Maybe it's just a matter of style, but probably it goes deeper than that. For Proust, the memory was triggered by the elegance of a cake at tea time. I have to have the roof fall in on me for the memory to come unstuck.
Not a roof, actually. The contents of a closet shelf, teetering on top of a stack of slick magazines that -- inevitably -- chose to slide as I was standing under them, looking up gape-mouthed, forgetting for the moment what I was after.
"Dad-rat the dad-ratted . . . ," I swore, then stopped. "Dad-ratted?" Years on wheat harvest crews and in locker rooms, Marine Corps squad bays and late-night newspaper saloons and the best I could come up with was "Dad-ratted?" But the association was instantaneous -- that was Fibber McGee's response to adversity, which included the weekly avalanche of his famous hall closet.
For nearly 20 years "Fibber McGee and Molly," whose first program aired 50 years ago this week, was a mainstay of the all-too- short Golden Age of Radio.
Going into World War II, it was the top- ranked show on the air, ahead of the other giants of the time -- Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. A standard joke of the time -- in Reader's Digest, where else? -- involved the little girl being shooed off to bed who pleaded that she be allowed to stay up until "Fibber opens the hall closet."
Tuesday night was a tough time to get the kids to bed in those days. That was the night for Bob Hope, Red Skelton and Fibber. Sunday night was just as bad -- Benny, Bergen and McCarthy and Fred Allen -- with others such as Lum and Abner, Baby Snooks and Henry Aldrich scattered through the week.
Along with Jack Benny's stinginess, the hall closet was one of the great running gags of our time.
Visitors to the McGee's abode often mistook the closet for the front door as they were leaving. Once, burglars tied McGee up and demanded to know where the family valuables were. He told them. In the hall closet, of course, which buried the thieves until the police came and dug them out.
That was one of the few things McGee did right. As the name implies, he started out as a tall, tale-spinning windbag in the exuberant American frontier tradition of Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink and Davey Crockett. He evolved into the town bungler and laughingstock as well.
The alliterative tongue twister was a common device for his braggadocio, as this promenading of his pugilistic prowess:
"Punch bowl McGee, pronounced by press and public . . . pummeling pudgy palookas, pulverizing proboscises and paralyzing plug-uglies . . . Ping-pong pappa of the pineapple punch, a peculiar poke that petrifies the pit of the paunch of the pillow- pushers who plop to the platform too popeyd to protest."
Fortunately, Molly was always a voice of sanity, affection and tolerance in the turmoil at 79 Wistful Vista. Her favorite response was "Heavenly days," and when Fibber was too outrageous, she'd respond, " funny, McGee."
But when Fibber wondered why people doubted his outlandish tales, Molly explained: "You're always so . . . so imaginative, dearie. Your memory is too good. You remember things that never happened."
Other characters weren't so tolerant. There was the apoplectic Mayor LaTrivia, played by Gale Gordon, who later was the equally apoplectic high school principal on "Our Miss Brooks." There was Wallace Wimple, the quintessential wimp tyrannized "by my big old wife, Sweetie-face," the Old Timer, and Teeny, the neighborhood child played by Marian Jordan (Molly), who drove Fibber crazy.
There was Harlow Wilcox, the Johnson's Wax announcer, whose pitches were part of the script, often in dogerel, and like the rest of the program, heavily overlaid with corn:
"My friends, you're familiar with Omar Khayyam/ Probably even more than I am./ So listen to this, the Johnson version/ of "No- Mar, the perfectly polished Persian."/A book of verse, a Glocoat can, and thou-/Beside me in our little kitchen, toots/Why worry now, about the milkman's muddy boots?"
And, of course, there was the Great Gildersleeve, played by the late Harold Peary, whose own show was radio's first successful spin-off. When Gildy left to become the water commissioner of the nearby town of Summerfield, their ongoing feud and insults ended up like this:
Fibber (emotionally): "Gildy, old man, I . . . I hardly know what to say."
Gildy: "Let's just say this isn't goodbye, it's au revoir . . . "
Fibber: "I . . . I can't say that Gildy . . ."
Gildy: "Why not?"
Fibber: "I can't pronounce it."
That was Fibber, the Everyman of the Great Depression, a time of poverty, unemployment and failure, and a time of nostalgia for small-town life such as Wistful Vista.
Central Casting couldn't have found a better couple for the program than Jim and Marian Jordan, high school sweethearts in Peoria, Ill., who married just before Fibber was drafted and sent to France in 1918.
They sang in the church choir together and, according to Arthur Wertheim in his book, "Radio Comedy," worked the vaudeville circuit in Illinois before breaking into radio in the mid-1920s in Chicago, where they were discovered by the wife of a Johnson's Wax advertising account executive.
The program originated in Hollywood, but they never lived there. They commuted from their home in Encino, where they raised their children and stayed married until Marian died of cancer in 1961.
The main difference between them and Fibber and Molly was that Jim Jordan wasn't a fool. He became part of American folklore.