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The Reunion Will Be Televised

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-11-19


This past Veteran's Day produced a deluge of "surprise military homecoming" video celebrations, those seemingly ubiquitous YouTube and local news sensations where a serviceman returns home unannounced and shocks his children by his sudden appearance at some public event a football game, a school assembly, a graduation, a school dance, etc. Usually a local news affiliate or national network has been tipped off about the surprise in advance, and so a number of well-placed cameras are always on hand to capture the emotional reunion.

When the father finally appears, the daughter (it's usually a daughter) responds just like you'd imagine a sudden shriek of recognition, then instant, unrestrained tears of joy, and then a dead sprint into her father's arms for a long and much-longed-for hug. Since the event is televised, there's usually an audible "ah" from the crowd, and often the assembled masses give the re-uniting pair a standing ovation.

I'm not sure when the first of these "surprise homecomings" started the current trend--I'm guessing it's probably a relatively recent phenomenon, judging from the dates on the YouTube videos but it's definitely a "thing" now. If you click on YouTube for "surprise military homecoming" not only will you get a list of hundreds of matching videos, you'll also be seeing some of the more popular "human interest" videos currently on the site, with many of the videos attracting millions of viewers. Apparently people can't get enough of seeing the raw emotions of children suddenly re-united with a much-loved and much-missed parent.

The first time I saw one of these "surprise homecoming" videos was about a year ago, and I have to admit that initially, I was quite touched by what I saw. This one took place at a major-league baseball game, with the girl throwing out the ceremonial first pitch and not realizing that her dad is the guy in the catcher's gear, retrieving the ball that she's thrown. When he suddenly removes the catcher's mask, and the daughter finally recognizes that it's him, her dad, she sprints to him, crying, screaming, hugging. It was such a guileless display of sudden joy that I started crying, almost involuntarily, and I remember thinking how shocking it was for me to respond so intensely to some piece of video.

I clicked off the video, heart-warmed and all that, but then things started to change shortly thereafter, for I started to really think about what I had just witnessed. I discovered that a discordant voice was knocking around in the back of my head, somewhere, telling me that something was really wrong about the whole homecoming video. I couldn't quite articulate what it was, but I knew that something about this public airing of these very personal, private moments felt like a violation to me. It seemed dreadful how terribly staged the whole thing was; the girl's emotions were natural and heartfelt but everyone else seemed inauthentic and too eager to play to the crowd, from the exuberant, tearful mother to the brain-dead reporter "on the scene."

I started to think that while a father/daughter reunion is certainly a wonderful thing, a father/daughter reunion with 50,000 onlookers was something else entirely. I started thinking about all the major, emotional moments in my life, and how horrified I would have felt to have them televised, played out and amplified before a captive audience. It seemed to me that the girl's best interests weren't being served at all by this elaborate staging, that the only people who were benefiting were the voyeurs (like me) who got to feel a tiny surge of catharsis by watching someone else's real-life drama play out before them.

The more I watched the "surprise homecoming" videos the more I kept thinking about the girls involved: was it really such a good idea to make them all unwitting "reality" stars? Each successive video I watched--and I watched a lot of them, trying to figure out what the hell it all meant in the grand scheme of things--convinced me that the girls were being exploited for nothing more than "good television."

In one of the videos on YouTube, the "surprise" father told the earnest local news reporter that he had actually been home for three days and had been "in hiding" before the scheduled reunion at a school assembly. It was hard, he said, keeping himself out of sight, but he thought it would be worth it. And I thought, my God: three days? He delayed seeing his daughter for three days just so he could complete this stunt? He had been gone for 7 months, and now he was delaying his homecoming with his daughter for some damned television thing.

I though about how long three days can be, especially to a young girl with a father in harm's way. What a valuable commodity it would be, priceless, really, to have three days of peace, three days of not worrying; three days of knowing that dad is home, that dad is safe. I noticed that that particular "homecoming" video had received over a million views on YouTube, and I wondered if the million or so people "moved" by that story didn't add up to the loss of those three days to that one young girl.

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