The Prize
by Patricia Hilborn


Rain had turned the day grey. No way to avoid the puddles. And no place to park. Worse, an unhappy line of people, four and five deep, snaked its way out of the bookstore, down the sidewalk, past the full parking lot, across a side street and down a hill, almost to the freeway exit. Some held umbrellas, others pulled hoodies low on their foreheads, tucking hands into pockets.

As I contemplated that line and my place in it, a long, long, white, stretch limousine pulled into the parking lot behind me and my compact, grey as the rain, insignificant car, then pulled alongside, and inched past me toward the store. The back right door opened. A thin gent with a shock of white hair unfolded himself from the back seat, stood erect in the downpour, drew his overcoat closer, and waved.

His appearance at this tiny bookstore had drawn us all out in the wet and in the cold, neither of which mattered. Before me, thin, frail, past 80, stood George Bailey. Only this was the real man. This was James Stewart. And I realized as I wiped away the fog inside my windshield, that I was only one of many admirers, as insignificant as my little car alongside the limo. People shifted in line, jostling each other, murmuring, as James Stewart strolled toward the store's door. Yes, that's him. He's the same, older, yes, but still the same.

I was not so different from the crowd gathered in the rain. Well, maybe a little. I'd learned from an expert, my dad, how to press through a mob, connive my way through a closed door, by-pass gates and their frowning guards, and skate a line without disturbing those who'd waited for hours, even in the rain, for an autograph. In and out, Dad used to say. The prize we sought was simple, quickly attained. Then we'd melt into the crowd. A snapshot, good, or a snapshot that included one of us, better.

Our obsession with photographs peopled by celebrities can be traced to my dad's war years when he met and danced with a few Hollywood gal-pals of note, including Mary Martin and June Havoc. One of my first recollections is of a two-year-old me, held for a picture by TCU cheerleader, and future Broadway star, Betty Buckley.

If you approach them prepared, camera out, film advanced, smile in place, most famous folks don't mind the odd flash and click from a polite admirer. Especially minor celebrities or would be celebrities, or former celebrities. Like those we attract here in Fort Worth. I have photos of myself beside performers who'd come for the big Stock Show and Rodeo, including Ken Curtis, Gunsmoke's Festus, and Fort Worth born Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. And I've posed with every candidate for president who made a campaign stop within driving distance. Yes, that's me with Hubert Humphrey--and Nixon and Goldwater and Rockefeller. We couldn't get close to Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, so I'm in the foreground with them stumping politics behind me. Little Rascal George "Spanky" McFarland agreed to a photo, as did sportscaster Howard Cosell. Heady shots for celebrity photo junkies.

Dad's gone now. Most of my celebrities are, too. I display my old Brownie Starflash in a glass case at home. And I'm usually satisfied to say hello to those unsuspecting stars I meet at the mall or in line at a restaurant. Before that rainy day, deliberately seeking out a celebrity was something I hadn't done in a while.

I'd seen James Stewart on Carson recently, reading from his book of poetry. In his real life he'd grown elderly, nearly doubling his years since he'd starred in It's a Wonderful Life. When he scheduled a personal appearance in Fort Worth, I knew there was no chance I'd bump into him strolling around town. So, I called in sick, drove to the other end of the county, and arrived in time to see him swallowed by a sea of rained-soaked amateurs.

James Stewart, the man, had already passed his beautiful years before I knew him as George Bailey. The day we went to see him in The Cheyenne Social Club at the movie theater, Dad had excitedly tuned in the television to an old movie. I watched James Stewart dance Donna Reed off the floor into a swimming pool. I watched him promise her the moon. Dad owned a 13-inch black and white, and I had to strain to see the face of the man wooing Mary Hatch. But I fell in love with George Bailey and the youngish James Stewart who played him. At the movies later, I was shocked by the image of an aged James Stewart playing the cowboy who inherits a cat house. Same guy, Dad told me. That's George Bailey.

Outside the bookstore, I hadn't moved. Hadn't reached for my camera, burst from my car, taken my shot. Someone from the limo service, or James Stewart's entourage, I didn't know which, was waving me away. Telling me to back up, move it, sister.

I found parking in the muddy field behind the shopping strip and sloshed my way around the side of the building and through the tightly packed line of suspicious glares. The front of the line disappeared through the store's right front door. Incredibly, the store's left door was unlocked and unblocked. Inside, a small mass of people formed a semi-circle around the signing table, boxes of books, and the man himself. He was already greeting people from the line, the long, long line. They handed him gifts while he signed his name to the small tome of verse.

Other, taller, line-kiters had claimed the front view of the table. And to his right, stocky photographer types wearing press badges and frowns formed a impenetrable, professional wall. I circled behind my opposition, past the stern gaze of the store employee who stood behind the signing table watching out for Jimmy, as well as his yet-to-be-purchased books. At the left edge of the table, where the throng approached with reverence, stood, well, no one. I paused there, acknowledging the next person in line and raising my camera in explanation.

And that worked.

For the next two-plus hours I remained, eavesdropping on every rich-toned, slow-sounded syllable spoken by my star. I watched him smile a fresh, new smile at each autograph seeker, laughed along with my table mates when he made a self-depreciating joke, and sighed as well when he shared a reminiscence. I stood close enough to touch his sleeve and quickly shot my role of film, Jimmy smiling, Jimmy signing, Jimmy patting a hand, shaking a hand.

Sometime later, well beyond the posted limit for the signing, officials in suits closed the door on the still growing crowd outside. They shooed away the inner circle, gathered the dozens of well-meant but burdensome gifts. Even made the press pack it up. But, no one noticed me standing there. No one pointed me to the door.

Here was the man who'd given the world unforgettable characters, Jefferson Smith, Tom Destry, Macaulay Connor, Glenn Miller. George Baileyoffski. Old moss back George. The richest man in town. My casual countenance, the one I'd worn for hours, posing as if I belonged there, fell away. My camera, its film spent, hung from my wrist. He was going to walk right past me and out that door. He seemed to be chuckling to himself as he approached. What is it you want, Mary, the moon? I could have easily blocked his path, poured more appreciation on him.

Maybe it was an instinctive act, from years of approaching waiting fans, of shaking hands with strangers. He turned to me, all long arms and long legs, wearing George Bailey's smile, and reached for my hand. That day, he might have been the greatest living actor of the golden age of movies. Or maybe he was just a kind and humble man who'd found acceptance in a wider world.

His hand was large, and softer than I expected. But his grip was firm. As he leaned over me, his eyes met mine and held.

"Thank you," he said. "Thank you for coming today."

I wanted to hold his old man's hand in both of my own hands and promise him, what? That he'd always be loved? That he'd always be young? Instead, I nodded at the tired face before me, whose eyes nevertheless twinkled, and thanked him in return. I'd write to him later, yes, and thank him again for every great experience he'd given me and for this final prize.

I corresponded with his secretary and he graciously autographed his book of poetry and many other pieces of memorabilia. I have the old correspondence, the signed papers, the photos from that day--these things I can share with indulgent friends. Those are the good prizes, the better prizes. The best I can share with no one. And don't want to.


Please send us your comments, including the name of the work you are commenting on.

Don't want to miss out? Contact us and we'll send you an e-mail message announcing each new issue. (Be sure to see our Privacy Policy.)

Copyright © 1999-2007 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.
Individual works are copyrighted by their authors.