My wife surprised me this Christmas with an extraordinary gift — two decades of mothballed VHS home movies converted to DVDs. In minutes, I was pulled through a looking glass of my life as a parent and across the sweeping steppe of time – two continents, three children, four homes and one half-dozen pets. The last occasion I had stumbled across such riches of nostalgia, I had been weaving in between boxes and neglected items of my retired parents when I unearthed worn, misplaced photo albums and a vanished 8mm family film from the 1960s – cinema and snap shots that graphically depicted a middle class family of four boys as we traveled the blue and black highways of the Western United States in a modern day Conestoga called the station wagon.
The first thing you notice about most 60’s family films is an adult is always waving hello and a child is usually crying. Today, Child Protective Services would use any of these clips as Exhibit A in the trial of an unfit parent. We wander dangerously close to the Interstate as we stop at roadside rest stops for jelly stained Wonder Bread PJs chased by warm Shasta Lemon-Lime soda. There were pocketknives, BB guns, bows and arrows, and an absence of helmets, seatbelts or the restrictions of an adult. There is no sound, gratefully, as the film would quickly become X-rated when punctuated with the anxious calls for “stopping the grab-ass” by my father who had a black belt in cursing and for giving you a red hot behind.
As I threaded the fragile film through a viewing monitor borrowed from a college professor friend, the archipelago that was so many phases of my life mended into a single land mass when reunited with the young boy I saw in these photographs and movies.
He was the third of four boys with an XL head and tennis-ball buzz cut. He was nine – an advanced pyromaniac, collector and kleptomaniac. The boy loved his matted, filthy mongrel dog that the father referred to as “The Democrat”. He spent endless Southern California hours painting Airfix 56mm plastic military figures and then would burn them in epic battles behind an old two-car adobe-style, stucco garage. He lived for sports, Christmas morning, the Fun Zone of Newport Beach and girls. I watched him dart through iconic places – the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and SeaWorld in San Diego. Memories perfume the world around me. Each moment a feeling, each file an indelible memory of the sweet bird of youth.
A conveyor belt of boys with buzz cuts move in and out of photos wrestling like pups in a whelping box, only to appear on the next page with noses covered in zinc oxide and faces freckled by the sun of a Newport Beach August. A husky fourth grader, the middle child had a romantic sense for everything and a leg that twitched faster than a floundering sea captain typing a Morse code SOS. Life was we imagined of the military, endless ceremony, uniforms, chores, boredom, moments of terror and the nine weeks of leave we called summer vacation where we would travel to exotic ports of call with names like like Newport Beach, San Francisco and Sedona, Arizona.
I recall being so bored one summer that we spent an afternoon pushing a dead cat with a stick. Vietnam was thinning our ranks of young men on television each night while we rode bikes through back alleys to tree houses defiladed from any parental supervision, decorated by hobos and stacked with Playboy magazines. The purple and sienna horizon line of the San Gabriel Mountains marked the eastern edges of our future. At night, you would look up and see the flickering lights of the radio towers – a West Egg star to steer by as you contemplated turning ten. If you were masochistic you could ease drop through the heating ducts to hear adult conversations — bungling politicians, war, stagflation, incomprehensible ethnic conflict and another orthodontia bill. These were adult hemorrhoids that the boy would not have to worry about for many years – unless he sat too long on a toilet reading comic books.
The boy loved his wolf pack. Beyond the holidays and Christmas mornings, there was uncontaminated humor, eternal optimism and the larger than life David Lean longing for epic adventure.
My mother reminded me a few years back when I complained about one of my children’s short attention span that she had to endure a phase where I had self-diagnosed dyslexia. I used the “Mislexic” defense when I got pinched for stealing candy at the local Huntington Pharmacy. My mother was furious – asking rhetorical questions like “what were you thinking?” and “do you know what they do to boys who steal?” I recall looking her in the eye and saying, “I think I’m mislexic. I wasn’t sure if I should pay inside or after I got outside the store.”
I progressed to feigning deafness to avoid the pressure of being called on in class. In retrospect, I should have become an attorney. At the time, I had a middle school teacher who used the Socratic method of calling on random students. To buy time, I would ask her to repeat the question two or three times. She recommended to my mother that I get my hearing checked.
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!
“Michael, let me know if you can hear the beep.”
The ENT made a perplexed face at my inconsistent answers. He expanded the headphones to reach across my massive dome to cover my ears. I suddenly realized that I did not want to fail this test or I might end up with those strange plastic tubes curling around my cochlea like the deaf kid who spoke such slow exaggerated words at summer camp. So I mixed up my answers. “Yes, no, no, yes. yes… “
“I don’t know what to make of these tests. His hearing – it’s all over the map. “
She seemed to know I had been faking but could not understand why. I confessed an hour later to my mother after being plied with a number Two burger and milk shake from Twoheys restaurant — and the ironclad promise of amnesty from my father who must never know I had pretended to be deaf. My mother had looked relieved. She really only had three looks – loving amusement, anger and relief.
I’m still searching the Turpin archives for the lost episode called “To Catch A Thief” where we were lined up like POWs because four recently baked cookies were reported missing.
“Okay, I’m going to close my eyes and leave the room. When I come back I want those four missing cookies on the plate.” All four boys shifted and shuffled at nervous attention. When my mother returned to the room, four more cookies were missing. It was in fact, a pure genius suggestion. It should be noted that a future investment banker orchestrated the caper – perhaps there was some merit to the efforts of Dodd-Frank.
As I sit in our Connecticut family room and return to a warm fire and these lost films of the 1990’s, I am swimming in another slow moving river of nostalgia. I recollect how important these moments were – the dawns and dusks of living at the center of a diminutive universe. Unconditional love. I’m smiling unconsciously at the invidious daughter who wants to return her newest baby brother to the hospital via the toilet. Her only-child days have ended and she will not go gently into that good night. The home movies chronicle a young family struggling up a mountain of life — moving to England with three small children, celebrating major holidays in strange and exotic places while recording each milestone through the mongrel accents of California children as they collide with strict English grammar and syntax.
Christmas, 2002 – A 3-year-old boy appears on camera, perturbed as he opens Father Christmas gifts.
“Dad?” He asks with a silky Etonian accent. “My friend Henry hates Jesus. I don’t hate baby Jesus but Henry says he hates him.” Muffled laughter on the other end of the camera.
(Camera pans to a lattice of gloomy windowpane)
In the northern hemisphere, the English winter malingers with ephemeral mist and dreariness. The sun is a pastel color form clinging to a low horizon. The camera zooms in on a cherub-cheeked boy who looks exasperated. He is excited for Christmas but can’t seem to shake the revelation that someone dislikes the child lying in the manger. (The scene cuts to bath time.) An older sister threatens her younger brother again with the toilet. Another DVD is a hard hitting interview with a five year old boy who agrees to a rare discussion about everything that scares him.
“Let’s see. Monsters. The Grinch and oh yeah, I really, really, REALLY hate Captain Hook.”
“Hide and Hook” was a favorite game among my fear-addicted children. Like J.M. Barrie’s orphans, they dreamed of an island where kids were in charge and unexplained forces of nature were clumsy and easily vanquished. This version of Captain Hook had a softer and more incompetent side. He remained permanently one step behind, incapable of following through on any threat. He was a punching bag and a deep pocket willing to bribe children with sweeties – daily dishonest attempts to corrupt a child into the life of a buccaneer’s. My middle son was our emotional canary in the coal mine – losing his feathers during any time of stress or change. He had night terrors. My brave soldier once attempted to thwart his nighttime demons by he wedging a pillow against his bedroom door. The only person he could have possibly kept out would have been a starving vegan and there were certainly none in the year of our Lord, 2001. Our youngest supporting actor appears in each scene with a Sippy-cup – clad in the robin’s egg blue soccer jersey of the Italian star “Francesco Totti”.
As I devour the home movies, the phone rings and shatters my reminiscence. It is my Dad.
He wants to talk politics. I try to explain that I’m watching old movies and we divert from toxic polemics to the past. Normally, the conversation concludes with him wishing Hillary be indicted, Bill castrated and sent to Oman to guard a Harem and Obama given a one minute head start from Seal Team Six. Tonight, we float back like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. We talk about growing up, aging, the wonderful holidays and all the traditions that have survived the decades. Time sandpapers any hard edges. For a moment he is no longer the critic – lamenting our cultural decline and complaining about the soft accommodations we now make in the name of inclusivity. He is Peter Pan who has grown up and forgotten he was once Captain Hook. I love him. For a moment, he laughs and remembers Never Land. That flicker comes into his voice falling like the ancient pixie dust of Tinker Bell. The space between us across three thousand miles of America is filled with the simple green grass promise of childhood.
It’s hard to avoid his fate and I yield a little more each day to the emotional calcification of one who has bitten the apple and been banished from Eden. I’ve played many lead and supporting roles in these movies of my life: ingénue, feckless husband, sybarite, world traveler, director, evangelist, coach, paternal sage and aging oracle. Yet across time, my favorite character was always the supporting role of Captain Hook – adversary to the Lost Boys and incompetent foil to those who seek to live for today and never grow old.