Movies That Made Us Us - Continued

Some of you responded to this ‘formative movies’ subject with your own titles, everything from Gidget to The Manchurian Candidate, and many more, and I thank you. Three of my fellow screenwriters sent their own essays, and so here I share their thoughts and memories with you.  Last week was the first. In  this column are the second and third. I have taken liberties and condensed their writings a bit, but you’ll get the picture.  (pun)

Charlie Peters: To Kill a Mockingbird 1962

The movie that affected me most was To Kill a Mockingbird.  I was ten years old and the year before I saw it for the first time I’d watched my own father die.  Naturally, a bit lost and dark (Saturnine, one of my teachers in England called me) Atticus Finch became for me, as he did for many other kids, a father figure.  He also had my father’s mid-west tone: handsome, cool, reserved and in charge as most men of that time were.

When I was 30, the director of the film, Robert Mulligan, was directing a not very successful comedy of mine with Sally Field and James Caan called Kiss Me Goodbye.  But I got a chance to talk to Mulligan about directing Mockingbird.  The script by Horton Foote is, in my opinion, the best screenplay ever written.  There is not a single unnecessary word or scene.

Atticus Finch is still a hero of mine.  No movie moved me like Mockingbird.  There are four scenes that I cry over when I simply remember them.  The shooting of the rabid dog and the pride of Atticus’s son.  And when in the balcony of the courtroom the black minister says, “Stand up, children, your father is passing.” And even the breakfast scene when Scout mocks her poor little neighbor for smothering his pancakes in syrup, and Atticus chides her for that.  It’s a moment that many children have: Scout knows it’s an important moment and that someday she will understand why it moved her.  But not then.  As I got older I remembered many things my elders said to me because I somehow knew I should remember them.  I didn’t know what they meant when I was a boy, but I did when I was older.

John Hill: Red River 1948

The most formative movie in my life was probably Red River (next was Shane). At age 10 or 12 I only knew that these were "cool movies" that somehow meant something to me.  Now at my advanced stage of life, I understand the psychological underpinnings of why these movies were metaphors that spoke to me at a deeper level.

In Red River, I saw a totally take-charge, in control figure in John Wayne’s character, (mirroring my macho military father in real life – he quit college to go to England and fly Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.) Wayne’s foster son, Matt, is played by Montgomery Clift, and he’s the one I related to as a boy and teen.

They start an unheard of, first time ever, cattle drive from Texas to Kansas through all the Indians, rustlers, weather, etc.  Under the stress and desperation of the drive, the John Wayne character starts being way too obnoxious and wrong – and the son stands up to him!  Clift takes over, leaving the vengeful John Wayne behind him who is vowing death and revenge, soon, and we believe him.  So the son figure (me in my imagination) takes the cattle successfully to Abilene. The son is a hero, but they all know that John Wayne is coming after them to kill Clift.

Near the end Wayne comes on shooting, but the son won’t draw on him, so an epic public fist-fight ensues! Once the son hits him back, that’s when Walter Brennan, as lifetime friend of the Wayne character, knows that “everything will be all right.”  The fight is broken up by the Joann Dru character, shooting near them, and screaming “Stop it! Stop it! Anyone with half a brain knows you both love each other!”

The two men look sheepish, and then Wayne says, “Matt, I think you better marry that girl.”  And, in a friendly way, Clift says back “When are you going to stop telling people what to do?”  John Wayne’s answer is to draw a new cattle brand there in the dust, his own Red River D, but now adding Matt’s initial, saying “You earned it.”

Meaning, I was wrong and you, son, were right, and now you’re a man.

The movie spoke to me deeply for this reason (movies are often our fantasies made real).  How I stood up to my father and what happened is the stuff for too many drinks some night, not here, but I know that is what so warmed me to Red River.

Movies That Made Us Us

Some of you responded to this ‘formative movies’ subject with your own titles, everything from Gidget to The Manchurian Candidate, and many more, and I thank you. Three of my fellow screenwriters sent their own essays, and so here I share their thoughts and memories with you.  This is the first, and the others will follow over the next two weeks.  I have taken liberties and condensed their writings a bit, but you’ll get the picture. (pun)

J. Kahn: SPARTACUS 1960

First, I was 12 when I saw Spartacus for the first time, starting high school, intensely interested in girls but too shy to act, not very good at sports, feeling like a weakling.  Second, the country itself was going through an equally drastic identity crisis with the growing Civil Rights movement.  And finally, I was the only Jew in a high school of 2000 gentiles.

SPARTACUS concerns a slave rebellion against the Roman Empire, led by Spartacus, a gladiator. The slave army marches toward the sea in order to sail to a land where they can be free, fighting and winning battles against Roman battalions along the way to the coast.

Like teenagers everywhere, I felt enslaved, more so for being Jewish, and feeling like I had to hide or risk humiliation or violence. So, in my heart, I was Spartacus.

There was this electric, sensual, but ultimately tender scene in which Spartacus is offered a slave woman to have sex with as a prize for having won a gladiatorial bout – an unimaginable temptation to my hormonally exploding self – and he declines because he respects her humanity, because of his recognition that if it was wrong for him to be a slave, it was wrong for her, too. And for me too!  Me too!

The ships taking the escaped slave army away from the Roman Empire betray Spartacus and leave his army stranded.  The rebel slaves turn to face the giant Roman army that means to crush them.  The odds are impossible.  The slaves are doomed.  But they decide to fight anyway.  Many are killed but many hundreds are captured.

Then the Big Cheese of the Roman army trots his horse over to the defeated remnants of the slave army, and he makes them an offer.  He knows Spartacus is still alive among them, and has become a cult figure, and this general doesn’t want his mystery to haunt the Empire, or inspire future rebellions.  So he says if Spartacus identifies himself, he’ll be killed, but all the rebel slaves will be spared and allowed to go back to their masters unharmed.  If they don’t turn over their leader, all of them will be crucified.

Spartacus rises and starts to identify himself – I think he even says, I’m Sp….  But the slave rebel beside him stands up and says “I am Spartacus! This makes me weepy even just to write this sentence now.  I mean it. Soon dozens of slave warriors, and then hundreds, men and women, captured from every country, are all standing up shouting, “I am Spartacus!”

And there’s this incredible sad, proud close-up of Kirk Douglas as he registers that all these people he’s tried to carry to freedom, like Moses, are now sacrificing themselves to crucifixion in order to save him, and to say they are all one, they’re equally the body and soul of this rebellion, what happens to one, happens to all.  Their shouts, and their faces – that’s the Moment.

This resonated with me on so many levels…  Spartacus said I wasn’t alone, and because of that I could be brave in making the right moral decisions.  He said lots of us are slaves, but if we hang together, we can overcome slavery and history, even if the Roman army crucifies us.  I think this was critical to my becoming, to my joining the Civil Rights movement, and the anti-war movement, and commitments to fighting various social injustices over the course of my life.

10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 9 and 10

Essays by Gerald DiPego

These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now.  They are in no particular order.

Movie 9 - STAGECOACH, '39
(a hero)

I watched this film again and again on early TV until I knew every scene and almost every word, and even carried the musical theme in my mind (and still do).  It had everything: thrills, the mystical Apache Indians, interesting characters who were very well played, romance, and a hero.

The film follows an ancient path of storytelling: a mix of distinctive characters on a dangerous journey, each of them revealed in depth by the turns of the tale.  In this case they are traveling on a stagecoach through Apache country in the 1880s.

One of the passengers is a man who has escaped custody in order to hunt down the dangerous Plummer boys who murdered his brother, and this young man’s name is Ringo, and he is played by another young man, John Wayne.

I had never seen Wayne’s earlier work in B westerns. This was my introduction, and I unabashedly admit that when Wayne played his first scene, when he stands in the desert and fires his rifle to halt the stagecoach, and then twirls that Winchester, he became my hero – no, not the actor (although I was very drawn to Wayne’s early work and saw nearly all his films.) It was the character, Ringo, who rose up out of the film and captured me.

I wanted to BE Ringo.  I wanted to move as he moved, in a deliberate way that also contained a kind of grace, to be what he was, a good man, a bit toughened by life, but with a sense of humor and a surprising tenderness.

He was the only passenger on the coach who treated the prostitute among them as a worthy woman, worthy of kindness and respect. It touched her to be treated that way, and it touched me, and even at eleven or twelve, I hoped that I could grow to be a man who could surprise a woman with kindness, tenderness.  I could BE a Ringo.  I just needed to grow and find more confidence, and then I could navigate the world as Ringo did, taking his time, never nervous or awkward and always ready for a laugh or a fight  -- but only a worthy fight, a good against evil fight. 

The Apaches attack the coach, and seeing the fluidity of Ringo in action riveted me, and I wondered and hoped that maybe I could learn that, that knowing efficiency of motion, that courage under pressure.  I could learn to do that, if I kept Ringo as my model and carried him with me through the labyrinth of SCHOOL.

I could walk down the crowded, booming hallways more slowly, more contained.  My shyness would lessen, and, when it came to bullies, I could be ready, not tight and worried, but steady and calm and ready for anything.

The stagecoach is rescued and the passengers arrive in town, and as night settles, Ringo has to face his toughest challenge, those mean-hearted, murdering Plummer boys.

Ringo was not fearless.  I could see that he knew he might die, but he was steady, and he was teaching me. Jerry – be steady and face trouble, whatever it is.  Yes, even that impossibly tall ladder in my father’s grocery store, changing the sale signs by reaching nearly to the high ceiling to pull them down and then raise the new ones, my knees shaking, stomach tight, signaling DANGER, DANGER!  So, next time I would try to be Ringo on that ladder, slow and deliberate, maybe scared, but steady.

There were three Plummer boys (impossible odds!) walking straight for Ringo on that dark street.  When would they shoot?  When would they shoot?!

The fight began, and after his first shot, Ringo throws himself down on the ground to make less of a target and keeps cocking and firing his rifle because he KNOWS what to do and does it in that deliberate and fluid motion.  He KNOWS, like someday I would know and not hesitate or flinch or wonder, but KNOW.

He triumphs and thinks now he has to go back into custody, but the sheriff surprises him, says he’s free, lets him have a buckboard and his new girl-who-loves-him, and they go off to the ‘little ranch’ he told her about, and I thought, maybe someday I’ll have a little ranch and a loving girl and I’ll make that happen partly because of a touchstone I’ve have carried around called Ringo.

Movie 10 - ON THE WATERFRONT, '54
(a new hero)

This memory is more clear and accessible than any other time, from ages 10 to 20, when a movie ended and I rose from my seat and shuffled to the aisle and made my way out of the theater, and I saw hundreds of movies then, but this moment will be with me forever.  I was thirteen or fourteen (our little theater in Round Lake, Illinois did not get first run features.) and that boy who was me, the boy who stood up to leave that theater, was not the same boy who had come in and taken his seat. 

During the showing, I was shaken by powerful forces, and one was the performance by Brando.  This was new.  Somehow he had carved his character, Terry Malloy, out of his own flesh.  It was beyond the acting I was used to.  It was so much more real, even, somehow, dangerously real, an electric shock of authenticity on the screen. 

 Another powerful force was the filmmaking itself, the reality of those grey, urban locations, the streets and alleys I had known in my early years in Chicago.  This film felt more true to life than any film I had seen, as if it wasn’t appearing on the theater’s screen at all.  Instead, the screen was a large window into an actual place where these people were playing out their lives.  It was expertly cast-in-depth and expertly directed by Elia Kazan, and the music, by Leonard Bernstein, never seemed to play over the film, but to come from within it.  I can still hear that mournful trumpet. 

And the story penetrated because of this reality. I was totally engulfed and swept along by the writing of Bud Schulberg, which disappeared as writing and came out as stark realism, as I saw through that great window into the drama and danger in the lives of these people.

Here was a new and different hero for me.  Terry Malloy, a man of my time, of the here and now, and I was caught up in the anguish he feels for having been part of the murder of a neighborhood man he knew (he thought that the gangsters who controlled the docks were only going to rough him up – instead they throw the man off a roof, and Malloy is stunned, his loyalties torn already in this early scene of the film.)  He works on the docks and does what the gangsters tell him to do, and in this neighborhood of the waterfront, you don’t rat, you don’t go to the cops.

So Malloy caries this anguish through the film, as he begins to fall in love (with the dead man’s sister!) as he opens his eyes to the thugs to whom he has given his allegiance (his own brother is in with the criminals) and I am sitting there feeling not only for him but with him, and that is the final power of this movie.  I lived inside of it, inside of Malloy, a tortured man with a troubled past, and a new awakening inside of him that is moving him toward a terrible and dangerous choice.

Doing good, in so many movies I saw at that time, came down to the hero defeating the villain, often in a gun fight or fist fight.  This film is much more complex.  Doing something good, in this story, could get Terry Malloy killed, and everything about his upbringing pushes him toward staying quiet, going along, keeping your head down.  This conflict makes him tear open his own life, his past in order to make this critical decision, staying safe or going after the evil on those docks, not with a gun or a fight, but flinging the truth at it. 

This was a new hero for me.  In the movie “Stagecoach” I had linked myself with the Ringo character, and, as the movie ended, I wanted to BE him. In “On The Waterfront,” as the movie ended, I sat there a while, feeling the great weight of this drama, and when I stood and slowly made my way out of the theater, I didn’t want to be Terry Malloy. I wanted to be a better man. 

Even at fourteen, I wanted my life to have purpose.  Even if it was a struggle, like Malloy’s struggle, I wanted to give something.  I wanted to do the right thing.

10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 7 and 8

Essays by Gerald DiPego

These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now.  They are in no particular order.

Movie 7 - THE FOUR FEATHERS, '39
(redemption)

This Brit film played again and again on early TV, as if it was made for the boy that I was in the 1940s (born in 41) and early 50s.  My favorite book then was “Kipling’s Stories for Boys,” and I read and reread his tales of  India and the clashes there between the colonizing Brits and native peoples who rejected British Rule.  I loved the illustrations, uniforms, scenes of conflict and sense of history, and I collected toy soldiers to match that period and carried out great battles on the floor, whispering the shots, outcries and bugle calls.

This is a film of epic size, directed by Alexander Korda, with battle scenes that thrilled me again and again, but it was the story and the journey of the main character that made this movie so meaningful.

Boys playing war do begin to think – what if that was me?  What would I do?  Would I be heroic?  Would I be terrified?  I received a good lesson from this film and its lead character, Harry Faversham.  His father is a respected general, and he sits at a formal table as a teen and listens to retired officers talking about their battle experiences.  He is shy and reticent, and his father is a stern bully, and Harry knows very early that he will be sucked into a military life.  How he will perform and how  will he be judged by his father and his ancestors, whose portraits line the wall of his father’s great house.

That’s the intro – now we see Harry as a young officer in a peacetime regiment in England, gathering his young officer friends at a party at his father’s home to celebrate Harry’s engagement to his love.  During this party, telegrams are delivered. War has broken out in the Sudan, and his regiment is being called up to join the war against the Mahdi’s tribesmen. Only Harry receives the telegrams – for himself and his three fellow officers, and, in a moment alone, a moment of fear, he tosses the telegrams into a fireplace.  He has planned to leave the army, and this ‘delay’ that he is causing will give him time to become a civilian and marry his girl and never face battle.

Well, he is seen ‘burning something’ that night, and when questions are raised, he admits what he has done.  Before going off to war, his three officer friends each present him with a white feather of cowardice.  He is hit very hard by this, but then shattered when his fiancé breaks the engagement and gives him a white feather of her own.

So, as a boy watching this film, I had now lived through Harry’s conflict and cowardice, and I was shattered, too.  I watched him as a broken young man who is tempted by suicide.  I stared fear and shame in the face.

But Harry rouses himself and makes a very bold plan. He travels to the Sudan as a civilian and there he learns how to disguise himself as a cast-off Sudanese, darkening his skin, wearing ragged clothes and becoming what appears to be a brain-addled mute, who can travel without much notice all the way to the battlefront.  His plan is to watch over his officer friends and find a way somehow to help each of them in the conflict, to protect them, to win back their respect and cause them to take back their feathers of cowardice.

So, as a boy, I have now been plunged into a heavy situation of fear and shame that rattles me, and, in the rest of the film, I take this journey with Harry, which has become my journey, toward redemption.  Harry’s bravery is not the trumpeting kind.  He suffers, stays hidden, follows, waits for his chances, risks his life and comes very close to sacrificing his own.  So when redemption is reached, both Harry and I have changed, deepened, aged, and I’ve lived through the shame that most boys fear, and then seen that one can come back from this, can survive and redeem oneself – an important journey for me in this old film that I watched six or seven times at least – for its thrills and its lessons.

Let’s jump forward to the 1970s in LA where I’ve begun a career as a screenwriter for television films.  A producer, Norman Rosemont, is making quality films from classic stories, which open as features in the U.K and play on American TV (such as “The Count of Monte Cristo”).  My agent calls and says that Rosemont is offering me the writing job for his next film, and he asks me, “Have you ever heard of a book called ‘The Four Feathers?’

So, yes, it actually happened, and I wrote my version of this classic story that I had carried deep inside myself all those years.  What a business.  What a life.  Beau Bridges and Jane Seymore starred, and the well-made film was directed by Donald Sharp.  By now there were at least four remakes of this story.  I began my own particular opening scene with Harry, as a young boy, playing on the floor of the mansion with his lead soldiers – blending Harry and Jerry forever.

Movie 8 - THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE,  ’48
(brotherhood)


This is also a film I saw on early television, and watched more than once, not only because of the excitement and adventure, but because the characters reached inside of me, living there as real people, and I watched them stumble along, facing strong odds, trying to make decisions that would get them what they wanted -- the treasure that was inside that mountain, but at what cost? 

Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt play busted men in Tampico, Mexico in the 30’s – rigging oil camps when they can get the work and cheated out of their money and fighting the crooked boss to get it back – and then wondering what’s next, what job?  What chance?  And where’s the hope?

In a rat-trap flop house they meet a very lively and talkative old knock-around played by Walter Huston (academy award for this).  He’s been around, been wealthy and busted more than once, and he’s both funny and philosophical.  He talks about gold – not just as money, but as a kind of fever, says he’s chased it around the world and, old as he is, he’d go again if he had the money for the equipment.

Bogart and Holt think hard about this – and then pool their money with what the old man has left, and by god, they do it.  Huston knows just what to buy, and they outfit themselves with burros, tools, food and all they need to create a prospecting camp.

They go into the wild Sierra Madre – the tougher to get to the better, says Huston – where no one else has been.
As their journey begins, a theme is introduced by  composer, Max Steiner.  It’s a ‘going-along’ melody, a ‘song’ of this little group, played lightly as a ditty, as they wind upward into the Mother Mountain.

When the old man sees the first signs of gold in the rocks and dirt he laughs like crazy and even dances a jig – and then they get to the labor of tearing that precious metal out of the mountain.

They work hard, finding a cave to make into a small mine, shoring it up and going at the veins of gold in the rocks with picks.  They’re already doing well, gathering the raw gold like sand, weighing it each night, already  thousands of dollars ahead, and here comes the moment, the moment in this film that went so deep and stayed with me all these years.

Holt is carrying a load out of the mine and Bogart is still in there slamming away at the walls – and that’s when the cave-in comes.  The beams that shore up the dig crack.  Bogart cries out.  Holt turns and sees a billowing of dust pour out of the cave as it’s mouth is covered by rocks and broken beams.  He hurries to the entrance and stares in through the rubble.  He can’t even see where Bogart is lying hurt – or dead.  He stares in shock, and then…the look deepens into something else as a thought overtakes him.  It’s a deep and weighty look, a wondering look, and you know, you KNOW what he’s thinking – if only two of them are left, each gets a larger share of the gold.

He starts to move away from the cave in – and then stops – and struggles – and then, with great determination, moves toward that rubble and starts to move it away with all his strength, digging with his bare hands toward his friend.  At this moment that musical theme comes back, but it’s played strongly and building, that song of the three of them and the ragged brotherhood they have formed.  It’s a moment that has never left me and never will.  Without a word it celebrated the triumph of brotherhood over greed, and it builds to a kind of symphony as Holt pulls the unconscious Bogart out of the collapsed mine.

As a boy this scene filled me with great emotion, even tears, and as an old man, the tears come even more freely.

Greed and gold-fever haunt this film, and I won’t go into how the story goes so you can see it as new if you’ve never seen it, and, if that’s the case, I envy you and the first-time emotional twists and punches that await you as each man is brought to the edge of darkness.  The way the characters meet this challenge has so much to say about that scale that has gold dust on one side and love on the other.

Wonderful direction by John Huston, and if you call me, I’ll sing you that theme.

 

 

 

 

 

 


                    

10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 5 and 6

Essays by Gerald DiPego

These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now.  They are in no particular order.

Movie 5 - INVADERS FROM MARS, '53
(what if?!)

I was 12 when I saw this one, and it drove like an arrow into the most vulnerable part of myself.  It was years before the wound healed and the reoccurring nightmares left for good.

Aliens were landing on the earth.  You didn’t see them.  They made holes in the earth, in the sand.  They were hidden, but they could come out – and they didn’t kill humans and eat them, far worse.  They ‘took them over’.  They would plant a tiny bar of metal into the back of a person’s head, and from then on that man or woman was changed, never smiled, was never animated and had, in his or her eyes, a malignant look. 

All of this hit me hard and went so deep because the film focuses on the child character, on the boy of the family, on me!  This boy and I seemed to meld together as we watched the story and listened to the very creepy music and held our breath as, one-by-one, several people in this small town ‘changed’.

The boy tries to understand what’s going on.  His parents are helping him, becoming caught up in the fear, until a moment comes when the frightened boy approaches his dad – and sees that the man is cold now, not the same at all.  Oh my god – his father.  They got his father.  It was the strongest movie shock I had ever felt up to that time.  The boy’s world is shaken, falling.  He tries to tell his mother, and it’s this moment that is branded on my brain, when he walks into a room and his mom turns to see him, and there it is: the cold, malignant stare of his own mother.

I don’t remember one more minute of this film.  I think it had a happy ending and the boy gets his loving parents back by the finish.  But that came too late for me. I had already imagined seeing, in my mother’s face, a malignant stranger – and this was the reoccurring nightmare that showed up a dozen times during my boyhood.   And I had a loving mother, a funny mother, and maybe that’s why the fear went so deep.  What if SHE changed?  What if that look came into HER eyes, the woman I depended on for care and affection and safety and love and….  What if she looked at me as if I was a hateful stranger?  This particular what-if knocks the struts out from under  a child’s world and goes right to the eternal core of his or her fear.

Okay, it’s a movie. It scared the hell out of me and gave me nightmares, but it didn’t scar me or crack me.  I survived as most of us survive the fears that tumble along with the joys of childhood. But, wow, what an impression!  I don’t believe this would have happened if I had read a novel of the exact same story.  Only a film can carry this kind of punch because film is the closest medium to the human dream state.  Films and dreams are like twins.  They behave the same way, not anchored to any page or stage, with their juxtaposed scenes and their dialogue and the way they cut, sometimes jaggedly, from setting to setting anywhere on the earth or off the earth.  I believe that it’s this closeness to human dreaming that gives film its power.


Movie 6 - THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, ’39
(transformation)

I was about 10 when this classic was re-released in the early fifties, and in those days my friends and I didn’t pay much attention to movie starting times.  We just went, whenever we could, to our one theater, a Quonset hut just outside our rural town in Illinois.  If we walked in in the middle of a film, so?  We watched the rest of it, then waited, caught the newsreel, the cartoon, coming attractions and then watched the repeated film until somebody said: ‘this is where we came in,’ and we left.

So I walked into this dark theater, into a raucous roar of wild shouts and laughter on the soundtrack, seeing only the screen, and this screen was full of the face of Quasimodo, the hunchback, a close-up as he’s led through the streets of Paris and crowned King of Fools.  Charles Laughton played the hunchback, or rather became the hunchback, his face and body deformed, his expressions terrible, his voice inhuman, even his laughter frightening, grotesque.  He was hideous, and I was stopped dead in the aisle, holding my popcorn, a frozen boy.  I wanted to run back to the lobby and out of the theater, but I was with my older brother, Paul, and his friends, and I couldn’t bolt.  “C’mon!” came Paul’s whispered shout as he stood at a row of empty seats, motioning to me.

I looked away from the monster and found my seat and then was pulled back into the horror, because I couldn’t keep my eyes away from this marvel of ugliness.  It was too real.  HE was too real.  And we DID think of The Hunchback of ND as a monster within a list of ‘monster’ stories: Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.  So, yes, I was expecting a monster film, but nothing so human or so tangible, so overpowering as this.  Monster movies were dark and mysterious, with only peeks at the fierce creature now and then – but this daytime carnival on the streets of Paris was dumped right into my lap.

I didn’t know the story.  I had never even read the Classic Comics version of it, let alone the wonderful novel by Victor Hugo (one of the few classics I’ve read three times over the years and will likely read again)

It had what seemed to be the trappings of a monster story – the ‘beast’s’ keeper, an archbishop, the beautiful gypsy girl who dances in the street for coins, and who is there to be threatened by the monster, right?  And then rescued from him by the hero at the end, right?  But wait.  That wasn’t the story at all.

I saw that the monster was deaf.  That he was simple.  That he was shy – and then I saw him on trial and then the victim of a public whipping, and left tied to the pillory, bloody and thirsty, and I felt sorry.  I felt sorry for the monster.  Esmeralda, the lovely dancer, conquers her fear of him and gives him some water.  It’s a great moment.

Later in the story, when Esmeralda herself is falsely accused of a crime, it is SHE who is taken to the pillory – to the gallows!  She is about to be killed – but there IS a hero in this story, and the hero is Quasimodo! He pushes aside the guards, gathers up the girl and escapes with her into the Sanctuary of the Cathedral where he lives, he being the bell ringer.  This monster is a hero!  What a transformation.  But then this change goes beyond his heroism, and we see his tenderness with the girl, and we watch him shyly show her his world of the bell tower, and show her his friends, the great bells, whom he has named and who have made him deaf with their powerful tolling.

He defends her against a mob that surrounds the church.  He’s ready to give his life for her, and, of course, he falls forever and completely in love with the beautiful Esmeralda, and this is where he disappears forever as monster.  At this point in the film, Quasimodo has earned my love and my great pity, here at the end when the woman must leave him.  I had never felt such heartbreak from any book or film as I watched his great final sigh, and felt his loss and felt, also, a bit older, even wiser as the credits played.  We were both transformed.

A fine, epic production, yet only 117 minutes long (that kind of powerful mega-movie would be closer to 3 hours if made today – that conciseness a lost art?) Directed by William Dieterle, staring Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, Edmund O’Brian and Thomas Mitchell.  I love it.

10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 3 and 4

Essays by Gerald DiPego

These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now.  They are in no particular order.

Movie 3 - FORBIDDEN PLANET, ’56
(Sexuality)

I was fifteen and unworldly, shy and private, laughing at the ‘dirty jokes’ told by my friends, but awed by sex itself as a mysterious, growing power in my mind and my body.  If kissing is considered first base, I had made it there only a couple of times and no further.  I read paperback adventure books and was thrilled by each torn bodice or revealed thigh.  I dreamed of rescuing half-clad women and becoming their gentle hero, and on the movie screen I watched these scenes like a hungry boy at a bakery window.

“Forbidden Planet” offered my 15 year old self weird music, a future universe of space travel, an intricate plot, some scenes of action, but all of this faded away even as I was leaving the theater, because there was only one offering that really mattered to me and that was the lovely Anne Francis wearing a series of very short dresses – mid thigh -- in the fifties!

She played a girl of 19, an earthling, an innocent, stranded on a planet with her scientist father for many years – and now a crew of military spacemen from earth have come to ‘take them home.’  All she had to do, for me, was stand there.  She was her own light.  I was the moth.  Often, when she moved, I kept track of the hem of her short dress, kept track of those bare legs, and I was more than smitten.  I was aroused.

Then there comes a moment where she faints or is hurt, and the astronaut hero, Leslie Nielsen, has to pick her up and carry her – and he does this by placing one arm along her back and placing the other arm beneath her thighs, and he lifts her and walks with her, and I’m thinking, my god, he’s actually touching those thighs, actually holding….  But wait.  Wait a minute.  This scene that I remember as being so striking, so unbelievably sexy – isn’t even in the movie!  No.  It’s not there.  I just rewatched the film last night, and I did this because of all these ten movies in this series, Forbidden Planet was the one I remembered the least – as far as plot and dialogue and storytelling, and I thought I’d school myself in the details and then…see that mighty scene again, the one that supercharged my teenage libido, but it’s not there!

 I must have received a suggestion of this ‘carrying-of-my-dream-woman from the film’s poster, which shows Anne Francis being carried this way by the robot in the film (‘Robby’), but that scene, also, does NOT APPEAR IN THE FILM.   So that means I created it in my mind.  I imagined that scene.  I imagined me, and not Leslie Nielsen, performing that scene.  I imagined the feel of lifting her, being her rescuer, and…feeling the touch of those bare legs – and because all those feelings felt so strong and true, I have spent years replaying it in my mind, believing it was there, in the film.

I was shocked last night by this realization and also smiling and shaking my head and thinking about that thunderstruck 15 year old me, and realizing how very powerful and evocative film can be – in our minds, in our dreams.

Movie 4 - A WALK IN THE SUN, '45
(The Human Truth)

 Like many of the films in this series, I saw this movie not in the theaters but on early television in the late forties and the fifties.   The stations had little programming at first and so played the classic and not so classic films over and over, and I was kidnapped by this particular World War Two film, and am still vulnerable to its spell.

It has a few hokey elements (it starts with a song) but it came out after the war and was not pushed toward jingoism but allowed to be faithful to it’s source, the short novel by Harry Brown Jr. – who was a combat veteran and who wrote the screenplay and, for me, offered up the human truth inside the ‘adventure’ and the ‘glory’ that made up most of the war stories I had seen on film – and I was a great fan of war stories, which led to a deep interest in military history that continues even now.

I love the simplicity of the story, one day in the life of one platoon, as they approach their landing on a beach in Italy, as they dig in during the dawn hours, as they begin their mission.   They need to capture a German-held farmhouse that oversees an important bridge, but this is more than the engrossing story of that mission and its violence and its cost.  The real strength here is the very human observation, the inner story of these men and boys as they move (and sometimes fight) their way toward their objective.  The film’s power is in the individualizing of the soldiers, listening in on their conversations, hearing their fears and their humor, their bitterness and friendship – so different from the many films of the time that glorified the conflict and demonized the enemy.

The audience gets to know these soldiers as people as they rise or break under pressure, as they joke and curse and are wounded and lose friends and keep moving on, talking over the bits and pieces of each of their lives.

A soldier is slightly wounded and is okay to be left alone, since the American forces are moving up from the beach and will be along soon to help him to an aid station.  A younger soldier asks the wounded man if he will take a letter the youth has written home and will post it.  The wounded soldier says yes.  The platoon moves on.  Later as they take-five along the road and sit or lie down, one worldly soldier teases the youth, saying that wounded man is probably reading his letter right now.  “He wouldn’t do that,” says the youth.  “Sure he would, and then he’ll probably use the letter on his wound, stuff it into the bullet hole.” “He can’t do that!” Says the youth.  “You can’t use paper for a wound!” “Hell, why not,” asks the other soldier, and the youth says, “Cause it crinkles!” 

The platoon is staffed with a long list of good actors who create these very human individuals and take you inside of them: Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, John Ireland…  I’ve gone along on their mission a dozen times and will go again – and I’ll read through Harry Brown’s book again, too.  Somewhere inside, I’m always that boy who was me, marching along with these soldiers and witnessing their human truth as they move on toward their hellish hour at that farm house.  (Directed by Lewis Milestone.)              

10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 1 and 2

Essays by Gerald DiPego

These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now.  They are in no particular order.

Movie 1 - TUNES OF GLORY, ’60
(Deep inner conflict)

There is a power struggle in a Scottish regiment whose base is near a town.  This is during peacetime, not long after WWII.  No battles, except a battle of wills, between the popular, up-from-the-ranks acting colonel who leads with a swagger and is one-of-the-men, and a full colonel who comes to take over, a more upper class man, not a martinet, but much more strict. 

Does this seem predictable?  It’s not.  First, there’s the brilliant casting.  The tough and swaggering acting-colonel is played by Alec Guiness in a real change-over, even for this great chameleon actor.  The new full colonel is played masterfully by John Mills: Two of Britain’s finest actors squaring off, and, even for a young man of nineteen, I was made aware of what the quality of performance was all about (as well as crisp writing and direction).

These two men came vividly alive to me as I dropped down into the center of their struggle.  My allegiances to the characters shifted, my emotions were mixed and battling each other.  The Guiness character had spent the war in combat in the desert, rising from a ranker.  The Mills character had been captured and interred in Japanese prison camp.  There are no flashbacks to this.  We learn it.  We glean it.  And we watch the two men as they struggle, and there, in the theater, at nineteen, I’m jerked away from the usual hero-villain story, and find myself face to face with complex and confounding human drama and human truth, shocked in the third act and wrenched by the long, slow, ending scene.

I was wrung out by this film experience, and I treasured it, and I still do.  I’ve watched the movie half a dozen times over the years and will see it again – a drama without a hero, a story as unpredictable as life.  Directed by Ronald Neame, staring Guiness, Mills and Susannah York.  Written by James Kennaway from his novel.  An early lesson for me in the richness of quality drama.

Movie 2 - BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ‘55
(Facing the fears)

The film startles immediately because of the music: “Rock Around the Clock,” arguably the birth of Rock and Roll to my generation and so powerful in its newness, and its rebellious abandon.  An urban high school – the students arriving, the teachers, the new kids, the ‘good’ kids, the ‘mean’ kids and me, one of them, because at 14 I was just entering high school, and I was shy, nervous, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of the shaming of bullies, so that here, on the theater screen, I was pulled into a gripping drama that was one hell of a training film. 

The film looked raw and real with the usual muscular direction from Richard Brooks, and it came at us during the wave of the JD craze.  Juvenile Delinquency was made more frightening to America than the atom bomb, and out of the deluge of that genre arose classics like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, whose trailer used the phrases ‘Teenage Terror in the Schools!’ and ‘Teenage Savages!’

But the ‘bad kids’ weren’t monsters – that would have weakened its punch.   And Glen Ford, the new teacher, a married war vet, wasn’t pure and untested – he was just a good man, hoping to do his best.  The head bully among the students, Vic Morrow, had a relaxed danger about him, embodying the kind of pleasure-in-your-pain that was a 14 year-old’s nightmare.  His stooge was played by a boy who went on to be a fine director, Paul Mazursky, and there was one, strong, independent student played by Sidney Poitier, who knew the streets but also seemed to have a brain and a heart.

I felt the tension as if I myself was walking into Glen Ford’s first  class.  I was studying for my future, nervous as hell, and looking for tips.  I watched as one teacher, Richard Kiley, paid dearly for trying to become the students’ friend and share his record collection with his class – by the end of this scene the precious records are broken and so is Kiley.  A pretty, but not overtly sexy woman teacher was also punished – just for her natural attractiveness, which got her pounced upon and terribly shaken.  Other teachers were either very tough or very cynical, but Glen Ford kept trying.

I walked the halls with those kids and fell in with some of the humor and took on the pain and panic of the tougher moments, and I began to see…a shifting among the members of Ford’s class.  I felt it too.  He was gaining trust and respect from them and from me, and Potier was becoming an ally without losing his independence or his cool.

As the power shifts away from Vic Morrow, he strikes out with more evil and mayhem, and all this comes to a head in a scene of violence in the classroom.   All the students are involved, me too, watching and not breathing – and learning.

Yes, those bullies populating my mind could be defeated – and not by some chance heroism but rather by a shift in attitude by the other students, a standing up, a standing together.  I went ahead into high school with some gained confidence and a road map and the knowledge that there would be people to support me and teachers who cared, and maybe a Poitier to calm me and help me find my way.

#

How Embarrasing!

I’m walking down a street in Dekalb, Illinois, a college boy, nineteen or twenty, coming toward me is a girl, only a slight acquaintance, maybe we have a class together, but it’s someone I’m interested in, attracted to, and look at her, she sees me and smiles, a big one.  She even waves, and the smile and the wave shine a warm light.  Surprised and joyous, I smile and wave, too, but as we come closer, I see that her eyes are aimed just over my shoulder, at a boy behind me.  I drop my waving hand quickly and my heart drops with it, all the way to the sidewalk, as I’m blushing hotly and walking on, feeling so…

The dictionary defines embarrassment with another word: ‘abashed,' which “presupposes some initial self-confidence that receives a sudden check, producing shyness, shame or a feeling of inferiority.”  Or all three packed into one second that lingers as a crisp snapshot in my memory even at age 75.

That mistaken-identity moment is a common one, isn’t it?  You know the feeling.

Here I’m about twelve at a restaurant with my mother, father and brother.  The waiter is recommending the special to my dad.  This is only a notch above a diner.  We couldn’t afford fancy and mostly ate at home.  My father is nodding at the waiter and now speaking, reaching for jolly phrase, but Dad is an Italian immigrant, and his English is pretty good but not perfect.  What he wants to say is “Okay, you twisted my arm.”  What he says is: “Okay, you pulled my leg.”  I blush and look at the tablecloth, sinking, shrinking.  Another snapshot for the embarrassment album.

I believe these feelings come in their sharpest form between the ages of ten and twenty-five or so.  As we age, thankfully, the blade doesn’t sink so deep.  Now, when I think of the restaurant, I smile, feeling only love and warmth for my Dad, but my twelve-year-old self, in the snapshot, is abashed.

These were the years when trying on a pair of pants in a store as my mother waited outside of the cubicle, I’d be tugging at that curtain to make sure no one could see.  What if someone came in?!  And when in the bathroom at home (why was there no lock on that door?) if I heard someone touch the door handle, I’d shout “Somebody’s in here!”  Somebody?  We were a small family so I’m sure they knew who it was, but that’s what I said.  And I bet you can imagine, on my first date, a high-school freshman dance, how I suffered terribly through the pain of having my father drive the car!  Pick up the girl at her home!  Take us to the dance!  ‘Cause we were only fifteen.

Ooh, this one still chills me.  My kind older brother, Paul, popular with the girls at twenty, not nearly as shy as I was (at sixteen) tells me that the girl he is dating has a sister my age, so why don’t I come with him to the girl’s home and the four of us will listen to records and dance.  This is a first and a surprising blessing, so I force myself through my fears and say yes.

This memory is not a snapshot, but a video.  We’re at the home of the girls.  The younger sister is very pretty and not at all shy.  We’re slow dancing, and I’m desperately trying for some cool and tearing through my brain like a thief, looking for witty things to say.  I think I’m doing all right, but as we dance, I glance into a mirror and see that the girl I’m dancing with is giving a look to her older sister and rolling her eyes and shaking her head.  No one knows I see this.  Devastation.

I had failed myself and failed my brother.  I don’t run this old video very often. 

Here’s a lighter one.  I’m the assistant janitor at an apartment building, a summer job during college.  I’m outside, walking around the building, and I step on a grate – and the grate gives way, and I fall into the hole, suddenly standing in there up to my armpits!  So embarrassing – except – there’s no one around.  No one is on the lawn or on the street.  Nobody sees me!  Embarrassment disappears, and I stand in my hole and laugh.

Occasionally, I still feel some twinges of embarrassment, but they’re paper cuts compared to the arrows that struck my chest in those earlier years.  Aging is freeing.  I embrace it.

Sometimes They Let You Drive the Locomotive

I’ve been writing books and movies professionally since 1972, and most people don’t think about the research side of this work, but digging into the world of each script or novel can take a writer anywhere, everywhere, and I appreciate each journey I’ve made toward the authenticity, the human truth of what I’m writing.

Sometimes this exploration is exciting, eye-opening, heart rending, joyous, meaningful – and each piece of work I’ve done has benefitted from my seeing and touching the world of my story.

During the seventies and eighties, I was writing those network movies-of-the-week that are all gone from TV now, but I was lucky to be there when the business was so hungry for so much writing.  Sometimes I wrote up to three of them a year, and each one led me somewhere, searching out some world for my study.

My journalism training and newspaper work helped me in this scouting for the reality of each world, and each journey broadened my life.

‘Runaway’ was a script about a train losing its brakes as it roared down the mountains, and I knew I’d have to write some key scenes that took place in the locomotive with its two-man crew, so the network called ahead and set up my visit to an LA train yard. The engineers were very cooperative.  People generally enjoyed talking about what they do and showing me how it all worked.  Before I left, the man in charge asked, “Wanna drive her?” Well, hell, yeah, and I did – just a couple of hundred feet, but it gave me a thrill along with a hands-on feeling.

Later I eagerly accepted an assignment to adapt a book called “I Heard the Owl Call My Name,” an award-winning Canadian novel about the native tribes living on the islands north of Vancouver and an Anglican Minister assigned to their church and school.

I was flown by seaplane to visit these tribal villages, sharing the sky with eagles, my first sight of them and only 30 feet from my window in the plane.

I so appreciated meeting the villagers, hearing the stories, the complaints and the joys and the day to day lives – and just taking in the rhythms of their speech, the way they moved.  Being there and looking into their eyes added so much more value than simply reading the book.

Sometimes the journeys led me into the darkness and pain of a particular world, such as my 24 hour stint with a Santa Monica Fire crew, at the station and out on calls.  I enjoyed the camaraderie of the station house admired their soldierly professionalism at work.

One call took us to the apartment of a woman having a heart attack.  She was about 50, and once the paramedics went to work, she was soon talking them, to all the team, even to me, her wide eyes moving among us as she asked, “I’m going to be okay, now, right?  I’ll be okay.  I’ll be all right.  Won’t I?” The medics spoke to her as they prepared her for the ambulance, telling her she would be tested at the hospital, and they would know just what to do for her. “But I’m going to be all right.  Right?  I know I’ll be okay.”

The last I saw of her was looking through the door of an emergency room as doctors, nurses, workers swarmed around her and someone closed the door. I followed the paramedics through their paperwork and asked them questions I needed to ask.  As we were leaving the hospital we enquired about the woman and found out "She didn’t make it.”

I still see her wide eyes, full of that question, that final question.

I was hired to write a script about the juvenile prison system, a ‘School for Girls’ in New Mexico, and I was handed several newspaper and magazine articles to study.  I was told we were going to shoot in an actual school, and I asked if I could go there now, before I started writing, and interview the staff and some of the girls.

I had heard, of course, how prison or reform school life can turn someone toward the dark side, create a hardened criminal out of, for instance, a girl who several times had run away from an abusive home.  In many cases (back in the 70s) the abuse was denied by the parents and they willingly turned over their daughter to the system by making her a ward of the court.

This is the story I wrote, called “Born Innocent,” starring Linda Blair, soon after her work in “The Exorcist.”  From the staff and the inmates I learned about the girls who find themselves in the system and are initiated, sometimes brutally, by the worst of the inmates and made to live in fear, made to turn against their own personhood by cutting themselves, by a habit of pulling out their hair, and how they toughen and become rebellious and even dangerous.

Because I had been allowed to penetrate the veil of how these schools were thought to be and had seen and heard how they were, the film turned out truthful and gritty.  Too gritty for some sponsors and some states where they refused to air it.  The script was novelized and the novels were pirated in Mexico in a whole series of books called “Nacida Inocente.”

Linda Blair, Joanna Miles and Allyn Ann Mcleary delivered deep and fine performances, and the script was nominated for a WGA award – because I had been let ‘inside’ to do my research.

Film research has taken me to London, Kenya, Canada, and Washington D.C. ... but, more importantly, into the human truth of the people who live the lives we write about, and I’m better and wiser for it, and also convinced that there is a global brotherhood and sisterhood, and that the more we recognize this the closer we are to a much better world.

Abundance

This is the most rambunctious, the most lush spring season I’ve ever seen in this rural California valley where I live.  My wife and I walked just two miles down our sparsely used country road, and the sights, combined with the quietude, caused us to react as if a dear friend had spread out their treasures for us to see: appreciative amazement.

In many places along the sides of the road the grasses and weeds, a healthy, vibrant green, were knee deep and untouched by anyone’s step.  Swaths of wild mustard covered parts of the meadowland, and an entire volunteer army of poppies was encamped among the hills.
Horses moved slowly across their bare-ground enclaves toward their fences to see us pass, and my wife tore some handfuls of the rich grass and fed them snacks.  Red-crested wood-peckers signaled from the telephone poles, and a red-tail hawk called out from the sky.  A simple pleasure that left us filled as if from a feast.

Returning to my work does not mean writing, which I love as much as I love these walks and long to get back to, but it’s the challenges of self-publishing an eBook that face me now, a jungle of internet technology with my mind a dull machete, but I’m almost there.  My book on creative writing, called “WRITE!” will be available soon, and I’ll let the world (as much of it as I can reach) know the date and time and procedures to acquire one.
Meanwhile, I still enjoy sharing my work with you, so I robbed the poetry drawer today and pulled out two of my ‘traveling poems’ in case you might enjoy.   Be well…  Jerry  

 

I-40 Cuts

I-40 cuts across bare
bony eastern Arizona
like a scar, structures
appearing without
context in the fields or
scattered and separate
in the wind-scraped towns,
and one, in faded metal,
has stood too long, a giant
word painted along its
rusted roof where
it used to shout at
the blind, humming cars
and trucks: “GARAGE,”
but sun, rain, ice and the
iron indifference of the
passing millions have
reduced the word to only
“RAGE”

 

The Highway

I’m taking California’s 101 south to L.A.
and the ocean’s on my left, no, on my right
and I’m doing 74 past the site of Port Hueneme
so I touch my neck feeling for the chain
pull out a navy I.D. tag, World War II
and shake it so it jingles.  Maybe somebody
sees me from the other lane, wondering why
that old man is jingling his necklace that way,
so I explain and say my dad was a sailor in ‘44
stationed at Hueneme and after that had a long
life and a grocery store, and when he died there
wasn’t much.  I chose the I.D. tag and my brother
picked the watch, so when I pass this place
I picture dad in the photo in his sailor clothes
white hat, happy and bewildered face, 35
years old and his youngest son only 3, so I didn’t
know him yet, and he didn’t know me, but maybe
I was on his mind, and now he’s on mine when I
pass here and see the sign, so I jingle the tag to say
hello to the sailor he used to be and hope the sound
somehow connects him to me, because there wasn’t
Nearly enough connecting, though he lived to be 82,
and maybe there never is is what I’d say to you or
whoever saw me in the blue Prius on 101, a man of
74 waving a chain because he’s still somebody’s son.

#

I never want to be that scared again.

Decades ago. My first time in London, on vacation with my then wife, Pauline, and our two young sons: Justin, 8, Zachary, 4. Our last day before flying back to L.A. Pauline is in the hotel, packing, and I have the boys in London’s old (1538) and immense (350 acres) Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

I’m snapping photos of the ducks on the Serpentine, breathing in the history and talking to the boys, probably about Kipling, and surely about Dickens because not long ago in L.A. we had seen the musical play “Oliver!” The boys loved it.
We reach the Elfin Oak, a large hallowed-out trunk imbedded with small statues of animals, elves and fairies. Nearby is a children’s playground. Zack wants to stay at the tree. Justin chooses the playground. There is an entrance nearby. “When you come out, we’ll be right near this tree,” I tell him. He nods and runs off. 

Zack and I talk about the tree, probably making up stories about the statues while Justin plays on the slide and other playground equipment.

Maybe 45 minutes later I feel a small thought squirming to the surface. Hasn’t Justin been gone a long time? I watch what I can see of the playground, and I can no longer pick him out.

“Zack, I have to walk to the left and to the right to see all the playground. I’ll keep you in sight, Okay?”

Zack nods, but I see he’s a little worried.

I hurry to search each side of the large playground, glancing often at Zack’s small form by the tree, giving him a smile so he doesn’t catch the urgency that is growing inside of me. I study every boy, every glimpse of thick brown hair. Justin is not in the playground. He’s not there.

When I come back to the tree, I’m sending my eyes everywhere, trying to push the fear down, back into the hole it came out of. He has to be nearby. I will see him in this next second, in this one, in….

“Where is he,” Zack asks with tears beginning to seep into his voice. The sound of my little boy and his frightened face cuts me inside.

“He has to be right around here,” I say, and we both look. I hate to leave the tree, our only home ground, but Justin is not in sight, and I have to widen the search.

Zack and I move to higher ground. I send my eyes thrusting into every boy’s face, every mop of hair. The fear is filling my chest like an expanding balloon. He’s gone. No. No! I’ll see him. I’ll see him now. Now.

I have to cover more ground. I bring Zack to where two wide walking lanes intersect and ask him to please stand there. “Please, Zack. I’ll keep looking back at you but I have to run around, all around. You’ll see me and I’ll see you. Here, I’ll leave my camera here, so I can run better.” I hang the camera on my little boy and it reaches down to his knees. He stands there, upset, but holding it together. I begin to run.

Now, as I run, I begin to shout Justin’s name as loud as I can, and each shout makes the fear grow and the fact more real. “Justin!” I can’t see him. I can’t find him. I keep running and glancing at Zack and running on. People are staring at me, concerned. I keep shouting, tearing my voice. I don’t see him anywhere. How far could he have gone? Gone. He’s gone.

When I come back to the intersection of lanes, my little soldier is sniffing at tears. He tells me that a big dog came up to him and scared him, but he stood there.

He stood there.

I pick him up and hold him. I can barely talk because the fear is now like a second body inside me, and it’s so heavy and so dark. I look around one more time, but I have to face it. I cannot find my son. We’re in a large park in a foreign city, and I cannot find my son.

I hold Zack and walk to the nearest street that borders the park. I see a red phone booth and hurry there, and we enter.
I put Zack down and somehow, with the English coins and the unfamiliar phone system, I’m able to call the police. I tell my story quickly. They will send an officer.

Then I make the call you never want to make, the call that seems impossible, the worst call I have ever made. I call the hotel. I am switched to our room, and Pauline answers. There is a space of a second or so before I can speak when I realize how what I say will shake her to her soul, the pain and terror and wild impossibility of it.

I tell her that our son is missing, and she takes it in. I know it cores her, but she takes it in, asks questions, wants to come to the park. I ask her to stay in the room, by the phone, in case he’s found by somebody, in case he remembers the name of the hotel. Please. Please.

Zack and I wait for the officer, and he comes in a few minutes, driving a small size police car. He’s a tall man in shirt-sleeves and the Bobby helmet. He’s relaxed as he gets out of the car. He’s smiling a bit. He’s older than I am – and he’s certain.
“We’ll find the little one,” he says, and I feed on his smile, on his voice, on his certainty. I stuff it all into me.

The car is made small so it can drive on the walking lanes of the giant park. He drives slowly, Zack and I staring everywhere, everywhere, for minutes, for more minutes. More.

I see, ahead of us, far ahead, a woman walking our way, a child is holding her hand. It’s him. It’s him. It’s my Justin. It’s him.

An ecstasy of gratefulness replaces the fear. Zack and I hurry to meet him.

He ran out of the playground and didn’t see us, he says, so he started to search. He is sniffling a little, but is fine. My son. Fine. Here. In my arms. I’m a statue, holding him, eyes closed now, holding him and holding Zack.

 Later, in the hotel, his mother asks him what he was going to do.

“I didn’t remember the hotel,” he says, and I knew you were leaving in the morning, so…”

“You actually thought we’d go home without you,” Pauline says, laughing, eyes still full.

Justin shrugs and takes some things out of his pocket that he found in the park when he was alone, a sharp stone, a coin…? “I thought I’d just be…”

“Be what?”

“Like a London street boy. Like in ‘Oliver’

Witnessing

In 2014 I went on a trip called “Witness and Remembrance” with the Road Scholar organization, studying the Holocaust in Berlin and in Auschwitz, the camp/museum. I write here only of the touring of Berlin, and some of the surprises I found there.

These are called ‘The Stumbling Stones.”  They are small brass plaques found here and there in the neighborhoods of Berlin. They are only about three inches square, so in order to reach what is written on them, one has to bend very low – or kneel down.

One of them reads: “Here lived Jacob Bergoffen.”  He was a Jew, and this was his home. It tells us that he was born in 1892, deported to Auschwitz and murdered there on the 31st of August, 1942. Next to his Plaque is one for Felli Berghoffen, her dates, her deportation and murder in Auschwitz. Here was a couple who lived in a house on a street at this site and mingled with non-Jewish neighbors, perhaps worked with them. They were Germans of Jewish Faith, and the assimilation story of the Jews into German life, up to 1933, was a success story. There was always a vein of anti-semitism, but not until the Nazi regime came to power and began its ‘Race War’ did that vein begin to bleed.

When Jews were deported to the camps, non-Jews moved in and took over their homes, and often all their property was sold at auction, the money going to the State, the Nazi Regime. All traces of the Berghoffans and so many others were wiped out as if they had never existed. Not anymore. Now there are the Stumbling Stones, about 5,000 so far just in Berlin.

Jews and non-Jews did the research on the murdered and raised neighborhood initiatives to mark the spot where they had lived. Jews and non-Jews keep the plaques clean, shine them. In order to shine a Stumbling Stone, one has to bend very low – or, as I said, kneel down. In this way the Berghoffens are remembered, honored and not erased.

This is typical of the movements toward understanding, full disclosure, and the honoring of all the victims of those twelve years, 1933-1945, when Germany was driven by racial hatred and true “Race War" as the Nazi’s called it. In 1939, before the war began, in a speech by Hitler, he promised “the historic annihilation of race enemies.”  Annihilation. What a word.

Now memorials exist throughout Berlin, for the murdered Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the very elderly, the sick and the mentally ill and the deformed – all murdered by the Nazis. In breeding the myth of a strong “Aryan Race” the Nazis believed these elements were poisonous.

Now people come to these memorials from everywhere in the world, and some leaves stones and flowers – just to mark that someone stopped here, some one took note, someone cared.

Even the train tracks are now marked, where the journey from Berlin to the camps began, as a reminder. Every train that left the city carrying people to the camps is remembered here, when it left, how many Jews were carried, and where the train was bound, and here, too, people come to leave tokens as a remembrance, an honoring, a witnessing that those murdered millions were not erased, not forgotten and will never be forgotten.

Latin Jazz?

“What do you think of Latin Jazz?”

I throw him that question as a rope because he’s off balance and about to fall into his delusion, telling me again how he was driven down a dark road and someone in the back seat put the barrel of a gun against his head. “I swear I heard that hammer cocked.”  He has said this three times, and I ask him again, "Who would do that to you?” “Greyhound Bus drivers,” he tells me.

This was one day after his ex-wife had called from Illinois, saying he had borrowed money from one of his ‘bar friends’ and was on his way to California to see me. I’m his friend since the fourth grade, through high school and college and first marriages. He had decided to visit me instead of our usual two letters and one call a year, and he had been ejected from a Greyhound Bus in one of the tossed off towns at the southeastern end of the L.A. sprawl.

“The driver said I was drunk and was disturbing the passengers,” he told me when he called, “but the driver lied.”  He had to put the phone down and ask for the name of the town and the motel. I called the motel office for directions. In an hour I was knocking at his door, and he was opening it and stepping back. He’s my age and we have the same name. Jerry. We were sixty-two then, but he looked seventy that day. More. He was smoking and shaking. He told me his Greyhound story. I took him out for something to eat.

Jerry was a bassist in jazz groups that played in clubs around Chicago, played for weddings and parties. He was also a bartender and a skilled repairer of reed instruments, and he was a loyal lover of alcohol, like his mother, who had died of it, and his sister, who had also died of it, and his father, who had almost died, but sobered and survived.

After eating, Jerry is calmer, and we go back to his motel room so he can pack his things and come home with me to Santa Monica. He’ll stay with me for a few days, dry out, make a plan. I’ll buy him a plane ticket, give him some cash and wish him luck. Why not?  For years he was the only one who knew me, all of me, from fourth grade through one year of college, through all those years of shyness that made us nearly mute, when we were observing the world like scouts, studying and reporting back to each other what we had seen and heard and felt, and wondering if we could ever understand that world and belong to it.

In the motel room he admits that some of his Greyhound story is blurring in his memory, and I suggest that he might have had a panic attack. He says maybe, but I see that he’s holding on to that ride through the night and the cocking of the gun and is about to tell it all over again, so I say, picking up on a conversation we had in the restaurant, “What do you think of Latin jazz,” and I don’t do this just to deflect him. I’m offering him a place to stand and a venue for expressing what he knows, what he owns.

He goes through a moment of cigarette management, lighting it and inhaling and fingering it out of his mouth and blowing the smoke as he squints, and this gives him back some of his style and his cool, and he shakes his head and says, “I don’t like it. Too much percussion.”  And for a minute, he’s another Jerry, more solid and well.

He went back to Chicago and didn’t follow his plan. He never wrote or called me. He gave me no phone number where he could be reached. He was my old friend, and I helped him, but how much?  I was afraid. I admit that. I was afraid of the drink. I was afraid of the con. Later, I heard from his ex-wife that he had lost his instrument repair job, and he had lost his apartment, too. She thought he might be living in his car, and then there was nothing more.

He could still be out there, though, somewhere, surviving. I think of him that way. I picture him somehow reading this. Jer, are you reading this?  Are you out there?  If you are, listen to me, and please tell me something, will you?  Tell me this. What do you think of Dave Brubeck as compared to Oscar Peterson?
    

The Wild

Faces lit by flames then disappearing into the night, appearing again in a great whoosh of air and fire – worried faces or full of wonder, disappearing again as I’m hurried into place.  “Lie down, quickly!”  
  
In the flashes of firelight I see a large basket tipped on its side, and this is where the people lay, two to a compartment.  “Hurry, we have to leave now!”  I slide into the basket, lie on my back, but my wife is shaking her head, frightened.  “I can’t do it!”  “You can,” says our guide, pushing her forward.  She looks at me, and I’m smiling within the fiery chaos as if to say ‘what the hell are we doing?!  And she smiles, too, and slides in beside me as flames reach out and silk billows and air gushes and the silk stretches and moves along the ground, dragging the basket, dragging all of us by heavy ropes as we grip the edge of the basket, and it is dragged and dragged and then begins to lift.

Scan.jpeg

We feel ourselves leave the ground, but are we lying or standing now?  We each rise to full height, eight passengers and a pilot, as the balloon lifts above us just as dawn bleeds into the sky.  The pilot is laughing.  “We got off just in time!  The wind is perfect!”

When we look over the rim of the basket, we see we are gliding fifty feet above the earth. Whenever a rush of heated air is released, we hear the great whoosh, but mostly it is quiet, the earth, the sky, the dawn, and each of us passengers, stilled by the sight and the feeling that we’re in a flying dream, or we’re birds, or this is some magic.

We speed toward a hilltop and miss the grasses there by only ten feet.  The dawn light is spreading, and as we top the hill we all gasp as we see them, thousands of them.

We are flying above the great migration of animals across the planes of East Africa, just fifty feet above the tens of thousands of moving or grazing wildebeests and zebras, mingled with herds of elephants, with giraffes, and every kind of sleek, darting antelope. 

We take some photos, but it’s futile.  We want to simply breathe it in, all of it, all of the wild life moving beneath us as we move above it.  We notice that our shadow, when it glides over a group of elephants, frightens them and makes them run.  The wildebeests and antelope and zebra scatter when the pilot pulls the lever and the animals hear the heated air rushing into the balloon.

It’s amazing what we can see, the thousands and the individual, the old and the young, some lumbering water buffalo now, and even the sparse, scattered trees -- to see a tree from above it, to glide over it’s top branches and see, at the very top, a nest, and in that nest, an egg, to see the multitudes and the single bits of life.

We’re above the surging thousands as they cross streams, sometimes forming long lines at the shallows, and there are predators far off, watching for the strays, the sick, old, or very young.

We pass above a kill.  A lion has downed a wildebeest and is feeding on the carcass.   As we approach, the lion looks up.  It looks right at us.  There is nothing in this great passage above the migration that will linger in my mind like the look on the face of that lion.  She cares nothing for our shadow or bursts of air.   She dares us.  Her look, her eyes, dare us to come to her, to try to take her kill from her -– and the stare seems to range beyond this kill and this feeding.  She, the lion, dares us, we humans, in our great, birdlike ship, to land, to confront her where she lives, where she hunts.  There is a deep challenge in her look.  I am the lion she says to me with her eyes, come and show me who you are.  She is proud.  Her stare is fierce.  She is ready.

We sail over her, and she watches us go.  We take more pictures of the endless migration.  We settle in a field where they wait for us with sandwiches and a bottle of champagne for a toast.

We speak excitedly and smiles stretch our faces and we shake hands or embrace and pose together for photos, but deep inside I am saving and protecting this memory, the lion, the lion’s eyes.  I saw the wild there. 

Drummer in the Band

I think being a drummer is like being a redhead. You just are. At sixteen I’m the snare drummer in the Round Lake High School band, the only snare drummer. It’s a small school.
I’m head of the percussion section in the Round Lake High School concert band, pep band and marching band, and in the marching band I’m trusted to create my own street beats, those drumming solos between songs when the band is parading.

There was one long march where the crowd was in clusters along the rural highway, and I was instructed to begin a street beat whenever I saw a crowd – and that would be a signal for the band to begin our next marching tune. On this never-ending parade we past farmland, pastures, some of the band members huffing under the burden of bass drum or a Sousaphone.

We marched in silence along an empty highway. A herd of cows saw us…and came down to the fence. I started my street beat. The kids laughed.  The conductor, Mr. Genualdi, gave me his wry smile, and the band played – we played The Stars and Stripes Forever to the cows, and their mild eyes followed us for a long, long while.

As a concert band we won awards, traveling to exotic cities to compete:  Peoria, Rockford, Waukegan. We were good because of our conductor, who was a teacher every kid prays for, a bright, enthusiastic, compassionate man who demands your best, and so you find your best, you create it for yourself and for him, for Mr. Genualdi.

We travel to a town where the bands will compete. We reach the hotel. I share a room with a trumpet player a tuba player and the other boy in the percussion section, who plays the big bass drum.  More band members begin collecting in our room, even some girls, even a boy who has somehow bought beer. Just three bottles for all of us, but we feel wild. I engineer the room, giving orders. Stand the tuba in the corner, slide the drums under the beds, put the trumpet case in the closet – give us room. The place fills up. We sit on the beds and talk with the girls.  You, see, it’s 1957. So we sit on the beds and talk with the girls. Later there’s some kind of water fight. There’s more beer. A card game. Nobody sleeps. In the morning we put on our uniforms and board the bus.

We try not to sleep on the bus. We have to be sharp.   We’re first on the program out of the ten competing bands, performing as soon as we arrive at the hosting school.  The bus ride will last only another ten minutes. We have to have our edge, for our band, our school, our town, and for him – Mr. Genualdi in his all white uniform, sitting up front behind the bus driver.

It’s at that moment that I realize that the drums are still under the beds back in the hotel. The realization cores me like an apple. I’m hollow inside, and I’m sweating now, soaking my shirt, and yet I’m chilled. Maybe I have an instant fever. I hope I’m going to die. I keep trying to hold off the fact of the left-behind drums. It’s as if it’s a too-bright light, and I can’t look at it. Maybe if I close my eyes; maybe if I don’t think about it, or maybe if I think so hard that its not there, I can erase it.

I close my eyes, but when I open them I see the bright light. It’s the white uniform of Mr. Genualdi, who is sitting in the front of the bus, and there is nothing else to do, but to stand up and walk down the aisle and tell him.

I stand up. I begin to walk. I steady myself. The aisle seems so long.  I want it to be long. I want the walk to take forever, so I never have to tell him. He sees me now, coming forward. He smiles. I try to swallow. I can’t. I have to speak. His smile is gone because he sees my expression.  “I’m really sorry,” I tell him.  And then I form the sentence that is like a club. He’s a mentor, he’s an inspiration, he’s a great guy, and I’m about to club him. I say the sentence. “I left the drums at the hotel.”

His eyes widen. He pales. I say again, “I’m really sorry.”  Anger and disappointment crash on his face, and then he turns away. He looks out the window. He looks at his watch. His sigh is a sword entering my chest. I wish I could cut out my heart and hand it to him.   When he looks at me again, he has his control. He says, “We’ll borrow some drums from a band that’s not playing till later.”  And then he sighs again and shakes his head at me, but this time the small, wry, tolerant smile comes with it.

This boy standing in the aisle beside him is a good boy. This boy tries very hard. Mr. Genualdi likes this boy, and he sees this boy’s pain, and so he gives this boy absolution like a priest. Instead of the sign of the cross, it’s that wry half smile and a tolerant shake of the head. I feel relief; I feel even love; and I feel older. And we reach the school, and we play, and we win a first place for Mr. G.

 

Two Movie Monsters

Two Movie Monsters
(my most frightening moments in film)

“Creature From the Black Lagoon” – No

“The Wolfman” – Nope

Face-hugging Aliens from “Aliens” – scary, but…no

Dracula – Nahh

“Cujo” – Oh come on

No, the two movie monsters who scared the hell out of me, got inside me, invaded my dreams and twisted them into nightmares, gave me the tingling neck when alone in a dark place, may seem, to you, odd or even mundane, but they had power over me from ages five through twenty.

The reason they hammered me like no other monsters is a kind of mathematical equation: good acting, good direction and production + my own personal vulnerabilities = true gut-level horror.

It’s a good list of directors, by the way: David Lean, and Alfred Hitchkock. Are you starting to guess?  You’re thinking, was there ever a monster in a David Lean movie?!  For me there was, and she was first created by Charles Dickens and then by David Lean and then by actress Martita Hunt.

She was Miss Haversham in “Great Expectations.”  Remember her?  In her youth she was left standing alone at the altar, and the despair and the shock of this made her insane. When we meet her in the 1949 David Lean production she is an old woman in a decaying wedding dress. The long dinner table is still set for the wedding, but the rats have eaten the cake. She thinks the groom is still coming.

Why did she frighten me so deeply?  I was eight years old in 1949. We lived in an apartment in a tough neighborhood in Chicago, and my mother, to give herself a break and to trade life for fantasy, walked my brother and I to the local movie house twice a week, every time the pictures changed, no matter what was playing. So, at only eight, the idea and the sight of a crazy old woman took my breath and made me a statue in my seat.

My brother was 12, and I didn’t think he even noticed, but the idea of a WOMAN monster, a CRAZY WOMAN, terrified me in a special way. My mother was loving and playful, and we brothers depended on her for everything because my father was usually working and we were already afraid of him, anyway. Not that he was a bad man, but there was a force in his eyes, his Italian temper, and he didn’t know how to play. It would be another decade or more before I was certain that he loved us, and it helped to see him weep at sentimental television commercials as he matured.

Was I so afraid of Miss Haversham because she showed me that a WOMAN can be crazy, and did that meant it could happen to my mother?  What a spooky thought for an eight year old. I’m not sure what I thought, but that experience left me with a serious fear of crazy women on the screen, and I wasn’t the only one. Years later I told my brother and he nodded, saying “Oh, yeah. Miss Haversham. She really got me.”  So it marked him, too.
Cut to 1960, and I’m a freshman in college, home for a weekend, taking my girlfriend, Joann, to a movie that was making its way around the country, causing a ripple that was felt even in little Round Lake, Illinois. We were eager to see it and chuckling over the very dramatic ad campaign. Something like: “No one will be admitted to the theater after the start of this film. Nurses will be present at many showings in case patrons faint.”  The film was called “Psycho,” starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

Now we’re about 20 minutes into the movie and Janet Leigh is getting undressed. Anthony Perkins, the motel clerk, is watching her through a hole he’s made in the wall.
As Janet prepares for a shower, we hear a far away argument between the peeper, played very well by Perkins, and a woman we take to be his mother, but we don’t see her. Anthony is trying to calm the old woman who is shouting and seems dangerous.

Janet enters the shower. It’s 1960 remember, no nudity yet, only suggested, the entire sequence staged and shot to perfection by Alfred Hitchcock.

As she showers, the film suddenly explodes into a frenzy of violence so shocking it may never be equaled. It seems the old woman has rushed into the bathroom, swept the shower curtain aside and is stabbing Janet Leigh!  This can’t be!  Janet is the star of this film!  Adding to the shock is the shrieking music, driving the scene as the knife strikes again and again and the blood begins to stream.

What we have here is my worst movie fear, the crazy old woman, like Miss Haversham, but now she has a knife!  She stabs directly into my fear spot, killing the star of the movie only 20 minutes into the film!!

This old woman, to the same shrieking music, also stabs to death a detective who is mounting the stairs in her house, and by the end of this film, I am terrorized and wrecked. It’s as if I have been personally attacked. Such is the power of what (at it’s bottom) is a mere B-movie ‘slasher’, but due to genius film-making is an unforgettable shocker and a Jerry DiPego anathema.

I didn’t show Joann my fear, not wanting to seem weak. I drove her to her house and kissed her well as she kissed me, and I went to my home where my mother was absent – in the hospital for tests. I walked quietly past my parents’ bedroom where my father slept alone and turned to the staircase to my upstairs bedroom. I stopped. I could not climb those stairs – having just watched my most terrifying monster stab a detective on a similar stairway.

I was nineteen. I was so afraid. I could NOT climb those stairs. There was a monster waiting for me. I knew it wasn’t real. I was afraid of the crushing fear itself. 
I walked softly into my parents’ bedroom, stared at my sleeping father, and I forced myself to speak, whispering, “Dad?” and said it once again, and he woke.

“It’s Jer,” I said. “I’m…not feeling so good. Can I sleep with you?”
He nodded, turned on his side. I took off my shoes and jeans and got into the bed beside him, nineteen, afraid, ashamed.

It was at least a year before I could take a shower without my chest tightening with ambient, illogical fear of a monster who never existed.

I’m no longer afraid of monsters, but I have never watched “Psycho” again – and I won’t. Ever.

Something About a Desert

There’s something about a desert. I mean a big desert, a get-lost-and-they-find-your-bones desert. It’s not quite emptiness because they’re not quite empty. I once drove all the way across Death Valley and saw one creature. A rabbit. It was dead.

I know that deserts are ‘alive’ because when I was a kid I saw the Disney documentary, “The Living Desert.”  I remember a snake shaking its tail like a swift marimba, its song of poison and death, and I recall a tarantula fighting a huge wasp. I think it was a wasp.

Yeah, okay, snakes, bugs, and what else?  Succulents, right?  And stubborn little arthritic trees, brittle weeds, armadillos – which are like small armored vehicles, which also speaks to me of danger and, again, death.

But as I aged through my sixties I began to lose all my fears, as if I dropped them along the way, as if my pocket had a hole in it and shyness fell out and was gone and self-consciousness, too, and what was left of timidity and modesty and even larger fears, public speaking, acting, and I even dropped a legitimate phobia. I can climb a tall ladder now and even let go and raise my arms above my head and unscrew the ceiling fixture in a room with high ceilings and hum a song while I’m doing it; goodbye, acrophobia.

So, feeling fearless, I decided a few years ago to make friends with the desert.  I like to take a solo trip now and then, a private getaway, and this time I headed into the Mojave. It’s easy to find. Start in Southern California and drive east until the cities run out, and then the towns dwindle, and the space between everything increases, and the small inhabited places you continue to drive through are not so much towns, but desert outposts, scattered along the rim of the Great Mohave Desert.

 You can’t live in these outposts without the desert getting at you. You see it all day, hear it at night, taste it’s grit, squint at its withering shine. People either don’t stay long in these outposts or they stay forever, and they make a life among the few shops and the tattoo parlors and cafés and bars. There are always bars, where people go to drink and think about…the desert.
Okay, it’s beautiful, with its spare palette, but always changing light, as the sun does its tricks near the horizon when it isn’t sledge-hammering down from above.

I chose Joshua Tree as my personal piece of the desert where I would shake hands with it and get to know it, and feel, finally,  a relaxed comfort in the distinctive landscape created by Dali, maybe, and seen nowhere else in the world.

I checked in at the ranger station, then drove along one of the paved roads toward a hiking site, but was stopped along the way by the red-rock outcroppings, not jagged rocks, but big isolated piles of boulders as if ruins of some unknown kingdom. They called to me, these rounded rock piles. I wanted to walk the half mile or so (distance is hard to measure by eye in the Mohave) to one splendid castle of heaped, monolithic boulders and move among them, stand upon them and look about like a pirate on a ship, gazing at this vast sandy sea.

I knew I could keep my red Prius in sight from my destination in the rocks, and I took a camera and a sun hat and a full bottle of water. I’m no fool.
I enjoyed exploring the rocks and using their height to see my surroundings, and I saw other piles of the red monoliths, as if this area of the desert had once been a city, or a place of a hundred temples. One pile looked easily climbable up to a high perch, where I’m sure I could see the earth curving.

I walked to these boulders, settling the schematics in my head: Prius is there – first rock pile is there – second rockpile now takes me to exactly this angle from the road.

I must have spent a happy hour climbing and resting and shooting photos and drinking water, and when I was done, I climbed to a nearby shelf of rock and set my gaze toward exactly where my red car would be parked, but it wasn’t there.

This was a strange, disorienting feeling, because I had been so sure. It was one of those moments when your brain rejects the intel from your eyes. Can’t be. Is.  I climbed higher and looked and…and then turned all about. Even behind my sunglasses my eyes were narrowed down because of the overpowering light.

I looked at each rock pile, trying to pick out that first one which would orient me. I wasn’t sure. I tried to crawl into my memory and FEEL the way I had come, but I still was not anywhere near certainty.

So, what could I do?  No I didn’t have a cell phone, and the Mohave is short on WI FI. I had to pick the most likely direction and what?   Walk, walk and keep walking until I struck the road, and what if I didn’t come upon the road after two, after three miles?  The sun was still hammering, and I realized I was actually scared now, scared of the desert. I felt it had tricked me. And I wasn’t ashamed to be scared. It was logical to be afraid, but even inside the fear I still felt somewhat confident that I could choose the direction and find that road, and then find my car – or flag down a car, or…..

I started walking, aware of the irony, even smiling wryly at myself and shaking my head. He got you – this devil, this Spririt of the Desert. He tricked you, Jer. Part of this attitude was bravado I guess. I just kept walking.  
It’s not easy to count miles when you walk. How many feet to a mile?  And I have about a three-foot stride, so…. I just kept walking. I saw no road. I heard no cars. I just kept…..

I had a third of a bottle of water left and was tired and sore from all the climbing. It must have been about three in the afternoon. Should I stop a while in the shade of some rock or scrawny tree?  Could I walk all the way back to where I started and choose another direction?

Hey, I thought. This is real. This is how a desert kills people, people who don’t really understand its power, people who screw up. I was angling toward the sun, and when I corrected and kept walking, I saw the shine of something. It could be pavement, very far away. It could be the road.

I had more energy now, but didn’t want to tire myself. As I walked, my eyes tore at that infrequent shine ahead of me, scratching for details, for certainty. After navigating a slight rise in the land and staring downward, I stopped, stopped breathing, too. There was a road.

I arrived at the road, sat on the side of the road, touched the beautiful road and smiled and waited. A car full of family stopped as I waved them down. I could see they were suspicious, some of them actually  scared of me. I asked for the entrance they had used. They told me. It was only about three miles ahead. Did you pass a red car pulled off the road?  They had not. So I knew my direction. It was the same direction that this family was taking, and I supposed I could have squeezed in among the children in back, but I saw their nervousness and just thanked them. They droved off, and I began, for certain this time, walking toward my car.

The red Prius was another two and a half miles down the road. I wanted to hug it. I sat inside a while, looking over the landscape, thinking again, so that’s how a desert kills you.

I imagined the Desert Spirit as a man. He wore a slight smile, just curving up slightly on one side, stared at me. Then the son of a bitch winked.

Lake Town Christmas

Part Two

(The arrival on Christmas Eve of my mother’s family, visiting from Chicago at our home in rural Round Lake, Ill, 1950s:  my favorite uncles, Motts and Tony, Cousin Jim and his new wife, Carolyn, my mother’s jolly sister, Inez — these characters described in last week’s post of Part One).

They moved into our home wailing and shouting and sometimes breaking into song – the tune of Auld Lange Syne with the words “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here,” and I can hear them still, and hear my family calling out our own greetings, and broken bits of sentences were surfacing and disappearing as if in a swift river as they came deeper into the living room clutching bags clumsy with ribboned presents, but the presents were irrelevant to me even then, because the gift was themselves and the night to come.

The food, too, was unimportant. Tomorrow would be the meal around the table. This was bread and olives and prosciutto and salami and Parmesan, and drinks were made and a gallon bottle of red wine opened and the sofa and chairs filled so that my brother and I roamed or sat on the floor, and the stories rolled out and the jokes began and the teasing and the chaotic harmony of laughter, my brother smiling but cool and quiet at first and then, and I see this so clearly, buckling as if from a blow to the stomach, bending with silent laughter, his eyes squeezed closed, and my father smiling and chuckling as if he was watching a comedy on television and my mother giggling, giggling like a girl, and then making us laugh in turn by speaking in different voices and smoking her cigarette in strange, stagey ways, and I know now that a portion of my great joy in these Christmas Eves came as I saw my own family captured and changed, our silences abandoned, our seriousness deserted.

Once the visitors came in the door, I dropped all anticipation and expectation, and there was never a plan for what we would do. It was a kind of improvised theater where any topic could catch us up and fill the room with extemporized humor on its theme. “How’s college,” Motts might ask Paul, and Paul would say, “Fine,” and Motts would look at Tony, and they would begin: “Any knowledge at that college?  What have they taught you so far?  Tell us something you know. Did they teach you yet about the Sanafran?  No?  They didn’t teach him about the Sanafran. Oh, my God. If you don’t know about the Sanafran, how’re you ever gonna learn about the Spinowizz?  I don’t think I like that college. Does it have a fight song?  Let’s hear it.” 

And Paul would try to sing it, his stomach hurting from the suppressed laughter until his eyes watered, and soon we were all singing it, and I can hear it now. I can. I can pick out each voice, the memory making me smile at this moment, and I’m feeling tears in my throat as if this one moment in this one chosen night has been distilled into a small amount of precious liquid, and I close my eyes and listen, because now Jim, the crooner, is singing us a song from the nightclubs, and when he finishes, he’ll sing another and then begin to do impressions of the singers of the time and then sing in comic voices and made-up languages and Motts and Tony will join him while my smile shines on them like a flood light

I never knew what would happen next, and never cared, never thought ahead and never imagined that I would remember so vividly those nights and treasure those nights, and that they would sustain me through yet unimagined tragedies and lift me whenever I studied my life for meaning or sense or tried to total the pleasure against the pain.

 I felt no hurry in the center of that joy. I knew there would be time, as the night ran on, for quieter moments with each of the visitors, and I knew they would listen and even care what I said, and I watched them slowly sink from the shouted hilarity into a softer mood, Motts and Inez feeling the alcohol and mourning, with my mother, the loss of a brother. There was always a somber nod toward the ghost of Frank, but then the old stories would rise and all would rise again toward the laughter, and even my father would grow small, slow eyes from the drinking, a face of his I rarely saw. He was a solid man with little to say, and he had no play to give his children, no look that lingered and examined and searched for my dreams, nothing at all that could compete with these visitors except his solidness and his steady work and the security he gave us and taught us. I knew he sometimes loaned money to my mother’s family, and I had a sense, even then, that I was somehow safer with him, in spite of his temper, but how I fed upon the play that was sometimes in my mother and that always rushed through the door with these visitors who connected with a child and reached inside of a child and somehow preserved the children within themselves.

  As the level of the wine sank in the big bottle, the conversations separated and softened, and I had my time to step away with Carolyn and speak of what we’d been reading, and she would ask me if I was writing and ask to see it, and really want to see it, and I would share it with her and with no one else, not because my family would have been harsh but only because they didn’t care to go where I went with Carolyn, to the place of stories, to the mind-created worlds that presented me with wonder like a talisman to keep and to wear, and I’ve always worn it and wear it still, and in time the drinking and the clock would press our visitors down into the beds and the foldout couches, and I never remember feeling sad but only filled as those nights ended, but, of course, they haven’t ended because I can live them again and am living them again as I make these pages, and they can never be erased, even by what came after, by the changes and the losses that came swiftly at the end of those years, by Tony’s death from cancer, and by Motts finding a wife who gave him a loving steadiness and a sweet daughter and moving with them to Texas, and by Jim and Carolyn divorcing, my Carolyn moving back to Louisiana, and Jim marrying again and having a family and becoming a machinist who would not give up his dream of singing so that he sang into the noise of the machines to keep his voice strong, and, slowly, time and death took them all away from me, even Paul, all except one.

In college I wrote to Carolyn, and we connected again and I saw her when I hitchhiked to New Orleans one Easter break, and it was a deeper pleasure than I ever imagined, seeing her again, her smile entering me and finding the place I had kept for her there since I was twelve and she came for the Christmases.  We wrote steadily after that and even sent tapes of our thoughts, and she married and raised two children and so did I, but all the while there was Carolyn and me and the books and the films and the wonder we shared, a relationship that lasted more than fifty years until she died only months ago, and a love that will last until I die, and when I die, there will still be one last survivor of those Christmas eves, and that will be the boy, that eager boy who waited at the window and waited to hear the train, and that train will keep wailing and keep bringing him his visitors and his dream and the pure heart of joy again and again forever.   

Lake Town Christmas

A Memory

Part One

I’m remembering Christmases when I was a boy living in the country, and my favorite relatives came out on the train from Chicago to stay through the holiday, but these aren’t the memories of time and place that can be entered into a book or an album of photos or recorded on film. I’m remembering a dream of Christmas. I’m inside the dream, at its center, and around me are voices tangled in laughter and shouts and song. People appear and disappear. Some are gone forever, some come back older, fatter, thinner, with different hair, and I remain in the center of this dream and my face is stiff and even sore from smiling. I’m happy. I remember that as a fact as certain and solid as a tree, and I embrace this tree and hang on, my happiness imprinted on my face forever in the memory of muscle. I’m so happy I can hardly speak. Speaking means shouting, because the volume of the voices is so high, and sometimes I add my shouted words. Sometimes I’m being asked questions. My favorite uncles are asking me, with straight faces, questions I find so funny, that I can’t answer them.  I try, but mostly I laugh so hard that my eyes tear. I’m so very happy.

It’s 1953 and also 1957 and all the years in between knotted together, and I’m twelve and also fourteen and twelve again and then fifteen, and I stand or sit in the center of the dream, and I’m in the dining room or the living room or the kitchen of our house in Round Lake, Illinois, and it’s the night of Christmas Eve, and if I could grasp the dream as if it were spinning around me like dark silk, all the images and faces appearing on the dark silk, if I could put my hands into the dream and follow the fabric of it to the beginning, it would start with the fall of darkness, the chilled, early December darkness that settled in quickly because nothing could move slowly in that dry, dead cold that caused the snow to squeak under my shoes and caused the branches to cry out as though they were aching when a wind moved them and caused the earth to freeze tight and even the air to clench and wait, wait for the seeming impossibility of spring, and I was waiting, too, waiting at the window, though it was far too early for the cab to come, but I wanted to picture in my mind the cab coming, bobbing like a boat over the mounds of moonlit snow on the road in front of our house, so I would stare through the chilled glass at where the cab would come, where it had to come, where it must, and then I would listen, because sometimes I could hear the train from Chicago as it called out and said in a weak voice, a frail voice, that it was coming, coming soon, coming swiftly now, even now on Christmas Eve, coming to the station where the cabs were waiting, bringing Inez and Tony and Jim and Carolyn and Motts, bringing them to our house, to my family, to me.

Inez was my mother’s sister, a tavern lady full of mirth and mischief, a barmaid ready for a joke, with a look that held on my face and said, truly, that she loved me and loved knowing me, me, this shy, unfinished boy, and Tony was her husband, dark, leathery, with threatening eyebrows, but eyes that sparked beneath them, humor flaring in a small spark in each eye if you looked quickly and if you caught it. Tony Pappas, a driver of cabs and private cars, driver of gangsters sometimes, driver of Golf Bag Sam, a name whispered by my brother Paul and me as modern mythology, and Jim was their son, my cousin, but already a man, dark and Grecian like his father, with an eyebrow slashed from a boxing wound and with a trained and powerful singing voice, an entertainer in the neighborhood clubs of Chicago who had spent whole summers living with us, being a third brother to Paul and me, and he had been in the Air Force in Louisiana and brought us a gift from there, brought me a gift of great value and delight, brought me Carolyn, his wife, a reader of books, like me, a pretty, loving girl who talked to this eager boy of authors we shared and films we loved and spoke all of this in the soft rhythms of a south deep and old, and with them came my mother’s brother, Motts, with a wife or between wives, Motts, the wise guy, the clown, a plump, fast-talking Mickey Rooney, a man who made me laugh by simply appearing at the door because I had saved up so much laughter for him that it was already spilling over.

They came in shivering and tramping off snow in the tiny foyer, wiping shoes, bringing the cold inside on their urban coats and jackets, and they filled our small house with voices like large bells ringing Christmas, and our voices rang in answer, but quieter, my older brother pleased, but restrained, my father a happy spectator, and my mother in the throng of her family, her old family, her history, turning into a girl.

Oh how the tension was exploded by the opening of that door. All the anticipation swelling inside of me, all the fear that they might not come, not ever, because I wanted so achingly for them to come, all the watching out the window for the lights of a car, all the cars that rolled by not being them, and then the cab, and the voices outside and my hurry from the window to the door with happiness filling me, a tangible, thick, sweet liqueur, moving through me with my blood, and my smile stretching impossibly wide, and all of this running inside my mind now like a flickering film, even now, more than fifty years later, and I’m seeing the opening of that glass-paned door, seeing the flood of them, seeing all of this and seeing even my face somehow from the inside, from the memory of mirrors and photographs, seeing the boy of me and his pure, deep, unguarded joy. 

Part 2 next week ...

 

Copyright Gerald DiPego 2015-2017