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Monday, October 15, 2018

Quality Family Time - October 2018 Edition - Week 2

So last week, I subjected the girls to Battle Royale and while one was not impressed (Karen), the other (Lil) just hated it.  I really only had three films that I really insisted that Lil watch with me and that was one of them.  I figured this week, I'd ask her to watch one that I actually thought she'd like.  That's why we sat down on Saturday night and fired up Dario Argento's 1977 classic, Suspiria!

For those who don't know, Suspiria is about a young American woman who is invited to attend a very exclusive dance academy in Europe.  Once there though, she begins to realize something is not quite right about the place and as her fellow dancers begin to wind up missing and/or dead, she digs in further to see just what is going on.

My daughter is a dancer.  Actually, that's not correct.  My daughter is a dance fiend and she and her mother will pick apart every tiny movement in any dance that's done on film.  When it comes to ballet, she's a dance snob.  So last year when we watched Black Swan, I was pretty amazed that overall, she didn't have much of a problem with the dancing in the film.  I mean, there were times when she commented on something but it never pulled her out of the narrative.  In fact, she actually really liked the film.

With Suspiria though, this was not the case.  Things started out promising with Karen declaring after the first fifteen minutes that she didn't know how it could get any weirder.  Then, things devolved from there.  I thought they'd like the color, pacing, crazy plot, etc. but I underestimated something that reared its head almost immediately.  My wife has a thing about hair.

I know this is confusing, so let's go back in time about twelve years and let me tell you the story.  At the time, I was a staff writer for a site called DVDinmypants.  It was a pretty fantastic place with great people and a very open editing staff who was up for almost anything.  At one point, I pitched the idea of rewatching some of the old exploitation films of the 1970's and 80's with my wife.  We'd pick them apart and she could bag on my horrible taste in films as a teenager. Somewhere around film number three, I started noticing that Karen's first impression of any character in any film was based entirely on their hairstyle.  It just pulled her right out of the story, no matter what.

So, in Suspiria, when the dancers first show up in especially low-cut leotards and everyone has 70's hair, Karen was the first one to say something about it.  Then she noticed none of them had their hair in buns.  That became a pain point for Lil and I got to witness the transition as a mother passes her weird obsession to her daughter. 

As for the dancing, neither was really enamored with it, but Lil was the most harsh.  For those of you without teenagers, it's hard for me to communicate just how insanely sarcastic one can be.  Below are a few comments I overheard.  Please read the following in a tone that sounds like an audible eye-roll.

"This seems to be complete chaos. Nobody's in sync. Everyone just do whatever you want." 

"Oh wow.  Another dead ballerina."

"Does anyone in this film know how to correctly hold their arms when doing a pirouette?"   

And then... there was Karen.

Her:  I thought you said this was about ballet.

Me:  No, I said it was set in a ballet school.  It's a horror film.

Her:  It's pretty horrible ballet.

And when it was all over, I asked what they thought of it overall. 

Karen:  I thought it sucked.

Me:  What?

Karen:  It's so slow and the dancing is terrible.  

Lil:  I thought it was okay.  I didn't think it was horrible.  The dancing was horrible but the movie itself was okay.

Heathens!  I tell you I live with heathens!

If you've never seen Argento's Suspiria, you should.  As you can tell by the handful of stills here, it's beautifully shot and is a great story.  The soundtrack by Goblin is one of the few things that Karen and Lil liked about it.  They recognized how effective it was at ratcheting up tension throughout the entire run time.  

Check it out and then get ready for the remake which hits theaters later this month.  It's getting great reviews and I'm super excited about it.

Winners and Losers for Week 2!

Winners (Everyone Agrees)

The Giant Behemoth (a giant radioactive dinosaur invades London!)

The Black Scorpion  (a bunch of giant scorpions invade Mexico City!)

Winners (Cary Only)

Suspiria  (an American dancer invades a European dance school!)

Terrifier  (one of the creepiest killer clowns in ages invades your nighmares!)


None this week!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Quality Family Time - October 2018 Edition - Week 1

Well, another October is upon us.  For those of you who've followed the blog for a while, you know that in our house that can only mean one thing.  It's time for two months of horror movies!

Why two months?  

Because we found we couldn't get our favorites in, plus new films, without starting in September!

This year we've already been through quite a few.  There was one though, one special one that I've been saving, that I was looking forward to more than all the others.  A movie that I've had on my short list for two years, knowing that my wife and daughter would get sucked in and simultaneously hate it.  

That movie is Battle Royale (2000).

Battle Royale tells the story of a ninth grade class who are beyond saving.  It seems kids just don't respect their elders the way they used to, so society passed the BR Act.  As kids make their way through the school levels, the worst and most disrespectful get sorted to a very special class.  At the end of their ninth grade year, this class is drugged and sent to an uninhabited island in the Sea of Japan.  There, they are each given food, water, a map, and one weapon.  They're also fitted with fashionable shock collars that will explode if they break any of the rules.  Over the next three days, they must hunt each other or die themselves.  The only remaining survivor will be allowed off the island.

Now, why would I be looking forward to showing this as opposed to any other horror film?  It's simple actually.  As you've probably guessed from reading the blog, they're pretty obsessed with Japanese pop culture.  Anyone whose seen Battle Royale knows that rule number one is not to get attached to any of the characters.  By definition of the rules, you only have a 1 in 42 chance of picking the winner.  Remember how they hated Train to Busan because so many people die?  This is like that one on steroids!

So two nights ago, we fired up a double feature of Cabin in the Woods (Lil and Karen's pick) and Battle Royale.  First I was surprised how well these two movies go together.  On the surface, they definitely have the same "bones" as far as their respective stories.  Without spoiling Cabin in the Woods for the handful of people reading this that haven't seen it, let's just say that the circumstances surrounding the protagonists have eerily similar set ups.

That said, all of my anticipation did not have the payoff I'd hoped for.  Mostly, there was mild complaining.

Karen:  This movie has absolutely no plot whatsoever!

Karen:  I do like the guy who shouts everything.  I'm going to start doing that.  Just yelling out what I want everyone to do.

For the most part, Lil stayed quiet.  When it was all said and done, I asked what they thought.  Karen's complaint stayed the same.  No plot until the last 20 minutes or so and then you understand just who you should be rooting for.  

I looked to Lil for something, anything that would tell me that deep down, she really did like it but didn't want to admit it.  Instead, she just stared back and then said everything I needed to know.

Lil:  I REALLY did hate that.

Yes!  And she'll be asking to see it again in few years.

Of the ones we've seen so far, here are the winners and losers.

Winners (as voted on by everyone)
Monster on the Campus
The Thing From Another World
It Came From Beneath The Sea
Momsy, Nonny, Sonny and Girly (Thanks to Mike and Lynn and The Annual 24-Hour Film Fest for introducing me to this one.)
The Grudge  (American version)
The Cabin in the Woods
Dracula (1931)
Rosemary's Baby  (Based on the conversation alone, I'd say this has been Karen's favorite so far this year.)
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors
Piranha 3-D
Cat People
Attack of the Crab Monsters

Winners (Cary only)
The Masque of the Red Death
Battle Royale

The Woman Eater  (Too much talking.  Not enough woman eating.)

Gigantis: The Fire Monster  (This is a repackaging of Godzilla Raids Again that was marketed to American audiences.  The narration is laughable at first, then really annoying.  Stay away from this one and watch the subtitled Toho version)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 17 - The (failed) Remake from the Black Lagoon!

For this edition of Horror Histories, I’d like to talk about a remake that has yet to be made but is very close to my heart.  If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you know that my favorite horror movie of all time is The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  It’s an amazing film and if you don’t know much about it, go watch it now.  You’re really missing out otherwise.  If you don’t have the time though, you can go here and check out my post from last October. 

Now, if you look at every other big name Universal monster from that period, you’ll notice that each has had a remake (or two, or three) in the last four decades.  The only one who has not been through the reboot machine is the Gill-Man. 

Why?  Well, that’s an interesting story.  It’s been connected to some of the biggest names in Hollywood but it’s never come to fruition.  The stories of those failed attempts make for a fascinating look at the studio machine, so let’s talk about a few of them, shall we?

In 1982, John Landis approached Universal about producing a remake.  The studio was excited and a script was written by legendary screenwriter Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass series).   Landis was pushing for it to be directed by none other than Jack Arnold, the man who wrote and directed the original.  That alone would be enough to make me happy but it gets better.  Rick Baker, the genius behind the effects in An American Werewolf in London as well as many others, had been signed to create the practical effects.  His designs for the costume stayed true to the original Gill-Man suit and this looked like a film to get excited about.  

So what happened?

Landis is a huge fan of the original and he insisted that if Universal was going to let him produce it, then it would have to be in 3-D.  However, the studio  already had all their eggs in another 3-D basket in 1982.  It was Jaws 3-D and Universal didn’t want any competition on the schedule the following summer.  The project fell through and Landis moved on.

The next person to be attached to it was Joe Dante.  Dante was fine with not producing it in 3-D, and he was content to work of Kneale’s script but eventually he decided to pass on it and move on to other projects.  The idea of a remake bounced around for about a decade until it landed in the lap of John Carpenter. 

Of all the names attached to this movie, Carpenter’s is the one I was most excited about.  Anyone who has ever seen what he did with The Thing knows that he would have made this his own and still paid a loving tribute to the original.  He was given the script that Kneale had written but it hadn’t aged particularly well.  That script featured two Gill-Men, one aggressive and the other more humane.   Of course they were fighting over a woman and the rest kind of writes itself in a way. 

Carpenter is quoted as saying that the script was interesting but needed some work to get it where he wanted it to be.  Instead of hiring someone else, he approached Kneale about updating it.  He quickly found that Kneale didn’t want to change a word and according to Carpenter felt he was "above this horror thing".  So  Carpenter drafted screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) to help him.  

This version started gaining traction and by 1992, Carpenter was giving interviews about different ideas they’d been playing with, even incorporating some Lovecraftian bits about how the Gill-Man came to be.  Universal seemed more interested than ever, tossing around the idea that it would be a summer event movie.  Even more importantly, Carpenter brought back Rick Baker and both swore that the original design from 1954 was almost perfect.  Carpenter is literally quoted as saying, “Why fix it?”

His only caveat was that it needed to look less rubbery.

So what happened here?  There’s not a 100% solid answer on this.  There’s some indication that due to the demise of Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the studio lost faith.  Whatever the reason, the movie fell by the wayside again and Ivan Reitman picked it up.

Again, he called on Rick Baker for the effects work.  This time around though, Baker didn’t like what he was seeing.  Reitman wanted to totally rework the design of the creature and also play up the evolutionary angle in the script.  The Gill-Man wouldn’t be the only monster in the lagoon and from what Baker’s gone on record as saying, it wasn’t something he was excited to be attached to.

Thankfully, that also fell through.

Gary Ross took a stab at remaking the film and his script was given to Guillermo Del Toro who agreed to direct for a brief time.  I’ve read a synopsis of this script and it’s pretty lame, doing away with what made the original great and replacing it with a battle between good “student” scientists and evil “corporate” scientists in a part of the jungle where evolution has gone insane.  Once again, the Gill-Man is just one of many antagonists and it comes across as something you’d see go direct to video.  Del Toro decided to move on to a different film.

I’ve also seen another variation on that script that had Tom Cruise attached to it at one point.  It involved the Creature being the protector of the Tree of Life.  It was disjointed and read more like a videogame script than a movie.  Think lots of obstacles, jump scares and very little heart.

Around that time, director Peter Jackson was offered a shot at it.  Initially he expressed interest but ultimately asked to direct his own personal passion project, the remake of King Kong.  

Most recently, when Universal announced their half-baked plan to create a shared universe featuring their monsters, Scarlett Johansson was offered a lead role.  With the tanking of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, that whole plan seems to have been scrapped now which is probably for the best.

While there’s still some talk of remaking the original, at this point I’d be happy with that never happening.  My favorite thing about Guillermo Del Toro moving on when Universal couldn’t get their shit together is that he’s not the type to let that stop him.  While The Shape of Water (2017) isn’t a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and isn’t really a horror film at all, it is very much a continuation of the original 1954 story.  It disregards the two sequels and imagines what could have happened if the Gill-Man had been captured and brought back to a lab for study.  

It’s a brilliant film that’s a love letter to Jack Arnold’s film as well as to cinema itself.  If you’re a Creature fan, you really couldn’t ask for much more.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

October Music and The Ocean

Those of you who read the blog know that I’m a huge music hound.  I love most types from pop to jazz to blues, heavy metal, classical and even classic country.  As long as I can remember, music has been my one refuge when things seem bad and I’ve even noticed (and commented to some of you reading) that my listening tastes tend to change with the seasons themselves.

Fall is upon us and with it comes my favorite time of year, Halloween.  My birthday is in October.  My daughter’s birthday is also in October and we just make the whole month one long party.  It’s around this time of year that my listening tastes become slanted more toward rockabilly, punk and metal.  Bands like The Cramps, Nekromantix, The Horrorpops, The Birthday Massacre and soundtracks from Suspiria (Goblin’s best work), John Carpenter’s The Thing and pseudo-soundtracks by The Midnight Syndicate will go into heavy rotation over the next few weeks.

That said, this week I found myself listening to a song that’s definitely not in that vein and realizing that I’d almost unconsciously mimicked the lyrics in my own life.  As most of you read, I lost my Dad about a month ago.  I spent a couple of weeks in Texas helping my mother get things sorted and then when I came back here, I realized that I hadn’t really dealt with it myself.  I spent the next couple of weeks kind of going through the motions of work and home.  Then something clicked and I asked Karen and Lil if they wouldn’t mind going down to Laguna Beach after work one night. 

We hit up Husky Burger on PCH and then crossed the street and headed down to Shaw’s Cove.  We wandered along the rocks and watched the waves crash.  There were some cool blow-hole effects happening in one spot and the high tide was just starting to subside.  We waited there and watched set after set roll in until the sun finally started creeping down enough that the air got a little too cold for us.  Once we got back to the car and started driving home, I realized I felt better.  A lot better.

The ocean has that effect on me.  I’m not sure why. 

A week later, I found myself throwing a Counting Crows disc into my car stereo.  “A Long December” (a song that I’ve liked for a long time despite it being overplayed) came on and the last verse struck me.  For the one or two people out there who may not know it, the lyrics are about a guy who's reflecting on the past year, realized it's kind of sucked and is looking forward to the new year in hopes that it'll be better.  The last verse goes like this:

And it’s one more day up in the Canyon
And it’s one more night in Hollywood
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean
I guess I should

I’m not the biggest Counting Crows fan, but I don’t think I’ll be able to hear that song again without automatically thinking about the last few weeks and how good it felt to just sit and listen to the waves for a while.

Starting next week, we'll start posting about the Halloween movies being viewed this year (including a couple that Karen and Lil may or may not particularly like).  On Thursday, I'll post up the last Horror Histories for the time being.  It was supposed to go live a month ago but life got in the way.

Happy October, everyone!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Help Decide the Fate of My "Redneck Da Vinci Code"

It's been a hell of a year and I'll be honest, I'm way behind on getting the next book out.  The truth is, it's been stalled due to an idea I had to make it better.  The effort to incorporate that idea is almost like rewriting the damn book but I do believe it's worthwhile.  

I've been hammering away at it, but as any author can tell you, sometimes you start to get sick of your own story.  That's exactly what was happening so I put it down for a bit.  I really like this one and the characters in it and I want to keep it that way.

So while it's sitting and gelling, I've revisited an older one that's vexed me for years.  That's the one I need your feedback on.  

Years ago, I came up with the idea for a story that just lit me up from head to toe with excitement.  I've referred to it as my "Redneck Da Vinci Code" and I've worked on it in fits and starts for the better part of a decade.  The reasons I've had so much trouble finishing it have more to do with my buckling down on it and less to do with roadblocks, etc.  However, one of the main reasons is that I've often thought it was just too "eccentric". 

Something keeps drawing me back though.  So recently, I reworked the first two chapters and read them to the Orange County Fictionaires group that I attend.  I got great feedback on what worked and what didn't, but one thing about reading to other writers is that sometimes it doesn't answer the question, "Would a non-writer read this?"

So for those of you interested, I've posted the first two chapters below.  Let me know either in the comments here or on Facebook if you'd be interested in finding out more about what happened to Lee and Jacob, or if it just doesn't grab you.

Thanks for your time.

 Chapter 1:  LSD and Willow Trees

We are sitting behind a dumpster looking at the branch of a willow tree.  You.  Me.  We’re just staring.  The dumpster stands to the left of the willow and in the small space between them, we can see down an alley that seems to stretch forever. I am here for a story.  Presumably you’re here for the same, however forget about when and where you were a moment ago.  The story doesn’t exist there.  To hear it, you have to be here with me.  It is 1991.  We’re sitting in a Buick LeSabre behind a row of condominiums along Sunset Blvd.
The willow tree is magic.  We’ll get to that.

Looking out through the windshield of my rented car, my brain is struggling very hard to make sense of a world that seems to have gone completely insane.  Lights blur, buildings melt, their bricks dripping in big glops onto the asphalt of the alley and the very air feels electric.  This is due to an unreasonably high volume of LSD (in the form of three small pieces of paper each adorned with a green peace symbol) that I placed on my tongue about an hour ago.    
Tomorrow evening, I’ll be catching a plane on my way to a new life, but that is far from the forefront of my mind as I watch the magic willow tree do its dance.  Did I mention it was dancing?  Between the breeze and the drug it seems to be doing a tango of some sort and that’s fine with me.  Like I said, I’m just here to be entertained, but I’m yearning for something big, bright and fun to kick this experience up a notch.
So, it’s remarkable that you’ve picked this instant to join me, because it’s precisely the moment when the willow tree lets me in on its secret.  You see, up until this point, everyone who has ever wandered past it, just considered the tree a decorative member of the plant kingdom, provided to help add some color to an otherwise washed out urban area.  Little did they realize that years of evolution combined with genetic modification of plant seeds had created a willow tree that not only grew a beautiful green year round, but also granted its friends and admirers the ability to travel back and forth through time. 
That’s pretty amazing when you think about it but probably even more amazing is that all a person has to do in order to be granted this fantastic power by the willow tree is to simply ask for it.  
It also helps to have a metric ton of LSD lighting up your brain prior to asking. 

So it is by pure luck that I happen to be tripping my eyelids off when I audibly ask,"Damn, couldn't this get even a little better?" 
The willow tree  practically jumps out of the asphalt with excitement.
I’d almost given up! it declares. I've been waiting for someone to ask for years!

My smile extends from ear to ear. 
“Okay.  What have you got for me?” I ask.

A true story, it says.  It’s got intrigue, suspense and even alligators.

Instantly the windshield in front of me swirls and I find myself gazing into a giant rabbit hole.  At the other end is a past I could not possibly have known existed.  I see glimpses of wooded night, bustling sidewalks and a very large man cursing at something. 
It’s a mystery, the tree says. I’ll help you connect all the strings.  You’re going to love it.  

“Who are you?” I ask.

Salix Sepulcralix is my Latin name, but I go by Manny.

And with that, his branches pluck off wisps of sparkle and tie them in a neat little bow.  It resembles a filmstrip and it loops gracefully across the brilliantly glittering sky.  I smell buttered popcorn and warm caramel. 
All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the show… and pass along what you saw to someone else.

“Pass along?” 

The story.  You need to tell others the story.  What good is a story if it’s never told?

So that’s why we’re here.  In 1991, I sat behind a dumpster as a magic willow tree told me a story.    Some of it sounds true.  I’m not really sure what is or isn’t, but here we are staring at that tree, just waiting for the opening credits to roll.

The branch nearest us bends straight up.  The willow stands majestic and then leans down.  It grins at us in a way that only a willow tree can.

How would you like to see a little something with Burt Reynolds?

Chapter 2: Death on the River

We're pulled through the windshield and there is a moment of falling but only a moment.  As if the floor dropped a foot or two.  The words, October 14, 1968 – Marion County, Florida appear in the air in front of us.  Things seem strange.  The world seems small.   

Mere moments ago, we were sitting behind the wheel of a Buick LeSabre but now, we’re most definitely lying on the bottom of an aluminum boat on a river in a forest and I’m pretty damn uncomfortable.

I complain about this to Manny but he doesn’t respond.  Instead he kind of gestures with a branch as he fades out of sight and I notice that I’m not alone.  In the boat, there are two men and both are frightened and frantic.  Hearts are beating in their chests at rapid fire paces.  

Instinctively, I know that the two men in the boat are named Lee and Jacob.  To them, everything they’ve known and all the plans they’ve made in their lives have come down to this one instant and it’s going horribly wrong.  They are hunkered down in the 20-foot craft, each clutching a rifle, but the boat has stopped dead in the water.  The engine is running and the propeller is spinning but the boat isn’t moving at all.  

At least not forward.  Instead, it's shifting.  We can feel it.  It’s no longer pointed up river.  It’s slowly beginning to turn toward the shore; its nose pivoting on something.  Lee is looking at the side of the boat.  There are dots of moonlight scattered across it.  Jacob is breathing heavy and whispering something about God, damnation and the sons of dogs. 
The beautiful, glittering, fascinating world we’d been looking at has been reduced to the inside of a boat, sitting on a river in the middle of Florida and what strikes me first is that it’s amazingly quiet.  There’s nothing moving but the water.  No crickets chirruping.  No frogs.  There’s just the sound of water moving past the boat, Jacob whispering and a feeling like the night is a heavy curtain that has come down prematurely. 
Lee grips the end of his shotgun tighter.  He pulls his knees up and shifts his weight over, cursing at how the aluminum ribs hurt his knees.  He raises the rifle and blindly squeezes off a shot into the woods.  The sound reverberates through the forest like a thunderclap.  Underneath it there is a low ‘whump’ and Lee’s left forearm explodes as he falls back into the boat.  Bones are shattered.  The wound is tattered and messy, and now there is another sound.  The sound of his heart in his ears.  The sound of adrenaline and his own cries of pain.  

We can hear all of this.  I can feel him trying in vain to hold back a yell but he fails miserably.  He half roars, half cries.  It’s the sound of a wounded predator. 
And all the while, Jacob is still lying motionless in the boat.  He’s trying not to say anything.  I can see in his eyes that he wants to reach over to help Lee but he doesn’t dare.  Lee lies on his back,  holding what’s left of that arm with his other hand; pleading out to someone he can’t see.

“You can have it!  You can have it!  Just let us go,” he cries.

Jacob stays quiet.  He grips the shotgun, rolls from his side onto his back and wraps his finger around the trigger.  

Someone yells for him to stand up and put his hands in plain sight.  Lee whimpers and pulls himself up slowly.  There is that dull thump again and he falls back into the boat.  Something wet and sticky splatters across Jacob’s face.  He’s afraid to think about what it is.

Honestly, so am I.  

The boat is still shifting, slowly. 
Someone yells out, “When it gets sideways haul it into shore!”

“Okay,” comes another voice.

The boat continues to turn and Jacob stays still.  He’s got his breathing under control but I can still hear his heart pounding.    

I try very hard but I don’t hear Lee breathing at all.

The first voice yells back, “There were two people in that boat! Watch out!”

Jacob remains motionless, cradling the shotgun.  He raises his head slightly and looks down by his feet at the metal army trunk against the back of the boat.  It’s the first time I notice it and I immediately wonder what’s inside.  Whatever Jacob is searching for, he seems to find it.  He puts his head back down. 
And then we hear something clatter into the boat.  It’s a grappling hook and as it pulls taut, we are moving again.  There’s a shudder, a rat-tat-tat-tat and I realize the bow was held by a net, the knots making tooth-rattling vibrations through the metal hull as the current and the motor keep us jammed against it. 

“They’re pulling us to shore,” I say, but Jacob doesn’t seem to hear me.  

He is looking straight up into the clear, moonlit night, trying to see more area than he has ever tried to see in his life, looking for any movement at all at which to aim.  Looking for one good reason to swing the shotgun up.   
The sour smell of swamp and decay are getting stronger as we leave the current. The buzz of mosquitoes gets louder.

There comes a tree branch, low, maybe six feet above us. 

Jacob stays silent and still, shotgun at the ready.

If this were a theater I would be on the edge of my seat but instead, I’m lying across from Jacob feeling alone, scared and sad.  

Just like that, he sits up, brings the barrel around and fires.  There’s a scream as the explosion rolls through the trees.  He pumps the expended cartridge out of the chamber and swings around in the direction of the voice.
Fire spits from the barrel again and I hear something big hit the forest floor.

“Son of a bitch!” someone yells. 

The line has gone slack now and the boat feels like it's moving backward.  He pumps the shotgun again and moves to leap over the side.  There’s the low ‘whump’ sound and Jacob flies back into the boat.  He goes to his knees, hands to his throat.  The shotgun clatters to the floor and goes off. 
The flash happens right in front of me.  I should be dead, but instead there’s just a hole next to where I’m lying and the smell of spent powder all around me.  

Jacob’s hands are wet and black in the moonlight.  I see him struggling to get a breath as he falls next to me.

He’s staring up again and I follow his gaze.  Overhead is a tree limb, Spanish moss dangling down from it and small jewels of moonlight peaking through.
“It’s an oak,” I think for no reason at all and I get a brief glimmer of a memory.  It’s Jacob under a different oak in a different time. Then it’s gone.

I turn my head to look at the army trunk and I swear it glows as the world around me shimmers and shifts like asphalt on a hot day.  
Then it all disappears.  

The river is gone, I’m back in the Buick and the dumpster is in front of me again.  Manny’s branches are waving wildly, leaving tiny traces of starlight behind them.

He’s jovial.

I just watched two men die.  

This is not what I meant by "entertainment".

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Man of "Immovable Character" - Don Kilgo

These last few weeks have been a son of a bitch to get through.  I lost someone very important to me and I’m still trying to deal with it.  While being around family and grieving together has helped, the fact is that writing is the most effective outlet for me, so here goes...  

Don Kilgo came into my life when I was about three years old.  My mother had filed to divorce my father and sued for custody of me.  The thing was, Stuart, Florida was a very small town and everyone was in each other’s business to some degree.  My mother’s actions were instantly discussed through a lot of the town and since my grandfather worked in the Martin County Sheriff’s Department, she felt a lot of pressure to keep her image squeaky clean.  She knew she had to go in front of a judge who likely knew my grandfather and if there was anything to build a case against her keeping me, then it would be held up in evidence.  Her own mother didn’t approve of the divorce and basically just stopped talking to her completely while this all played out.

However, my mother is a strong woman.  Have no doubt about that.  Had Don Kilgo not entered our lives, she would have pulled through with custody of me just as she eventually did.  It might have been harder and would certainly have been messier, but she would have done it.  The important thing for both of us though, is that right when it counted, Don came calling.

Don was raised in Augusta, Georgia.  His parents were people of their time, which is to say that I didn’t really like either of them much and don’t have a lot to say about them.  Funny thing was, Don didn’t like them much either.  They were obsessed with status, money and class.  They wanted him to dress nice, attend the best schools, marry into an important family and socialize with those who could take him to the next level.   Don wanted to hang out at truck stops, drink beer with his friends on the weekend, chase girls and see just how fast his car could go on a two lane street on a Saturday night.  He’d been a great athlete in high school, playing football, running track and earning himself a basketball scholarship to a nearby college.

That scholarship lasted less than a year as he found he was just not ready for school yet.  He bounced around to a few more colleges until he finally enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  This was at the height of Vietnam, but Don wasn’t deployed to the jungle.  Instead, he rode out the war stateside and when he achieved his honorable discharge, he finally got his degree.  He somehow ended up in Stuart and worked in and around the same industry that my own father did.  That’s how he first came in contact with my mother and I don’t know whether it was love at first sight or if they just recognized a kindred spirit when they first met, but I do know that when the shit hit the fan and my mother was looking over her shoulder constantly wondering if someone was going to come take me away from her, Don Kilgo showed up at the door.

At first, he just offered to help with things he knew she couldn’t do easily.  He’d change the oil in her car or mow her lawn.  My great aunt, Maude, lived with us at that time and was helping take care of me.  She took a liking to him instantly and would fix dinner for him on occasion.  My mother, Don and Maude soon all discovered they had a shared love of card games and he came over pretty regularly for marathon games of Canasta, Hearts and later Bridge.  

Reading this, I’ve glossed over something that he told me years later.  He didn't just come around because he saw a woman who needed help.  He told me that he thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever set eyes on and unlike all the girls he'd chased before, during and after the Marine Corps, he'd decided on playing the long game with this one.  He had designs on spending the rest of his life with her and after some famous prodding from a four-year-old me (who asked him point blank why he didn’t just marry her already), he did. 

From the moment he married my mother, he became “Dad”.  He never once, in my memory, ever called me his stepson.  I was just his son.  When my brother and sister were born, none of us were treated any differently from the other two.  This was despite his parents not being nearly as inviting and welcoming of our new family.  They were not at all excited about having a divorcee with a young child as a daughter-in-law.  In short though, Don didn’t give a shit what they thought.  

He as much as told them that very thing.

Just as importantly, Don never once said anything negative about my real father in front of me.  He always supported him being in my life and felt it was important that I knew who and where I came from.  He always talked about my father with respect and that made it so that instead of having a "broken" family, I just had two regular families.  One I lived with most of the time and the other I saw less frequently but which was still an important part of my life.  

Don spent the next 45 years married to my mother, who he called his "best friend".  Through all of those years, they played hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of card games.  They rarely spent a night apart.  They raised three kids and gave us a living, breathing model of how a successful marriage is achieved.  It wasn’t about social status, money or putting on the proper “look”.  It was about respect, love, teamwork and most importantly laughter.  We laughed as a family more than any other family I know. Their example is why I waited until I met my own best friend before marrying her.

When Don died, all three of us kids were together within 48 hours, this despite the fact that we literally live all over the world.  We sat in a room in my mother’s house, jet-lagged and devastated, and laughed our way through some of our favorite memories of him.  We cried too.  I’m crying now just thinking about it, but that laughter was the important part.  Don would not have wanted us to sit around crying.  He’d have wanted us to give him as close to a “going away party” as we could manage. 

No one dressed up for his memorial service.  He’d have hated that.  In the late 1990’s, he offered my sister $10,000 free and clear if she promised to elope instead of ever holding a formal wedding.  He just didn’t want to wear the tuxedo again after my brother’s wedding and then mine.  That’s why, at his service, the dress code consisted of jeans and Georgia Bulldog gear.   After the service, I sat and talked with friends, cousins and family members.  No one had a single bad thing to say about him, but if you knew him, that was to be expected.  He ended his life surrounded by nothing but friends.  Not an enemy in sight.

The amazing thing about Don Kilgo, and the thing I want to make sure to get across here, is something that my brother, Patrick, captured perfectly in his eulogy.  Dad’s greatest trait was a “quiet and kind consistency”.  He truly felt that everyone should be given the same benefit of the doubt.  It wasn’t about what a person said or what they looked like.  Don based his impression of the people he encountered on the merits of their actions and throughout his life, that's how he conducted himself.  It didn't matter if you were black, white, gay, straight or whatever, you were just another human being in his eyes and that's how he treated people, consistently.

That’s why, growing up in the Deep South, I was taught at an early age not to suffer racism kindly, not to stand by quietly when a friend was singled out by others for his race or religion.  He taught me to stick up for those who were being held down.  He taught me to love my roots and the small town way of life, but never embrace the mistakes of the region’s past.  He taught me the importance of lifting others up around you, so they in turn could do the same.  

Ultimately, we differed politically but we always agreed on those points.  We just disagreed on the way to go about achieving them.  I’m a liberal.  He was a conservative, but we continued to come together and while he would gladly argue his side of things with me, he never shut me or my view out entirely.  Ours was one of those few family relationships where we could be complete opposites politically and love the hell out of talking to each other still.

In closing, I want to say one thing.  Some may think that I’ve written this because I missed the chance to tell him how I felt while he was alive.  That’s not true.  Twenty five years ago, I wrote him a letter and in it, I thanked him for all of the same things I’ve mentioned here.  Don wasn’t much of a collector, so imagine my surprise when I found he still had it.  It was in his file cabinet, in a folder with my name on it.  It’s the most important thing I could possibly have found over these last three weeks because I know for sure he understood how much his influence meant on my life.   

There are so many stories I could tell.  So many instances where his life touched mine or another’s in a way that was unforgettable.  In his eulogy, Patrick went back to a conversation with Dad’s best friend, John, during a round of golf.  John had pulled Pat aside and told him how much he admired Dad and particularly how he admired his “immovable character”.  That’s the thing that sums up Don Kilgo more than anything.  He was one of a kind, in the best way possible and I miss the hell out of him every day.  I know that I’ve spent my life trying to live according to the example he set and will continue to do so.

I also know I’ll never meet a man like him again.