MY DAD AND HOW HE MADE ME LIE TO THE CLERGY
If he was still with us here in the land of the living, today would’ve been my Dad’s 78th Birthday. This photo, taken at the party after Harley’s baptism, perfectly sums up the dynamic of our relationship: we looked at stuff together in silence. Whether it was a George Carlin album as it spun on a record player or CARLIN AT CARNEGIE as it took over the TV in the early days of HBO, the time my Father and I spent together was always about watching stuff. And mostly, that stuff was movies.
The original Silent Bob himself, my Old Man always took me out of school at noon on Wednesdays to see a $1.50 matinee at the now long-gone Movies at Middletown (“…located on Highway 35 and Palmer Ave,” as the answering machine message with the movie times would remind any caller). In doing this, a Father was subtly teaching his butterball, silly-hearted youngest child that everything in life came secondary to a good movie – including my education and my God.
The first time the Old Man decided to pull me out of school early to see a flick, my Mom told me to tell the Sisters that I was missing Religion class because a Great Aunt had died and we were rushing to a last minute funeral – not that my Dad wanted to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for cheap mid-week. The movie rocked, of course – not just because it was Lucas and Spielberg at their best, but also because it was transgressive to be in the cinema at all when I was supposed to be learning about Christ. And my Father was not only not punishing me for lying to a grown-up, he was complicit as well! The next day, I tried to explain to my best friend Ernie O’Donnell two very controversial points I’d learned while studying a mid-afternoon movie instead of the Bible: 1) My Dad was cool, and 2) Indiana Jones was like an American James Bond.
After we got away with movie matinee hooky, Pop decided that was gonna be our “thing”: every week, he’d sign me out of school early and we’d go to the movies. I was the third of his three kids, disinterested in country music (his passion) and less interested in sports (his pastime). But I LOVED television. I LOVED the movies. And this was the common ground upon which my Dad and I would build the foundation of our relationship: watching entertainment together, generally in silence.
So the next week, me and the Old Man wanna see SUPERMAN II. Again, my Mom instructs me to tell the Sisters the family is rushing to a funeral for a fallen great aunt. The Principal, Sister Gloria Louise, seems to buy it. I’m a 10 year old Catholic boy in 1981, so I must be telling the truth, right?
My Old Man was a huge James Bond fan, so for a third consecutive week in a row, Dad wanted to yank his youngest out of class to see FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. We didn’t really talk after the movies, but the old man always had plenty to express after a Bond flick – usually regarding Roger Moore being an okay 007, but Sean Connery being his favorite. And I’d listen with great attention, like it mattered – because it was really something when the Old Man has something to say.
See, Dad didn’t really ever talk that much. Not that he didn’t have anything on his mind: he was just self conscious as a motherfucker (which he, in fact, literally was). Dad had been born with a hair lip and a cleft palate, so his whole life, he tried to keep his mouth shut so as not to gross everybody out – even his kids. Can you imagine? The Father of the guy who does 69 different podcasts a day was pretty tight-lipped. It’s likely the reason I talk so much: there must be some subconscious desire to say all the stuff my Dad was too trapped inside himself to express.
So it’s my last week in Fifth Grade and Mom urges Dad to bring me to Bond on the upcoming weekend instead. But the Old Man won’t have it: the weekends are too crowded at the multiplex, and the tickets cost nearly double. Pop doesn’t care if Thursday IS the last day of school: he’s picking me up at noon on Wednesday to see this new Bond flick, and the only thing that’s gonna stop him is a license to kill.
“What do I tell Sister Gloria Louise?” I asked my Mom.
And rather than flip the script, my Mother stuck with a classic: “Tell her my great Aunt died.”
So I put on my Catholic school uniform of green slacks, sweater and tie with a white button-down shirt, walk up Miller Hill to Our Lady of Perpetual Help school, and head to the office to tell them my Dad is picking me up at lunch again. The reason for the early dismissal? My Mom’s Great Aunt has passed away and we need to go be with the family.
Sister Gloria Louise says “Seems like a lot of Great Aunts are dying in your family this month, Mr. Smith.”
I say “Yes, Sister. God must be punishing them.”
“Yes. God DOES punish. Remember that,” she said, heading away from the front desk to her office. And just before she closed her office door, Sister Gloria Louise added “Enjoy your movie…”
Fires of Hell be damned, I took Sister Gloria’s advice that day and enjoyed the shit out of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY with my Dad. But to be fair, I enjoyed every movie I ever saw with my Father. Some were good, some weren’t as good, but none of them were ever a waste of our time – time we spent together. And as much as I’d always been a movie brat, that month was where my lifelong love affair with cinema began in earnest. Movies were so revered in my family, I was encouraged to lie (a sin!) to my teachers so I could circumvent the system and play hooky at the picture show. With an adult who was supposed to have known better, no less.
Turns out he DID know better. When I grew up, I made movies for a living. Some were good, some weren’t, but none of them were ever a waste of my time. Because each one is a mini-monument to the man who made me. JERSEY GIRL was the last of my flicks he got to see, and while some may snark that’s what probably killed him, I know better: I was there when he watched the flick the first time. I saw him cry – and it wasn’t because he was thinking “My kid just ruined his career…” The man of few words told me EXACTLY what was on his mind after the movie ended.
“That was good,” said the man who’d introduced me to the very things that would consume the remainder of my days. “And George Carlin was great.”
Thanks, Dad. I miss you. I hope you had the time of your life.