Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Champ Clark is a former writer for People Magazine. He currently works as a songwriter, playwright and memoirist in Santa Monica, CA, and is the proud father of a 23-year-old daughter.
Last year I spent Christmas Day alone. For the first time in my 64 years. My ex, who in the past had generously invited me over to her place for the opening of presents around the tree with our young daughter, must have had decided it was time for new Christmas traditions. Because I never heard from her. Besides, our daughter was now an adult. Family was scattered about across the country. I had friends, of course. Good ones. But they all had family and their own holiday traditions of which I was not a part. I understood, but, still, found myself unhappily facing this special holiday completely by myself. And dreading it. Even Whole Foods was going to be closed.
I wake up early these days. Often at 4 a.m. Rather than try and go back to sleep, which doesn’t happen, I just crawl out of bed, make myself coffee and blearily watch the sun rise outside the window of my small Los Angeles apartment. So, last Christmas, I awoke before the light and sat there on my couch, sipping away on burnt coffee. I was already depressed before the day began.
I guess I could have planned to go to church. But I’m not particularly religious. Instead, I turned on the television.
I don’t have cable. I still use rabbit ears to tune into these weird free channels, usually featuring shows such as Starsky and Hutch or infomercials hosted by that actress who starred in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It was going to be a long day.
I switched around. And switched around. On one channel, the Pope was saying Christmas mass at the Vatican. Damn, Rome for Christmas! But, no, I was stuck there on my couch. With not even a chimney for Santa to climb down. The funny thing is, I’d believed in Santa for a long time. Longer than was probably natural. I think I was 12 when that illusion fully came crashing down. Christmas hasn’t been the same since.
Still, this Christmas, I’d made a concerted effort to avoid the inevitable, determined not to fall into a depression. I tuned in holiday music on the radio beginning the day after Thanksgiving. I purchased egg nog…and actually drank it. I sent out Holiday cards for the first time in my life. I wore a red sweater with reindeer on it. I even played Santa…gifting myself with a new guitar. But I’d never wrapped it—that would have been weird--and it sat there unsurprisingly beside the twelve-inch tall Christmas plant I’d purchased and decorated a couple of weeks before the big day. I thought I was ready, even though I felt like the kid who’d peeked at all his presents hidden in the closet and, thus, robbed himself of any Christmas morning surprise.
I switched around some more. When you get to free channel around number 43 or so, things start getting strange. Ag-biz hog and pig reports, championship cricket, even, I remember, an educational show about lip-reading. I continued to click. The battery then ran out on my remote. So, I had to get up off the couch each time to change the channel.
But wait! What…is…this?! Damn, it’s Shirley Temple! On channel 62. Dancing around. Being cheery. Hopeful. Indomitable. Perky!
I stay tuned…and tuned…and tuned. One Shirley Temple movie transitioned into two, into three, into four. It was a Shirley marathon! Before I knew it, the clock showed noon. Wee Willie Winkle…Bright Eyes…Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I popped a bottle of wine, switched on my fake space heater fireplace and ate the whole large can of caramel popcorn my sister had sent to me.
I don’t know if people watch Shirley Temple movies anymore. I’m kind of guessing that the average millennial does not. But, back in the day, everyone did. She was the country’s top box office star. Heck, sunny little Shirley was credited by none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for playing a major role in bringing America through The Great Depression of the 1930s. Roosevelt proclaimed: “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”
Over the course of her film career, Shirley Temple faced down every damn desperate hardship placed in her way during very desperate times. No mother or father…check. Evil head mistress…check. Bleak poverty…check. The grim orphanage…check. But indomitable Shirley always kept it positive—even through the occasional tears. No matter what the odds, she always had animal crackers in her soup, with monkeys and rabbits doing loop the loop. Shirley’s bright smiling dimples were reportedly even insured by Lloyd’s of London. So…I watched. And watched. And I started to feel a little better. I opened up another bottle of wine and then went for the fruitcake that had been re-gifted to me by a work colleague.
As the Christmas day sun started to set, I was inspired to get off the couch and take a shower. Heck, I thought, maybe I’ll even go for a walk. I was feeling that much better. But…wait…what is this? Heidi? Starring Shirley as a Swiss orphan girl who is sent off to live with her crabby white-bearded grandfather somewhere in the Alps. And, boy, is Grandfather mean to Shirley, making her wake up at the crack of dawn to milk the goats and scrub the cooking pots. A crabbier guy you’ve never met. But, see, Shirley secretly had touched the bitter and lonely old man’s heart. A heart just like mine had over time become. And, at the end of the movie, after Shirley is stolen away by Gypsies on Christmas Day, Grandfather, looking just like Kris Kringle, runs wildly through downtown Switzerland shouting “Heidi! Heidi!”, finally revealing his great love for her.
With Shirley and Grandfather finally reunited, I cried. And cried. Tears of Christmas happiness. Because Shirley had touched my heart, too.
And now, another Christmas. In this past year, I’d lost my job. Both my sister and my mother had died. I had multiple unpaid bills. My fantasy to visit Rome to attend Mass with the Pope at St. Peter’s Basilica had to be set aside. No one has yet gifted me with a tin of caramel popcorn. And still no invitation from my ex. Deep depression looms.
But today, I went online and checked the free TV listings. It took a while to find, but there it finally was. December 25…Curly Top…Captain January…Poor Little Rich Girl…Little Miss Broadway…and, thank you, God…Heidi!
This afternoon I went to Whole Foods and bought eggnog. I dug through my closet and found my red reindeer sweater. I purchased another Christmas tree plant and decorated it. I listened to Bing Crosby. I sent out a few Christmas cards, even though they’ll arrive at their destination sometime around New Year’s. I checked the batteries on my remote. And I put on a damn Holiday smile.
So…Merry Christmas, Shirley Temple. I’m ready. And…thank you so very much in advance for getting me through another lonely Christmas day.
I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.
--Shirley Temple Black--
Photo Credit: TCM
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