Walter Mitty? In Sandpoint?

By Tim Henney
Reader Contributor

The author, during another century, receiving the attention he so richly deserved.

Among the most cherished books in my personal library are those by author/artist/humorist James Thurber, one of the lynchpins of the early New Yorker magazine. His most famous work is a short story, “The Secret Life of  Walter Mitty,” which the magazine published in 1939. If one ignores Hitler’s plunge into Poland to start World War Two, 1939 was a year of epic entertainment and creativity in America. The movies “Gone With The Wind,” “The Wizard Of Oz,” “Of Mice And Men,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Gunga Din,” “Wuthering Heights” and John Wayne’s first  hit, “Stagecoach,” all appeared then. Walter Mitty is a timid little man, the opposite of John Wayne’s heroic movie persona. Mitty leads a mundane life and, while waiting for his wife at a beauty parlor, has a series of heroic daydreams. He is pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a raging storm; he is a famed surgeon performing a first-of-a-kind operation; he is a deadly assassin testifying in a courtroom; he is an RAF pilot volunteering for a secret suicide mission to bomb a Nazi ammo dump. What blatant fabrications! When I read such imaginary ramblings I sometimes wonder why James Thurber is held in such esteem. Why he is ranked among the intellectual giants of American literature. Right up there with, and funnier than, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, Melville, Poe, Salinger, Richard Wright, Wilma Cather, Vonnegut, Whitman, Maya Angelou, Frost, London, Toni Morrison, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and the rest. 

With his minimal line sketchings of intimidating, dominating women and cowering men and dogs, Thurber was unique. But one thing his fellow lilterary greats did not do, to their credit, was this: They didn’t create a mousy little man, then make up a bunch of stuff he imagined he’d done but hadn’t. Walter Mitty, come to think of it, was not unlike John Wayne, every red-blooded he-man’s role model. Like such fellow homebound warhawks as Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and countless other well-connected armchair combatants, “Duke” Wayne zealously dodged military service. He did his part, though, leading courageous attacks against our WW II enemies on film. Moreover, Marion Morrison didn’t know a horse from a giraffe when he left Glendale High to play football at USC in 1925. But, re-badged by Hollywood producers as John Wayne, he became a celluloid hero of the early west — and always on horseback. In real life Duke became a super patriot. He admired infamous Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin and helped fellow actor Ronald Reagan blacklist liberals in show biz. Orange County, Calif., a sunny, grabgrass-free, crowded colony of super patriots, even named its airport after him. But Duke’s finest achievement, some oldtimers say, was a real life, three-year affair with international sex symbol and singer Marlene Dietrich. And an even longer one with actress Maureen O’Hara. Not sure his wives and kids at the time would have agreed, but back in the day one could do worse than Marlene and Maureen.  

But I digress. This is about that other fake hero, Walter Mitty. Why would anyone concoct a story about a diffident, ineffectual little wimp who spends more time in heroic daydreams than in the real world? “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was so empathetic, so enduring, it gave birth to the derivitave “Mittyesque,” meaning one who attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not. I find that disgusting. Why would anyone be so deceitful?  That a fictitious literary character could gain such lasting fame is absurd when there are authentic people right here in Sandpoint who have led lives of heroic leadership and achievement in military service, athletics, academia, business and culture. Yet no mention in The New Yorker — or anywhere else. Not even Facebook. 

It conflicts with my modest nature to say this, but I won the Heisman Trophy as outstanding college running back in the early 1950’s at Stanford while simultaneously preparing at New York’s famed Julliard School for a globally famous career as a giant of opera, the musical theater and film — all performed under pseudonyms, of course. How, one might ask, did I manage? Well, because of an undergraduate straight A average in physics at Princeton, where I also played quarterback, blue-chip corporations flew me back and forth on their Lear jets from NYC’s Lincoln Center, Julliard’s home, to Palo Alto, Stanford’s, in hopes that I might eventually join their employ. (I graduated Princeton in three years, then the Heisman at Stanford). Highly-decorated military service as a young green beret/Navy seal commander in the Korean conflict, and a year at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (and, although it seems boastful to mention, also captain of the cricket team), gave me the polish needed to join the Bell Telephone System. Ma Bell is now defunct, through no fault of mine, but before it vanished I catapulted to CEO of its parent company, the original AT & T, then the world’s biggest corporation. During a sparkling corporate career I owned and fearlessly skippered a 50-foot Hylas center-cockpit sailboat in the San Juans, San Diego and Baja. Often in stormy seas.  

There have been envious snipers along the way who insist that grand boat was never mine but my son’s, who has the same name. They say my sailboats were little ones. Typical noise from envious losers. Pay no attention. These same cynics say I was not sufficiently athletic in the 1950’s to make the fraternity’s flag football team at Long Beach State, let alone win a Heisman at Stanford. They lie. Some jealous jerks say I struggled to earn a BA in journalism 101 from Long Beach State in five years, forget Princeton physics in three. That I was more interested in coeds and piano bars than in becoming a global music phenomenon which, they claim, I never was. Furthermore, they scoff that comparing Princeton to Long Beach State is like comparing Lake Pend Orielle to a mud puddle. Elitists! Fake news. Don’t believe them. Anyway, it’s better to have been a Big Man On Campus in a mud puddle than never to have been one at all. Why these same critics, showing unexpected admiration, credited me with being a ‘stable genius” was always puzzling. 

There are even those who guffaw at the idea that I was repeatedly decorated for bravery as a green beret/Navy seal commander. They chuckle and claim I was an enlisted peasant who edited an Air Force base newspaper and dated Georgia peaches  during the Korean war. They are lying bums. And, believe it or not, they gossip that I was never the CEO of AT & T.  These ignorant prevaricaters claim I was only a crummy corporate journalist, a toady, an Ivy League pretender in Brooks Brothers suit, briefcase and briar pipe from Long Beach State. Phonies mouthing alternative facts. Screw ‘em.

What’s that, you suspect these misinformed detractors are probably correct? Really? What happened to trust? To decency? To civility? To loyalty? To “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours?” 

And where is author James Thurber when I need him?

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