“Past Tense, Future Imperfect”

21 August 1998
[Victor sizes up yet another competitor.] Written by Rupert Holmes.

Directed by Danny Leiner.
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The episode opens with Victor Comstock finishing his "weekly commentary" on a Friday night. However, he isn't in Washington, he's giving it from WENN. The vague impression I had was that Victor was doing a weekly commentary out of the District of Columbia, perhaps linked nationwide. When this episode opened, I thought that perhaps he had started giving them from WENN, which would be linked to a network feed or something. However, Betty says the "government has Victor sounding the alert up and down the eastern seaboard." So perhaps Victor is giving weekly commentaries from DC and from WENN, along with occasional visits to other stations on the east coast. That might explain how often he's been missing the last few weeks.

Victor's been called to Washington once again, but Betty has anticipated it as well as the train he would need to take. With no dining car on the Pennsylvania Night Owl, she has prepared a ham sandwich with mustard for him. Betty manages to convey her discontent with their near dateless courtship. With food for his belly and food for thought, Victor rushes to catch the train.

Betty and Maple had been discussing America's neutrality before Victor stopped by. (At first glance, it may seem difficult to understand the strength of the isolationism that FDR was trying to overcome. But witness the citizenry's disinterest in foreign policy during recent elections.)

And even some of the brightest who realized war was inevitable did not understand how susceptible America itself was to attack (although of course Hawaii was a territory and not a state).

Isaac Asimov, being born in Russia, was more concerned with the Nazis approaching Moscow. From Section 1, Chapter 29, "Qualifying Examinations" of In Memory Yet Green, The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954:

     "All through November 1941, the Germans had been inching forward here and there on the long Russian front, but nobody was talking blitzkrieg any more. On November 22, the Germans took Rostov at the northeastern tip of the Sea of Azov, and then, on November 29, the Soviet forces recaptured it. It is impossible to describe now what excitement that bare announcement made. In over two years of World War II, the German Army had never once lost a city it had taken, not once. And now they had! It was the first sign that the Germans could not merely be resisted, not merely slowed down, not merely halted, but actually thrown back.
     "And although Germany was still striving toward Moscow and was only forty miles away from that goal, her advance was so slow that it was clear to everyone that the Nazis would have to halt for the winter. Germany would be forced to spend a winter in the Soviet Union with supply lines hundreds of miles long.
     "I sat back to enjoy that winter. As far as I could tell, nothing in world affairs concerned me at that moment but the titanic struggle taking place in the steppes and forests of the land of my birth. In all the excitement over events in the Soviet Union, I scarcely mentioned in my diary the fact that there was in late 1941 a profound diplomatic struggle between Japan and the United States.
     "I didn't for one moment believe that there would be war between the United States and Japan. The United States had to concentrate on Europe and, as for Japan, what could she do? She was stalled in China and helpless. And even if the United States and Japan were to fight a war, it seemed to me that the American Navy could take care of matters in short order--so I paid no attention.
     "[Asimov describes the origin of a short story.]
     "It didn't take me long to write the story, and by early afternoon it was safely done, and I turned on the radio to relax. My father was taking his afternoon nap, but it was alright to listen to the radio (low) while he slept. Unlike my mother, he slept soundly.
     "But you're ahead of me. Just before 3:00 P.M. the music faded and excited voice began to read a news bulletin. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I ran for my father's bedroom. As far as I can remember, I had never deliberately awakened him in the middle of his nap, but I did now.
     " 'Pappa, Pappa!' I shook him, madly.
     "He sat up with a start. 'What's the matter?'
     "I said, 'We're at war. The Japanese have bombed us.'
     "It took him a while to gather it in. Then he turned on the little radio near his bed. He never once complained that he had been awakened."

Victor and Jeff have a different perspective than the others at the station. They have not only been victims of the shelling, but have walked the streets in the heart of the darkness.

A description of the origins of Everybody Comes to Rick's is given by its author, Murray Burnett, in Aljean Harmetz's book, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca - Bogart, Bergman and World War II:

     "Burnett wrote 'Everybody Comes to Rick's' after a trip to Europe in 1938. 'I had inherited $10,000 from an uncle, and it was one of my romantic dreams to go to Europe on a big ocean liner,' he says. 'My wife's family lived in Belgium. I had read headlines about Hitler, but they were meaningless until we got to Antwerp and my wife's family asked us to go to Vienna -- the Anschluss had just happened -- to help other relatives get money out of Austria. At that time Jews could leave if they took no money, nothing. I went to the American consulate to get a visa, and he said, "Mr. Burnett, I don't know why you're going to Vienna and I don't want to know, but I want to warn you that if you get into any trouble in Vienna this government cannot help you." He gave me a small American flag to wear in my lapel, and he said, "You must never go out in the street without wearing this." '
     "What he learned in Vienna, says Burnett more than half a century later, 'was indescribable.' He went to Austria as an American. He came back to America as a Jew. In Vienna, Jews weren't allowed to take taxicabs. When he stepped off the train with his golf clubs, tennis rackets, and American arrogance, Burnett insisted on a taxi. So his wife's relative begged the cab driver. 'I don't speak German, but I'm fluent in obsequious,' says Burnett. They drove past a billboard 'larger than any I have ever seen and on the billboard was a caricature of a Jew, and it said in huge letters, MURDERER, THIEF. And we'd sit in the relatives' apartment and hear the marching feet outside...'
     "In the South of France a few weeks later, Burnett made a nuisance of himself. 'I was screaming, "Do you know what's going on?" ' he says. 'And finally when people saw me coming they walked away.' "

And this is what Victor Comstock, recently returned from Third Reich, is coping with. As country after country falls, he's faced with people who cannot see the need for action but only their own desires.

By this time, it wasn't just a few scientists and science fiction writers who were aware that an atomic bomb could be built. Einstein and other physicists had collaborated on a letter to Roosevelt warning about Germany's likelihood of building an atomic bomb. The time was approaching when people would have to think beyond their personal sphere towards more civic minded pursuits. If only for self-preservation.

But back in late 1941 at radio station WENN, Maple is giving off the idea that she may know more than she lets on, "Sometimes I get the feeling you saw more of Victor when he was dead than you do now." I wonder if Betty told anyone of Victor's "magical" visit to the station.

Victor passes on the new phone number for the Department of War at the five-sided "Pentagram." The Pentagon was designed by George Edwin Bergstrom. Construction began in September, 1941 and was not completely finished until after 16 months of round the clock work.

Maple and Betty continue discussing Victor. As Scott stumbles across a way to eavesdrop, Betty tells Maple how Victor's passions run "towards the abstract...radio, democracy." My problem is that I'm unable to see such ideas as abstract, that is, as separated from concrete reality. I would think WENN's faithful listeners can't see "radio" as an abstract. And I would think that persons residing in a totalitarian society would see real differences should their government change to democratic. I would say that this has hit on one of the things I believe is a difference between me and most people I've known. They make decisions based on what is immediately within their five senses, unable to factor in what could be called "The Big Picture." I, on the other hand, cannot understand how or why that would be done. A large meteor bearing down on my coordinates is set to obliterate me just as much at a distance of 1 mile as it is as at 1 billion miles. But if it is spotted at the farther distance, preventive measures can be made. By taking the big picture into account, I can make decisions more likely to benefit me and others. But I find most people have to hit in the head with a clue-by-four before awareness beyond the immediate seeps in (and sometimes, not even then).

However, such "abstract" thinking is not very helpful when you're lonely for the one you love.

To illustrate how Victor has remained unchanged, Betty relates her first day as a salaried employee of WENN to Maple (and to Scott). The story is told from Betty and filtered through Maple, so we see the station as Maple would see it...hence the new WENN sign above Gertie and not the old one.

In the calendar of the WENNiverse, it is Monday, second of October, 1939.

Victor and Gertie are wrestling over the wording of a letter to one of WENN's creditors. Jeff, Mackie and Hilary are filling "Bedside Manor's" unscripted time with crosswords. Mr. Foley is providing liquidy sound effects (much as he did on "CBS This Morning"). Tom is watching the switchboard for Gertie ("Is there no way out of this?")

After Victor teases Betty with the thought of a normal first day acclimatization, he turns her loose on typing this day's "Hands of Time." Eugenia introduces herself and fills Betty in on the background of the "slice of life" melodrama.

Betty takes her script to Victor to go over it. Betty has provided a workable script in an amazingly short time. However, Victor is ready to mentor Betty in the task of radio narrative. Certainly, her concept of several minutes of radio silence in her previous script indicates a need for knowledge (and her quick reworking of said script demonstrates her ability to learn). I must say, it took me back to academic days when I saw all the markings Victor had put on her script.

Victor dispenses a few rules:

1. Don't leave your radio characters alone too much. They tend to talk to themselves.

2. Better your characters talk to themselves than not talk at all.

3. At all times, monitor how the story dovetails into the very important commercial messages.

4. Balance background information and dialogue in a realistic manner.

5. It's important not to move our cliffhangers too low to the ground.

While illustrating rule number two, Mr. Foley demonstrates why he needed to follow Eugenia's exercise show. Back in 1938, he was so out of shape that simulating a quarter-mile walk on gravel turned him into a perspiration factory.

As part of Betty's description of the events to Maple, she probably mentioned that a picture of a locomotive was on the station manager's wall. I had wondered why the wall hangings had changed when we went from Betty's intro to Maple's perception. But it turns out to be relevant. Victor is obviously interested in trains. When he describes his expectations for teamwork between Betty and himself, he energetically describes it in terms of a train, even down to the bends in the train rails.

Unfortunately, Betty is only a few days from home, unsure what to think of her abilities and what to make of her new acquaintances. At each point in Victor's assessment of her script, she responds extremely. The script can actually be transmitted? It must be great! There are things that could be better? I must resign! Sadly, when Victor says he didn't hire her because she could put out a competent script but instead for her endowed attributes that made her different from the previous male scripters, everything he says afterwards takes on a different meaning for Betty.

Mr. Foley and Eugenia perform "Foley's Fairy Tales, classics from the storybook of sound, told without the assistance of dialogue." Victor watches on, probably concerned that the show is too experimental.

Hilary complains about her final lines in a documentary written by Betty: "From the very bowels and groin of the Earth, the volcano belched the sulfurous phlegm of Hades and the city, yesterday so flushed with excitement and pregnant with hope for the new harvest, now is reduced to ashes and cinders. And now a message from Pedestal Girdles and Bras. Men idolize a woman they've placed on a pedestal."

Mackie and Betty conspire to put off Victor's imaginary advances by pretending to be an item. This seems only to confirm Hilary's suggestion to Victor that Betty is a temptress. (All through this scene, the "ceiling" is once more noticeable. Maybe it's been like this and I just never noticed before.) Mackie and Victor stare at each other. Appraising the competition, perhaps?

Betty gets some advice on writing from Mr. Foley. While demonstrating one of his points, Eugenia overhears and thinks Betty is making a play for Mr. Foley after landing Mackie. "I've always believed that for every woman on this Earth, there's one man. So if Betty Roberts has two men, one of them might have been mine." (Seems to pre-foreshadow Eugenia's admission to Mackie when he asked her to go see Glenn Miller and this season's involvement with Mr. Foley.)

[Rupert is not satisfied with foreshadowing, now he's pre-foreshadowing. <g>]

Hilary, ever protective of her reputation during Jeff's predatory, bachelor days (his bachelorhood known by few), misunderstands Betty and Jeff's conversation where Betty is trying so hard to please Hilary and Jeff is trying...well, he's trying, bursts on them in the studio. Jeff is not nimble enough to avoid the airborne umbrella stand.

Hilary complains to Victor who approaches the matter head-on and direct and the misunderstanding is finally cleared up.

Keep in mind, that the entire flashback is supposedly filtered through Maple's eyes after it's gone through Betty's own perception and memory. As David Lodge's Morris Zapp says, "Every decoding is another encoding."

Victor sees Betty as a pioneer. But Maple thinks Victor should see Betty...more. She emphasizes to Betty that she's alone once more. Leaving Betty with a slight misting of the eyes, Maple leaves and gives Scott a go-ahead. Scott echoes the line from the second episode where Victor and Betty's romantic relationship had it's first rumblings, "Let me walk you to the trolley."

I said late last year that the pendulum would probably start to swing back in Scott's direction and now it seems it's at the midway point between Victor and Scott. I've spent twenty years traveling the world for the Air Force. I've seen marriages having to endure long separations for the "abstract" idea that it is better to stand ready and, by doing so, prevent wars than it is to simply ignore the world until it crashes upon you. Some marriages were by people who knew each other, they knew themselves, they knew their commitment. They knew that true love meant true thinking. They thought and prepared and planned and cared. They were not selfish, nor were they selfless, they were a team.

Many more marriages, alas, did not have the commitment. It is no easy task to manage a household alone and face the lonely nights. Most were not equal to the challenge.

Betty and Victor are just one of the first to face keeping a long distance relationship against the brunt of the Second World War. Soon, the nation will be plagued with such couples as the clarion call is sounded. Shortages, rations and sacrifices will change their day-in, day-out existence. It will affect nearly every waking moment of their day.

Whether Victor and Betty can stand the test as the pendulum swings toward Scott is something only time might tell.

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