March 26, 2002—Ground
Zero Plus 196
Happy Thoughts--Vigilant Thoughts
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News
GROUND ZERO, New York City, Mar. 26--Sometimes I wake
up very happy--happy I'm alive! I owe that feeling to
George Burns, my Oh God Of Vigilance.
We forget--or at least I do--to start with the basics of life
itself--being alive. When I awaken, as I did this
morning, I sometimes take a deep breath and say, "Thanks--I'm
still alive! I get to enjoy the challenges of another
day with its beginning, middle and end!"
That might sound
a little odd and perhaps bizarre to some, but not if you really
give it some thought.
Years ago when I
was senior vice president of marketing for Century 21 International
Real Estate, part of my job included arranging and planning
our annual conventions. We had nearly 100,000 salespeople
and over 7,000 franchises spread across America and Canada,
so when we held a convention it was a spectacular event, designed
to resurrect the belief in the company and to unveil new tools
and systems and programs that would help each individual achieve
market leadership the coming year.
I prided myself on planning
themes and getting top speakers and entertainers to kick off
the new year's marketing theme.
In the mid 70's, our main
speaker and entertainer was George Burns.
He had just rocketed back from anonymity after his wife, Gracie
died, on the wings of a hit movie called "Oh God"
in which he played the role of the Almighty who smoked cigars
and shot one-liner quips at John Denver whom he was helping
to get "back on the path."
At the time, Mr. Burns
was in his eighties, and being Vigilant, I wasn't sure if he
would live or be well enough to perform, so I suggested we video
tape his presentation, and show it on giant TV screens, which
at the time, were the leading edge of technology.
We would use the clips of his
comments and antics throughout the show, so even if he became
ill or passed on, the show could go on.
I had sent Mr. Burns the script
and talked in detail about the filming with his agent.
Since we planned months in advance, I went to Hollywood to the
studio where we filming the show to direct Mr. Burns (as though
he needed it).
He was a gracious, funny man.
I even had him teach me how to smoke a cigar between takes and
he gave me the ultimate advice long before Bill Clinton ever
made the expression popular. "The secret to
smoking a cigar," he said, "is to never inhale!"
During the filming the teleprompter
broke. There would be an hour or so delay, we were told.
So Mr. Burns and I retired to the "green room," a
comfortable waiting area where one relaxes before filming.
It was just Mr. Burns and myself.
I sat across from him quietly, awed by his presence and his
serenity. His eyes were alive, his face lined with
wrinkles that gave him an elfish glow, and his pervasive cigar
smoldered as he waved it like a conductor signaling an orchestra.
I had a million personal questions
I wanted to ask, but reserved myself as he sat back and seemed
to be flying through a world of thoughts of his own. It
was, in ways, like being in a room with God smoking a cigar,
and there was reverence that checked my tongue.
Finally, I broke the silence and awkwardly
said, to my chagrin, "it must be nice having all those
years of experience, where you are confident and can just draw
upon all the material you used over the years in any situation."
He leaned forward and gave me a stern
"I do not use old material, son,"
I grabbed my chair, wishing I had never
"I wake up in the morning and
the first thing I do is check to see which side of the grass
I'm on--and if I'm on the right side of it, I thank God.
Then I have breakfast and read the paper. I look
every day for new material. People who use old material
from the past are hacks. You have to have new material--new
ideas to be alive, sonny. Nothing I work on is old.
It's all new. It's all alive."
Then he sat back in his chair, eyes
bulging from the the thick glasses he wore, puffed on the cigar
and watched the pillar of smoke waft up toward the heavens.
I sat there studying the man, choosing
not to ask any more questions. But then he leaned forward
again, as though he were reading my mind, and began to speak.
"When I walk onto the stage,"
he said, "I never speak to the audience. I
pick out one person in the room and I talk to them.
I make love to them with my words. I sing to them
from my soul. And then I pick out another, on the
other side of the room, or near the front, so I'm looking around
the audience. But I'm not seeing just a sea of faces.
I'm talking to only one person at a time. That makes
it very personal. I'm not acting, son. I'm sharing.
I'm making love to my audience, son, one at a time. That's
the magic of being good at what you do."
I nodded. He sat back again, twisting the cigar between
his fingers and rolling the tip between his lips, that elfish
look on his face growing, as though he were having fun with
the young whipper snapper sitting in front of him, feeling as
awkward as a mouse sitting before the Throne of God wishing
the Almighty might throw him a crumb of cheese.
"I'm going to write a song and
sing it," Mr. Burns said, taking a puff off the cigar contemplatively
and blowing it toward the ceiling. "It's going
to be a hit record. I've always wanted to be a singer."
For a minute I felt like he was kidding
me. But in the presence of Oh God, one takes what
he says as gospel. It was hard for me to imagine that
George Burns would top the record charts, but then he was George
Burns, a living legend.
"Yes," he said, "I'm
going to sing a beautiful, song. A hit record."
Just then Ed McMahon burst into the
room and gave Mr. Burns a big hug. They chatted for a
minute and then McMahon burst out as quickly as he had entered.
The production crew followed telling us the teleprompter was
fixed. We went back to the studio and finished the filming.
Months later our show went off without
a glitch. The inter-cuts of George Burns making
comments from the giant 50 foot television screens awed the
audience who had never seen them before.
Also, I was again awed. George
Burns did record a song, and it became a big hit.
And, he didn't die. For
years afterward I smiled every time I saw the man. He
lived to be 100.
I took a lesson from him about Vigilance
That lesson was, when anyone asked me how
I was, I always try and reply: "I'm alive."
It means to me I am not living in the past,
but in the present. That I'm thankful for the day, no
matter what it might entail--good or bad--happy or sad.
And each time I think about life, I realize
there is a new song to sing, a new mountain to climb, a new
reason to want to be alive.
And, I think of my personal day with God--disguised as on old
wrinkled Sentinel of Vigilance who taught a young, precocious
young man that life is about "taking on the day" not
Go To Mar. 25--Venial Acts of Non-Vigilance