I’ll be honest: I had a difficult time deciding what movie I wanted to write about this month.
I came very close to just opting for the easy way out, picking another horror film, and waxing nostalgic about Poltergeist, which stands the test of time of being my personal favorite horror film. But I know Greg is taking genre as his cross reference, so I wanted to be a little more creative than that.
A look at the cast list of Halloween gave me a few options to consider. Donald Pleasance is, after all, not only a featured character in The Great Escape, but he recurs often in James Bond films as Blofeld, the arch nemesis of the titular hero. I could honestly write ten or fifteen pages on each of the separate Bond films alone, I love those movies so much. I could do at least eight or nine pages even on the crappy ones.
But as I looked through the filmography of John Carpenter, one movie in particular kept calling out to me. It’s not a great movie, but it’s one of my favorites. And like Stardust, which I always automatically equate with my wife, I have a love for this movie because of who I saw it with and the circumstances under which we saw it.
In the summer of 1986, my father took me to a movie theater to see an adventure fantasy entitled Big Trouble In Little China. The more I thought about it, the more the movie called to me. I knew I needed the catharsis of writing about this film.
The trouble is that it’s always difficult to write about my father.
My relationship with him was always tumultuous at best. I can divide my relationship with him into four distinct eras. There’s youth, before my parent’s divorce, where I knew him as my father and loved him because you’re supposed to love your father. There’s youth after the divorce, up through adolescence, where I knew him as my father, but had very little contact with him. Essentially, he had abandoned us, had little time for us, and resentment began to foster and grow. The third era is adulthood, from 18 to almost 30, where resentment turned into legitimate hatred. I had no illusions about the sort of person my father was and was given plenty of reason, in almost every interaction with him, to decide for myself that I didn’t need that sort of negativity in my life. The tables had turned: I was actively choosing to not see him, rather than him making that decision for me. In the last ten years or so of his life, the fourth era, my father and I actually became very close. I was learning forgiveness as I got older, and coming to terms with the importance of it. My father was ill, I was maturing, and I didn’t want to harbor any ill will any longer. We became friends, if not friendly, learned that we actually had a lot in common, and his death in August of 2012, two days before what would have been his 64th birthday, was a crushing blow.
Even writing about the myriad conversations we had about baseball– or the frequent trips to go fishing or play pool– that we enjoyed at the end of his life, there’s still some bitterness that tends to rear its ugly head if I think too deeply or too hard about what this man has meant to me over my life. I don’t want to remember him this way, and so I try not to because, in the end, I loved him very much.
One of my favorite memories of my father is a trip to see Big Trouble Little in China in July of 1986. This memory being positive is ironic because it falls staunchly two or three years into the aforementioned second era. At the time, Daddy was a truck driver, making long hauls in a semi from state to state. This occupation was used, quite often, as an excuse to not come visit. But once or twice, he took my brother and I on a trip with him. A vacation of sorts with his children. As a child who desperately wanted to relate to his absent father, the trips in the semi were about as good as it can get. What child doesn’t want to ride in a semi? See the country from the comfort of a big rig? This quality time with my father was so much cooler than the quality time other peers were getting, right? It was easy to naively forgive his absence when his presence meant a trip in the truck.
What’s interesting about the trips in the semi is that they were actually, in retrospect, quite boring. Its not like we actually stopped and saw the touristy sites in any of the states we traveled to. We drove through cities that we never actually stopped in. Quite often, my brother and I had to hide in the sleeping berth, so that Daddy wouldn’t get in trouble when he stopped for weight stations or inspection depots. I read a lot of books and sang along to Daddy’s vast collection of country music cassette tapes.
On this particular trip, we actually got stuck at a truck stop near St. Louis. Daddy had made good time with his haul and the recipients were not ready for him when we arrived. So we had to wait while they found time and people to unload the trailer. I remember playing arcade games in the truck stop’s small “game room”. We took the time to shower and eat a meal. One hour turned into two hours turned into three turned into “We might not get to this tonight.” Daddy had to find something to entertain us.
All of the truckers we encountered at the time had been talking about Big Trouble In Little China. The main character (played by Kurt Russell) is a truck driver, so it was popular among this set. I had seen commercials for the movie and really, really, really wanted to see it, but it was rated PG-13, and so I had not yet been allowed to go. Daddy was torn: he needed to entertain his sons, but he didn’t need our mother killing him for taking us to see a movie that might potentially turn us into sociopaths. He asked another truck driver how appropriate it was for children (I vividly remember the answer: “Well, there’s a bare ass in it and some nipples through a wet shirt”). He bought a newspaper and read a review. Ultimately, he decided to take us, quipping “I’ll tell you later if you can tell your mother or not.” We bought snacks at the truck stop to smuggle in order to keep costs down.
We loved the movie. We all three did. It was a bit more violent than my mother usually allowed my brother to see (he was two years younger), but I seem to recall him falling asleep halfway through, anyway. After the movie, walking back to the truck stop, I commented to my father that it’s too bad that real-life trucking isn’t full of adventures like what we had just seen Jack Burton overcome. Without batting an eye, Daddy said, “Wait until winter time. I don’t take you on trips in the winter because I’m afraid I can’t protect you from the ninjas.” My brother and I had a long discussion later about whether our father ever really encountered any ninjas. How did he handle them? Did he fight them? Or just put the rig in gear and run them over?
It’s funny as I think about it that I don’t really remember my father watching too many movies. Most of the pop culture phenomena that I connect to him are television shows he liked (The Dukes of Hazzard, Mike Hammer, Three’s Company) or music that he listened to (Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, and more Merle Haggard). He wasn’t really one to watch movies. I recall him loving The Bridge on the River Kwai, Smokey and the Bandit, and Convoy. I believe I may have watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with him, but I would have been much older when that occurred. I don’t connect him to movies the way I do other people in my life. Except for Big Trouble In Little China. . . man, that movie makes me think of him.
While cleaning out his apartment after he died, I discovered that he had a VHS tape of this movie tucked in with other VHS tapes, a small collection that was mostly home videos and Grand Ole Opry reruns. It made me wonder if the movie evoked the same sort of nostalgia for him as it does for me. Somehow, I doubt it. For me, it’s an incredibly pleasant memory often overshadowed by how horrible a father he was back then. I’m sure he remembered the trip to see it, but I doubt he was prescient enough to see that his fatherly behavior at the time was shockingly out of the ordinary.
When my father died, I mentioned to my wife that I felt it unfair that he was taken from me just as he and I were becoming so close. You know what my wife said? She said, “At least when he died, you weren’t mad at him anymore.”
And she’s right.
I’m not mad at him anymore. And I believe that no ninjas ever killed me because my father got to them first.
Richard Gale Polk (August 5, 1948-August 3, 2012)