57: The Flight Of Clark Gable’s Mustache


Helicopter seeds have such terrible timing.

In autumn, when trees are shedding their leaves, everyone is looking reverently toward the sky to spectate their rich foliage, behold a symbolic fall. In spring, though, no one is looking for what the trees are getting rid of.

Too bad. Because there are helicopter seeds spiraling in the spring sun like dust, glitter, a wild rainfall of potential growth, not eminent death! Twinkling they fall, and we barely notice, understandably distracted by the roses blooming, the lilacs wafting, the bees buzzing. Helicopter seeds perform an incredible feat, encapsulating a story of nature and survival, but because they make their descent in the spring, they’re not admired the way fall leaves are. It seems they got the wrong time, they’re dropping too soon; or maybe too late, depending on how you look at it.

But! They can fly.

Helicopter seeds can travel up to a mile a day. With some luck and a sturdy ride supplied by nature’s huff and puff, round and round they’ll go in hopes that their once-in-their-lifetime journey plants them somewhere good. Somewhere they can root and grow and eventually produce cute little baby helicopter seeds of their own and maybe, you know, write a book about their hard-won life experiences. (For digital release only, mind you, lest a brethren tree be sacrificed for a print release.)

Usually, though, it’s just sidewalks that end up lousy with ‘em. Here lie a hundred helicopter seeds, doomed to rot, splayed out unceremoniously on the concrete. No, don’t you dare feel bad for them! They chose their path, and they chose poorly.

There’s an easy way to tell what type of tree a helicopter seed originated from: Just compare its shape to a famous mustache. Got that artsy Frank Zappa droop? It’s a Sycamore seedling. Handlebar-of all-handlebars with little tips at the end, a la Wyatt Earp? Hey, hey, that’s a Norway Maple. Does it have short, tidy wings extended into a near straight line like the sexy shadow on Clark Gable’s tough upper lip? Field Maple.

Clark Gable was an Ohio boy. That fact is important to people from Ohio, a state renowned for being flown over; for choosing the wrong answer for all of us in presidential elections; and for not knowing how, exactly, to trade in its worn down Rust Belt for a shiny new one like those of its most successful peers.

When an Ohio kid succeeds to the point that his facial hair is forever referenced by, of all people, horticulturalists, there is hope for the rest of us Ohio kids—no matter how long ago this success happened. Ohio, sea of small-town reds choking a few oases of blue, is breeding ground for dreams thought needed to be achieved elsewhere.

Hello, LeBron James, just a kid from Akron who went searching in Miami. See also: Steven Spielberg, Gloria Steinem, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson. All, just kids from the Buckeye State. (Look ma! Another silly seed.)

My husband and I are both just adults in Chicago who were once kids in Ohio. My husband wanted to become a comedian after listening to George Carlin and Richard Pryor. I wanted to become a writer after reading Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. Clark Gable, lore has it, wanted to become an actor after watching the 1932 movie The Bird of Paradise.

Its real-life female lead and presumed “bird” of paradise was actress Dolores del Rio, née María de los Dolores Asúnsolo López-Negrete. She made a splash that caused a national wave of pearl clutching because she swam nude in one of the movie’s scenes. A moral outrage that seems quaint today, no?

The real ornithological members of the Birds of Paradise tribe live in rainforests and swamps, not Chicago. The birds we mostly see here are pigeons. Brave, jaded, fucked up pigeons. Pigeons who don’t give a shit if that’s a French fry, a helicopter seed, or a used Band-Aid: It’s dinner. Those of us waiting for the train watch their devil-may-care pecking and think about the pure carnage those Band-Aids must be reeking on the poor guy’s tiny intestinal track. We think about this mostly when the train is running behind, our stress levels rising higher than the Hancock.

Birds of Paradise, however, are breathtaking. Scientists recently discovered a new species of The Family Paradisaeidae. National Geographic writes that “to woo a female, this bird flips up his cape, puffs out his chest, and shimmies his little feet.” Shimmies his little feet! Eep! I’m wooed already. But I’m also pretty easy. The lady BOPs are picky, and this newfound bird’s jet, velvet black feathers have some of the darkest pigment in the world so the male’s dressed to impress.

Birds of Paradise were, at one time long ago, thought of as the mythical phoenix, the bird that rises from the ashes. Though, that notion, and the belief in myths in general, dissolved as time passed and the Anthropocene took hold. I think that’s surprising because, though time weathers us, though time atrophies our lives to objects and people until they are the outline of our lives more than our actual selves, what time most makes us hold on to is our beliefs—especially a belief that involves a dream about our own success. The longer we wait for this dream, the less likely we are to let go of it. We’ve invested too much already.

And, not to make you feel bad or anything, but Clark Gable’s dream came true pretty quickly.

When he left Ohio and went to Hollywood, movie makers were looking to grow their “stable of male stars,” and I’ll be damned if CG wasn’t the most handsomest, most thoroughbred of the bunch. And Old Hollywood was not one to look a Gift Horse in the mouth. Unless, of course, it was a Lady Gift Horse, in which case Hollywood deemed itself entitled—nay, required!—to look in her mouth, legs, armpits, breasts, and myriad other unmentionable orifices, just to be sure she was worth the investment. You shall swim naked on screen, my dear! (On the set of one movie, CG worked 71 days and made $120,000. His female co-star worked 125 days and made $25,000. I learned this in a fact book written to sit on the back of a toilet and entertain mid-poop.)

But no, CG was a man. And he was white. And he was a star! One of his earliest-ish Hollywood friends, Lionel Barrymore, even thought so. Yes, fate easily found and befriended him Lionel of the iconic Barrymore Family.

Was it easier for CG to make it because of his timing? Ugh, certainly not entirely, but thinking so offers a great deal of relief to me. It’s easier on a 21st century-dream-ravaged heart to imagine that other people, way back when, were successful not because they had more talent than you do but because they had the time to be successful, granted by way of a series of lucky privileges the time period allowed. Mostly they had good timing.

“Good,” here, I acknowledge with an invisible asterisk; there may have been greater chance to “make it” but there was also a list of seemingly insurmountable challenges, sexism/racism/poverty/state sanctioned violence, no safety net, economic depression, no Halo Top ice cream, and no iPhones with apps to brand your identity and achieve stardom with nothing more than a clever hashtag.

What there was, was war.

Well, there’s war now, but war back then was fought by all Americans, Hollywood’s Fancy Field Maple Clark Gable included. He enlisted to serve in WWII when he was 42 years old, an age at which he was already such a successful star that even Adolf Hitler—cue infamous mustache bell—supposedly offered his most-monstrous of men a reward if they captured CG alive. Presumably to make him dance, gift horse, dance!

During his time at war, Clark Gable flew. He made a recruitment movie for aerial gunners and even rode shotgun in combat zones, though his studio tried to pull strings to get him duties in which he, their big earner, was not in danger of dying a war hero in a plane crash.

He didn’t. But his wife, Carole Lombard, did. An actress, Carole Lombard was the first war-related American female casualty of World War II after she died in a place crash on her way home from a tour selling war bonds. Her plane crashed into an American mountain and it killed all the passengers aboard, which included servicemen as well as Lombard’s mother and press agent, Otto Winkler, who was best man in her wedding to CG.

Clark Gable flew to the crash site to claim their bodies. Wife. Mother-in-law. Best friend. Imagine what that must have been like for him… At my most frustrated, it’s satisfactory for me to assume his life was easy. This sad moment of his life, though (a moment that supposedly broke him and forever changed him, just a kid, just a kid from Ohio), reminds me we’re all suffering like a son of a bitch. It’s just a matter of degrees. Degrees and timing.

The helicopter, machine variety, really came into its own during another war: Vietnam. Here American boys died to prove themselves MEN, an ideal established by CG, who Life magazine once called “all man and then some.” All this in a time when being all man and then some was a pinnacle of success.

Now, it’s an evening decades later (a time when it seems almost beneficial to be a woman/ other sometimes? Are minorities the gift horses now?). My husband and I are leaving our small apartment. We kiss and branch off down our sidewalk in separate directions, two wings of one helicopter that flies better together. I’m heading to a coffee shop to pretend to write for someone who cares. Him, to yet another worthless gig. Is our timing off or are we just not good enough yet? Will we ever be able to achieve our definition of success in the uncertain amount of time we’re given? Does it matter?

It doesn’t. Not yet anyway. We continue spinning, day after day, because it’s all we can think or want to do. We’re just performing the dance nature calls us toward—a longing, a hunger buried deep in our psyches and woven with dirty velvet feathers into our DNA.

We spin over sidewalks and pigeon poop and busted Band-Aids looking for a place to land, and we crunch dying, forgotten helicopter seeds underfoot on our way. I get some satisfaction imagining what we’re shimmying our feet on is really Clark Gable’s stupid, successful, mustachioed, deliciously handsome face.

Still we spin. Ripe and gone with the wind.


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