Russ Craig's Reality
Before everyone had been on a reality show Russ Craig starred in a ground-breaking series with an intended audience of one.
My dad and Russ were friends for many years. I couldn’t remember the history of their relationship- I only recalled that Russ spent quite a while at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. In his later days Russ sobered up and moved to Florida where he lived in Zephyrhills near a niece (I think it was a niece). His world was vibrant: a parking lot near his home where locals know him and a lady gives him a little bit of an ass shake. A backyard culvert that serves as a moat. A living room that is heated by a propane grill.
Russ loved or admired or somethinged my dad and dad had an affinity for him. For years Russ sent dad the most fantastic letters, all stream of conscious yet somehow linear. My entire family cherished these letters and when a new one came in we all spent time deciphering it.
I have a hard time imagining dad writing letters so I wonder how he communicated with Russ. I have an even harder time believing that dad would have willingly given money to Ma Bell - I clearly inherited for loathing of speaking on the phone from him- so I doubt they spoke on the phone. It was all a mystery to me until I asked mom for a more detailed account of Russ and Dad's friendship. Mom wrote out details of their history together and this story and it is included in totality at the bottom of this post. Some of the references I make will be clear once you read mom's essay.
In the 90s our fascination with Russ reached a new height when he bought (or more likely found) a VHS video camera. Now instead of four or five page letters we started receiving two hour videos. Jackpot! From what you’ll see in this video he obviously never wasted a thing and that includes videotape. Russ filled every second of those amazing tapes and all of it is inspired. No larynx? No problem! One of my favorite scenes features Russ’s electrolarynx going dead and him casually changing the battery, camera rolling the entire time. In another scene (included here but sadly cut off by my analog to digital converter) he shows a “portable crapper” that he found and intends to repurpose into God knows what. Maybe he just wants to use it while he watches TV. Another mystery, at least until I revisit and convert the rest of the tape.
Everything reminds me of a Go-Go’s lyric, a fault of mine that I’ll talk about another time. It works, though- “you think I’m seeing only things I want to see- the truth is that I’m being who I want to be.” A young drinker, a WW2 combat vet, a senior loner- but from what I see in these tapes Russ was being who he wanted to be.
I think you might be a bit jealous of Russ and of my father after you watch this hour of a singularly brilliant man showing us his reality and performing for an audience of one- my dad.
The Story, as told by mom. I asked her for some facts and she wrote this fascinating essay. My notes are in brackets.
Russ Craig & dad were friends from childhood. Russ's father was somehow absent. His mother was remarried to Dr. Webber, a local doctor with ties to a hospital in Hartland. Russ's mother was a nurse. Both parents drank.
No one was watching these guys grow up, although Dad's mother tried. Abel [dad's father] provided for the family but was extremely strict. They [dad's family] were extremely poor and lived on the Dogtown Road [in Pittsfield ME, where dad would live his whole life save for WW2, a brief post-WW2 stint in Los Angeles and some time in Boston while mom finished both school and a few babies] with an outhouse and had to call on the town for food during the depression. Dad often recalled the Sears Roebuck catalog paper being used for toilet paper.
Russ & dad must have met during their school years, no doubt grammar school as back then schools were segregated by where you lived. Dad and Russ and several of their male friends learned that Dr. Webber kept alcohol in his basement and made took use of it. Back then alcohol was loosely watched, especially by the medical profession. After MCI [Maine Central Institute, the local high school] male graduates went immediately into the service and they went their separate ways, wherever the government decreed. They all drank & smoked. Dad's eyesight kept him from action but some of the others went into horrible fighting and slaughter. Dad wouldn't talk about what he saw; he never talked about the brutality but we all read about it. Russ came back to the states, went to college and majored in journalism. He was hired by either the Boston Globe or Herald.
For reasons unknown Russ was fired. He knew we lived in Boston and he called to see if we would put him up while he looked for another job. Dad was working at Greybar and I was going to school [mom attended Boston University as a music education major, and her focus instrument was the saxophone. Pretty cool for a woman in the 1950's.] Russ must have been drinking all the time but we didn't realize how much until we returned to Boston after Thanksgiving. The apartment was a total disaster- dirty, beer cans everywhere, filthy kitchen, floors, etc so Dad told him the next day he had to leave. The next few decades were a blur [alcohol for Russ and mom was busy having seven kids] until we got a letter from Russ who was now living in Florida. I think Sue might have the correspondence. Later we began getting the tapes of his solitude and insanity.
I don't think we had any meetings, but his younger brother Brian had a hardware store in Pittsfield and kept us informed. Brian and his wife would go to Florida and visit Russ. Russ must have had a military pension to live on. He was always full of wit and charm and if he could have restrained from alcohol he would have been a terrific writer. We always loved Russ, especially Nancy [my insanely competitive sister] who when she saw him come in the door immediately got out a deck of cards and asked him to play poker. The drunker he got, the more money she won. Dad taught Nancy well in the art of cards [and cheating].
We went our separate ways and only got news [about Russ] from Brian who by then had moved to Florida. He kind of looked after Russ, and then we found out he had died. Sad but back then the military didn't, or couldn't take care of the vets and all their problems and to this day still can't. I'm too old now to remember all so that's it as far as I'm concerned.
His video tapes tell a great story. They'll soon be forgotten as will the veterans of WW2. I've read so much of the history that I've come to understand why these men were always drinking, even dad. I spotted a tombstone at the cemetery that had Russ's name on it but the dates confused me as it could have been his father.