Sunday, October 16, 2011

`As Familiar Things Become Surprising'

Seldom does a death out of popular culture touch me or trigger even a momentary lapse into nostalgia. Some writers become friends whose lives and deaths are emotionally freighted, but not singers or actors. What they do gives me pleasure apparently neither deep nor lasting. Don Herbert was different. He was a “television personality,” an actor of sorts, one who mastered the role of teacher/magician. As Mr. Wizard, he performed science experiments with the pacing and payoff of magic tricks, but kept nothing secret. He wanted to teach you the trick so you became the magician. Viewers, in effect, were sorcerer’s apprentices.

His show went on the air in 1951, the year before I was born, so my memories of him pick up in the late nineteen-fifties, the immediate post-Sputnik era when science was patriotic. It was also fun and suggested that things happened for reasons that could be discovered and understood. The world was an orderly, law-driven place as well as a disorderly mess. When I was driving home from work one evening in June 2007, I heard on the radio that Herbert had died and I was unexpectedly saddened. The loss of a real teacher is rare and painful.
A.M. Juster publishes an elegy for Herbert, “Farewell, Mr. Wizard,” in the November issue of First Things:
“I conjure NBC in black-and-white.
You drop dry ice in water; fog is rising.
You sell us Celsius and Fahrenheit. 

“I lose you in a cloud of advertising—
Winston, Esso, Zenith, Mr. Clean,
those thirty-second breaks for Ovaltine—
then smile at Bunsen burners and balloons,
more ropes and pulleys. You are mesmerizing
as familiar things become surprising.
I dream of robots, rayguns, Mars and moons,
and know that someday Chevrolets will fly. 

“POOF! Static. I can’t make your show go on.
Space shuttles fall; the pumps are running dry.
Jihadists shop for warheads…Godspeed, Don.” 

That’s the lasting lesson of a good teacher: “You are mesmerizing / as familiar things become surprising.”

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