Nov. 30, 2008 -- Some nations demand military service from their young citizens. Others expect their 20-somethings to care for their elders. While all of this is perfectly noble, I'd argue that every young American should be conscripted to wait tables at least once in their lives. Hindus believe that the more you serve others in this life, the better off you'll be in the next, but karma aside, you learn a lot about human nature from the business end of a wine opener.
When we decided to take turns giving thanks this holiday week, a flood of possibilities came to mind: Friends and family, teachers and mentors, unknown soldiers, cops and the stranger who provided roadside triage on my old Jeep, noticed my college-aged desperation and refused payment.
But for some reason, one familiar face emerged.
You remember his deep laugh from 30 years on the Tonight Show couch or his giant Publisher's Clearing House checks. But I remember him as the kindest regular I ever served.
It was the late 1980's, and I was punk student schlepping trays of blackened salmon at the Polo Room inside the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Since most horse-loving celebrities used their stables and the weekend polo matches were a place to "see-and-be-seen," I got to wait on a cavalcade of bold-faced names. When you're 19 and Dan Ackroyd comes to brunch wearing shorts and brown wing-tips, you remember. I remember when Mr. T ordered every cold bottle of Dom Perignon in the house, when Billy Idol signed his American Express slip as "William Broad" and when one TV megastar yelled at me for not bringing his hot tea fast enough.
It was no surprise that some of these larger-than-life characters were a bit hard on the help. But Ed McMahon was different. He always remembered my name and seemed genuinely interested in my studies and aspirations. They were passing moments for him, I'm sure, but the sort that leaves a deep impression on a kid obsessed with late-night television. When I heard about his recent financial and health struggles, I considered sending a note of thanks and encouragement but the impulse ended up on the pile of good intentions never fulfilled. Weekend Good Morning America gave me another shot.
Walking back into the Polo Room after 20 years was more surreal than I could have imagined (why do physical spaces always seem smaller than our memories?). And there was Ed, standing straight as a soldier, saying hello in the familiar baritone. Physically, the 85-year-old is still a bit stiff from last year's broken neck. But his timing and sense of humor are spot-on. "If anybody says, do you want to break your neck, or do you want to do something else?" he says, "Always pick something else."
It has been a few months since Ed and his wife, Pamela, told Larry King that they were in dire financial straights and facing foreclosure on their home, but he brushes off questions about those issues with cheery aplomb. "I'm rolling along. You know, I, I always wear this right here," he says, pointing to a U.S. Marine Corps flag pinned to his lapel. "The, the old Marine, you know...the Marine will get it done. I've had two wars in my life, I flew 85 combat missions, I've done a lot of things. If you've landed on a carrier, believe me, you could do a lot of things in your life."
That's right, eighty-five combat missions. He trained fighter pilots in World War Two and then flew spotter aircraft over the front lines of Korea. He retired as a Colonel before being commissioned as a Brigadier General in the California Air National Guard; Yet another reason to appreciate the man.
I came hoping to get a few showbiz anecdotes, and he didn't disappoint. His eyes light up as he describes parties at Cary Grant's house, or the first time he worked with Johnny Carson, on a 1950's game show called "Who Do You Trust."
"We're in the Little Theater on 44th Street and Broadway, just right next to Sardi's Restaurant, which happened to be a nice place to be next to. Now I'm a little nervous. I'm standing here, Johnny Carson's over there. And I've got a script with all the sponsors' names. 'Swanson cake mixes, a cake mix you can trust!'" he says in that trademark announcer voice. "Okay, here I am. I've got six of those, right? You start out, you know, 'Welcome to Who Do You Trust starring Johnny Carson! Brought to you by...' and you're doing your routine, right? I'm halfway down the list of things. No one can see me at home but the audience in the theater can. (Johnny) comes over and sets fire to the script. It was the first day we worked together. That will, that will tell you where you're heading for the next 34 years."
"Thank you, Ed," I tell him. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate you. All those nights when I begged to stay up late to watch you and Mr.. Carson. And I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kindness to me as a waiter at the Polo Room." He smiles. "It takes a lot more time to NOT be nice than to be nice," he says. "It's so easy and it's wonderful and it brought us together."
Words to live by, America. Now get out there and tip 20 percent.