“Mrs. Sandoval,” Homer said swiftly, “your son is dead. Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t your son. Maybe it was somebody else. The telegram says it was Juan Domingo. But maybe the telegram is wrong.”
I could relate to Mickey Rooney’s playing the compassionate telegraph delivery boy, Homer Macauley, in the 1943 film “The Human Comedy,” based on a story by William Saroyan.
I don’t remember the first time I saw it because I was too young. But I saw it again at the end of the Second World War, and it was etched into my memory.
It was a time when a Gold Star in a front window indicating the loss of a son was not an uncommon sight along residential streets. There were a lot more Blue Stars representing a son or daughter serving in America’s armed forces. But the Gold Stars made me want to cry. I had friends who had lost a father, older brother or uncle.
When we drove through Fresno on our way to Yosemite, I asked “if this was Ithaca,” where Rooney’s character delivered telegrams in “The Human Comedy.”
That’s when I began to appreciate Saroyan’s ability to describe the meaning of birth, life, love and death within the context of a very real place, the San Joaquin Valley.
In 1950, Mrs. Seibs, the Lynwood, Calif., librarian, refused to let me check out a copy of Saroyan’s 1934 collection, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories.” She said I was “too young for such things” and called my parents. My mother, who loved Saroyan, overrode Mrs. Seibs’ well-intentioned censorship.
Through reading Saroyan, the son of Armenian immigrants, I came to understand the deep tragedy of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turkish army beginning in 1915.
I loved stopping by some of the old Armenian restaurants near downtown Fresno just to see the faces and hear the voices of a refugee people who had remade their lives in California.
I met Saroyan at a talk he gave at UC Berkeley in 1961. Along with a dozen or so other students, I followed him off campus. When we got to Bancroft Avenue, a busy street, a young man walking while reading a book nearly caused an accident. Saroyan said, “That boy reminds me of how I was at his age.”
We all knew that Saroyan didn’t always live in the real world. He had gambled and drunk his way through millions of dollars in royalties. He even sold the Oscar that he won for the film “The Human Comedy.”
Saroyan’s friend, Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, led an effort to purchase the gold statue and restore it to the Saroyan family in 1991, 10 years after Saroyan died.
I still turn to Saroyan for a unique point of view. As Liz and I plan a road trip, I am rereading Saroyan’s 1966 book “Short Drive, Sweet Chariot,” where, in 1963, the author drove a 1941 Lincoln limousine cross-country from New York.
Life’s really important details are Saroyan’s greatest strength. The advice given to Homer Macauley on dealing with his father’s, and ultimately his brother Marcus’, death is powerful:
“Death is not an easy thing for anyone to understand, least of all a child, but every life shall one day end. But as long as we are alive, as long as we are together, as long as two of us are left, and remember him, nothing in the world can take him from us. His body can be taken, but not him. You shall know your father better as you grow and know yourself better. He is not dead, because you are alive.
“Time and accident, illness and weariness took his body, but already you have given it back to him, younger and more eager than ever. I don’t expect you to understand anything I’m telling you. But I know you will remember this — that nothing good ever ends. If it did, there would be no people in the world — no life at all, anywhere. And the world is full of people and full of wonderful life.”
Sunday, Aug. 31, is William Saroyan Day in California in recognition of the anniversary of his birth and his role as one of the most prominent literary figures of the mid-20th century. The honor is thanks to a legislative bill introduced by Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and Adrin Nazarian, D-Sherman Oaks.
Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association