A Reflection on a Night of Destiny
By Scott Napolitano
“I’ve been told that your childhood ends when one of your heroes passes away and you wake up the next day feeling that much older. I can confirm this with the passing of Christopher Reeve. Having only seen him two weeks ago, his death came as a total shock…”
It’s been three years since I wrote those words. Three years. To some, it may not seem like much time. After all, that’s the blink of an eye in a cosmic sense. And yet, three years to people who looked up to Christopher Reeve likely seems like an eternity without the man who convinced us all he would walk again. At times I feel myself inches away from breaking down into a child-like tantrum. “It’s not fair! He deserved the chance! He was ready to do it! He inspired so many! Why did he have to go? Why did his wife have to go? How is that fair?”
You see, I have a unique connection to that period of time, a sort of torch to keep lit. While Reeve passed away on October 10th, that didn’t stop him from doing public speeches and enlightening crowds. I know this because I was there. I saw. And I filmed.
On September 29th, 2004, Christopher Reeve came to my ballpark.
Okay, fine. It’s not my ballpark. It’s First Energy Park, home of the Lakewood Blueclaws, single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. This diamond in the suburbs at the Shore had been my home away from home since sixteen, and secretly, I had always hoped that we would eventually get a big name celebrity to visit in the off-season.
Writers use the phrases like “my world was turned upside down” so much that it seems to have lost its power by now. But that was definitely the case when I commuted back to Lakewood after a day of classes at The College of New Jersey. Over the loud speaker, my friend, PA Announcer Kevin Clark announced that on September 29th a fundraiser event called Empower New Jersey would be sponsoring a special key-note speaker.
I don’t think I need to tell you who it was. Needless to say, I remember freezing in place and jetting across the concourse to see the screen in case the announcement wasn’t read again or in case I had misheard it. Sure enough, there was Christopher’s picture beside the Empower NJ logo. While I was still strapped for cash at the time, I knew I had to get in and paid for tickets in advance.
Only later did I realize I could have simply asked my boss if I could WORK the event as a cameraman. He agreed and I prepped the stadium camera for recording on the day of. My handheld radio was fit with an earpiece in case of incoming messages, my camera loaded with a VHS tape that sits next to me as I type this. My primary location for filming would be the concourse, as I only had so much battery power to go mobile. In retrospect, I should have saved the battery power for only Christopher’s speech, but I was still trying to impress the sponsors by filming the pre-speech activity.
Beside me stood my friend Tim Serabian. He too would remember this day. Tim had been affected by Reeve’s words and general life than even I had. His dorm room had been a sort of shrine to Superman, in particular Reeve’s portrayal. He had once told me that Reeve’s Superman, with the easygoing personality and charismatic strength had inspired him to strive to be more, as a person and as an actor. Tim would also remember this as the day he would meet his future girlfriend Michelle, who was a fellow Blueclaw colleague and friend for years.
The pre-speech festivities remain a blur in my memory. I remember introducing Tim and Michelle. I know businesses were set up on the concourse. I know each of the day’s sponsors said a few words but I can’t recall about what specifically. However, I do remember being nervous about the day’s weather report. The forecast called for sporadic showers throughout the night, making the prospects of a Reeve speech seem shaky. They wouldn’t let him go out on the baseball field under a cold fall rain, the little voice in my head told me. I wouldn’t blame the event organizers or Mr. Reeve for bowing out at the simple threat of inclement weather. Heck, I had seen baseball games cancelled for far less.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several celebrities through film work, radio work and writing. Some lived up to my hopes and expectations. Others were sadly negative. So it was that in the moments before I stepped out onto the green grass of First Energy Park that I knew so well that I contemplated what it would be like to meet a childhood hero.
And then I heard the hushed, excited tones coming from a stream of security crew in the visitor’s dugout. “He’s coming. He’s here!” I stepped towards the railing, my stomach in knots. Then he was there, wheelchair gleaming, an entourage flanking him from behind.
I’d like to say I had one of those cinematic moments where I called out his name and he looked up at me and acknowledged my existence with a wink or a smile. I’d like to think he realized how awed I was to be in the presence of a person who had not simply influenced a generation as one of the most recognizable characters in history but as a man who had affected the awareness of an entire nation, a world. In my daydreams, my subconscious tries to convince my brain that I did something like that. Then, as they say, I wake up.
Not that I can complain. For a moment, we did lock eyes, and I’m not ashamed to admit I got chills. His eyes then turned to the dugout and to the ramp and then to the field, analyzing the surroundings like a general surveying his troops before battle. As he approached the platform and the standing ovation that awaited him, instincts kicked in. And I paid even more attention to what I was filming.
I would spend most of the speech moving from the dugout roof to the concourse to the first base side of the field (I was told I could film anywhere but from the third base side). At first, there were technical difficulties with the microphone. Some speakers would have gotten flustered or annoyed with the venue’s crew (I had witnessed many celebrities act in such a manner). Reeve simply waited patiently, flashed a reassuring smile and made a quick joke that put everyone at ease.
When an actor goes so far with a character that the public identifies them with the fictitious alter ego, it has been my experience that some of these actors become tired and occasionally bitter of them. This worry was in the back of my head as Reeve took to the microphone, and yet these fears seem silly in retrospect. I had read the quotes about how Tom Welling of “Smallville” fame had been amazed by Chris’s knowledge of Superman. Sure enough, Reeve began with a tribute to his home state and to the character that brought him acclaim.
“I spent my summers sailing on Barnegat Bay, driving around Toms River, Mantoloking, Point Pleasant — it’s all a part of who I am,” the Princeton native said. “For me, New Jersey has always been a small state that does big things.” Reeve paused and again offered that comforting smile. “I come from Jersey, not from Krypton. Actually, Krypton was boring; New Jersey is interesting. There’s a lot more going on,” the actor quipped.
Obviously, this garnered a loud applause from the audience, me included. It’s always nice when the world realizes there is more to the Garden State than chemical plants and mob members. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Reeve goofing around in his younger years in the Toms River area years before I would come to live there.
The primary focus of Reeve’s speech involved the expansion of one’s worldview and the maintenance of an open mind. Reeve said he was particularly proud of the long fight in courts that resulted in New Jersey becoming the second state in the union behind California to allow all forms of stem-cell research. He seemed particularly enthusiastic about a new facility at Rutgers University that would focus on understanding (and searching for cures for) cancer, leukemia and paralysis.
“In probably 10 years, 15 years from now — maybe even sooner — when all types of research is in use, we will look back and say, ‘What was the fuss?’” Reeve said. “It has happened time and time again.”
By this point I was starting to get the pointed feeling that the man’s words were not just being mulled over but clearly absorbed. There was no coughing, no whispers, no cell phones going off or bathroom breaks. He had us all hanging on his every word and while I cannot speak for the other guests present, I can say that his wisdom has remained with me to this day. These powerful statements were imparted with the kind of steadfast tone that gives credence to their validity. This was not a celebrity asking for donations at a phone-in fundraiser or a politician’s speech filled with empty opinions. Every idea he spoke of was backed with a look of absolute faith in his eyes. The words echoed throughout the ballpark before flying out into the ballpark and into memory.
“Empowerment begins with an understanding of oneself,” he said. “Some people achieve it very early and unfortunately some never attain it and they miss out. But to begin to understand who you really are and what your capabilities are, what you want your legacy to be, you begin to get to know yourself. It becomes clearer what you want to or have to do.”
To illustrate his point, Reeve told a story about his mother, who chased her dream of becoming a writer later in life. Starting out at a small Princeton newspaper writing about dull town meetings, she worked her way up to eventually becoming an editor of the same paper. At the same time, she trained herself in sailing, despite doctor’s warnings against physical activities that might exacerbate her asthma. She would go on to become a highly competitive sailor.
“I truly feel that if you understand yourself and you set goals without regard to the limits put on you, then nothing is impossible,” Reeve said. “Why not set your ideals and goals as high as you can. One of the keys to this is refusing to accept absolutes.”
According to the actor, one the most infuriating moments of his life was when doctors told him at 42 that he would never walk again. “I don’t take kindly to words like ‘never’ or general ultimatums. If you asked any scientist in 1995, they would say the spinal chord can’t regenerate,” Reeve said. “If you ask any scientist now, they’d say that the spinal chord can and they are. Things change.”
In a statement that remains with me to this day, Reeve seemed to take in the crowd around him. Through my viewfinder, his eyes passed from dugout to dugout before rising up through the bleachers and then even into the viewfinder of my camera.
He’s looking right at me. He sees me! I remember thinking irrationally. Still, this was the power he had over the crowd.
“All of us have the power to make that change happen by looking inside ourselves and saying ‘I’m going to do the best that I can to discover what potential is inside of me,’” Reeve said. “There’s more inside of us than we are aware of.”
The speech was wrapped with a thunderous applause that I’m convinced is probably still blasting across the universe even now. A fortunate few were able to grab a mobile microphone to ask Mr. Reeve questions and I was torn. As a cameraman training for a degree in film, I felt compelled to record the events and not join in. But the Superman fan in me, the Somewhere in Time fan, the fan of the actor and the activist was screaming on the inside to take the opportunity, to seize the moment. It’s a regret I have to this day, and while I count myself a lucky man for being there in Lakewood, I probably have bruise marks on my rear from three years of kicking myself.
Fortunately, my friend Tim was bolder and not tied to a post as I was and jumped towards one of the microphones. Tim seemed to need a moment to get past a lump in his throat the size of a football. Heck, my palms were sweating at the thought of talking to such a hero.
Tim’s question was one he later told me had been on his mind for years, one he had always wanted to have answered but had never heard a journalist or fan or writer ask.
“What will be the first thing you do when you walk again?” he asked, emphasizing the ‘when’ so much to the point where the crowd cheered the question. Reeve, to his credit, smiled and needed a moment. And with a quick wit that amazes me even now, Reeve answered back with two answers, one comical and one deep.
“The first thing I do when I get up and walk again…I probably won’t be doing much standing for,” he said in a knowing tone. There was dead silence as the innuendo sunk in and there was not a man, woman or child who wasn’t cracking up. I’m sure my camera work suffered after that, simply because I never would have expected a response coming from a man whose words only minutes earlier had shook me to the core. Now I was shaking for a whole different reason!
After the laughter died down, Reeve looked back at Tim and the audience and said in a more serious tone, “When I get up, I won’t fall down. And if I do, I’m going to get right up.”
Despite audio problems, a lack of a tripod (combined with a particularly heavy camera) and defective batteries, the night was a rousing success. Tim and I could barely speak on the way home, we were so emotionally drained so we simply listened to the radio. Upon arriving back to campus, I put fingers to keyboard and pounded out a report for the TCNJ newspaper.
Life moved on, but things were fundamentally different. I looked at challenges as obstacles, not brick walls. And even the few brick walls of life didn’t seem so bad if attacked with Superman-like strength and willpower.
Then came the morning when the news broke. My best friend had sent me an email or an instant message before my morning class. It said nothing other than READ NOW and a link. It didn’t hit me until I read two more news sites and the four other emails waiting for me from other friends who knew how much I admired Reeve. It didn’t seem possible. I just saw him ten days ago. How can that be?
Unfortunately, I had no time to let it process. I was given the task of announcing the news for my college’s radio station as I was the morning show DJ for that day. There was a particular line in the Associated Press wire report that I literally choked on as I read it the first time. A doctor was quoted as saying something to the effect that Reeve lived as long as could be expected for someone in condition. It bothered me on such a fundamental level that I cut the line from future news updates. If there is anything I learned from following Reeve’s progress was that the man seemed to hate being generalized to, to have limits placed upon him, to be told he could only expect so much.
Several friends told me I was being foolish. As the videographer for the Empower NJ speech, I would have been one of the last (if not THE last) people to film Reeve in public. The tape could be sold to the media and some of my financial problems would be solved.
While I loved the idea of sharing this fantastic speech with the world, I loathed the concept of making a buck at the expense of a personal hero. It seemed cheap and opportunistic. So I did two things: I made a copy and gave it to the head of PR for the Christopher Reeve Foundation when I did an interview with their staff for the radio station. They said they would see what they could do with it. Maybe they utilized it. Maybe not.
The second thing I did was lock up the master copy. To this day, I haven’t the heart to watch it. Part of it is fear of seeing how bad the quality is. The other is I don’t know if I can watch it without getting choked up. The speech, as I said, is etched into my memory to the point where some of his statements appear as motivators around my dorms and apartments.
It’s strange how the world goes in circles. That day seemed to have a touch of destiny to it. Reeve’s appearance on “Smallville” had acted as a lightning rod for my career, as I realized that I too had to write my own destiny. Quite literally, in fact. The show had given me chills and I spent the entire night re-evaluating what I wanted to do. The end result was to inspire others through writing and film, as they were what I enjoyed the most. Had I not decided this, I would not have come back to the Blueclaws and likely never gone to see what Tim and I now call “The Speech”.
Reeve spoke of his mother and the strength she exhibited and a year later, almost to the day, I met her while I interviewed Bryan Singer at the dedication of a stage in the Princeton Library for Christopher. I once again found myself stumbling for words, even forgetting the date of the speech. My blood went about as cold as the Arctic when she sharply corrected me that the date I mentioned couldn’t be true.
Once again, fodder for the forever-kicking-of-self.
However, after regaining composure, I explained how thankful I was for having had the opportunity to hear her son speak. I promised that if I could get a clean copy of the tape on DVD, I would send it to her. While my sneak peak at exclusive Superman Returns footage was a thrill and talking to a director like Bryan Singer was a boon to my filmmaking education, it was this simple exchange, embarrassment and all, that made my night.
Tim and I both met our respective girls as a result of that night. We both went to see Singer in Princeton. We both became teachers, holding hopes of influencing the next generation. Now I’m back working on films and writing again. Even when the days are long, the bills costly, the headaches pounding, I think back on what the great man from Jersey said, and I persevere and Go Forward.