Mesa Musings: David Nelson was the best role model

Last week I experienced one of life's poignant little moments.

Leafing through the Jan. 12 edition of the Los Angeles Times, I came across an obituary for David Nelson ("TV family's last surviving star," LAT Extra). I spent a few moments in reverie and self-reflection.

Nelson was the last surviving member of the Nelson family: Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky. I grew up with the Nelsons on television. "America's Family" subtly influenced my own in the 1950s and '60s.

The Carnetts — Bill, Betty, Jimmy and Billy — reminded me of the Nelsons, and we occasionally took little cues from our TV cousins. My brother and I liked to get summer buzz haircuts to make ourselves look like Ricky.

"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" aired from 1952 to 1966, constituting an incredible 435 episodes.

My family — like most Americans — loved the Nelsons even after David and Rick had grown to manhood and become fraternity brothers.

When we first began watching the show, David was 16 and Ricky 12. I was 7, and my brother, Billy, was 5. A decade later, Jimmy and Billy were still watching.

I saw myself as David, the staid, stolid older brother. David was the straight man in the family. I viewed his progression through life as illuminating. It pointed the way to my destiny. He was in high school and dating girls when I began watching the show as a third-grader. Later, he was a serious college student and I knew I'd follow him there someday.

I saw my brash little brother, Billy, as the irrepressible and wisecracking Ricky. A distinctive laugh-track accompanied Ricky's every joke. Ricky and Billy possessed the same mischievous smile, and same smart mouth. They could get away with anything!

Girls at school used to tell Billy he looked like Ricky.

Ozzie Nelson — the former bandleader and father of the boys — bore a striking physical resemblance to my dad, Bill. "Oz" also possessed the same soft voice, same self-deprecating sense of humor, and same slightly flummoxed demeanor.

Here's one area where they differed: Ozzie was often seen around the house wearing a jacket or sweater with a tie. Never, my father!

My dad actually knew Ozzie. The Nelsons owned a home in Laguna Beach and lived there part of the year. My father drove a milk delivery truck in Laguna, and the Nelsons were his customers. Dad would tote bottles into the Nelsons' kitchen, and place them in the refrigerator.

Ozzie and Harriet, he said, were always gracious.

Harriet reminded me of my mom, Betty. Both women were Midwesterners. Harriet was June Cleaver before June Cleaver. She was a great cook and maintained an immaculate and orderly household. Ditto my mom! Harriet was perfectly coiffed, and wore a lace apron around the house. Not so much my mother.

Ozzie was the first member of the Nelson family to die. He succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 69 in 1975. We grieved.

Rick, who went on to became a huge teen idol with "dreamy" eyes and a sexy pout, died tragically on New Year's Eve 1985 in a Texas plane crash. He was 45. We were shocked.

Harriet died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85 in 1994. We were dismayed.

For 16 years David was the only surviving Nelson. I suspect that that was a burden for him, but he handled it with class. He was the "face" of the Nelsons for many years.

The Times obit said David died Jan. 11 at 74 of complications from colon cancer. I felt profound sadness. With his passing, an era for my family had ended.

I'd long felt a kinship with David. We were both "big brothers." Big brothers are supposed to take charge and be serious, and David showed me how to do that. I'm gonna miss you, big bro!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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