It’s the 10th anniversary of the fall of Vietnam to Communists. So Ho Chi Minh City has been invaded by Western reporters wearing the standard issue of bush jackets and khaki shirts with epaulets.
The TV war has become--a decade later--the TV obsession.
There are stories recalling the war and stories reviewing the peace, stories about the fallen and stories about the survivors, human-interest stories and human-tragedy stories.
But the Vietnam veteran I saw on TV the other night was not part of the commemoration.
Evangelist David Roever, 38, was in Santa Ana, making one of his frequent appearances on the Bible-thumping fundamentalist Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Seeing the program had to wipe you out.
Sitting across from Roever was 8-year-old David Rothenberg, who made international news two years ago when his deranged father soaked him with kerosene and set him afire. Little David, who lives with his mother in the Los Angeles area, received third-degree burns over 90% of his body and nearly died. He had extraordinary courage and will, though, and now, after extensive skin graft surgery, he is continuing to recover.
Big David and little David. They have a lot in common.
Flash back to 1969. Roever was on river patrol in Vietnam with the Navy’s special forces unit. He was preparing to throw a grenade at movement he had spotted on shore when a sniper’s bullet hit the grenade, exploding it six inches from Roever’s head.
The explosion blew off the right side of his face and tore apart the rest of his body. He lost 60 pounds of flesh. He was hospitalized for 14 months at the burn center in San Antonio, Tex., undergoing 15 operations.
Big David and little David.
TV too often defines beauty as bright teeth and perfect skin and hair you’d love to run your fingers through. Commercial after commercial sets standards for perfection, beats it into our heads that society must be fatless and physically flawless.
What a fraud.
Roever’s skin grafts could not restore the unrestorable. They could not make a pinup of Roever, who is no pretty sight by ordinary standards. Even less so is David Rothenberg, whose face looks like a smooth mask and who now has stumps for hands and is practically bald.
“I wear a hairpiece, but I understand you’re uncomfortable wearing one,” Roever said. David nodded.
David spoke less on TBN than he has in other TV appearances. But the silent bond between these two victims-turned-victors produced some of the most profoundly moving television I’ve seen. It was TV at its most special.
“God picked you because you’re tough,” said the Fort Worth, Tex.-based Roever, a true preaching man who loves to make people laugh.
He made a joke about wearing plastic ears. David grinned.
Roever was gentle and understanding without being condescending. “The flaking on your skin will stop,” he told David. “Although I still get a little. I sort of like it because it reminds me of what it was like.”
Later, Roever asked: “What’s been the hardest for you?” David paused, then replied: “People looking.”
“Davie wants to keep living,” Marie Rothenberg said about her son the day after the TBN program. “So if people stare, that’s too bad. I can understand it when people look, but sometimes they’ll stare for an hour. It’s rude, but it happens.”
The gawkers won’t stop. It’s natural to want to look. I was jolted when I first saw Roever on the screen, but truly shocked when I first saw little David, and my first instinct was to turn away.
This was not “Mask” or “The Elephant Man,” consciousness-raising movies that help increase our sensitivity. This was real life, as real as TV can get.
TV is a wonderful demystifier, though. The more I watched, the more I understood. Gradually, the David inside emerged for me, making him seem less disfigured than distinctive, a charming, spirited boy with a gift for expanding the horizons of others.
David has a wise mother who refuses to hide him from public view as if he were a freak.
“There are a lot of people who think I shouldn’t bring him out in public,” Marie Rothenberg said last year. “They ask me, ‘How can you let him be on TV?,’ like he shouldn’t be seen or something. But, you know, I don’t want him to be afraid of the world or to miss out on anything because they are afraid to look at him.”
Has she changed her mind?
“No, I haven’t,” she said the other day. “The more exposure Davie gets, the better for him. And the better for burn victims. He’s become their representative. We have to get people to look past outward beauty and accept others for what they are on the inside. It took a bad tragedy for me to learn that lesson myself.”
David has told his mother that he doesn’t want to see his psychiatrist anymore. “He said he’ll talk to Dave Roever instead,” she said, laughing.
On the TBN telecast, meanwhile, Roever told David to hold no bitterness. He gave David his phone number and told him to call whenever he felt like it.
Little David nodded.
“I love ya, man,” Big David said. “I love ya.”
The beautiful people.