Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers' Day

It's Fathers' Day, and the tradition around our house is that I can do whatever I want. (The same goes for Mothers' Day and all three family birthdays.) The day started out OK; we skipped church, since the pilot light on our water heater was on the fritz, which meant no hot water for showers. I got the pilot relit, but only long enough for the three of us to clean up with fairly tepid water, so I put in a call for the plumber. Good thing I'm off for the next two months -- that could be how long we have to wait for the plumber.

Anyway, I got some nice things -- a CD of classic '60s tunes for our car trip to Maine next month, the newest John Sandford and Lee Child thrillers (standard Fathers' Day gifts for several years now), and a lifesize Gandalf the White walking staff. (John found it on the internet.) They took me to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, and we were so stuffed that we brought our cheesecake home for dinner. Terri even indulged me with a browsing trip to Barnes & Noble. I considered going to a matinee with John, but the only thing playing that semi-interested me was The Hangover, which I was not about to take John to see, so we decided to crash at home. Which is how I wound up relaxing in front of the computer, enjoying life and reminiscing about my father.

My father wasn't around much after my folks split; my brothers chose to live with him down south, while I chose to stay behind and finish high school in Pennsylvania. But I do remember Dad taking me to movies when I was little. One of my earliest movie memories -- and this predates Jason and the Argonauts -- is of Dad taking me to see Lawrence of Arabia. I didn't last long; all I remember is the motorcycle crash at the beginning, and then I fell asleep. I also remember getting to see The Sword in the Stone, King Kong vs. Godzilla, and even The Birds, which was a pretty traumatic movie for a 5-year-old to see, let me tell you. Dad took me to all of those, and he was quick to give me a dollar on Saturday afternoon whenever I wanted to go catch a matinee with my buddies. He never really objected to any of the movies I asked to see. I was 9 when I saw a double feature matinee of Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke with my older cousin, and in hindsight, those were two pretty "adult" movies for a 9-year-old to see without his parents.

The only time I remember my father objecting to one of my movie choices was when he heard I was planning to go see Love Story with my friends from school. He didn't think that was an appropriate movie for 12-year-old boys to see. Of course, that just made us want to see it even more. This was in direct contrast to the time I wanted to see Thunderball when I was 8, and my mother hit the roof. Dad just thought it was an action picture I would like. When my mother reminded him that the last James Bond picture had a naked girl covered in gold paint, Dad just looked at me and said, "Here's a buck. Have a good time."

Dad and I were apart for years, in more ways than one. I know that he always felt bad that he could never help me with my career, like the way he gave advice and guidance to my younger brothers. I was interested in writing and journalism as a career when I went to college, and later, when I turned to teaching, Dad was even more at a loss. (We're talking about a guy whose love letter to my mother in her senior yearbook contained 7 spelling errors, including "kat." I'm serious.)

But we became closer once I was on my own in Baltimore, starting my teaching career (and a family, as well). Whenever Terri and I (and John, when he arrived) would drive to South Carolina for a visit, movies were almost always on the agenda. Dad loved to take the whole family, including all of the grandchildren, out to a movie, where he could play the host, insisting on paying for everyone's ticket and buying all the popcorn and soda. I remember the Christmas of 1997, when John was five. Dad wanted to see Titanic, but there was no way his 5-year-old grandson would sit still for three hours, so Grandma and Terri took John to see Mouse Hunt while "Pop-Pop" and I went to see Titanic. I remember watching that film with my father, the history buff. There was a moment when Dad looked puzzled and whispered to me, "The lights on that boat should have gone out by now," and an instant later, the ship's lights onscreen blinked out. Swear to God.

Then there was the time -- the last time my Dad came to Baltimore, as it turned out -- when Dad and John and I went to see a matinee of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I was eager to get his opinion on the film, and was a little disappointed when Dad said he wasn't crazy for it. His words: "Too much of that Gollum guy." Of course, I loved the movie, which I kept to myself.

My final trip to the movies with Dad was our summer 2006 visit the year before he died. Dad, my brother Jimmy, and I went to see Superman Returns while the ladies went to see The Devil Wears Prada. (John was at Scout Camp.) I remember Dad saying there was "no damn way (he) was going to see a Meryl Streep fashion movie." Dad fell asleep three times. I saw the Prada movie on Netflix a year ago, and I remember thinking that Dad called that one wrong.

Dad died in October of 2007, and we knew that my stepmother Karyn would want family around her for the holiday, so we all went down to visit that Christmas. Once again, the family (a grandmother, three sons, three spouses, and four grandchildren) gathered together and went to see a movie: National Treasure: Book of Secrets. I remember not liking the movie very much; most of us thought it was just a retread of the first movie. But, thinking back on it now, maybe Dad's absence had something to do with it, too.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Favorite Summer Movie

Over at AintitCool.Com, they're running a blog thread about various writers' favorite summer movies. I'm not talking about this summer's best movies. I'm talking about the one movie in your life that comes to mind when you think "summer." For many people it has been Jaws, for others, it has been one of the Star Wars movies. Jaws is indeed a great "summer movie," and it would be my second choice. But my no. 1 choice for my most cherished summer movie experience harkens back to 1978, and National Lampoon's Animal House.

I chose Animal House because I saw it twice in the late summer of 1978, and the second viewing was even better than the first, which is pretty rare. Initially, I saw it with my cousin in mid-August, not long before I went back to Penn State for my junior year. (My cousin was the guy with whom I had seen the first Star Wars only the year before.) I remember we laughed -- a lot. The theater was not far from St. Vincent College, which the Pittsburgh Steelers used as a training camp site (and still do), and I'm pretty sure the last couple rows of the theater were filled with Steelers players laughing their heads off along with the rest of us.

But the second viewing is what cinched my choice for me. Less than two weeks later, I was back on campus, and about 15 to 20 of us, male and female alike, banded together after lunch one afternoon during orientation week and walked downtown to the local two-screener to catch a matinee of Animal House. The place was jammed with raucous, screaming college students. I can't remember the last time, before or since, when a theater crowd elevated my enjoyment of a film to such heights. It really felt like a shared experience; we were a community, claiming this movie for ourselves. Hell, the movie was about college students! WE WERE COLLEGE STUDENTS!!! Well, most of us weren't as depraved and disgusting in our behavior as John Belushi, but we tried. That year, we tried a lot. (Belushi -- now there's a comic actor I really miss.)

The matinee that afternoon touched off what turned out to be my favorite year of the four I spent at Penn State. There was the dance marathon (where my partner and I placed second), our Sugar Bowl bout with Alabama, my interview with the singers following a Hall and Oates concert, and my first steps into my journalism major. It was a memorable year, and it began with my all-time favorite summer movie experience.

What's yours?