Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"We Once Went To Africa"

Here’s what happened on Best of the West. During pilot season – which ends around now – we made the Best of the West pilot, and ABC didn’t pick it up for their fall schedule. But as an encouraging show of faith, ABC did bankroll the immediate production of twelve episodes, their intention apparently being to begin airing the show at mid-season.

We produce the twelve episodes. Midseason arrives. ABC doesn’t pick up the show. (It was finally scheduled for the following fall. But more about that later.)

I was exhausted from producing the twelve episodes, and frankly from the year-long ordeal of “It’s on!”, “It’s not on!”, “It’s on ‘mid-season!’”, “They’ve decided to wait.” And even more frankly, I was exhausted from trying to function in a job I am fundamentally unsuited for, the job being, running a television series.

I’m a writer. That’s it.

(I wanted to do a western comedy, an executive said, “Let’s do it!”, so we did it. The experience was like riding a comet. I was perennially queasy.)

Okay, so production is finally over. And Dr. M – neither a doctor nor my wife at the time though we’d been together for three years – asked me where I would like to go, to reward myself for surviving this tumultuous experience. I said, “Let’s go to New York.” She said, “That’s not so special. We’ve been to New York a bunch of times. Where would you really like to go?” I said,


Jim Burrows in an iconic sitcom director, and has been for decades. (Jim also directed the pilot of Best of the West.) I had learned that Jim and his then wife, Linda, had recently vacationed in Africa. So my proposal was not entirely “out of left field.” Somebody I knew had gone there. I wanted to go there too.

So we went.

But not before…

We had dinner at Jim and Linda’s, after which they showed us their slides – this was thirty years ago – of their trip to Kenya, which is in East Africa, and the Seychelles, an Edenic group of islands, two-and-a-half flying hours further East in the Indian Ocean, which, if we were traveling all that distance, we were vigorously encouraged not to miss. (Our trip was deliberately modeled after their itinerary.)

We also took a “Photo One” class at nearby Santa Monica College, where we learned to take pictures with pre-digital cameras, where you had to load actual rolls of film, manually change the lenses, set the f-stops, and a lot of other things I no longer remember how to do, but must have been pretty good at at the time, because I got an “A” in the class. (Dr. M got an “A” too. In fact, I believe everybody got an “A.”)

My memory of our preparations has a thirty year blur on it. I remember purchasing a hat, a duplicate of the one worn by Jon Hall in Ramar of the Jungle. I remember buying multi-pocketed camouflage pants and thick-soled, hiking boots. And I think I bought mosquito-repellent socks, though that could have been for Indiana.

My memory is so hazy that I no longer recall the batteries of shots we were required to submit to, though I am sure I made an enormous fuss about them when they were puncturing me. (I love the past. The past can never hurt you. And in time, you forget about it completely.)

It turned out that our trip coincided with the arrival of Passover. Since we were already traveling East, we took the opportunity to stop in Toronto, and break matzo with my family of birth. We then proceeded to London (follow the advancing dotted line, delineating our around-half-the-world expedition), for an overnight layover. Then it was

On to Nairobi.

In those days, I wore non-gas-permeable, hard contact lenses. You could only wear them for, like, twelve hours, and then you had to take them out and rest your eyes, so they didn’t swell up and explode, like a cartoon character clutching a molten lump of coal. I had sensibly taken my bifocals along for the changeover.

Unfortunately, I had, less sensibly, forgotten my bifocals in the hotel in Toronto.

As a result, during the extended flight, when it was time to remove my lenses, I had no “visual appurtenances” to replace them with. With neither glasses or contacts, reading the eye chart, for me, amounts to, “Which way is the eye chart?” I can see things, but I don’t know what they are.

“Ding!” The pilot announces our “Final Descent” into Nairobi. I squeeze Dr. M’s hand. We can barely contain our excitement. It is at this point that, with no “Heads up!” whatsoever, a flight attendant appears with a metal canister, and begins spraying us with DDT. (Not just Dr. M and me, all the passengers.)

Now, not only can my eyes not see, but they’re burning like crazy! And by the way, why are they spraying us? Are we a health risk to Africans? (This is not meant to be racist; it’s just, “I don’t get it.”)

It is in this condition, sightless, confused and disinfected, that I am led through the Nairobi airport to our pre-arranged ground transportation.

Welcome to Africa!

Tomorrow: Our first adventure. We are robbed.


Joe in DC said...

Terrific story ... and a cliffhanger, to boot? Thanks, Earl!

Amos Otis said...

Is this the sequel to Volunteers? It's about time!

Mac said...

Nice teaser for Part 2. Looking forward to it.