There is a grim irony in the story of the first movie I saw in the theater without the consent of my parents. The year was 1969 and I was all of eleven years old, eligible for the below-12 kids discount, with prices in that category ranging from 50 to 75 cents. I went with a classmate to see Woody Allen’s first major comedy, Take the Money and Run, in which Woody plays a goofy bank robber whose misbehavior is accompanied by much in the way of misadventure.
Near the end of the film, the Feds finally catch up to Woody’s character, Virgil Starkwell, and sentence him to eight hundred years in prison. He takes his medicine calmly, predicting he will cut his time in half with good behavior. The last scene (at 3:19) features an interview Virgil gives behind prison walls, with the reporter asking how he occupies himself. He spends time in the workshop, Virgil answers, whittling something as he speaks.
The last line in the flick is Virgil turning to the interviewer: “Do you know if it is raining outside?”
For some reason, I did not get the joke. I had been laughing my head off for eighty minutes but that line went over it… my head, that is. I did not want to embarrass myself by asking my friend what it meant. A couple of days went by, during which the reel ran on a loop inside my head, the answer always elusive. Finally I broke down and begged my buddy to put me out of my misery.
He explained that in an earlier incarceration, Virgil had whittled a gun out of soap, painted it black with shoe polish, and held a guard hostage with the fake weapon. He had made it to the outer courtyard of the prison yard, moments from freedom, but it was raining and his piece of soap turned into a bubbling fountain of suds, alerting his captors to the ruse.
In the final scene, jailed again, the incorrigible recidivist was up to his old tricks. The object he was carving during the interview was his next soap-bar-turned-pistol. He needed only one vital bit of information: “Do you know if it is raining outside?”
My friend never let me live that down, ribbing me for being so dense. The irony kicks in now, 44 years later. Here I am, getting paid to write humorous lines, and my boon companion of yore is in the midst of serving a lengthy prison sentence. To the extent I believe he was railroaded by overzealous and unethical prosecutors, we will elide his name to protect the innocent.
The moral of the story is that redemption is possible. The years can bring a balm in their wake but only if we accept it and apply it to the affected areas. With the Day of Atonement behind us, Jews celebrate Sukkot, the holiday of Tabernacles. It began yesterday, September 19, and continues through several levels of celebration until the end of next week.
It is a time to rediscover the world around us by eating outdoors. A weight has been lifted from our hearts after surviving the annual review of our deeds. We make the assumption that we have been blessed with the promise of a full year of life and we revel in that sensation, always remembering our commitments to live up to our higher selves. Let’s do it right this year, keeping those resolutions and making our Creator proud. This is a magnificent country and it needs us to energize its future by being good people. And hopefully, it is not raining outside….