Before I go, I have something to say

Gary Collins, R.I.P.

So many people have died this year. Famous people, the ones we remember from TV shows, old movies, favorite songs. Dick Clark, the world’s oldest teenager. Donna Summer, disco queen. Etta James, whose version of “At Last” will always be infinitely better than anything Beyonce can come up with. Robin Gibb, leaving only one Bee Gee alive. Whitney Houston, whose biggest song still brings shivers to my spine. Mike Wallace, Arlen Specter.

There’s one whose death makes me sadder than most, though his talents may seem slim. Gary Collins was kind of a lightweight. His acting career included some pretty lame shows – The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, JAG. He married Miss America.

Still, he had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and won six Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Talk Show Host. That’s where my admiration comes in. From 1980 through 1988, Collins hosted Hour Magazine, a mid-morning show that followed the usual format, with guests chatting up their new books or films, singers belting out their new songs, and a few minutes for a serious topic or two.

I’m not sure why I started watching. I had two children and lived out on the eastern plains of Colorado, with only one friend nearby. The neighborhood, if you could call it that, lies right where the new Denver airport was built, which shows you just how impermanent our settlement was. We had to deal with dirt roads that turned to demolition derbies any time it rained, and a four-party line that made communication a challenge. Cell phones? What were they?

I was isolated. You could say I suffered from The Loneliness of the Young Housewife, filling my days with cooking and cleaning, hanging out clothes to dry in the Chinook winds. I had a master’s degree, but I wasn’t ready yet to put my kids in daycare so I could have a career.

Besides, I had a husband who was gainfully employed. He didn’t earn a lot, but it was enough to keep us in diapers and the ground beef I turned into frugal suppers. I had friends in town, 25 miles to the west, and visited whenever I could.

And I had my morning ritual. Every weekday, I would make some hot apple cider and toast an English muffin to sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Then I would sit down at the dining table and turn on the TV to get my daily dose of Hour Magazine. I wish I could remember more reasons for watching that show, but I was probably just hungry for adult voices.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to point out the obvious. There is one episode that I will never forget. It was the first thing I thought of when I heard of Collins’ death. That Show, as I still think of it. The one that woke me up.

Surely it wasn’t the first time I heard the words “domestic” and “violence” used together. My college boyfriend and I lived next door to a young man and woman who fought every night, and we saw the bruises on her face. My best friend in first grade, Debbie, had a father who once told my dad, “You need to rough your wife up every so often; it shows her who’s boss,” or words to that effect. It wasn’t long before Debbie and her mom fled town, leaving that man forever, I hope. My beautiful cousin, Nancy, was shot dead by her husband, the father of their five children, before he took his own life – his solution to a paranoid delusion that she was having an affair.

But when I heard Gary Collins address the problem nobody talked about, I felt an electrical shock go through me. He was discussing my life. I was a “battered woman.” I simply had not been ready to admit it to myself, let alone to anyone who might help me.

When his hour was up, I turned off the TV. I don’t remember if I finished my little snack. Maybe the baby cried; maybe it was time to pick up my four-year-old from Montessori. Life went on. I folded the clean clothes, picked out the recipe for the night’s supper, walked down to get the mail, which probably included another letter from my mom, asking how her favorite grandchildren were doing. Had I told her? Of course not.

How could I tell her my sweetheart beat my head against the walls? Choked me within an inch of my life? Waved his gun at me? Removed the bathroom door by its hinges when I tried to hide?

Domestic violence was shameful then, even more than it remains today. Everyone believed it was, somehow, the victim’s fault. “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Sure, why not? Pack up everything into your little car, drive to a friend’s or a shelter, if you could find one, and start a whole new life, trying not to look over your shoulder for your angry husband. Snap your fingers, and you’ve got a new home. A new job. Maybe, someday, a (nice) new man.

Eventually, I did all that. It took me years. Decades. For a time, I was the Dubuque Poster Survivor of this hideous crime, speaking out everywhere I could. It became a genuine crime, with its own section in the Iowa Code and its own, harsher, punishments. October became Domestic Violence Awareness Month. So be aware. It can happen to anyone.

I always meant to write to Gary Collins. Now I can’t. I hope he knows the good he did. I will be forever grateful to him for showing me – and countless others – that some kinds of marriage should not be saved.

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