Remembering Buster Keaton, with Love and Gratitude
Squonk. Squonk. Squonk. The walk to school from my house was five blocks long, and my crepe-soled shoes squeaked more slowly with each passing street. Squonk. Squonk. Stop. Squonk. Stop again. Root around in my bookbag. Maybe I forgot something. Maybe I should go home.
When I was in the third grade, I developed a duodenal ulcer. Not a typical ailment for an 8-year-old, but then my home life wasn’t typical. And all the fear and misery literally ate away at me.
I would miss days, sometimes weeks of school at a time, from sheer pain or from being queasy and dizzy and off-balance, the side effects of my big orange pills. Returning to the classroom, I was always terrified of not being able to catch up, of being made fun of and even left back. I’d slink into my seat, unbundle my pencils and books, and rifle through my reader to find the page we were up to. And if things got really bad, I’d put my hand under the desk, clench my fist hard and hang on.
And that’s what got me through. Holding Buster Keaton’s hand.
I found my gallant friend and protector on late-night television. When I couldn’t sleep, which was often, I’d clamber into the living room, and my Dad would let me sit up and watch old movies with him, knowing I’d just be tossing and turning and worrying if I stayed in bed. (And ulcers hurt more when you lie down.)
The first time I saw Buster Keaton, he was running—still, all these years later, one of my favorite sights in the whole world. I’ve seen him run so many times since—from cops, from bullies, from boulders, from brides—that I don’t even remember what that first movie was. Just that he was beautiful and strong and free, and wherever he was going, I wanted him to take me with him.
When he finally stood still, I just gazed at his face. And well, I don’t have to tell you.
From my first glimpse of him, I’d wait for the TV Guide every week and pore through the listings. Sometimes he’d pop up on public television, sometimes on The CBS Late Show, sometimes on the Saturday morning movie on Channel 5. And always in the film books my Dad then bought for me, so I could see him whenever I needed to.
Up on the TV screen, Buster was usually in some kind trouble, but doing his best to hide it. And not in a maudlin “No, no, don’t worry about me, I’m <sniff> fine!” kind of way, but in an honest and noble way. Watching Buster hurtle down hills, gasp through rapids and narrowly dodge falling houses, you never really knew if everything was going to be okay, which felt real to me. I mean you kinda knew, because these were comedies, but nothing in his face or demeanor ever gave it away. And not because he was a “stoneface.” (Good God, who ever came up with that?) While his face was incredibly expressive, he never buddied up to the camera to wink at you that everything would be alright in the end.
But what you did know—what you always knew—was that he would never let you down.
Even if your family was crazy…
…Or you weren’t much practical help around the house…
…Or much help, well, kinda anywhere.
To be with Buster was to be safe.
And he would do whatever it took to keep you safe.
Even now, decades later, I get a little “Ooh!” when I see Buster listed on TV somewhere. I’ve got all the DVDs, but there’s something about seeing him show up out of the blue that still fills me with so much joy I need to sit down. And so I do, and I watch him again. I see his breathtaking leaps of faith off cliffs and rooftops, which made me soar above my own somewhat broken body. I see his resilience in the face of whatever was thrown at him, which helped me to hang on. And I see his heart, which mine so depended on. I’ll never not be thrilled to see him, and I’ll never stop being grateful to him.
Thank you for staying with me, Buster. Thank you for everything.