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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The West Wing and Big Bruiser

BOSTON, Mass - It was Christmas morning and I was a young child hoping Santa had come to visit my house in suburban Long Island. I awoke, hoping he'd somehow found the divine "intel" that I wanted a truck called "Big Bruiser."

Big Bruiser was the greatest truck ever made.  It was a very large, battery-operated tow truck that had a flashing red light atop its cabin. The light was brighter than the North Star and, to a little kid, it was a beacon for imagination and fun. On Christmas morning, it must have been '64 or '65, just hours after I'd gone to sleep in my upstairs bedroom with not a scent of a Christmas tree anywhere to be found, not a sign of presents, decorations, lights nor tinsel nor and trace of the 6 x 4 floor board for the action-packed village complete with working Lionel (then eventually 87:1 model HO trains), nor scores of other wonderful surprises for everyone in my family, and I awoke to see the glimmer of ornaments reflecting off the large (old=style) lights, Santa had left "Big Bruiser" under my tree.

It was the greatest present EVER!

My older brother had been fighting serious battle against asthma and he was hospitalized in Wallingford, Connecticut - a good 2-3 hours from our home. He was at Gaylord Rehabilitation Center in the care of some great doctors and only a few minutes away from, Lake Compounce Amusement Park - where we'd been treated to summertime outings, not far from the Bristol, CT campus of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network that sank its first shovel into the ground to raise a satellite dish to conquer the world of sports.

It's now family lore, but the youngster I write of, packed up his stuff, and one present - Big Bruiser, of course -- and our family packed up the gifts Santa had left under the tree for Tommy, then we all jumped into an old Ford station wagon and dutifully headed north on I95 to the Connecticut hospital.  My brother felt pretty good that day, as I recall, so we went to some large auditorium on the grounds with one thing in mind.

We could turn Big Bruiser loose and the truck could drive a full 50-75 yards on empty wood-flooring in a dimly lit room. The red emergency light shined brightly and the smiles of two children glowed in the dark. It was the best Christmas present ever and the youngster somehow decided that Big Bruiser should have a home in my older brother's hospital room that night and for an unknown number of nights ahead, for he knew Big Bruiser would make his brother happier and that they all would be reunited at home another day. All would be fine on Stonecutter Road.

Indeed, it was.

But this column is not about Bir Bruiser and it might not even be about the present that made Big Bruiser my second favorite Christmas present of all-time.

Just days ago, on Christmas Day 2012, Santa stopped in while touring the Greater Boston area and handed off a gift that my wife and kids placed under our tree, which glows brightly in a picture window where snowfall covers a quaint New England town.  Santa, Clare and the kids wrapped up the "Complete DVD collection of The West Wing - the greatest television series in history, created and written by a genius named Aaron Sorkin, and they left it under my tre.

Unlike Christmas of '64 or '65, I couldn't play with this present on Christmas Day or Christmas night. In fact, we just found time to rip open the box this morning and we watched the first three episodes.  It was amazing how much I'd forgotten.

In The West Wing, Sorkin taught a generation of writers, film producers, TV industry execs and a legion of viewers about the importance of character development which, to me, is the single greatest responsibility of a writer trying to tell a good story and entertain the masses. That is not a breaking news bulletin, but somehow, it's all too often overlooked in this "Dancing with the Stars" reality world in which we live. That's a crying shame.

So, we loaded in the DVD and hit "Play All" on the menu and the epic began, just like it was brand new.

The best gifts are ones that the receiver would never, ever buy for himself or herself. That is the Complete set of West Wing. That was Big Bruiser. I guess, the West Wing collection is a toy for a grown-up while Big Bruiser brought joy to youth. I must surmise, the world of entertainment has become the biggest part of my life but pro sports was the genre for me.  My Christmas' past were on Larry, on Magic, on Michael, or Mullin. On Kareem, Doc, and Worthy, on Dumars and Duncan on Drexler, Barkley and Norm Nixon.

DreamWeaver #1-- Dr. King, Jr.
But, my dreams now are to one day saddle up with the likes of Aaron Sorkin and create magic. I dream to make a movie, called "COVERT," or maybe to sweep the floors of Sorkin's office and just soak in the genius as he writes and writes and writes.  He'll soon be working the magic for the second season of "Newsroom," and I just can't wait.

In the last few hours, as I enjoyed the first three episodes with a watchful eye on JUST how Sorkin introduced and developed each and every character, a few things struck me as incredibly important. They are:

1. TIMING: It took quite a while before we were introduced to President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen). The characters of every working member of the Barlett Administration West Wing were introduced to the viewer in a methodical, rapid-paced, can you possibly keep up with the dialog manner - a Sorkin trademark, we all know. But, apparently, the original idea was to have Sheen in a minor role, not the focal point of the entire series. I'll need to watch some of the vaunted "added material" in the set to learn more of the behind-the-scenes history as, quite frankly, I've never researched any of it.  I've only been a typical fan, sitting and watching the episodes - but never like this! Never "one at a time" and in order. (When the show aired, I had no chance to be in front of a TV screen and didn't have a Tivo/DVR - (maybe because they hadn't been invented) and like many, I was too lazy or technically inept to set the VCR properly.

2. EQUAL OPPORTUNITY and a WIDE RANGING CAST of CHARACTERS: There is no ranking of preference nor favorites among the characters or Sorkin's method of introducing the characters.  It was all great and we all found no fewer that 1 or 2 cast mmembers we could relate with in West Wing.

3. FOR INSTANCE: When the character "Charlie Young" was introduced, viewers first met Dule Hill as a nervous, young job applicant who was hoping for a job as a messenger but, due to the talents and instinct of a White House HR person, our "Charlie" was bumped up from being a potential messenger to meet the senior staff and be considered for the important but thankless job of being the "Bodyman to the POTUS" - aka, the Personal Assistant to the President of the United States of America. The introduction of Dule Hill to the viewers by Sorkin was powerful.

You see, in the script, the bright, Georgetown soph, Charlie, was taking a year off from college in order to take care of his high school-aged sister soon after their single Mom, a DC police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty. He was interviewing and he thought he was going to be a messenger but was introduced to the POTUS during a hectic scene where Bartlett was about the address the nation on TV. In the story, Brtlett was informing the nation of a military response taken to fight terrorists who downed an American Air Force plane near Damascus, Syria and we learned during that conflict, the POTUS' personal/military doctor - the father of a 10-day old daughter - was killed.

The scene is tremendous but during the commotion and Charlie's introduction to the Commander in Chief, Bartlett exclaims to anyone listening in a crowded room, "I don't have time to meet new people now."

It was a show-stopper of a line. It was real, it was astonishing and it built Sheen's character and displayed his presence of mind at the time. Only minutes later, his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by the late John Spencer), took the President aside to advise him and bring him down to earth.

Anyway, its was during that one-on-one break where McGarry brought some time, levity and sense of calmness to his boss, Barlett was smart enough to realize he had just offended some poor kid who he didn't even know.  After some general laughing and banter, the President asked friend, Leo, his friend of 40+ years, about Charlie. "So what's his story," said Bartlett who was briefed and later asked Charlie to step inside to Leo's office.

It was there where he explained to Charlie that in the last few minutes, he had the FBI and Secret Service brief him on the circumstances behind the murder of Charlie's Mom and he learned that the bullets used by the criminal were "Cop Killer" bullets. "When Congress returns, we're going to try to get those bullets off the street," said Sheen to Hill. "Do you want to come help us?"

Classic Sorkin.

The use of the word "us" rather than "me" was artful and telling and it made you relate, understand and love the character - the President.

Sadly, the storyline on gun control rings loudly, still today.

In 2013, cops are dying, people are dying and 20 beautiful six and seven-year old children are dead. The weapons of mass destruction remain on the streets and the ammunition that fuels them is readily available, yet we do nothing about it.

The West Wing aired from 1999 to 2006 and it is without a doubt the best television drama in history. It was syndicated all over the world from Burbank to Brisbane.  It was hard hitting, it addressed real issues while formulating a story. The gift of the series DVD set is my favorite gift of all-time, somehow becoming more important to me and vaulting was ahead of "Big Bruiser."

The present came wrapped up, yet, the issues raised in the episode after episode - all in the box - remain the same. People are dying. The guns and the ammo are on the street.  We lost 20 little children and nobody is screaming - bloody murder - from the mountain tops.

Think about that today, and maybe, just maybe, if we all think hard, the people, our lawmakers and lobbyists of this great country, will work together and tie a bow around some new, common sense laws or another amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would be a present under my tree, placed there well before December 25, 2013. I'd like "The Complete DVD set of The West Wing" and "Big Bruiser" to be in second and third place, respectively.

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