of an attempt to find Hawkeye (at the time on R&R in Tokyo) and bid him farewell?
Then there was the all-American, handsome, clean-cut lad from Mill Valley CA, immeasurably honorable, 100% loyal to wife Peggy and astonishingly doting father to daughter Erin, Captain B.J. Hunnicut (so marvelously interpreted by Mike Farrell) … named for his mother Bea Hunnicut and his father Jay Hunnicut.
8. Learn to fear ignorance; or the dangerous creature in the Swamp!
Sharing the “Swamp” with Hawkeye, Trapper and BJ was “Ferret Face” Major Franklin Marion Burns. Frank Burns was the defective yet totally accurate equation for what we must fear in our society; the unthinking, unquestioning unintelligent functioning organism that goes with the ebb and flow and revels in the comforting state of existing as flotsam at the epicenter of mental numbness that never questions the status quo. My sincere appreciation goes to Larry Linville for making Frank and this type of person so real and utterly detestable!
9. You can combine an endearing sweetness and tough old warhorse in one person!
Loretta Swit’s Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan was the living proof thereof over the years of M*A*S*H episodes. She started out as tough as leather regular Army; as hard as any ferocious drill sergeant. We questioned her taste in men; however she put it all in perspective when she said, “Oh, Frank. You’re so above average.” When she had to make the decision to extricate herself from her doomed marriage to Colonel Donald Penobscot she definitely showed signs of almost precarious little-girl susceptibility.
I must have been one of the millions who stood and cheered when she threw a chair at Frank Burns (just missing him unfortunately!) after she overheard him describing her as “an old war-horse and an army mule” to his wife on the telephone.
Her emotionally charged night with Hawkeye out on the frontlines in a hut bracketed by thankfully inaccurate artillery was another sign that she was emerging as a much more gentle and rational person. Her remark to a famous visiting TV reporter also illustrated the more human Margaret, “Don’t mind Pierce and Hunnicut, they’re both first-rate surgeons. Sure, they’ll show up to roll call in their bathrobes. They keep a booze still in their tent. Once they ran all my underwear up the flagpole. But I want you to understand it’s an honor to serve with these men.”
Margaret also started to let her hair down and relax a little; I always remember the “I’m not so think as you drunk I am” remark!
More human and more gentle? Yes! Nevertheless she always retained some of the regular Army attitude. Colonel Potter’s farewell to her reminded us, and her of that, “Goodbye, Margaret. I know you’ve got your career in order, don’t forget to have a happy life, too”.
10. Can you combine massively rich, grandiosely obnoxious with a twinge of humanity? Yes!
David Ogden Stiers made Major Charles Emerson Winchester III magnificently obnoxious. For which I shall be eternally grateful.
My first fond recollection was his remark “…. When Christmas dinner was over we sat before a roaring fire in the east drawing-room sipping 100 year old cognac; and the butler stood ready to serve our every need with a perfectly servile expression beaming from his face”
A lot of his anger was generated from a rude and sudden estrangement from a blissful idyll in Tokyo, as he explained to Colonel Potter, “Know this. You can cut me off from the civilized world. You can incarcerate me with two moronic cellmates. You can torture me with your thrice daily swill, but you cannot break the spirit of a Winchester. My voice shall be heard from this wilderness and I shall be delivered from this fetid and festering sewer.”
His (and my) dislike and wonderfully vivid contempt for Colonel Sam Flagg (Military Intelligence) was so diplomatically explained by the remark, “I knew I had to find his weakness. And I did, right about his neck upwards”. As an aside, someone in the regular writing team must have had a bad experience with Military Intelligence at some stage; why else would you make Flagg such a flagrant idiot?
Charles was also quick at spotting potential in others, “Klinger, with your penchant for scams, I’ve no doubt that in no time at all you will own this country. And, you can have it”.
However, before we developed a liking or tolerance for Charles he always reminded us of his true self, “I’d sooner share my toothbrush with a Democrat”
Yet sprinkled like pixie dust through the tapestry of episodes were those wonderful acts of kindness Charles performed, usually anonymously, for the less fortunate … like the little ones at the local orphanage one Christmas!
I hope you enjoyed this sentimental learning journey … I will use the name of the final episode of M*A*S*H now … “Goodbye, farewell and amen”
I gratefully acknowledge the quote reference and affirmation from the Wikipedia, imdb.com and tvland.com Websites.