“In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”
– The Big Chill (1983)
Last November, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, a group of our oldest and dearest friends gathered for a “Big Chill Weekend” at a rustic cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park, near Davis, West Virginia. In years past we would gather regularly at one of the state parks in West Virginia, but as we have grown older, with mounting family and professional responsibilities, these have become less frequent. We have missed them and decided it was time to gather around the fires more often.
This past weekend we convened once again, this time at Cacapon State Park near Berkeley Springs, in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. It was a beautiful, late winter weekend with the temperatures creeping through the 60s into the low 70s, both at home in the environs of Washington, DC, and along the eastern Allegheny ridge lines at the northern terminus of the Shenandoah Valley. Having endured the first surreal month of the new regime in Washington (I find it difficult to call it an administration or government since no perceptible administering or governing has taken place), all of us were more than happy to find an excuse to get the hell out of Dodge for the long Presidents Day holiday weekend. The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake.
Over the years we have escaped to the rural hinterlands within a reasonable day’s drive from our homes. Sometimes it was just an escape for a long weekend. Other times the gatherings, although happy and festive on the surface, have been tinged with anger and disappointment. Once we gathered in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware - a Blue State - to escape DC during Dubya’s second inauguration, in January 2005. Our gathering in West Virginia - a Red State - last November came just days after the conclusion of the most vicious national election in my memory, marked by the electoral “victory” for DJT and his minions despite the fact he lost the popular election by a few million votes (a fact which he still denies without reason or support). We all said we would not talk about the election, yet but how was this possible? We had all just observed a fundamental shift in the political, if not the cultural, fabric of our nation, not to mention its quick slippage into corporate fascism at the highest levels of government. How could we ignore the fact that the President-Elect was endorsed and applauded by the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi National Policy Institute, along with other white supremacist and nativist cliques. This alone was sobering, if not frightening in the extreme. So we enjoyed our fires, our hikes, our books and puzzles, and our communal food and drink, as best we could. Still, it was hard to ignore an enervating penumbra settling upon the American grain not to mention our own personal lives.
I hate to report that what we feared last November has been visited on us multi-fold since that most outlandish inaugural event just a month ago. I won’t even begin to tick off the litany of bizarre statements and events that have been the benchmark of the last four, long weeks. So once again we set off to distance ourselves from the craziness that is Washington these days. What better time for another “Big Chill Weekend?”
You may recall Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill starting Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, and Mary Kay Place. Gary Susman, writing in 2013 to mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, claimed that it “touched a huge raw nerve in the culture and became an enormous mainstream hit as a result”. They cast is a group of seven former college friends, now in their 30s, who attended the University of Michigan during the heyday of the radical student protests against the Vietnam War. Some have become pillars of the establishment they once railed against. They have gathered at the vacation home of one of their number in the South Carolina’s Low Country to attend the funeral of another who had committed suicide. Add to their ranks Meg Tilly, the young girlfriend of their deceased friend played by Kevin Costner . . . cut from the film and uncredited; we see only his sutured wrists as the undertaker dresses him for burial. “Amazing tradition,” the Jeff Goldblum character offers. “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.”
Since their days as young student revolutionaries, some have married and grown into responsible adulthood. Others have not. They are a unmarried real estate lawyer who desperately wants a baby; a physician married to a wealthy business man and former classmate; a sex obsessed novelist writing for People magazine; a Hollywood television actor who cannot deal with celebrity; a maimed and bitter Vietnam veteran turned drug dealer; and an unfulfilled housewife and mother who has designs on the actor, an old college crush. Their dead friend was a scientific prodigy and progressive firebrand who abandoned academe for social work and manual labor. . . and eventually suicide. They talk about their former lives and their current disillusionment at what they have become, pointing out how each has sold out their old convictions and values for what seems a steady, mainstream life In Ronald Reagan’s America . . . except for their dead friend. “I feel I was at my best when I was with you people,” the physician played by Glenn Close admits. They eat, drink, smoke dope, and listen to the great rock and R&B music that served as a readily recognizable benchmark of their heady student days. There is lots of finger pointing and censuring, yet they rediscover their common bond and they all manage to kiss and hug when the weekend visit ends. They return to their separate lives promising not to wait until the next funeral to renew their friendships. It is a story of old friends searching for something they have lost only to discover that all they needed was each other. “Wise up folks,” say the William Hurt character. “We are all alone out there.
Much like the gathering in The Big Chill, almost all of us in our group came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. We remember Vietnam although none of us were called to serve. We were all in Washington on September 11; some of us watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon. We understand the world in which we live. We are a lawyer, a computer specialist, a historian and research consultant, an artist, two archivists, and a librarian. All of us have lived and worked in the Washington milieu for decades. Some of us have grown children; some have never been parents. Some of us are now retired and some still get up and trudge into the crowded and traffic-choked city each morning to earn coins of the realm. So an escape, even for just a couple days, is worth the effort. Thankfully our weekend gatherings have never centered on a funeral or some other sad or tragic occasion although we have certainly gathered at these, as well. And one of these days the end of one of us may bring us together much like the cast in the film. Yet, for the most part, our gathering have been mostly happy occasions when we have managed to escape the Washington humdrum for a long weekend in the woods. We have lounged in front of cabin fire places and outside fire rings. We have hiked, shot trap, worked on puzzles, read, listen to and played music, and shared kitchen duties as we prepared communal meals accompanied with good drink.
The film comes with an admonition: “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.” We realize we are going to have to rely on each other more and more in the days, months and years ahead. There will certainly be a need for more of these Big Chill escapes . . . opportunities to reset our compasses in search of a way out of this dark storm. Hopefully this recent election, despite its insane and fearful aftermath, will result in a self-correction of this bizarre anomaly that has beset our nation.
We must remain confident that we will awaken from this bad dream. In the film the former college radicals grew silent as they matured into comfortable live. Rocking the Ship of State was no longer necessary, even desirable. We should take a lesson in this. Perhaps it is time for all of us, comfortable in our lives up until now, to stand up and start to rock the boat anew. It worked before. It can work again.
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