Diane and I just finished watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It is certainly one of our Christmas traditions each year, as it is with a lot of people, I am sure.
We take it a bit further in our house than most. There are IAWL ornaments on the tree, some glass balls, some ceramic with scenes and lines from the movie. Some are small houses and buildings from the movie with a hole in the bottom to allow for a light.
In my office I have the Bedford Falls Village on display. There are twenty one buildings set up on three shelves. Along with the buildings are the other things you would find in a Christmas village, including cars, figures, street lights, trees and a train. I pay careful attention to which buildings, such as Gower’s Drug Store, Anderson’s Department Store (the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan is located upstairs) the Bedford Falls Bank, City Hall belong next to each other as seen in the movie itself. It is a rather elaborate display.
I have read the original script for the movie. I have a number of books that relate behind the scenes stories and anecdotes about the making of the movie. One of those books is a coffee table book and one is on my e-reader. I have an autographed picture of the closing scene of the movie. It is signed by Karolyn Grimes, who played George and Mary’s daughter ZuZu.
I have watched the movie some two hundred times. I have watched a number of colorized versions on You Tube. I know each and every line by heart. I can watch the whole film in my head. It still chokes me up. I still can’t stand the scene where George loses it with his family after Uncle Billy loses 100,546.67 dollars (8000 dollars in 1945.) Let us give ole Billy a little lee way and say it was almost the year 1946. He still lost the equivalent of 92, 812.31 in today’s dollars. No wonder poor George freaked out and kicked over the bridges and buildings he had built. Those scale models represented all his hopes and dreams. He knew that the life he wanted was never going to happen.
At that moment, George frightened his family and he became a walking dead man or so he thought. He believed he was worth more dead than alive.
I understand why and how he came to feel that way.
One Christmas some years back Diane and I threw a fancy “It’s a Wonderful Life” party for some close friends from our church that included a formal dinner. I sent out invitations with pictures from the movie. We came up with a printed menu with dishes like “Uncle Billy’s famous New England Clam Chowder” and “Mary Bailey’s Grilled Chicken with Mango Salsa” served with “Mom Bailey’s Sugar Snap Peas steamed in Balsamic Vinegar with Walnuts”. There was New York Seltzer and Cheese Cake for dessert. The table was decorated with little red plastic bells and fresh red rose petals. Some of our friends had never seen the movie (a shock to me) and they did not realize the meaning of the bells or the petals. They soon found out, but first I wanted them to know why the movie means so much to me.
I told them the movie had saved my life.
It happened twenty years ago now. I was finishing up my second year of being chronically unemployed. I had gotten fired from a job I loved ten years earlier, (that is a possible story for another day…..I will tell you this; I didn't deserve to loose that job and the ambitions of a man who wanted to be president of the United States had a lot do with it ending.) I had started a business that failed after forty two months. That failure was directly connected with the murder of my best friend who worked with me. I went to work for the people who bought my failed business but that didn’t work out either. I went to work for AT&T and lost that job a year later. I got a job that I thought would last with the local PBS station that I had worked for once before years earlier, but they had to lay me off due to state funding cutbacks. That happened in November of 1990. It was the last straw so to speak.
So in March of 1991 at the end of a very bleak winter and with what looked like a very bleaker future, I found myself thinking the whole previous ten years had been a waste. I was a failure. No one would hire me because they didn’t think a man who had owned his own business would want to work for someone else. That is true if you have a choice. I didn’t think I had one. I sent out two hundred resumes because I thought I had to work for someone else or else I and my family would starve and I was extremely tired of being told I was over qualified for the positions I applied for.
I did manage to find some temporary jobs. I installed microwaves for a military sub contractor. I helped install MRIs for a medical company. Diane demonstrated products at the local supermarkets. She was a gray apron lady which required her to hand out coupons and fry sausage samples. We subsidized our empty pantry from our church’s food bank. My kids qualified for reduced price lunches at school, well because we were flat broke. I refused for the longest time to apply for unemployment because I thought it the surest sign that I was out of hope. I finally did apply and received two measly checks before I went back to full time work.
However something else happened in between. I could not make myself continue to look for a job. I did have a friend in the phone business offer me a straight commission position with a draw. I could not accept that. The economy was not in good shape and neither was the company making me the offer. They were just being nice to an old friend with a shared common interest, that being phone systems.
I was miserable, lost and really didn’t care to live anymore. I didn't know how far down a dark road those feelings would take me, but it was far enough to worry my wife and kids.
Diane started a prayer chain with the hope that if enough prayers were made my situation would change. The situation did change, but first I had to have a change of heart.
One day I was home by myself. It was early in the morning. Diane was at our church where she was a part time secretary to the pastor as well as the church bookkeeper. I finished cleaning up around the house and decided that I wanted to watch a movie. I opened the cabinet where we stored all our tapes and an old cheap copy of It’s a Wonderful Life fell out onto the floor. I thought to myself why not?
I put it in the VCR, sat on the floor with my back to the couch and proceeded to watch this old chestnut of a film for the umpteenth time on our thirteen inch television.
Obviously I had a different viewpoint this time.
Like George Bailey I was angry at my situation. I was depressed and felt that there was no hope. When George started yelling at his family something started to break in me. When he was in the bar praying I started to cry. When Clarence rescued him, I told myself it was only a movie but I hit rewind and watched it again, and I cried again.
I sat there on the floor and viewed that movie four times. By the end of the forth time it finally sank in. Life was not as bad as I thought it was. I had friends, great kids and a loving wife. I didn’t think a bunch of people would show up at my door with gobs of money but I knew that all was not lost.
Frank Capra and his cast helped me realize that I did have a wonderful life, and with the right attitude, some help from above, and with a lot of hard work, I could turn things around.
I started my business a week later.
I turned things around. It did take a lot of prayer, help from friends and family, a lot of hard work and we did receive a lot of help from above. There have been setbacks since then. Some have put me down, but not out and that is because I know that I have friends, most of whom drive a Motor Coach. Those friends make me remember that I am not a failure and I do have a very wonderful life.
It is a Wonderful Life!
And I hope that every one who reads this has a Very Merry Christmas!