There’s not much to do when you’re sitting in the chair at the dentist’s office except think of what’s coming and try not to be nervous. That’s why dentists will pipe music into every room. Soothing melodies or peppy pop numbers are played non-stop, without annoying disc jockey commentary. The other day, I was sitting in the chair when a song came on that I immediately recognized: “The Power of Love,” by Huey Lewis and the News.
The song was released by the California pop/rock group in 1985 and became a number 1 hit, largely because it was prominently featured in that year’s biggest movie, Back to the Future. (Lewis has a cameo in the film, playing a faculty member who rejects the application by Marty McFly’s band to participate in the school’s Battle of the Bands contest.) The lyrics, as you might guess even if you’ve never heard it, speak of this emotion’s ability to overcome every other one you’ve ever had. The opening verse goes like this:
The power of love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
Change a hawk to a little white dove
More than a feeling, that’s the power of love.
The song was particularly appropriate for me that day, because over the previous weekend two things happened. The first, and most important, was that I noted my 23rd wedding anniversary to the love of my life, Sue. The second was that I wrapped up Season 3 of the romantic TV drama Outlander. The TV series, in my opinion, is one of the best romance stories ever filmed, while the first thing I mentioned is, without a doubt, the best romance story I’ve ever been a part of. And best of all: both are still going strong.
The year was 1995.
I grew up in southwest Wisconsin, and in the sixties and seventies, people down there didn’t really know a lot about the upper half of their own state. There seemed to be a dividing line roughly halfway between the Illinois line and Lake Superior. Look at the map below and trace a line from La Crosse, on the Mississippi River (the state’s “west coast”) through Oshkosh and then very slightly northeast to Manitowoc on Lake Michigan (the “east coast”); everything north of that line was considered “up north.” In terms of square miles, that “half” is obviously larger than the southern half, but less populous by a considerable margin. In terms of culture, it was then, and still remains, vastly different than much of the south, which contains the state’s major metro areas: Milwaukee and its suburbs, Racine and Kenosha to their south, and Madison.
I remember days during my high school years in Potosi, a very small town on the Mississippi in the southwest corner of the state, when I would pore through the Madison and Milwaukee newspapers in the school library, searching for basketball scores from other games in the state. Our team was pretty hot stuff, in our opinion, and we might very well run up against some of those way-up-north outfits when we got to the state tournament in Madison. Where exactly were towns like Washburn and Niagara, Turtle Lake and Park Falls? Some of the towns’ names were hard to pronounce, likely with Native American derivation, such as Chetek. Was it “CHET-eck”? What kind of a goofy name was that for a town and its high school, anyway? Little did I know that during those very same days, a young girl by the name of Susan Sarff was sitting in her school’s library in that very town, maybe looking at the newspaper from Eau Claire and wondering where in the heck this town called Potosi was. For the record, they are pronounced thusly: “sheh-TECK” and “puh-TOE-see.”
Neither one of us were thinking that far ahead back in the early seventies. Teenagers might dream of a future where they are happy and wealthy and, most of all, fiercely independent of virtually all authority, but our dreams were usually pretty amorphous at best. As for me, I thought I’d wind up to be some hotshot radio announcer. By the mid-90s, when I hit my 40th birthday, I’d be living in some city, working as the “voice” of a major college or professional team. It was all but a done deal as far as I was concerned. I certainly never thought that by 1996 I would be married to a girl from Chetek and living way up in the far north, but that’s what happened.
I did become a radio announcer, but getting to the big time proved elusive. By 1991, I was working in the small city of Menomonie, just to the west of Eau Claire, about 200 miles from my hometown. I was calling the games of the local college, the University of Wisconsin-Stout, but even though it was a fine school and played in a very competitive Division III league, it was nowhere close to the Big 10, not to mention the NFL or NBA. I was in my late thirties, had two small kids and a marriage that was going south fast, and starting to wonder where I would wind up. Then one day that spring I got a phone call from an old buddy from our college days at UW-Platteville named Tom Koser. He was from a town near Rice Lake called Almena, about 40 miles north of Menomonie, and a couple years earlier had purchased the AM/FM radio station in Rice Lake. Tom and I had stayed in touch over the years, and he had an opening on his staff. Come to work for me, he said. I didn’t have to be persuaded; the Menomonie job clearly wasn’t going anywhere, and working for Tom, after several years of toiling for managers of questionable integrity, was a chance for me to start turning things around. I might never get to the big time, I was starting to realize, but there would be other things out there worth achieving.
Boy, was I right about that.
I met Sue within a week of starting my new job at WJMC Radio. At the time she was the manager of a travel agency and was in the process of purchasing the business. She was a regular advertiser on my morning show and we worked on joint projects together. The stars really didn’t align for us until the summer of 1993, though. By then, previous marriages were in our respective rear-view mirrors and we started exploring our potential. A trip to Jamaica over Thanksgiving weekend sealed the deal. Six months later we moved into a home Sue had found out in the country, where we remain to this day. A year and a half after that move, we tied the knot on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.
The year was 1945..and then 1743.
Four years ago, I heard of a new series on Starz that I thought might interest Sue. It was set in Scotland, a place she was already planning to visit the following spring. Outlander was an historical romance, based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. I’d never read the books; romance novels and shows are typically not my cup of tea, but I said, “Let’s take a look.” Like millions of other viewers, we were hooked from the first episode.
Outlander is the story of Claire Beauchamp Randall, a British Army nurse who in the summer of 1945, after the end of World War II in Europe, is finally able to go on her honeymoon with her husband Frank, who had served as an intelligence officer. Frank wants to go to Scotland to research his family; he’s heard tales of “Black Jack” Randall, an army officer who was mixed up in the Jacobite uprising of the 1740s. While staying in Inverness, the Randalls witness what appears to be a group of witches holding some sort of ritual at a Stonehenge-like site deep in the countryside. Claire goes back alone the next day, mysteriously drawn to one of the stones…which she falls through. When she awakens on the other side, she’s still in Scotland near Inverness, but soon discovers she has traveled 202 years back in time.
The show is filmed on location and has beautiful cinematography, outstanding production values and first-rate writing and acting. Gabaldon acts as a consultant on the show but the scriptwriting is done by other writers, who must really have a yen for research, based on the detail of the sets and costumes. Claire is played by Irish actress and model Caitriona Balfe, and Scottish actor Sam Heughan plays Jamie Fraser, the hunky Highlander she meets and eventually weds.
Of course they encounter Black Jack very soon, and before you know it Claire is using her futuristic medical skills to save the lives of Scots as they stay one step ahead of the British, who suspect Jamie and his clansmen of conspiring to overthrow the House of Hanover, which had ruled the British Isles since 1714. The Jacobites supported the House of Stuart, which had included the last Catholic monarchs of the empire. For some 60 years there had been constant political and social turmoil in the land, with occasional outbreaks of armed rebellion. Claire already knows, thanks to Frank’s research, that “The Rising” is doomed, ending with a catastrophic defeat of the Scots in the 1745 Battle of Culloden. The first two seasons focus on Claire and Jamie’s relationship and their efforts to defuse the uprising. At the end of season two, with all their work having gone for naught, Jamie sends a pregnant Claire back through the stones to safety in the 20th century, while he returns to the battlefield to meet his fate.
In Season 3, Claire is back in her own time, and it’s a struggle. She’s been gone for two years and Frank has never given up on her. Imagine his surprise when she shows up in Inverness with a wild story about time travel…and oh, by the way, she’s carrying Jamie’s child. Tobias Menzies plays both Frank and Black Jack in the series and certainly has the toughest roles in the cast; while Frank is noble and kind, his ancestor is the exact opposite. It was easy for me to put myself in Frank’s place as he is rocked by Claire’s return and then by her story and the pregnancy. The easy thing to do, which is what I suspect is the path most men would take, would be to tell Claire to hit the road, see you in court, good luck and good riddance. Who could believe such a fantastic story anyway? But Frank’s love for Claire is boundless. He doesn’t believe her story, but he agrees to stay with her and raise the child as his own, with one condition: she never mention Jamie or her time-traveling again. In the 1940s, even a woman as intelligent and skilled as Claire doesn’t have many options in this type of situation; she desperately wants her baby to have a father figure in her life, so she agrees.
The Randalls move to Boston, where Frank takes a professorship in history at Harvard. Claire’s daughter Brianna is born, complete with Jamie’s red hair, and a few years later Claire enters Harvard Medical School as one of its first female students. The season switches back and forth between Claire’s 20th century life as a doctor (fulfilling), Brianna’s mother (joyous) and Frank’s wife (tense, to say the least), and Jamie’s in the 18th century. At Culloden, Jamie finally deals with Black Jack but is seriously wounded in the effort. He is captured but allowed to escape by a British officer whose younger brother had been saved by Jamie a year earlier after his own capture. Back home at his family estate, Jamie remains in hiding for several years before he surrenders, thus sparing his sister and her family further harassment and perhaps arrest. In prison, his leadership earns the respect not only of his fellow inmates but of the warden, Lord Grey. When the prison is closed down, the inmates are to be shipped to the British colonies in America, but Grey uses his influence to have Jamie assigned to the service of another British lord in England. While there, Jamie impregnates his lordship’s daughter, who is about to be married to a stuffy old duke and doesn’t want to give her virginity to an old guy she doesn’t love anyway. One might think that would be problematic for Jamie, especially when his paramour dies in childbirth, but he gets out of that by saving the baby’s life when the child is about to be murdered by the enraged widower. In gratitude for saving his grandson, his lordship arranges a pardon for Jamie and grants him leave to go home to Scotland, but Jamie wants to stay awhile with the boy, so he volunteers to remain in his service as the chief groomsman.
And then it was 1968, and then 1766.
Two decades go by. In 1966, Frank finally has had enough of his sham marriage. He’s taken a lover and wants to return to England and start a new life with her after his divorce. And he wants to take 18-year-old Brianna with him. Claire, of course, objects to that part, and after a bitter argument, Frank leaves the house. Later, Claire is at her hospital when she’s notified that Frank has been killed in a car accident.
Two years later, with Brianna now a student at Harvard, Claire returns to Scotland for the first time since returning through the stones 20 years earlier. She takes Brianna with her, and they visit the Inverness home of the Rev. Wakefield, the minister who had helped Frank with his research after the war. The reverend has just died, and their host is now Roger Wakefield, the reverend’s grand-nephew. He’s a few years older than Brianna and sparks fly between the young people, even as Claire struggles with her longing to find out what happened to Jamie and her desire to keep Brianna’s true heritage a secret. Eventually, of course, it comes out. After a stormy confrontation, Claire convinces Brianna of the truth, with Roger’s help. Back home in Boston for Christmas 1968, Claire decides to go back through the stones to find Jamie, after Roger produces strong evidence that he was alive and in Edinburgh as late as 1765. If the pattern holds, he tells Claire, you’ll get there just a year later. Claire decides it’s worth a shot, and back she goes.
By then, Jamie is living under an assumed name and running a printer’s shop. But he’s doing some liquor smuggling on the side and also printing seditious pamphlets calling for Scottish independence. His reunion with Claire is surprising and joyous, as we might imagine, but there are complications. There’s the smuggling, for one thing; the British official Jamie has bribed to look the other way suddenly gets righteous, and discovers the treasonous pamphlets besides. When the print shop burns to the ground, Jamie quickly sells off his remaining stock of bootleg liquor and takes Claire home to Scotland. There, the second complication comes up: he is married. To make a long story short, Claire’s return—her story is that she thought Jamie dead at Culloden and fled to America—invalidates Jamie’s second marriage, so he offers a financial settlement to his wife to make it all go away. To get the money, though, Jamie must retrieve a treasure of family heirlooms, which he’d hidden on an offshore island years before to keep it from the British. His young nephew Ian offers to swim out to retrieve the treasure—apparently nobody could find a rowboat anywhere—but is captured by pirates who were there to find the treasure themselves. Loose lips somewhere through the years had let slip the secret, but nobody had found it until now. The pirates take young Ian and the treasure and set sail for the West Indies. Jamie and Claire book passage on a merchant ship and the chase is on.
There’s much adventure on the high seas during the voyage, and Claire and Jamie once again are separated, but they are reunited on the shores of Hispaniola, in what is now Haiti. After repairing the ship, Jamie and the crew, with Claire safely aboard, head for Jamaica, where they eventually find young Ian and rescue him from the clutches of the villainess Geillis, a time-traveler herself whose obsession with the dream of Scottish independence had caused her to go back through the stones from 1968. She had encountered Claire in 1743, escaped burning at the stake as a witch, and made her way to the New World, where she married a wealthy British merchant who by now has conveniently died. Geillis needs to retrieve three sapphires from the treasure, which will provide the key to her return to the 20th century. Claire tells her of her own daughter, showing her photographs she’d brought back as proof (Jamie had been shocked by one showing Brianna in a bikini), and Geillis suddenly concludes that to make her scheme work, she must go back to the future and murder Brianna. In a showdown inside a cave where another time portal awaits, this one in the form of a pool, Jamie battles Geillis’ hulking Jamaican servant while Claire uses a machete to keep Geillis from going anywhere.
With young Ian safe, Jamie and Claire decide to take him home to Scotland. Somewhere northeast of Cuba, though, a hurricane overtakes the ship and Claire is swept overboard. Jamie rescues her and they are carried ashore. They discover they have landed in Georgia, and other survivors have made it there as well. The third season concludes with the middle-aged lovers grateful to be alive and together, but we know new challenges will await in Season 4. Will they stay in America and get swept up in the Revolution? Or go back to Scotland, where Jamie is still a wanted man? The season is now airing on Starz. Readers of the Gabaldon books, which the series closely follow, know what’s ahead, and we have a pretty good idea, but we definitely want to see things play out on the screen.
The power of love, indeed.
The life Sue and I have built for each other hasn’t been nearly as adventurous as that of Claire and Jamie, although we’ve done some traveling, just like they have. We don’t time-travel like Claire does, though. We do it like everybody else does, going forward, one day at a time. The path has not always been smooth, but no path ever is. One thing that has endured for me, though, and has grown throughout the years, is my love for this woman who consented to be my bride 23 years ago. As I watch Outlander, the thing I most identify with is Jamie’s love for Claire. They meet accidentally, as Sue and I did, and are thrown together under trying circumstances, as we were. And like us, their love blooms rather slowly, but once it arrives, it is white-hot with passion, and it lasts. Nothing can keep them apart, not even history itself. Truly, that is powerful.
First time you feed it might make you sad,
Next time you feed it might make you mad.
But you’ll be glad baby when you’ve found
That’s the power that makes the world go round,
The power of love.