Monday, May 31, 2010

boys and wars

In a rare burst of wisdom, I once proclaimed that there was no fight ever as fierce as the one waged in the defense of ignorance. That revelation summed up, as good as anything, my own teenage years as well, an inauspicious time concocted with backwater recipe of bland idealism, incorrigible (and incredible, under the circumstances) conceit, aimless rage and flat-out stupidity.

My complete and total lack of appreciation for all that had come before me at the time, and any debt of conscience, is laughable, or at least it would be, otherwise.

I have a clear recollection of Mr. Bricka, then principal, addressing the 1972 graduating class during what was to be our final high school assembly. Speaking from behind a tall podium of varnished plywood (likely as not built years earlier as a student wood shop project), he looked out over us and proclaimed that we would "..look back on these high school years as the happiest of our lives." His words rallied a tiny, polite applause, a handful of pre-drunken hoots from the back rows, and from me a silent, incredulous wince: "Best years?". For me, at least, they had been anything but.

For the middle-aged man on that stage, however, and an entire generation of men and women like him, I realize now those young years might very well have been the best years, and most carefree. Happy days to recall before the lot of them were to enlist or be drafted into the maelstrom that was World War ll.

Bricka himself was not only a veteran, but a veteran for whom the Battle of the Bulge was more than a page in history, since he'd lived it, meaning fought it. As an epic 40-day-long fight endured (and won) by hungry, freezing and under-equipped troops that ranged in age from seventeen to forty, brutal would appear to be an understatement. The topic introduction in Wikipedia notes it as the "... single largest and bloodiest battle that American forces fought in World War II", one which left 100,000 American troops either dead, wounded or captured. It was never a subject I discussed with Bricka himself (we were on less then friendly terms at the time, and he passed away in 1982), but if he was anything like many of the veterans I've talked to since, it's a fair to guess that it was a memory he both took immense pride in addition to being one he may have also wished to forget.

Our vice-principal was also a WW II vet, and our schoool counselor wore large brown hearing aids in both of his ears, the result of an exploding hand grenade, also in Europe. There were probably others as well, if I'd been paying attention, which I was not.

Fact was, growing up in the 50's and 60's, almost every adult male you encountered, including your own dad and for that matter your mother as well, had likely played some part in that war. Almost as likely, every family seemed also have at least one name that would come up from time to time, a brother or cousin or friend, someone they had seen off to The War but had never came back. In my wife's family it had her mom's brother. At our house it was Otto Hinds, Jr., my dad's youngest brother, whose plane had been shot down somewhere over Europe. While that war to me at the time seemed as far-off and irrelevant as the Civil War, I do have one recollection that served to nudge it a bit closer: visiting my grandparents in Kansas one summer in the late 60's, I slept in the basement bedroom, the coolest room in the house. Across the floor, near a wood shelf rack filled with canned fruits and vegetables, I noticed a large green chest, bolted shut. My father informed me later that when each one of their five sons had left for the war, their keepsakes had been tucked away in matching chests, for safekeeping, until their return. My grandparents had never had the heart to open it, and to the best of my knowledge never did. The silent message of that grief, oblivious to time, multiplied beyond my comprehension, gave me pause even then.

Of course as a stupid-ass kid, I was always unprepared when veterans didn't jump at the chance to reminisce. Raised on the Hollywood likes of Combat!, Twelve-OClock High and Rat Patrol, I was eager to hear a first-hand account of the action. That it never quite fit with the TV image was slow to sink in. Meeting my stepmother's brother, it was with the anticipation of having been told he was loaded with war stories. True. Souvenirs, too, including a genuine German pistol, pretty juicy stuff for a fifteen-year old. He followed that up with an adjacent story that surprised me at the time, but doesn't anymore: the gun would have been a Walther P-38 - a prized handgun issued chiefly to German officers - but as his platoon entered a small village he'd loaned it to a fellow GI, who ended up gunning down a German soldier with it. "I told him to keep it, or just throw it away...." he said, and then was quiet for a few seconds. "I didn't want a gun that had ever killed someone."

For a deluxe multi-page article on the 50-year anniversary of V-Day, I was once assigned to interview and photograph over a dozen WW II veterans, a diverse group of silver-haired men and women from all walks of life who had one thing in common: The War. All were a pleasure and a privilege to meet, but one veteran, sturdily built but in his 70's, stands out. A naturalized US citizen, he was a native Philippino who'd spent the bulk his wartime fighting as a jungle guerrilla - a member of of the legendary Philippine Scouts- following the Japanese invasion of the islands in 1942. By all accounts the Scouts were very tough hombres. All the more reason to take notice when, after fifty years, he broke down and wept when describing to me the day the Islands were finally liberated, and his fellow scouts and US troops paraded the American flag from village to village.

I would like to say that, even as a rebellious, pain-in-the-ass teenager, I held each and every veteran, and their sacrifice, all in high esteem, but that was not the case. And that is most assuredly both my loss, and my regret. It does not diminish what truly matters, or the matters of true greatness, the likes of which I had no clue, and likely really still don't, although the space that I reserve for such is now infinitely greater.

It's only at this point that I am able to appreciate what a privilege, although not a proud one, it was to be so young, and so stupid. I mean that sincerely, and I thank all of you, sincerely, and with my whole, imperfect heart.

It was perhaps, in the most generous sense, how youth might have been intended to be experienced.

Safe, and smiling, and stupid, and completely ignorant of the real world, except for what we dream, and imagine and hope that it will be.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hollywood, or bust

As a child, growing up in string of equally minuscule towns across the Pacific Northwest, I considered it simply an unspoken given that I would grow up and become rich and famous, though not necessarily in that order.

After all, my list of heros - and those I imagined to be "my mentors from afar" - were all movie men. First came the special effects wizards: Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumball, Willis O'Brian - it was their galleries of monsters and/or visual miracles that stoked my own mental storyboards. Next came screen icons Humphrey Bogart, Jerry Lewis, Rod Serling: a diverse pack of gents who shared a common creative theme: Loners. As I came of age a list of "Hollywood outsiders" was added to my list: Peter Fonda, Tom Laughlin, Dennis Hopper (while my role call appears to have been been only a mildly enlightened one by 70's standards, it certainly lacked no passion at the time).

Each year, when I sat cross-legged in front of the TV in my pajamas to watch the Academy Awards, I would do so feeling as if I were an active participant, that it was only a brief matter of time before I'd join the ranks of my brethren on stage and bask beneath a waterfall of praise, accolades and awards that would stretch out over my entire adult life.

A given.

Also please note that in my case it was never merely the "fancy" of such a life that drove my fantasies as much as my belief that I shared a visceral, gut-level connection with the entire process, one that drove me to compile huge inventories and lists (both physical as well as mental) of films, directors, character actors, soundtracks, scripts, film magazines and back stories.

At about the time I floundered into my teenage era, I was also writing and compiling my own movie reviews, notebook by notebook, an avocation that inevitably spilled into my High School newspaper, The Cub, in the form of awkward and often inarticulate words of praise for my latest favorite film. Looking back, precious few of these pictures rated a second glance, not to mention my clumsy editorial fawning.

Early in my photojournalism career, when a young reporter inquired as to what had prepared me for a career behind the camera, my answer was a dead-pan fact: an entire childhood of sitting in front of a horizontal screen, for better or worse.

As the gap between my childhood fantasies and the impending threshold of a real-life adult career continued to tighten, my likelihood for being a Hollywood success story seemed to rally, if only briefly.

In the Fall of 1970, a the beginning of what would be my Junior year in high school, myself and a small group of classmates - many who were also the stars of our school Drama Club - joined together to form a fledgling gaggle of young filmmakers. True to the spirit of a breed suckled on the sarcastic and irreverent sensibilities of Mad magazine, Laugh In and Stan Freburg, we christened ourselves "Greasey Films" and set out to set Hollywood on it's ear, 8mm at a time.

Since audio was not yet accessible for most 8mm and Super8 filmmakers (and the advent of home video was still fifteen years in the distant future), we decided our endeavors must be silent ones, and governed by the A-B-C choice (as we judged it) of Silent Film: A)Slapstick B)Spectacle C)Violence. We opted for bloody, and the more the better.

Shot after school hours in the course of two afternoons (it would've been just one if the magazine of 8mm film had not secretly jammed in the camera during the first shoot), "The Hunt" featured a sniper, a crazed escaped convict, two angry, pitiless lawmen and a small arsenal of weapons (both real and manufactured). True to our Greasey Films credo, we kept "plot" to a minimum and the amount of prop blood at a maximum. Its 1086 frames of 8mm Kodachrome film has a running time of four minutes and fourty-eight seconds, during which time four young men cavort through the woods, three of whom are gunned down, one execution-style. The final few moments of The Hunts original ending has now been forgotten, since years ago the final strip of 8mm film from the reel simply broke off and then was lost.

Shown during the lunch hour in our high school little theatre at the time, students payed twenty-five cents each to share our little cinema bloodbath, many paying to watch a second, a third, a fourth time and more. While a vocal soundtrack may have been completely out of the question, we did spruce up things with a series of thematic music played (on a cassette deck) during film presentations (gleaned from my own personal library of soundtrack albums). Shabby, perhaps somewhat, but judged by student-qulaity standards of the early '70s, pretty good stuff. And it got better.

Predictably, our next series films gradually became more ambitious: "Monster from the Deep", a ultra-short bit of improvisation that frame-for-frame may be our most inspired piece; "Eastwood", a western attempt that herds more cliche's than it does cowboys (sound effects were added to background music to help "imply" we were using real horses!); "Measely Rider", a lazy local send-up of the Peter Fonda classic.

There is little doubt, however, that Greasey Films' shining moment came with the genesis of "The Clarker Bunch", yet another cops & robbers film, but one with enough of a topical twist that it's premise still packs genuine box-office potential, even thirty years later. Hatched scene-by-scene over many an after-school cigarette (and occasional joint) in Roland Yarcho's black '66 Karmann Ghia coupe, TCB follows twenty-year-old Moss Clarker, just home from an Army tour of Vietnam, first through an unsuccessful series of (pantomimed) job interviews, and then reuniting with three former soldier buddies to embark on a string of bank robberies, a somber and relentless lawman in deadly pursuit.

Much of the film's drama is derived from the remarkable cinematic eye of cameraman Bruce Arnes, who appropriated his father's Bolex Macro Super8 camera (then something of a state-of-the-art contraption for home movie making) and tripod for our efforts. His stunning gift for ironic detail, for spotting a perfect location and then framing it on film just as perfectly, added a depth of character to our story where often the script left off, one that frequently surpassed not only our expectations, but likely as not even our ability to even fully appreciate at the time. Years later, as a "award-winning" photojournalist well-immersed in a "successful" career, I would marvel (and still do) at the photographic prowness of this formally untrained 11th-grade student. Above and beyond any of us others at the time, he is one whose professional-grade talent - a natural shooting ability and sense for cinematic magic - should have been his real ticket to Hollywood.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to The Clarker Bunch came the following year, when, while lingering outside a local movie theatre, we noticed the poster for an upcoming film. It pitched an plotline that for us was like a bolt of lightning: a group of GIs return home from Vietnam and, dejected, go on a deadly rampage. Wow. Rip off? Unlikely. A peek into a "Parallel Universe"? Without a doubt. It is one where dreams come true, and merely by wishing for them.

Warren Etheridge, a talent and critic in the film industry whose opinion I have come to highly regard as having an acute insight into such goings-on, once observed of his comrades that they almost could be divided into two camps: One group was employed in the film industry, being bored by and hating it in equal measure; the other group, desperately wanted "in", but so far without success.

Hollywood, at least for me, came and went early on. What at one time had been my powerhouse of knowledge, was now mere trivial pursuit. If raw talent only were the ticket, things may have taken different directions. Or not. Even at that there's no guessing which might have lead to lasting happiness, if such a crayon color comes in that particular box.

For all of its illusion and pretense, one thing Hollywood amply illustrates correctly is that our natural gifts and talents generally come in equal measure to our shortcomings, if not some personal demons. While the records of such wrestling matches occasionally make their way to the silver screen, they are first fought alone, in flawed hearts and silent rooms, without witnesses.

Back in the day, if you were to have lived just in the moment, you could have been there and believed that we all made it, right to the top, each and every one of us. Hollywood, Academy Awards, the whole rip. That's not an entirely bad way to let it go, in fact.

And as to what the hell came after, who the hell knows?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

the little telescope

The woman I have lived with for thirty five years (and is also my wife) has a shiny little telescope that lives in her mind, one that comes and goes as it pleases, occasionally leaving behind a puzzle or an image for her to ponder.

Once it was a snapshot of a scene that involved Peter Haley, an old friend now, but just a photographer at the time, and one whose name I recognized solely by his reputation alone - we'd never met, not even close.

The picture in the little telescope was of Peter (we'd seen his face next a prize photo he'd taken in a magazine), as he approached me during a party of some kind or another, and of us talking and carrying on as if we were the best of friends. From the telescopes narrow point-of-view, it looked to be that we were at some kind of party or another. Blurting out the image a moment or two after it had just occurred to her, completely out of the blue, she stated at the time that "You and him obviously knew each other quite well - you were laughing and talking, clearly very familiar with one other." And then: "You two will become very good friends someday."

A couple of years later Peter and I would briefly cross paths - for the first time - at a sporting event we were shooting for our respective newspapers. There were no magic moments, no bolts or jolts of instant recognition either way, and for a while I thought nothing more of it, mysterious prediction or not. Months later, however, we were both interviewed, and subsequently hired, as part the new photo team for the News Tribune, a paper which had recently come under new ownership in Tacoma. And, what do you know, a few months later we'd be sharing that exact little moment that Linda had spied a few years earlier, through her little telescope.

Such things do occur, it's only for us to decide under what category we file them in our lives. Precognition, or predictable situation? Your guess is as valid as the next, although I personally opt for the "mystical" interpretation, as I have long ago discovered that any life stripped of the mystical is hardly one worth living.

The spyglass begs some additional explanation: She may occasionally peer out into her own life, and into the lives of those in her close orbit, to witness a random hug or stray giggle, a kiss, a warm embrace. But there is also a cautionary note here: because the little telescope is simply that, and does not possess a soul - not to mention a heart - of its own, it may also reveal events or circumstances that are frightening to consider, even painful to know.

The moment of her own death, for instance.

Without elaborating, she says she has witnessed it all, through the tiny lens, and is not afraid, just the opposite, in fact. It was/is a simple moment, she tells me. Perhaps to soften the blow, she tells me that that my face is the last thing on this earth she will see. Without the benefit buffer of a mystic glow, it is perhaps harder to listen to this than it is to have seen it, and no part of this message arrives as the least bit of comfort, at least to me.

The little telescope can be a mischievous one, it seems. Perhaps as time goes on and on, and the nearer to the end it moves, it is simply just running out of new snapshots to share, glimpses to glimpse. Could that be it?

It doesn't speak, although I sense a smile.

Only recently a picture postcard of myself arrived, taken from down on the death promenade. It was an old moment of me, very, very old (or at least, that's what I'm told). My exact age was not in sharp focus, but I was looked to be in my late 70's, maybe a bit older. In the spyglass I was seen walking, alone, along a dusty road. I stopped and slowly bent over to pick up a small branch I encounter in my path. There is a pause and "Pop!" - a little blood vessel bursts in my head. And I drop down into the road, dead as a door nail. As I'm laying there, a small group of children approach me to see what it is the matter. But I am long gone.

What my old friend and the little telescope couldn't have known was that I had already previewed that exact scene myself, almost a whole lifetime ago, when I was still barely a boy. Thirteen.

My visit came in a dream in which I drifted, a dream that is still as clear and real as raindrops: I'm walking alone along a quiet road (just as she says, I am very old), when I stop to pause. From her own vantage, it appeared that I was stopping to pick up a small branch, but that is only how it would appear from a distance, out of speaking distance. In fact, it is not a twig that catches my eye, but a voice that catches my ear. It is a familiar voice, and startles me as being so, yet one I am unable to instantly place it.

I turn my head around to see - is it perhaps someone who has stolen up quietly beside me? Then I see him. And I remember. Everything. Remember that "he" is me, and that this is my last dream and that now, also at last, my time is finally all up. And in that same moment I both vanish, awaken, and reappear. Somewhere entirely else.

I'm still working on the part up to that.