1968: An Odd Case Odyssey
Dateline: December, 2015
Well, it’s that time of year for a wave of new movie releases. This year the rage seems to be another sequel to Star Wars, which evidently, like its predecessors, has the usual constitution of social commentary shrouded with futurism, sci-fi technology and special effects.
The annual pre-Christmas roll out always gives me a special set of flashbacks. This year, with Star Wars gathering so many headlines, the memory is especially strong.
It was 1968, a most tumultuous year. Fraught with violent riots that had spilled-over from 1967, and violent police reactions, the country was gripped by an intense anxiousness that even I, as a wide-eyed innocent 12-year old, could sense.
One series of riots – and especially severe police violence – occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There, the sitting vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, was nominated for president over the anti-Viet Nam war candidate Eugene McCarthy.
It was a chaotic year. In February the Tet Offensive put the War front and center in everyone’s mind – and mostly in a very negative lighting. Sitting President Lyndon Johnson, his popularity sagging, announced in late March that he would seek neither re-election nor a nomination. That sent Bobby Kennedy – JFK’s younger brother – to multiple primary victories as another anti-war candidate going up against, mostly, McCarthy and Humphrey. Kennedy could well have gained the Democratic Nomination had he not been assassinated in June by Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan at a celebration in LA on the night he had won the California primary.
Earlier, in April, civil rights leader and pacifist Dr Martin Luther King was slain by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.
On the home front more chaos: my parents’ sixth child had arrived in January.
It was now December. Nixon was president-elect, winning on a law and order platform, with a secret plan to end the Viet Nam war. Alabama governor George Wallace had run as an independent and scabbed electoral votes away from the, formerly, secure Democratic tally in the south.
Our dad was probably expecting a relaxing weekend. Each weekday he’d rise and leave early, — after enjoying a bowl of Rice Krispies and a quick perusal of the morning paper – and almost always work long days. Often he spent Saturday mornings at the office to catch up when there was not a kid’s baseball game or other family event to attend. But this was December – the printing business slows down a bit.
At home, the tree and lights were up. The presents were all purchased, wrapped and hidden away (little did our parents know that we older three kids usually found where they were hidden well before Santa arrived).
Yes, he was probably expecting a relaxing weekend. With six kids, my guess is that there was no way my mom would have any of my dad relaxing. I’m supposing she told him to take half the kids, any half, and go do some parenting.
As it was, the Stanley Kubrick movie – created with author Arthur C Clark – “2001: A Space Odyssey” had recently made its way to the Milwaukee area. My dad got the idea that he’d like to see the movie; since it was billed as a sort of metaphysical sci-fi thriller, he’d take the three oldest kids. I was 12; Beth had just turned 11; Julie was 9.
Up to that point, we’d pretty much been raised on plain vanilla as far as the big screen goes. Wizard of Oz, Marry Poppins, Nutty Professor, Batman, The Incredible Mr Limpit. I’d seen “The Sound of Music” by then, but had no idea what a dark movie it really was until years later. I thought it was just another cheesy kid-in-the-mountains movie, like Heidi.
Earlier that year the original “Planet of the Apes” had come to town. So my appetite had been whetted for Sci-fi and I was excited when dad told us, with little warning, that we’d be seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” that night.
If you know the 2001 story at all, you know that taking three kids our age to see this movie is a mistake. Yes, it turned out to be an odd evening, and probably a mistake too, but not for the reasons you’d think.
I can still see the Fox-Bay theater marquee on Silver Spring Boulevard on that dark December evening. She was brightly lit, blending in among the beautiful Christmas boughs and lights all along the boulevard; and there it was! … the promotion for 2001. I was very excited.
We probably bought some popcorn, maybe got some drinks. That was probably when my excitement crested, to be crushed only a few minutes later, after we’d luckily found four seats together. It would be crushed for most of the remaining three hours of the film, and not just because it had a scant 40 minutes of dialog.
I don’t think I’d be giving away any of the plot to say the movie starts out about a million years ago with a couple tribes of apes who don’t get along very well, don’t make many noises besides grunts, and are pretty violent. I suppose we are to understand this is where – and what and who – “we” the modern human came from. It is extremely boring and drawn out. Although the pounding drums for Also Sprach Zarathustra were pretty impressive, that was not the sort of thing I was there to absorb.
Right about this time one of my sisters spontaneously erupted. I don’t recall which sister. Julie? Anyhow, it was a genuine Technicolor Mount St Helens-type oral ejection. It included popcorn, and Christmas cookies, and dinner, and whatever other partially digested food was in her restive tummy.
Dad reacted immediately. With his well-trained look of grim determination, he escorted my sister (as quietly as possible) out to the restrooms. They returned a few minutes later (there was that large obelisk in the movie now – but no words) together with an usher who must’ve wondered why he was so lucky this day. Dad and the usher did their best to clean up the stinking putrid mess off the floor.
As pleasantly as possible, with the scent of vomit stuck in our nostrils from a cloud that would not move away, the obelisk is now flying into space. I am not enthused, but I am confused; and I don’t presume my excitement will return anytime soon.
And then – Excitement!! But not the kind you’d want. Mt St Helens had multiple eruptions in 1980: my other sister duplicated, as well as she could, her sister’s eruption.
God bless my dad. Next he takes both girls to the rest room. He gets sister-puker #2 cleaned up (Beth?) and settled down. Again he returns, two girls and the same poor sad-sack usher, to our stinking theater row.
When it’s more or less clean (but still stinking to high heaven) my dad whispers: “Joe, we’re leaving now.”
I would have none of it. This was the sci-fi thriller of the year, about to produce for me the meaning of life, and I was not going to miss it. It couldn’t be this boring and confusing for the full three hours, could it?
Did I say God bless my dad? Yes I did. He told me I could stay if I was sure that I was not going to throw up as well. He’d return after the movie was over (about a 15 to 20 minute drive from our house, as I recall).
And they were gone. I was giddy with excitement: All alone, unescorted and only twelve years old, in a crowd of strangers, in a part of town I rarely go to. It was almost enough to help me ignore the irremovable stench of vomit. Almost.
I waited for the movie to get more exciting, and to reveal the meaning of life. I tried to memorize the key parts of the movie so I could talk about it later. The missions to the moon and to Jupiter. The computer run amok. Something about Daisy, Daisy and a bicycle built for two. The floating fetus. The white room. The breathing. The multi-colored light-speed trip to … where did they go? And then, … and then the three hour movie was over.
As I walked out of the theater to the cold street among the crowd, I listened to the discussion. I was giddy again because I was now not alone: no one else knew what the heck had just happened, but all seemed to think it was pretty cool.
I stood mute and dumbfounded on the street corner near the theater for what seemed like half an hour in the damp Milwaukee December cold. Knowing my dad, it was actually probably about two minutes before the easily identified family “woody” station wagon drove up. He’d probably been there for 15 minutes already, driving around, trying to pick my coat out of the crowd. I climbed in.
Once we were safely into traffic, dad asked the obvious question for which I’d try to prepare myself: “So, how was the movie?”
I’d like to think I responded with something like: “I’m sorry dad. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Instead, I’m sure he heard the sound of a phone off the hook: a long pause, and then a monotone “Ahhhhhhhhh.”
After several moments he patiently tried to help me with a simpler question: “So, can you tell me anything that happened?”
I started babbling. I described the discovery of the obelisk on the moon, the mission to Jupiter, the floating fetus. A computer named Hal. I could sense I’d lost him. He was not following the story. Heck, nobody could follow the story. So I hummed a few bars of “The Blue Danube Waltz” … I didn’t know the name at that time.
Then I just stopped talking. So did dad. It was a very quiet drive home. This – this – was his “relaxing time” for the weekend. Now I wished I’d asked him how my sisters were doing. How was he? How was mom?
But I didn’t ask. I said nothing. He said nothing. All the way home we just sat in silence. Just like nowadays, when I visit him at Fort Logan National Cemetery, over in Section 52.
I noticed then, perhaps for the first time, that he was a very good driver. Just a few years later, he was my driving instructor. One Saturday we were out for a lesson, driving along Silver Spring Boulevard – I’m giddy in the driver’s seat, he’s on the passenger side – and I couldn’t help but notice the Fox-Bay Theater marquee up ahead.
“Hey dad! Remember that night you left me alone to watch 2001 …”
I was interrupted by a calm, yet stern: “Keep your eyes on the road, Joe. They’re stopping up ahead.”
He was a good driving instructor too.
Miss you dad.
Joe Girard © 2015