Shortly after my son got home from school Monday afternoon, he jumped online to do his homework. Breaking news about the bombings at the Boston Marathon was hard to ignore, however, so we talked about that, instead.
“I really hope this isn’t [from] North Korea,” Noah said, reflecting on tensions brewing there.
When tensions brew and I decide I need comfort, I make chicken and rice for dinner (a staple of my childhood), curl up with my kids and watch an old episode of “The Waltons.” Been doing that a lot lately.
Some folks enjoy retail therapy. I prefer re-run therapy.
But maybe I should step it up and try a relaxing cruise with the cast of “The Waltons?”
In fact, 150 lucky fans will get to do just that Oct. 19 through 28, along with cast members Michael Learned (Olivia), Jon Walmsley (Jason), Eric Scott (Ben), Judy Norton (Mary Ellen), Ronnie Claire Edwards (Corabeth) and Tom Bower (Mary Ellen’s first husband, Dr. Curt Willard). They’ll set sail from New York aboard the “Norwegian Gem” with stops in Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic.
Sounds awesome to me, but what about the cast? What’ll it be like for them to be stuck on a boat with that many rabid “Waltons” fans for nine days?
“We did a three-day cruise, 14 years ago and it was a blast,” said Eric Scott, a.k.a. Ben Walton, when I spoke to him by phone Monday. “The show (with its wholesome message and values) really brought out the best in the fans,” he added.
“The Waltons,” the beloved television series created by Earl Hamner Jr., was based on his novel “Spencer’s Mountain” and his memories of coming-of-age in Virginia during the Depression. It debuted in 1971, when I was just 4. I recall sitting cross-legged on green plaid carpet in front of my family’s television every Thursday night, over the course of nine seasons.
The plaid carpet is long gone, but my warm memories remain, and I get to relive them all over again whenever I watch re-runs with my own children. Wonderful conversations have ensued over the years, inspired by the myriad family and social issues the series addressed including WWII and the Great Depression. Though much too young to recall the Depression, Scott, 54, can relate to some of the feelings this period of hardships evoked.
“I was observant; I saw the writing on the wall,” Scott said of his family’s life before he began his acting career. “We were lower middle-class. I was 7, but knew I wanted to go to college,” he said.
When people approached his parents and said he had “that look,” he jumped at the chance to act, appearing in an episode of “Bewitched,” among other roles.
“The love of the business wasn’t artistic for me – it was about the money,” he said, expressing the practical and savvy nature he has in common with the character he eventually played on “The Waltons.”
I recall several episodes of the show where entrepreneurial Ben strived to create one business opportunity or another in an effort to make money. In fact, says Scott, the character of Ben was modeled after two of the Hamner brothers, one of whom was a shoe salesman. Scott may not have entered show-business for the love of acting, but he grew to love and appreciate his Waltons cast-mates.
“I had never been on a set as warm and inviting,” he said, of his Waltons days. “They embraced us,” he recalls, of the adult members of the cast.
A few had experience performing on stage, which yielded a sort of egalitarian “troupe” mentality, said Scott, adding that they set the tone for the younger actors.
Ellen Corby (“Esther ‘Grandma’ Walton”), in particular, encouraged him to take chances, to spread his actor’s wings, to not be afraid to spice things up.
Though he recalls she often kept the younger cast members in line (in addition to Will Geer, “Grandpa,” who nearly drove Corby to distraction with his penchant for ad-libbing) and “took care of us on set,” “she was also the vinegar,” Scott said.
During our conversation I recalled an episode late in the series, when Corby, who’d had a stroke (which was written into the script), returns.
“I recall how poignant it was,” I said, “that her first words, following her partial recovery from the stroke, were to Grandpa (Will Geer). She said, ‘You old fool.’”
“Wow, you really are a fan, aren’t you?” Scott quipped.
Indeed I am. I even made a pilgrimage to Earl Hamner’s childhood home (it looks just like the white house on the show, only smaller) in the tiny town of Schuyler, Va., in 1993, the year after the Waltons Mountain museum opened in the building once occupied by his former high school. Nearby is the little store that Ike Godsey’s “General Merchandise” was modeled after, where I bought a coke. I’d love to return to Schuyler one day, with my kids.
Apparently I’m not the only one who harbors an urge to return to the hamlet that inspired Walton’s Mountain, from time to time. Earl Hamner, who now lives in California, once wrote in his blog, “In memory I go there each night. I stand beside the gate, look up to the house, and once again I hear the voices of my mother and father, my brothers and sisters as we call goodnight to each other before we sleep,” the inspiration for the ritual at the end of each episode where the characters bid each other goodnight.
Scott’s been to Schuyler, too, and recalled that along with Jon Walmsley (“Jason”), he once visited Hamner’s mother at their home there during the show’s heyday. Clearly a mischief-maker in her own right, Scott says Doris Hamner suggested to them, when fans rang her doorbell, “You go answer the door and see the looks on their faces.”
“What’s your favorite episode?” I asked Scott, as I sifted through several priceless “Ben” moments in my mind.
“Any one that had Ben in it,” he quipped. “I wasn’t shy about this,” he volunteered, describing how he made the most of any opportunity he saw to become involved in the show.
For example, when John-boy started the “Blue Ridge Chronicle” newspaper, Scott went to Richard Thomas (the first actor who played “John-Boy”) and said he’d like to be involved with this plot. “Richard (Thomas) was very good. He taught us a lot. If we were concerned about something he would bring it up (to the producers),” said Scott. This is how it came to be that Ben sold advertising space for the “Chronicle.”
Scott applied this same drive to his next career, when he worked his way up from courier to owner of Chase Messengers, a parcel delivery service in California, where he lives with his wife, Cindy and their two children (Scott also has another child, a daughter, born three days before his previous wife’s death from acute myelomonocytic leukemia ). But he’s never left his Waltons family behind.
“Three to four times a year we get together for dinner,” he says, of Mary Elizabeth McDonough (“Erin”), Jon, and Leslie Winston (the actress who last played his “Waltons” wife, “Cindy”). Sometimes they even have sleepovers, he added, where all of their children, whom he says regard each other as cousins, sleep in a tent.
Scott says his kids aren’t nearly as impressed with his Waltons fame as his fans, though when introducing her parents to friends, he does notice that his 11-year-old daughter will mention the fact that he married a “Cindy” on The Waltons and in real life. “It’s a source of great humor,” he said.
Like other Waltons cast members, Scott regards their fans as part of the extended Waltons family. There’s always room for one more at the table, so to speak, which is a great comfort to me, because at the rate things are going, there will always be bad news and bombings. But as long as the Waltons live on in re-runs, there will also be warmth, humanity and a little side of salt and vinegar for balance. Works for this mom.
“I’m just glad that people can still watch it,” said Scott of the beloved series, which airs locally on the INSP network, “but get out there and sail the seas with us! Talk about being salty,” he quips, with his trademark laugh.
For details about the Waltons Appreciation Cruise, visit www.asobo.cruiseone.com/travel/HomePage.html. Also, check out the Facebook page titled “A Waltons Appreciation Cruise.”
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at email@example.com.