Close encounter with an cultural icon

20 Dec

Last week, with our youngest son, the inveterate traveler stopping home on his way to Ethiopia from Chicago (don’t ask!), we went to dinner at a local Thai restaurant.  We hadn’t paid the other tables any attention when we first passed by to our own, tucked in a dim corner. As we ate, however, snippets of conversation from the table just behind me started to waft toward us.

As the people at that table paid their bill, we couldn’t help but hear a gentleman effusively thanking our server for a warm, perfect, delicious evening. In the pauses of our own table talk, I hear the server say “Could I get my boss? I know he’ll really want to meet you.” “Smart woman”, I think to myself at that moment– “She wants the owner to hear from a happy customer. She wants a raise!” I also pick up the term “brothers” in the conversation. Not wanting to be rude, however, I don’t turn around though I’m very curious. And after another twenty minutes of genial conversation between the owner, the server, and our table neighbors, we learn that Tom Smothers has been sitting right behind us, here in Eugene Oregon: the prickly Tom Smothers of that radical (in my young veteran father’s opinion!) “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” television show, back in the late 1960s; the hip Tom Smothers with the variety show that was censored and finally cancelled by CBS for its cutting satire of the Vietnam War, racism, and the President of the United States.  After posing for pictures out of our view, Tom Smothers and his party depart. “Who is that?”, our worldly son asks.

Who is Tom Smothers? A cultural icon that everyone once recognized, I want to shout. A reminder of how censorship and money insidiously shaped media, reputations and free speech. A voice of protest from another era, the pre-information age, the pre-internet days.

I’m glad for the conversation his presence launched. How different are things today? We may not have the external censorship that existed a generation ago. However, with all the information channels we have now, we’re in danger of self-censorship, leading to the same results of an artificially narrowed world view. This is because it’s so easy now to cull through and pay attention only to what reflects what we already believe and who we already trust. Unchecked, that’s dangerous.

Whether you’ve heard of him or not, agreed with him or not, Tom Smothers took unpopular public stands for what he believed in, and it’s good to be reminded that he’s a regular guy who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. It’s also good to surprise a grown child with an interesting snippet of history. But I wish I had been a little impolite and said hello!