Maybe Now My Kids Will Understand Me
Looking back, it was probably a self inflicted scar. I should have gone to bed. But, when you're 7 or 8 years old, and you get the chance to hang out with your dad and big brother when it really was past your bedtime, you do it, right?
And so we had our Saturday night ritual. Channel 9 and channel 11 in Los Angeles had dueling scary movies on Saturday nights, but more often than not we would choose “Chiller Theater” the Saturday night offerings of channel 11. And they were some classics, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Them, The Fly, The Blob, Forbidden Planet, The Thing (how could you be that mean to scare me that much, James Arness?), The Crawling Eye and the list goes on. Week after week we would stay up late, make a big batch of homemade popcorn, popped in oil with tons of real butter, the way it was meant to be popped. Dad and my big brother sat through them all, at times laughing at the antics of of those in the perils of these on screen monsters.
I, of course, didn't see a lot of humor in the situation. I sat there wide-eyed in fear knowing that The Thing, The Crawling Eye, The Blob and The Fly were all about to crawl out of the screen and pummel me. It took a lot of imagination because all of this was playing out on about a 10-inch black and white screen. Yes, the one screen for the entire living room, if you're wondering. But it was all bigger than life in my childhood mind.
In time, my brother aged out of our Saturday night routine, but dad and I pressed on. We would change our routine at times. This was happening at the beginning of what some refer to the dynasty of the UCLA basketball team, and while the games weren't broadcast live in those days, channel 5 would tape the game and play it back at 11 o'clock. So on game nights, we would block off any news coverage to make sure we didn't know the score, and watched the game as if it was live.
But on nights when there wasn't a game, it was back to “Chiller Theater.”
One night, Dad said, “hey, it's War Of the Worlds” tonight. This was the 1953 version starring Gene Barry. Dad had seen the movie. I had not. This was also a time when UFO sightings were regularly showing up in news reports, and so flying saucers and attacks from space were well within my wheelhouse of things to be afraid of.
About 35 minutes or so into the movie, Dad asks, “Should we have some popcorn?” “Ok” I replied in my cracking, quivering voice, “I'll go make some,” which was really hard to think about doing as heat rays and skeleton rays were going off all over the screen (oh, and we had graduated to a color tv by this time), and I was sure one of the beams was about to slice me in half. “That's ok, I'll go make it,” he said.
Right then and there, I should have smelled a rat. Dad was really a pretty good cook, and made us some great meals over the years when he could (but Mom did the bulk of the cooking). He had, though, delegated the popping of corn to us kids, and I liked doing it. Anyway, Dad trotted off to the kitchen while I sat there watching the destruction of the world, which I was sure included mine.
Now, to put in context the events that are about to happen, you need to watch this scene from the movie. Apologies for the poor quality, it looks like someone recorded off their tv screen.
In case you can't picture it, the space ships were coming down all over the place! Our hero and heroine had been trapped in the farmhouse shelter by a ship crashing in to it! An electronic eye had already scanned the house and had seen them! They were trying to scratch their way out! And they had their backs to the camera (never a good thing during a horror film)! I was totally engrossed in the film and going out of my childhood mind. Somewhere, in the very, very back of my mind, I might have been wondering, “Why don't I hear the corn popping anymore?”
Sure enough, Dad, in a degree of stealth I didn't know he possessed, had sneaked up behind me, and just as the Martian touched the shoulder of the heroine on screen, his hand reached over the back of the couch and touched me on my shoulder at the exact moment.
I had no idea that I was capable of defying the law of gravity, but there I was a good 6 or 7 feet in the air above the couch in our living room. When I crashed back down on the couch, Dad was there holding his sides and laughing uncontrollably. I was not laughing.
Over the years, though, this is one of my most cherished memories, even though on that night the laughter came at my expense. Later, too, the science fiction/horror movies of the 1950's became more humorous to me, and like my older brother, the nights of watching “Chiller Theater” would come to an end. I miss it. I still pop in one of the old shows from time to time, usually when Tammy is out for awhile, just to remember. I even have a DVD copy of The Crawling Eye that was given to me by one of my daughters for Christmas a few years back (they are hard to find). Yes, you can see the strings on the monster puppets they used in that film. Back in the day, however, I was oblivious to them. It was just scary. And if I could, I would have Dad next to me and watch it all over again with the same childhood innocence.
The other night when Tammy was away for a book club meeting, I popped War of the Worlds in the machine and watched it. It is almost laughable to watch now, but you can bet, when it came time for that scene, there was an 8-year old in the back of my mind listening for the sound of corn popping.