A baby boomer learns that sometimes magic works

It’s nice to know not only that we baby boomers have learned a thing or two, but that we can pass them on. That’s what Hawthorne, New Jersey’s Alan Paul has done with his daughter Carolyn. The lesson he taught her? Sometimes the magic works.

There is such an enormous amount of pressure on kids these days, I honestly don’t know how they deal with it. Our baby boomer generation didn’t have to.

I think that the best advice I ever gave my child about such pressures came from my own experience stumbling awkwardly toward adulthood. There was a point in my life, probably in my early thirties, when I faced a crisis of confidence. I began to wonder if my dreams of success would ever come true, and it worried me greatly.

Dustin Hoffman in the film, "Little Big Man."

Dustin Hoffman in the film, “Little Big Man.”

I remember watching a movie called “Little Big Man” — a 1970 film directed by Arthur Penn, which starred a young Dustin Hoffman – when lightning struck! The story unfolds in flashback, with the Hoffman character, 121-year-old (yes you read that right) Jack Crabb, recounting the story of his life in the Old West. Jack and his even older sister Caroline survive the massacre of their parents by the Pawnee and are taken in by the Cheyenne.

Chief Dan George

Chief Dan George

Caroline escapes, but Jack stays behind and is raised by the kindly patriarch of the tribe, Old Lodge Skins, played in grand style by Chief Dan George. When Jack is 16, he is “rescued” by the U.S. Cavalry and embarks on a great life-journey, which includes being a gunslinger, meeting Wild Bill Hickok, and becoming a scout for General George Armstrong Custer.

Alan Paul with his family.

Alan Paul with his family.

Crabb eventually finds his way back to the Cheyenne and is taken on a brief excursion by Old Lodge Skins, so that the elderly Chief, who believes he has reached the end of his life, can give up his own spirit to the Great Spirit. Old Lodge Skins lies down on the top of a hill, presumably to die, with Jack looking on intently. When it’s clear that the Chief has still not given up the ghost, Jack calls out to him.

Old Lodge Skins slowly raises himself up, saying, “Am I still in this world?” “Yes, Grandfather,” says Jack. “I was afraid of that,” the Old Chief replies with a sigh. Then with a sly smile he utters the phrase that has remained with me, and guided me all these years. “Well, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

At that moment I understood that as human beings, it is our duty to get our own personal magic (or mojo; call it what you will) working as often as we possibly can. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Simple. Elegant. Prophetic.

Movie poster for "Little Big Man."

Movie poster for “Little Big Man.”

The pop prophet William Martin Joel says something in a similar vein, in his rock anthem Angry Young Man: “I’ve found that just surviving was a noble fight.” Some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you. Some days, just not getting eaten by the bear is a genuine accomplishment.

Alan's daughter Carolyn, dressing up.

Alan’s daughter Carolyn, dressing up.

I relayed the Little Big Man story, and the realizations it conjured in my young mind, to my daughter, Carolyn, way back when. I’d like to think it did her some good during her own, much more graceful dance toward adulthood. If you are fortunate enough to know Carolyn, you understand that, most times, the magic worked.


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