News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 24, 2010

The Off Season: Going on a search for ‘Rosebud’

By Mike Lunsford

The following story should come with a “spoiler alert,” one of those pulsating red neon scroll bars that allows the reader to know that the writer is about to give away some critical piece of information — a joke’s punch line, a novel’s resolution, a movie whodunnit’s killer…

If you have never seen the classic film, “Citizen Kane,” and you don’t want to get the lowdown on it, kindly move now to the lottery information on page 2. I had never heard of “Citizen Kane” until I took a course in mass media during my freshman year at Indiana State. My instructor, Gary Steinke, did for me, as my students would now say, a “solid,” by introducing me to that film, which was recently, once again, named the all-time greatest movie by the American Film Institute, if such rankings really matter.

I loved the movie from that first time I saw it, its incredible deep-focused black-and-white images flickering away from one reel to the next as I sat absorbed in my cramped oak student desk in a second-floor Dreiser Hall classroom. I’ll leave its merits for others to argue; what interested me most then, and still intrigues me now, is Kane’s sled, his now iconic “Rosebud.”

To make a long movie short, “Kane” is the story of Charles Foster Kane, a multi-millionaire publisher. The fictional character was supposedly based on the very real newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who forbade anyone in his presence to even mention it. As the film begins, Kane dies in the icy bedroom of his cavernous mansion, Xanadu. Before he expires, he drops the snow globe (it was his second wife’s) he has been holding and croaks the word, “Rosebud.”

Kane’s final whisper sets the film’s plot into motion as a reporter leaves no stone unturned in an attempt to discover what the dying man really meant. He never finds his answer, but in the movie’s final scene the viewer sees Rosebud consigned to the flames of Xanadu’s furnace, nothing but a piece of worthless trash amidst a sea of the old man’s endless collections. The sled was just a tiny bit of Kane’s life, yet, perhaps the only enduring happy memory of his childhood

“Kane” is, of course, considerably more complicated than the “Reader’s Digest Condensed” version I’ve just handed to you, but, to me, the most compelling storyline in the film is that such a powerful man, a man who had everything, and lost much of it, would have on his lips at his death the one thing that made him most happy. I’ve always wondered if we all have a “Rosebud” in our pasts.

There’s no way that I can know what my parents’ ideas of Rosebud were; they died before I thought to ask them, and my brother, sister and I have precious little from our folks’ childhoods to divide among the three of us. I know that when I think of my dad and what made him most happy, I would have to say that it was his old Willy’s Jeep. I remember the rattle of it — a 1946, I think — as we took Sunday afternoon drives up the County Line Road. My dad always had a smile on his face when he drove that thing, but, of course, that was long after his childhood was done. I guess I could call it a memory of his second childhood, perhaps.

I’d like to think that I have a photo of what my mom’s childhood keepsake was. The snapshot of her shows a long-legged girl of about 10 astride a huge bicycle in the yard of her 1940s West Terre Haute home. She has curlers in her hair, and in the basket of her bike sits a little two-toned terrier. On the back of the photo she had written “Louie and me.” I don’t know, but perhaps Louie was a memory she clung to for many years; I want to believe that anyway.

I have written about so many of my own memories that choosing something to be my Rosebud is next to impossible. I have told stories about the rock hammer my grandparents bought for me in the days I aspired to be a geologist, and the old oak tool box my dad saved from a landfill that still sits in our living room, filled with a collection of rocks and fossils. I hope my children and their children will someday want it. I have my first baseball glove, and I have a nearly perfect arrowhead that I kicked up in the sandy field next to my boyhood home; I must have been about 10 when I did that. I also have a very old copy of “Treasure Island,” too, and it was a book I came to love then, as I still do.

Sitting on my desk is a small piece of quartz that my Grandmother Blanche found in a stream in Virginia many years ago. I pick it up every once in a while and hold it to the light as I did when I was boy. My grandmother kept the quartz in her purse; it was always wrapped in a piece of tissue paper, and she would often show it to me as I sat in the front seat of a blue Chevrolet Biscayne between my grandparents on unbearably long road trips to Brazil on Sunday afternoons to visit even older, more wrinkled, relatives.

Despite her telling me that the quartz was just that, that she kept it because she knew I liked it, and that she had found it in a place where she used to sit and listen to falling water, I always believed that it was a diamond, that in time she’d sell it, and we’d all be rich. She was barely 60 when she died, and it is one of the few things I have from her. When I look at it, I think I can still see myself crammed into that old Chevy riding the waves of the Rio Grande Road to Clay County.

Early in “Citizen Kane,” a young Charlie can be seen through a kitchen window as he plays in the falling snow on his sled in a Colorado winter. He is truly happy despite his poverty. The sled is left behind in his mother’s boarding house, and later in the film, before he enters into a sordid affair that ends his first marriage and leads him into a disastrous second, he implies that he is on his way to a warehouse where Rosebud can put him in touch with his past.

If we are lucky in life, we’ll not only have people who love us to hold onto, but also we’ll have our memories, whether they be in the form of sleds or pet dogs or bits of stone. They might just comfort us in tough times and make our good days even better. If there’s anything that Kane teaches us, it’s that.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47809. He will be signing his books at BookNation on Feb. 5. Visit Mike’s Web page is at www.mikelunsford.com.