Unknown Classics

As we raced around the kitchen doing our daily morning dance I couldn’t help humming. Music is something that seems to always follow me around in the form of a hum or a whistled tune and so none of my family gave it much notice. The kids are too young to play “Name That Tune,” but Action Girl caught it.

“Were is the butter?”

“Got it.”

“The coffee needs pouring and the dishwasher still has claim to all the good mugs.”

“I’ll get them.”

“Hmmm mmmm mmm Mmmm Mmm mmm mmm m Hmmm Mmm.”

“Are you humming ‘Wash that man right out of my hair’?”

“Hmmmmm…. Perhaps.”

The night before, long after the kids were supposedly asleep, Action Girl and I finished the second reel of “South Pacific,” and I have to say, it was a lot of fun.

“South Pacific” is in no doubt to any body’s mind, a classic and I already knew a handful of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs from cultural osmosis, but like so many things we “know” all about, I had never seen it. Not even the highlights. Because of this, South Pacific fell neatly into my “To Do” pile along with a mountain of reading, a pile of movies and Lord knows how many songs. Call them cultural debris or the staples of knowledge, but the truth of the matter is that we all seem to know things that we really don’t.

“Treasure Island,” comes to mind.

I know the story well enough and this is not due entirely to the Muppets.


I knew as a young boy that Long John Silver had a peg leg and was not to be trusted but to be honest, I had no idea why. Young Master Hawkins never even crossed my radar, partly because he wasn’t an interesting pirate missing a major appendage but mostly because I HAD NEVER READ THE BOOK!

The really goofy part is that I even know the background about where the story comes from. Robert Louis Stevenson and his young family were on vacation in the very soggy and rainy Scottish Highlands back in the pre- pre- pre- technology days and being a good father and story teller, or perhaps feeling guilty at having dragged young children out to spend their summer in a stone cottage covered in lichen and moss, he spun the tale over many evenings to keep his brood happy and interested. Also, I’m guessing that if he strung it out long enough, he could pull a Scheherazade and keep him self safe from familial retribution while he slept. I know that’s the way I’d be thinking, at any rate.

My point is that to this day, I still haven’t read Treasure Island. Though I own an old, hardcover, dog eared copy rescued from some library’s discard pile, it sits gathering dust, patiently waiting for me to, like an archeologist, slowly and carefully dig down to its layer, brush it clean, document its many pages and finally set it on permanent display. I still have a lot of layers to go.

Having a weakness for old and important things, I have amassed a good pile to weed through and among the bit and pieces, there are lots and lots of cultural “classics.” The very word “Classic,” makes me think and reminds me of a rebuke I received from my little cousin Rachel many, many years ago. When I arrived at her house one day, no doubt in tow with my Mother, my young cousin asked me if I had ever seen the movie “Willy Wonka.” Apparently, she had just finished it and wished to discuss its finer points.

I hadn’t, and told her so.

“Yes you have.” She replied with hands on hips. Even then, she was practicing that look that all women learn to give men who are obviously being thick on purpose.

“Ummm, no. No I haven’t.” It seemed an odd thing to contradict me on and it made me nervous. I was still me, right?

“Yes you have! It’s a classic!”

“No. Really. I haven’t seen it. Not ever.”

Rachel was looking sort of panicked now and getting louder and more firm in her opinion of what I’d seen and what I hadn’t.

“Yes you HAVE! Everybody’s seen it! It’s a CLASSIC!”

I can only guess that there had been a conversation I had missed out on. My best theory is that her Mother had called the movie a “classic” and Rachel, being a normal and therefore inquisitive child, requested a definition. It probably went something like, “It’s something that everybody has seen.” It seemed that my negative answer had put me outside of humanity. Through my admission of not having seen Gene Wilder doing his dances in purple top hat and cane, I had inadvertently short circuited her world.

As I recall, I finally relented and claimed that I had seen it just to make things right with her again, thus completing the male/female dance called the “You’re right and I’m wrong” Cha-cha. Hey, it makes life livable and besides, I’ve seen the movie now and therefore regained my membership with the human race.

A few years ago, I decided that it was high time to knock down a few more classics that had eluded me. The first conscious step I took was to put Steve Martin’s adaptation aside and read “Cyrano de Bergerac.” I LOVED it. Were they all this good? Is that why they sit in such an exalted place? I attempted the same with another legend and got 98% of the way through, “A Farwell to Arms” before I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to see the rest. Hemingway might have been a boozy, thrill seeking genius, but to my mind, his writing just doesn’t stand up. At least not now. At least… not to me.

The good news is that there is still a stack of material that goes up to my chin that I have yet to go through. The bad news is that there is simply no way that I will ever get to the bottom of it.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to focus on what you like. I’m not the type of person who does things because it earns me brownie points with the black turtleneck and beret crowd or gets me bragging rights amongst my peers, but rather because I don’t want to miss out on something good. The stories of woe and hardship are plentiful and I’m sure that many of them are expertly and gut wrenchingly told, either on the page or the silver screen. I know that many people love these stories of personal horror and you too may enjoy this type of Opera bait, but you won’t see me there following along. For me, the day is just too nice to ruin.

So, over the last two nights, Action Girl and I watched our classic and now cheesy musical and had fun laughing at the soft focus and doubtless revolutionary color changes through out the production. Were were both taken by surprise by the heavy moral message that came through only at the very end, taking the unexpected and I’m sure at the time, controversial slap at racism. You learn something new every day, even if it’s from something old. Especially if it’s old, in some cases.

I’ll have to return the movie to the library today and see what’s next on the list. There’s a good collection of older folks here in the community and that translates into some great old movies to take out. Classics abound.

The trick is to find one that I know all about, but not really. You never know what you didn’t know until you actually learn.

I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair and send him on his waaaaaaaay!

Maybe I should just hum it as I walk.

For What It’s Worth

I went out to the movies with my Dad last night. It was a rare and happy opportunity for both of us to get together and just be guys. Mom had gone to stay over night with one of her sisters and Action Girl had taken the kiddos up to her folk’s house for a mini-vacation. Dad had a conference to go to and I had work to do so we had stayed behind. That evening, we were left to entertain our selves.

I’m very close to my Father and the fact that with adulthood comes fewer chances to do things with him has been hard for me to take at times. We really are good friends. This was a great chance to play!

So, decided to go out and do something that our wives might not want to do. In this particular case, Action Girl was a little bummed by our choice since she was up for this particular adventure. Well… adventure might be pushing it. We went to the movies to see explosions and silliness. We went to see “Tropic Thunder”.

For those of you who might be living in a cave in the Antarctic, Tropic Thunder is a goofball movie about a bunch of goofballs trying to make a movie. As one of the characters puts it, “I’m the dude, playing the dude who looks like another dude”. Oh, yah! We’re talking about quality here. Funny in a lot of places and full of explosions. What more can you ask for in a “guy” movie!?

The quick and dirty backstory is that they are filming a movie about the Vietnam War, in Vietnam. It follows them as they wander off into the jungle and wind up being mistaken as U.S. drug enforcement agents by a local heroin processing gang. Hilarity ensues. So do fart jokes. Oh! And did I mention the explosions?

Here’s where this gets interesting for me. I have never been in the military. That’s something that I’ve always sort of regretted. I’m not sure why. My Dad, however, was. He was extremely lucky, being assigned to a unit that just completed a tour. Before the next deployment came around, things changed. The troops were being pulled out, not put in. Considering that he was trained as a combat platoon sergeant, it’s a minor miracle that he stayed State side for his entire time in the military. He did however train, live with and know a lot of guys who did go over. His best friend had joined the Marines, was a 30 cal. man, and somehow managed to make it through at least two tours, though it cost him dearly. He came home a very different person and it took years for him to put his life back together. Several of my Dad’s friends didn’t come home at all.

Tropic Thunder was about humor, but it was kind of uncomfortable at times to sit there next to my father, knowing that he was looking at the movie in a different way than the director intended. There were some moments of uneasiness for me as I watched. At one point as the uppity actors are being dumped into a jungle clearing by helicopter to “experience” what it was like to be In Country, the camera pans over a swampy area and catches the faded and wrecked tail section of an old huey, lost “for real”, during the war. I know it was a prop on a set, but it yanked me violently out of the show on the screen and bothered me deeply. Suddenly, it struck me like filming a comedy at an old death camp. It colored my view of the rest of the movie.

I was born too late to have understood what was happening in Vietnam when the war was in full swing, but it loomed large in my later childhood, none the less. Our dads were the vets who didn’t want to talk about it, or the protesters who felt that they could finally rest. Comic books didn’t touch the subject much. It was still a taboo subject at that point. I remember vividly, my Dad, the gentlest man I knew, dressed head to toe in olive drab, sergeant stripes on his shoulders, cap under his arm and those big black boots. I remember sitting on our steps and not wanting him to go away, even though I knew he’d be back soon. By the time I was old enough to understand, he was out.

They wanted him to stay, naturally, but he had had his fill and was eligible to leave. He hung his boots in the cellar and there they stayed for a long time. They were a fixture for most of my childhood. Eventually, they disappeared during a basement clean out.

The war of my generation was the first Gulf War. If I was going to go, that was the one that I would have been been part of. I was in college and not inclined to join George the First’s party in the sand. I’m too old for service now. Even if I asked to join, they wouldn’t take me. The interesting thing is that Vietnam is still the one that strikes home to me. It’s the one that I feel a strong personal connection to, even though the history buff in me tends to study the First and Second World Wars the most. I may find them fascinating, but they don’t resonate like Vietnam does. I’m not sure why. I don’t even read much about that war in south east Asia. It just feels too close.

Though all war is a horrible thing, Vietnam was a truly hideous war for all parties involved. It was the one where what it meant to be an American started to unravel and splinter. It changed our world view and changed the way we were viewed by the world. It was also the one that claimed the lives of so many of my Father’s friends. Years ago, just the two of us went to the memorial in Washington D.C. I stood back a bit as I watched him look for the names he knew and tried to both be there for him if he chose to point them out, yet distant enough for him to remember in peace. It was a hard moment for both of us.

So, the movie ended on a crechendo of explosions and foolishness. The good guys get away, the movie gets made and the bad guys get nothing. All is good in Hollywoodland. The two of us went out for fish and chips and split a side of muscles. We took advantage of the rare time alone and chatted about all sorts of stuff, but not the movie. I never really gave it another thought until this morning as I was racing around, being industrious. Suddenly, the little music box that lives in my head started playing Dusty Springfield and it stopped me cold. I went over to my computer and looked through my music list and started arranging. In a few minutes, I had built what is to me, the music of the Vietnam War. To be honest, it’s what you’d expect, but it’s made me think long and hard about it again. Memories that are not my own but personal enough to make my vision blurry.

I think I’ll go someday and see that far away place for my self. I don’t know what I’m looking for in the war zone of my Father’s generation, but I’d like to try to figure that out; wether to settle the dust in my mind or stir up the ghosts.

Either way, I think it will be an important moment.

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