Arthur Godfrey may have thought he was taking a swipe at Julius LaRosa and Julius LaRosa alone when he recently explained to an interviewer how he and the crooner had parted company in 1953; but, in fact, he was swiping at me, at me and all the others I know who are afflicted with The Nameless Terror. When asked if he had fired LaRosa for making advances toward Dorothy McGuire, the middle one of the McGuire Sisters, Mr. Godfrey denied it this way:
"Just because he was dating her; playing around over here while her husband was defending his country in Korea, do you think I would fire him for something like that? My show was a family. He asked to get out of his contract, and I let him. Now he's selling mussels. That's what he was fit for all along."
There's the sort of denial you can sink your teeth into. And, for informational value alone, it did set me straight on that LaRosa business, since I had always assumed that Mr. LaRosa was fired for refusing to marry Lu Ann Simms, the girl with whom he sang duets on the Godfrey show. At the age of 12 I took it for granted that if you sang with a girl, you had to marry her; so it seemed only fair to me that Mr. LaRosa got the sack.
But that wasn't the part of Mr. Godfrey's explanation that plucked the chord of The Nameless Terror. It was his crack about LaRosa selling mussels -- "what he was fit for all along." When I read that, a thick drape rolled over my heart, like a tarpaulin over an infield.
For there is a dark side to the American way, and it might as well be called the American way back -- in which the typical young man on the rise, say Julius LaRosa, who, as he rises and rises like a do re me fa, lives nevertheless in constant, shivering trepidation of the day when his rise would be proved a dream, when he would be shown up coldly, for all his rising, to have been a mussel-seller all along, a Calvinistically predetermined mussel-seller. And the deep, thumping fear is not only that others would have recognized his fate, but that he would have known it, too. Down, down below his lowest notes, he would have always known it, so that whenever he looked across the stage at Lu Ann or Dorothy or Haleloke or any of Mr. Godfrey's family, he would have seen but mussels.
That is The Nameless Terror -- that your proper, fitting, universally written rightful destiny is the lowest world you can imagine, the very pits. So when a haberdasher like Harry Truman becomes president, what do his enemies call him? Not a crook or a fool, but a haberdasher, as if to remind him: Who are you kidding, Harry? You, president?
And the implication of the accusation goes even deeper than destiny. It is as if there exists, in spite of all trappings to the contrary, a quintessential, haberdashing you.
Of course, we Democrats don't believe such things, if for no other reason than that the destiny game works two ways. You can be floating down the river like Moses, or hobbling along like Oedipus, minding your own dull business, prepared for, and relatively content with the humdrum life for which you seemed destined, when suddenly it is revealed that you were not meant for that life at all, that you are quintessentially a king. There's destiny for you.
And then again, on a purely practical basis, where would the country be if everyone did merely what he was fit for? Around us every day are millions of countrymen delightedly unfit for what they are doing, turning their unfitness into inefficiency, their inefficiency into discontent, their discontent into invention. Where would we have departed successfully from our colonial masters had we not deep down believed we were born to be whatever we became? And as for The Nameless Terror, is it not merely a cautionary ghost, a reminder of origins?
Of course. And yet I wish I could shake the dream I've been having since reading Mr. Godfrey's remarks: I am sitting in an ash can in Bridgeport, Conn. -- it's a perfect fit -- muttering phrases from the songs of Barry Manilow. The temperature is zero. The muscatel, frozen solid. Suddenly there appears above me a smiling, curly-headed figure, calling out musically: "Mussels, mister?"