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Sunday, October 02, 2016

As The World Turns - The Church Fire of 1997

It seems as though every single day we hear another tale of bad news every time the 6 o'clock hour comes.  These days, you can't turn on the television without hearing another story about another shooting. 

In particular, shootings involving police officers and men of African-American origin.

The rash of shootings has prompted several protests in several major cities, and the Black Lives Matter movement has continued to gain ground.  It's definitely been a tumultuous time in modern day history, and I almost think that this could be the beginning of another civil rights movement of sorts.

It's definitely hard for me to figure out what the right answer is.  I definitely am the type that believes that people of all backgrounds should have the right to live their lives without fear of getting shot, and I am most definitely against corruption of all kinds, be it with the police, or with politicians, or what have you.  At the same time, I think it's unfair to blame the entire police system for these incidents because for every bad police officer out there are ten good officers who genuinely want to uphold the law at all times.  Some might call me optimistic in that regard, but I've always been someone who has tried to see the best in a person before calling them out on their worst.  That's an aspect of my personality that I will never change no matter how old I get.

And sadly, these incidents are not exclusive to the year 2016.  As long as the world has been turning, there have been many instances of racial tension that has involved the police.  And I suppose this is a great way to lead into the topic that I have chosen for today.

How many of you remember watching the daytime drama "As The World Turns"?  The show was one of the longest running soap operas in the United States.  It debuted on April 2, 1956 and aired its final episode on September 17, 2010.  And "As The World Turns" was my mother's favourite soap opera.  She watched the show from its debut (she was 10 at the time) until its final episode.  Now, that is what I call a dedicated fan!

I still remember being a young child and how everything at my house had to be done by 2:00 in the afternoon.  Because from 2-3pm my mother would always be sitting on the couch to watch her favourite show.  I often wondered what else was on television at two in the afternoon, but I never got the chance to find out as Mom always reserved the television for that one hour each weekday.

So, I suppose that I would inevitably watch the show through osmosis in a sense.  I got to learn most of the character names such as Lily and Holden and Margo and James Stenbeck.  The last one I heard a lot in my childhood courtesy of my mother who would often insert a few adjectives that would have gotten me kicked out of kindergarten should I have dared repeat them.

I will say that "As The World Turns" did have some decent storylines.  And one storyline that aired in November 1997 certainly was ahead of its time - especially given everything that has been happening in the world today.

It's a tale featuring a bigoted, racist cop, a place of worship, race baiting, and a stunning conclusion that formed the basis for one of the soap's "supercouples". 

(Though, just between you and I, I despise the word supercouple.  Unless they have the ability to shoot lasers with their eyes or walk through walls, there's nothing 'super' about any soap relationship.  Just that in this case, they were a couple that fans loved.)

This tale actually began a few months earlier than our main plot.  I can't remember whether it was in 1996 or early 1997, but the incident that kicked this whole plot off began when a jogger was stopped by a police officer as he ran through a local park in Oakdale, Illinois (the fictional town that the show took place in). 

The jogger was Dr. Benjamin Harris, who police believed was the main suspect in a robbery that had taken place earlier.  The officer who arrested Harris was Officer Joe Teague, and he used excessive force against Ben to the point where Ben had suspected that he was being targeted because of his race.  Of course, everyone who knew Ben (which included his girlfriend Camille, and several friends) knew that he wouldn't be capable of committing such a crime, but Teague insisted that Ben was the culprit.

It wasn't until Ben launched a complaint against the Oakdale Police Department, insisting that something be done about Teague once and for all.  Certainly senior officers Hal Munson and Margo Hughes wanted to do all they could, but at the same time, they needed to have more proof that Ben was targeted solely because of his skin colour, and they needed to have proof that Teague was a bigot.

Now, keep in mind that I wasn't really watching the show regularly like my mom was, so I really had to rely on her to tell me how Teague was found out.  My mom wasn't quite sure how Ben cleared his name and got Joe exposed.  She did remember that Ben's arrest was not the first time that Joe had been involved in an arrest that was racially motivated, and that Joe's bigoted past came back to haunt him in a big way when Hal and Margo let him go from the police force. 

Of course, Teague wasn't ready to let Ben go so easily.  He had several of his racist friends stalk Ben everywhere he went - including the Milltown Baptist Church - a place that Ben worshipped at for years, and a place where its congregation and preacher were mostly African-American.  But that was about to change, as the church made the decision to make everybody in Oakdale feel welcome at the church, and in November 1997, the church had an open house to do just that.  Nearly everybody in the town (a.k.a. most of the 28 contract cast members, plus thirty or so extras) showed up at the church to sing songs, pray, and celebrate the love and the harmony that can come from what are supposed to be peaceful church gatherings.  In fact, to make the occasion even more special, the church choir was made up of people from several religious denominations and establishments, making sure that it truly was a concert in which everyone was welcome.

But what nobody in the church realized was that Teague had come to the church to do some serious damage and to get revenge on Ben Harris for having to give up his badge.  Opportunity presented itself when ex-con Molly Conlan got into an argument with Holden Snyder in the parking lot of the church, and Holden pushed Molly down on the ground.  After Holden was out of sight, Teague knocked Molly out cold, and proceeded to set the church on fire from the outside!  He planned to frame Holden for the crime by making it look like the fire was an accident as a result of Holden and Molly's fight, and he fled the scene, leaving a church filled with people to inevitably burn to death.

Nice guy, huh?

Now, before I go on with this, I'll let all of you watch the church fire scenes as they unfolded.  As of right now, the whole story arc spanning from November 20-24, 1997 are available on YouTube, though the quality isn't the best.  Perhaps the episode that shows the fire at its most intense is the one from November 21, and you can watch Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 by clicking on the numbers.

So, the end result of the fire was quite devastating.  A woman named Pamela was killed in the fire.  Barbara Ryan lost her unborn child as a result of the fire.  Kim Hughes was knocked unconscious by a falling beam and was comatose for weeks.  And the Milltown Baptist Church was reduced to ruins.  And Teague thought that with him dispatching Molly and framing Holden for the arson, he would get away scot free.

There were just a couple of things wrong with his plan.  First, Molly didn't die.  She survived Teague's attack.  Unfortunately, she woke up blaming Holden for it all, but that's another story.  The fact is that Teague didn't know that Molly didn't know that Teague had hit her, so that was one thing he had to fear.  But even more importantly, Teague didn't realize that Molly's cousin Carly and Holden's cousin Jack were hot on the case of trying to find out who really started the blaze.  And in that quest to find the truth, Jack and Carly ended up accidentally getting abducted by Teague and nearly froze to death in the frosty February air because of it!

I suppose that in the end it was poetic justice that Teague met his end at the hands of Ben Harris...the man who Teague had animosity towards from the very beginning.  When Ben and Lucinda Walsh happened upon Teague's cabin and they found Teague holding Carly and a wounded Jack hostage, Ben leapt into action and fought Teague one last time, ending with Teague getting shot by Ben.  Fortunately, no charges were laid against Ben and Teague's final words only served to prove that he was bigoted to the very end.

The storyline wrapped up with the church being rebuilt, Jack working at the police station to prove that there were decent, non-bigoted cops in Oakdale, and the supercouple that would come to be known as "CarJack" was born.  But once again, I really hate the word supercouple, so let's just say that Jack and Carly fell in love and got married...and then got divorced.  And then got remarried.  And then got divor...well, you get the picture.

At any rate, it was a brilliantly done storyline for a soap opera to tackle - and one that seemed to be ahead of its time.  With so many instances of hate crimes being committed and linked to the police, it's certainly worth a revisit.  In the case of Oakdale, Illinois, the storyline was wrapped up within three months...but in the real world, it's most definitely not the case.

I think the one thing we can agree on is that bigotry, racism, and prejudice are things that are most definitely not welcome in the world, and I think every single one of us needs to work harder to make sure that stays the case.

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