Saturday, July 28, 2012

Strange and Wonderful Dreams

Last night we watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics (or at least as much of it as we could stay awake for). It was rumored that the show would include a gaggle (herd? flock?) of Mary Poppinses (Poppinsi?) doing battle with a giant Voldemort. This sounded so ridiculous, I had to see it.

Of course, it all made sense in context. It was part of the collective dream of hundreds of British children dancing on their beds. Hundreds of British children can produce some mighty strange dreams.

When I woke up this morning, I was having a strange—and wonderful—dream about my Grandfather and Grandmother Logue. They had driven to California to visit us—strange in itself, as my grandfather died when I was in high school, and my grandmother died several years before we moved here.

I asked if I could get them anything to drink, and my grandfather asked for a beer. I thought my grandmother would disapprove—as I recall, she disapproved of a lot of things—but she was nothing but smiles and hugs and "I love you's."

I went to the refrigerator and began to pour a beer for my grandfather and one for myself. I loved my grandfather. I was devastated when he died my senior year in high school. I regretted that I never got the chance to talk to him man-to-man. Now, I was finally going to get that chance.

Then I woke up.

Dreams can be strange and wonderful. They can also break your heart.

These dreams of you,
So real and so true...
—Van Morrison

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tales from the Cellar

This may come as a shock to people who have lived all of their lives here in California, but nearly all of the houses back east have a big room underneath the house. They call it a “basement,” and it’s where they keep the furnace, water heater, washer, dryer, and all of the miscellaneous junk that people in California keep in their garages.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have air conditioning. On summer days when it was too hot to play outside, we played in the basement, which was about ten degrees cooler than the rest of the house. Some of my friends had finished basements, with paneling, fluorescent lights, ping-pong tables and shuffleboard courts. Ours was just a plain, ugly basement, but we had lots of fun down there, playing games or building imaginary forts out of old blankets and sheets. It was never a scary place—except during the occasional tornado warning, or once when the sewer backed up.

My grandmother’s basement, on the other hand, was like something from a Stephen King novel. In fact, "basement" is too nice a word for my grandmother's basement. A better word would be "cellar," which means essentially the same thing, but sounds much scarier.

In the center, taking up half the cellar, was an immense, ancient, and terrifying furnace. It looked a lot like this...


In my nightmares, the furnace would grab at me with those huge, octopus arms as I tried to escape up the cellar stairs. Next to those stairs was an old washing machine, something like this one...


I had nightmares about that washing machine, too—and with good reason. Once, when I was with my mother while she was doing laundry, I made the mistake of touching the electric wringer while the rollers were moving. It grabbed my fingers and pulled me in up to the elbow before my mother could shut it off. I must have been about four years old at the time, with more curiosity than sense.

I think it was about that same time that I found the gun.

In the northeast corner of the cellar, enclosed by plain, painted boards, was a small room. It had a wooden door held shut by a simple hook and eye, and inside were sturdy wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. My grandmother and aunts called it “the fruit cellar.” (Which made no sense to me; there was no fruit in there, and why would anyone keep fruit in the cellar, anyway?) Before he died, my grandfather had used the fruit cellar to store tools and spare parts. There were rows and rows of cigar boxes on the shelves, filled with all sorts of wonderful things: screws, bolts, washers, string, doorknobs, switches, sockets. And on the back of the top shelf, where I could barely reach it by using the lower shelves as a ladder, was a cigar box that held just one thing: a beautiful, shiny, black revolver.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out where the gun came from. One night, in my grandparents’ old neighborhood, the family had been awakened by the sounds of a police pursuit through the alley behind the house. The next morning, my grandfather had found the gun in the backyard. No doubt the criminal had thrown it over the fence to avoid being captured with it in his possession. My grandfather never told anyone what he did with the gun. Time passed, the family moved to a different neighborhood, my grandfather passed away, and the family forgot about it.

Until the day I came out of the cellar, waving it in the air and saying, “Look what I found!”

My mother and aunts screamed. My grandmother nearly fainted. I began to cry, not knowing what I had done to upset everyone. Someone—I don’t know who—carefully took the gun away from me.

You can imagine the nightmares that followed that incident.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Drive-In Memories

I miss drive-in movies. When I was kid growing up in Indiana, they were our primary form of summer entertainment. The whole family could see a movie or two for a couple of dollars. But it wasn’t just a movie. It was an experience.

On drive-in days, we kids couldn’t wait for the sun to go down. We’d put on our pj’s, grab pillows and blankets, and jump into the back of the family station wagon. We’d arrive at the drive-in a little before sunset, find a good spot, and move the car forward and backward until it was at just the right angle so that everyone in the car could see the screen through the windshield. Take the speaker from its post and hang it on the driver-side window, and you’re ready to go. (Be sure you put it back before you leave. Every drive-in had its sad, headless posts, frayed wires dangling where someone had thoughtlessly decapitated the speaker in their hurry to get home after the movie.)

Before the show, popular music played through the speakers, and kids ran back and forth to the snack bar or played on the playground equipment in front of the movie screen. Then, when it was finally dark enough, the screen lit up: first an ad for the snack bar, followed by previews of coming attractions, and finally, the feature film—often a double feature. For a little kid, it was hard enough to stay awake through one movie, let alone two, which is why we wore our pajamas and brought pillows and blankets.

The Warsaw Drive-In was the only one in town, but Fort Wayne had three: the East 30, the Lincolndale, and the Hillcrest. On those summer weekends when I was visiting my grandmother and aunts, I would look through the newspaper, circle whatever movie I wanted to see, and my aunts would take me. I subjected them to some real turkeys. The worst, as I recall, was billed as a horror double feature but turned out to be soft-core porn of the worst quality (not that I’m any judge of porn—soft core or otherwise). It was an embarrassing experience for all concerned, and we took a solemn oath not to tell my parents.

During the 70’s and 80’s, it was hard to find a drive-in that wasn’t showing porn of the worst quality, but there were a few. A double feature of Willard and The Abominable Dr. Phibes stands out in my memory. I didn't have my driver’s license yet, so my mother took me (a true measure of her love, as she was never a fan of the horror genre). I also saw two of the greatest science fiction films of all time during this period: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner. I have seen both films several times since then, but nothing can compare with the impact of seeing them on an immense screen, surrounded by stars.

The last drive-in movie I saw back east was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Loretta and I went with her brother and his wife. (Our niece was there too, but she was still several weeks from being born, so she probably doesn’t remember it.) About five minutes into the movie, my brother-in-law, who could fall asleep in the middle of a bomb attack, was snoring loudly. Shortly after that, my sister-in-law began to whine about how uncomfortable she was. Loretta spent most of the evening swatting at mosquitoes. I seemed to be the only one interested in watching the movie, and I missed most of it, due to the snoring, whining, and swatting. I couldn’t wait for the video to come out so that I could finally find out what happened.

The Simi Drive-In was still open when we moved to California seventeen years ago. And it was open year-round, which was unheard of back east. We saw a double feature of Toy Story and Jumanji on New Year’s Eve. No mosquitoes, and because it was winter, the show started early enough that we had no trouble staying awake through both features.

The last movie we saw at the drive-in was Independence Day. It wasn’t very good, but seeing it under the stars made it somehow seem better. Now the Simi Drive-In, like the Warsaw Drive-In and the others of my childhood, has been torn down. In its place is a housing development, no different from millions of other housing developments.

And that's a shame.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cat in a Box

One of the biggest news stories this week concerned the discovery of what may turn out to be the smallest thing in the universe, the "Higgs Boson." It sounds like something nautical, but according to one network news site, it's "a subatomic particle so important to the understanding of space, time and matter that the physicist Leon Lederman nicknamed it 'the God particle'." (By the way, I did a little research and discovered that this isn't true. According to Peter Higgs, the physicist after whom the particle was named, Lederman meant to call it the "goddamn particle." His editor changed it to "god particle.")

Apparently, scientists have been searching for this elusive particle for decades. That's why they built the Large Hadron Collider a few years back. (You know—that thing in Switzerland people were saying would cause the end of the universe when it was switched on.) Scientists knew that, in theory, the Higgs Boson should exist, but they couldn’t prove that it did exist—until now. And now they are positively peeing themselves with excitement.

Frankly, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. But that could be because I have difficulty wrapping my head around the atomic, let alone the subatomic. Once upon a time, I was a science major in college, and I was doing fairly well at it—until the professor started talking about atomic bonds and something called "valence," which I always thought was a thing that hangs above a window. I just couldn't grasp it (the concept of atomic bonds—not the thing that hangs above a window), and so I ended up changing my major to English. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives—these I can understand. Protons, neutrons, and electrons? Forget it.

But protons, neutrons, and electrons weren't the end of it, apparently. After college, I started hearing about smaller, subatomic particles and something called "quantum mechanics." I figured I ought to at least try to learn something about the subject. So I picked up a book called Schrödinger's Cat, which was supposed to explain all this stuff in layman's terms.

The title comes from an experiment proposed by a physicist named Erwin Schrödinger, way back in the 1930's. You put a cat in a box with a source of radiation and a flask of poison rigged to a Geiger counter. (A horrible idea, if you ask me. I say if Schrödinger was going to put any living thing in his big box o' death, it should have been himself.) Anyway, according to Schrödinger, when you open the box, you will find either a live cat or a dead cat, depending on the behavior of certain subatomic particles. But until the box is opened—and this is the important part—the cat is both alive and dead. To me, this can only mean one of two things...

The cat is a vampire, or the cat is a zombie.

Either way, if a physicist hands you a box and tells you there is a cat in it, do not, under any circumstances, open it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters

Most people know Jean Shepherd—if they know him at all—as the writer and narrator of the movie, A Christmas Story. I remember seeing A Christmas Story with a friend in Buffalo, New York, the Thanksgiving weekend it opened. I remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. I remember thinking, “Hey—I know these people!”

The year before, I had recorded PBS’s American Playhouse presentation of The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters on my Sony Betamax VCR. I’m not sure why. I may have seen the promo and thought it looked interesting. Or I might have remembered Jean Shepherd from his earlier PBS series, Jean Shepherd’s America. Whatever the reason, I was very glad I did record it.

The story features the same characters as A Christmas Story: Ralph Parker (this time a teenager, played by Matt Dillon in one of his first roles), whiny brother Randy, pals Flick and Schwartz, Mom and “The Old Man” (James Broderick). It quickly became a Fourth of July tradition and something of a cult phenomenon with members of my family. We watched it at every July Fourth gathering, until we could almost recite our favorite lines along with the characters: “Hey, Kissel, got any wash rags at your house?”

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters never aired again, and it has never been released commercially—most likely due to music licensing issues. (Shepherd makes excellent use of, among other music, the iconic themes from Jaws and Love is a Many Splendored Thing.) My beta copy—as well as my Betamax VCR—long ago bit the dust. Fortunately, a lot of other people recorded the program, and—although the quality is not the best—it’s possible to find copies on the Internet. Someone has even posted it on YouTube. It’s divided into ten-minute segments, but here’s a link to a playlist.

Watch it, and learn all about: Ralph’s life-changing blind date; how Flick sabotaged the sack race; who was responsible for the county-wide power outage; why ballads are still sung about Ludlow Kissel; and, most importantly, what happened to all the wash rags.

"Americans measure their lives by holidays—Christmas, Easter, Birthday, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July—like mileposts in the picket fence of the years... But those holidays when you're young, they're the sweetest of all. You remember 'em forever."
—Jean Shepherd