Good-bye, Colonel Potter

I’ve always loved vintage things. Things are were popular thirty years ago, that are now forgotten by pop culture except for ironic t-shirts or collectibles. Things about which my parents shake their head, murmuring, “I remember when that was cool the first time.”

That’s why I was saddened by today’s news of the death of Harry Morgan. I know I shouldn’t be – he was 96 years old. I’m sure he was done with this old world.

But with him dies Colonel Potter, a man who survived eight years of a three-year war.

I didn’t know Harry Morgan, but I know Colonel Potter very well. He taught me how to survive a war that will break your heart, as all do eventually. He and the rest of the MASH 4077 nudged me down the road to questioning beliefs that I had grown up with.

Each day after school, I would do my homework in front of the Hallmark Channel from 4-6 pm, spending half hour segments in the MASH 4077 operating room somewhere in the middle of Korea with Hawkeye and B.J. and Charles (or Frank), Klinger and Radar. And Colonel Sherman Potter. I wore a Margaret Houlihan jacket every day. It was olive green, with a white furry hood. I loved it because my mother bought it for me, and because it matched Hot Lips’s Korean War issue anorak. Few understood but I didn’t care.

The show did more than show me how to dress. It urged me to think. M*A*S*H* looked at war in a very un-nostalgic and un-heroic way. Well, theirs was a different type of heroism. No storming the beach, no blaze of glory here. M*A*S*H* celebrated the heroism of the drafted, those who found themselves in a place they did not want to be but had to work hard to survive. Some survived by dry, sardonic humor. Some survived by drinking. Or by believing they were better than everyone else. Some by following the rules. Some by riding a horse. All did by writing letters. And all did by creating relationships.

Some of those episodes stick with me years later – the one about dreams. The interview one. The one where B.J. loses it. Or where Hawkeye gets a concussion. Or where the camp finds an infant. And who can possibly forget the final episode? It never ceases to make me cry like a baby – a horribly appropriate phrase, as you know if you’ve seen it.

The show made me think about war in a different way: what it means, what it is. Remove completely the question of whether there is such a thing as a just war – I’m not here to debate that with you. I wonder if any person can survive a war intact. Can a person be whole after seeing what he or she sees on the ground? Even – or maybe especially – those in an army hospital: civil servants, not soldiers; those who took oaths to help not harm. How could they balance healing and eliminating the enemy?

Colonel Potter worked within that tension. He balanced the scales in the only ways he knew how: by being fair, even-handed. By taking care of his people. By working hard to heal whoever came across his path. By advocating for those in his care. And by riding his horse and writing to Mildred and shouting at Radar and making us laugh at his gruffness.

I’m thankful for him. I’m thankful for a show that was brave enough to challenge a war during another war, and make me wonder at the wars we have now. And I’m thankful for the men and women who do that hard and tension-filled work every day.

I wish they didn’t have to.

Good-bye, Colonel.


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