Ernest Thompson is the storyteller who brought us “On Golden Pond.” If you’ve never heard of “On Golden Pond,” or seen the movie, Thompson might suggest you pack up and open an ice cream parlor in Antarctica.
Now a favorite “son of Westminster” who authored that famous award-winning play and film about family dysfunction and redemption and anger and love, Thompson had a lot of friends — old and new — in the packed Krug Chapel at Carroll Lutheran Village last week. He has a new novel, “The Book of Maps.”
When he took the podium and reached into a black pouch to withdraw what appeared to be a rather abused stand for a table lamp in need of a shade, he had them.
Meet Oscar. Ooohs and ahhhhs swept the room like sighs of waves on the shore.
Thompson introduced his dear friend and fellow traveler with no apology for the lack of Oscarly bling. The superficial shine of filmdom’s most-coveted symbol of success is less valuable than all the stories that Oscar could tell if he had the voice of a live storyteller. But he is mute, so Thompson is happy to provide the narrative. He is the storyteller, after all.
The audience leaned in to hear master tale-spinner. Like we did when mom or gramps took us into a lap with a book about bunnies and perilous journeys under the shadow of circling hawks or the thrumming threats implied by clouds gathering in the distance.
I related to his confession that he was not a stellar scholar in high school. Math and science and rules come with lists, facts laid out like forks and spoons on a formal table setting. Chemistry has a role in human biology, but the romance of life is in the emotions.
Learning is mining facts. Discovery of truths is the moment you see gold. Dreams are discoveries waiting just off stage. George Bernard Shaw wrote that life was not about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself.
Thompson’s edgy story is one of a teenaged son of teachers. His father is a college professor who moves the family from their New England home to become the new kid in a place called Westminster, some town between then and now, neither there nor here. Roughly several hours from anyplace.
His identity is up for grabs, but whose isn’t at 15? Relatable. A story brews. He recognizes old friends, recalls misadventures with former students and a few teachers, and how it was a little complicated when his mother takes a job in the same school.
During the audience participation part of the visit, classmate Mike Billingslea, whose parents were also educators, recalled sharing a “creative corner” — or was it “chaotic” — with Thompson and having been separated for the benefit of classroom order and decorum.
Rachel Wentz, retired teacher of French, remarked that she remembered Thompson as, “One of her more interesting students” during her career. Teachers have stories, too.
The late Mike Eaton was in the room. His influence and encouragement as a legendary teacher of English was there as much as the influence of Oscar. It was Eaton’s love of theater, literature, travel and excellence in search of potential that lit the creative kindling of a young man with stories to discover in himself and a wider world to inhabit.
Thompson told the story of the local kid who went to New York and wrote a lot of plays and acted in unremarkable productions but just happened to have a copy of the manuscript for “On Golden Pond” in an unplotted moment. The play would be a last-minute offering off Broadway. He had written it over the Memorial Day weekend, he said, and it was rushed into its first New York production by Labor Day. Critics were not impressed.
But audiences liked the story. It survived, became an iconic movie, is still performed for audiences of every culture. The kid’s story led to mixing with Hollywood celebrities like Kathryn Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, and sharing a mint from Warren Beatty while waiting backstage for his introduction to his long-time pal, Oscar.
I asked him one question. “When does he like to write?” He said he’s always writing, even if it’s only in his head.
Yep. Right answer.
Dean Minnich writes from Westminster.