“Just a minute, just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante building and loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was ... why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what's wrong with that?
“Why ... here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You ... you said ... what'd you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken down that they ... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?
“Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you – a warped, frustrated old man – they're cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you'll ever be.”
This is the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” that turns us to mush. One of several scenes, if we’re overly mushy. Every year at this time, I force myself to watch this Christmas classic film. Force because it’s difficult to watch at times. This film was a family tradition, a tradition among friends. Its message is about my parents, about dear friends, about people I’ve known most of my life, and sometimes about complete strangers. When you arrive at the other side of the movie’s meaning, the mush gives way to understanding. We all need to be reminded that life is a series of relationships, that every connection matters, and without those connections and those people, life would be very different.
Those people – family, friends and strangers – explain how we all arrived at this column at this particular time. For me, it begins with my parents, both gone now. George Bailey and Clarence and Mary and Uncle Billy were part of our Christmas tradition for as long as I can recall. Like many who have been watching this Frank Capra classic annually for decades, my family could recite every line.
When Mom died two years ago, I discovered neatly organized stacks of old RACER magazines in her closet, organized by date, my work noted by yellow Post-Its. It ended where it began, this unusual adventure. My dad’s interest in cars and farm implements and auto racing had launched it, and my mother's careful recording of it is where it arrived, but the journey involved many other people and places and times.
During my freshman year in college, I took a job delivering pizzas. My boss, Bob Givens, was a car nut whose hobby was restoring old Mopars. He loved “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Years later, he was managing an auto parts store when he died, far too young. In his garage was a marvelous 1963 Chrysler Imperial, all chrome and glass and steel, partly restored and mostly covered in primer. He never had a chance to finish it.
While covering Knoxville Raceway in the 1990s, my cohort was Dave Randall, a sports copy editor at The Des Moines Register. Also a car guy, he occasionally drove his ‘69 Chevelle to work, where strangers approached him with ridiculous offers to buy it. (He never sold.) When Dave was in the slot, deciding where stories went in the sports section, how much space they received, etc., I knew racing would get its due. Dave understood his audience. He also knew that, on any given Saturday night during the summer in central Iowa, Knoxville drew the largest crowd.
On those nights, I’d rush back to downtown Des Moines after filing my last story to meet him for a beer. If we had time before last call, we’d shoot pool. One of our Christmas traditions was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He loved Nick the bartender’s line when Clarence the guardian angel tries to order a mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves: “Look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast. And we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere,” was Nick’s response. There isn’t a Christmas that goes by that I don’t miss Dave reciting that line. There’s isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss him, period.
The web of people who helped us arrive at this particular column at this particular time is immensely intricate. There’s Patricia Stohlmann, a high school teacher who realized one of her students was better suited for newspapering than his plan of architecture (she was correct; trigonometry would’ve told him that, as she did, without words); Joe Patrick, then the dean of the school of journalism at Drake University, who asked if I’d like to work part time for The Des Moines Register, which I then did, for 20 years; David Witke, the sports editor who hired me full time with the condition I continue to work toward a degree, which I did; Ralph Speer, the professor at Grand View who helped me attain that degree; John Zimmermann, who hired a freelancer to cover the soon-to-launch Indy Racing League for RACER in 1995; and Ralph Capitani, the Knoxville Raceway promoter who had an uncanny sense of what I needed to do my job and delivered that sense with humor and goodwill.
Lately, though, I’ve experienced that same sense through people I don’t know. As part of a never-ending condo renovation, I contacted a local thrift store recently to donate some belongings. Two men showed up and started moving furniture, including a wooden nightstand. I’d emptied its drawers the night before, but overlooked some items. Shortly after the men left, I heard a knock on the door. They returned a handful of trinkets that had been stuck behind one of the drawers.
Some it belonged to my dad, some to my grandfather. To everyone except me, it was junk. An old lighter, cufflinks, tie tacks, coins and commemorative pins. I hadn’t seen this stuff in decades, but I recognized all of it. Among the items was a money clip engraved on one side with my monogram. On the other were the words “I love you.” It was a gift from my father when I was in my 20s.
No man is a failure who has friends. Sometimes those friends are close. Sometimes they are people we don't know. Always, their effect is immeasurable.