Thursday, February 01, 2007

My Neighbors are Cooler than Yours

When I met Chum and Arnie, they had just moved into our building with their fluffy dog Sadie. Someone else in our buliding thought they were brothers. Please. They are the most adorable gay couple I've met since these two. They are full of stories about their old friends with names like Judy Collins, Mel Brooks and Jessica Lange. At first I thought they were teasing me, but then I saw the wall in their apartment with the photos. They have lived the fullest lives a person can live.

Chum's book, A Life Full of Days is an astonishing read. Ever heard the expression "It's been a day," meant to imply that it has been a highly eventful day? That's the point of the title - a life full of "days."

Chum takes us on the story of his entire life, from his childhood in a wealthy family in a huge house with servants, to marriage, war, scraping by in the 1950's in New York City, and his eventual coming out, and relationship with his partner of nearly half a century, Arnie. Entwined with these stories are some of the most significant portions of twentieth century American history. This places Chum's personal journey in a context that seems to reflect America's coming of age as well.

The most talked-about aspects of the book are about CBS, and all the celebrity shoulders Chum has rubbed. From being a young clerk averting his eyes so as not to hassle Yul Brynner and Marlene Deitrich, to helping Ed Sullivan edit his Elvis Presely segment before it aired, Chum has been behind the scenes of the most formative and innovative years of TV. In addition to working with television legends, he also vividly describes the technical aspects of early TV - giant rolls of film that needed to be bicycled across town, or holding two telephone receivers to your head at the same time for a primitive conference call. Best of all - there are photos!

I found the most gripping portions of this book to be Chum's war stories from the Japanese front of World War Two. Chum served in the Navy, aboard the battleship New Mexico. He lived through exactly the sort of horrors one might imagine (or have seen in the movies) and on more than one occasion, barely escaped with his life.

Chum's treatment of these stories differs greatly from other contemptory tellings of war stories, which seem to be bent on making the reader re-live every horrific, gory moment, focusing more on the nightmarish details of violence than the herosim of the soldiers or strategy of commanders. In his book, Chum describes that world though the mists of 50-year-old memories, providing the distance one needs to be able to understand the events without getting bogged down in the horror of it all. It's an important, no-nonsense, relatively unsentimental look at war, a view that contrasts sharply with the more common in-your-face, battle-centric style of story-telling.

There are also some beautiful moments that, I'm sure, came as much of a surprise to Chum when he lived through them, as they come to the readers:
For the first time in many, many months, I experienced something that was totally unrelated to war and hatred and fear and death. It was peaceful and loving, and there was a mutual understanding between two people who were loyal and trusted sailors, dedicated to their duty, but who held a secret passion in their hearts.

Wrapped around the story of this man's life is a snug blanket of faith in God, which I feel sets this book apart from many others of it's kind. Raised in a wealthy Catholic family, Chum's struggles with religion and it's framing of faith are also familiar stories to many of us, and hearing it from this boy who was "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" gives the story a different perspective than, say, Frank McCourt's religious back-and-forth in Angela's Ashes. Toss into this mix the fact that Chum's partner is Jewish. There are brilliant stories of Arnie receiving communion from Mother Teresa, and Chum being temporarily "adpoted" by a Jewish family so he could join a Passover Seder during a trip to Israel.

Chum was heavily involved in "network religious programming" at CBS, and has the Emmy to show for it. He talks about feeling blessed, and about the role that God has played in his life, and reading his words, you feel the reverence there. We all should have this in our lives, in whatever fashion nurtures us most, just as we should all have a fulfilling career, and a loving companion. I'd describe this book using the same words used to describe his television shows: Inspirational.

Check it out at

1 comment:

Jess said...

I haven't read the book, but, based on the first paragraph of this post, I feel certain that these guys must be pretty darn adorable. ;)

And hey, someone changed the name of your blog! :)