How could the world get along without nostalgia? Well, until 1688 it had to do without that word, because it hadn’t been invented until the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer simply translated the humble German Heimweh (“homesickness,” or literally “home-pain”) into Greek. “Thinking of the days that are no more”—going back, for instance, to memories of a happy childhood that vanished more than half a century ago—might be expected to prompt at least a few of Tennyson’s “tears, idle tears.” But not for Charles Osgood, the affable, good-humored, modestly erudite host of CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” (Charles Kuralt was a hard act to follow, but Osgood managed.)
In 1942 Charles Osgood (then Charlie Wood III) was a nine-year-old, middle-class Catholic altar boy transplanted from the Bronx to Baltimore. He was bright, energetic, well behaved, patriotic (he tracked the course of the war on that old cliché, the pin-bedecked wall map), musical (he occasionally played the organ at his home parish, Our Lady of Lourdes) and bursting with ideas. He was crazy about books, baseball, radio (everything on radio, whence came his broadcasting career), Stephen Foster, “The Mark of Zorro” and a girl named Sue Einstein. Oh, he had his quirks, like eating crayons, and he was constantly letting his enthusiasm run away with him (he enjoyed telephoning total strangers, such as players on the Triple-A Baltimore Orioles). Osgood was sometimes punished for his pranks, as when he ran away from home for half a day with his sister Mary Ann; and he even calls himself a “jerk.”
But, apart from the fact that we know he’s going to turn into a long-running media star—still quirky, after all these years, with his puns and doggerel—he already sounds like a kid any parent would love to have. “Never once did I say ‘I’m bored,’ and never once did I hear any other boy say it. Boredom wasn’t invented till 1982.”
In that casual remark lies the key to what gives this slight, rose-tinted memoir its sharpest savor, if not exactly bite. Osgood is not just a sentimental laudator temporis acti (with total recall); he often mocks contemporary spoiled children: “In a forties grammar school, as long as you didn’t have scurvy, the way you felt was considered less important than the way you thought. No mother ever said to a teacher, ‘You’ll have to make an allowance for Lori throwing that lunchbox at you. Her Prozac isn’t blending well with her lithium right now and she’s been a bit more bipolar than usual this week.’ In my school bipolar described only the earth, and we who were in one of its fourth grades had to know that Peary discovered the North Pole and Amundsen the other, which even the most slaphappy kid knew was the South.” Whereas nowadays….
All in all, Osgood comes across as no more blindly enamored of the past or acerbically amused by the present (of course, he’s made a lot of money chatting about it in public) than any witty, well-known geezer has a right to be. Contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Osgood will enjoy—or at any rate acknowledge the accuracy of—his vivid sketches of a world so innocently G-rated that boys slept with their baseball gloves beneath their pillows. If nothing else, younger readers will have to admit that at age 9 they couldn’t have named the two capitals of Libya or caught a geographical howler in Kipling’s “The Road to Mandalay” (Mandalay is on the Irrawaddy River, not “the bay”). Before television and the Web, there really were fresh-faced little polymaths of a kind seldom met with today.
In any event, anyone who picks up Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack will not find much to complain about—except maybe the price. There are lots of photos, and the text can be read in under an hour. A writer-performer who has garnered three Emmys and three Peabodys and been inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame obviously knows how to entertain—and he does.
Readers who prefer a more nuanced, bittersweet and literally nostalgic quest for lost time will have to look elsewhere. In his ebullient, self-centered way, Osgood doesn’t seem to mind that practically everyone he is writing about is dead.