Tuesday, March 20, 2012

1970: A Space Odyssey

I’m not sure why these weird time-warp mind games keep happening. When I bring up the subject of my 'time slip', The Artist claims that I am too obsessed with time. She’s right, of course, but I am obsessed with what happens in time, whether then or now, and what impact it can and does have, and how that impact resonates throughout our lives.

In this case, methinks the current political screeching from the Ignorant Right about how they ‘don’t need no damned science’ pushed me into Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine, back to what became one of the most important days of my life. The fact that it happened when I was only 13 years old is of Major Significance as, naturally, everything that happens at 13 years old seems to be earth-shattering and important.

So here goes… stick with me, because it all happened in one day.

Summer of 1970, weeks before the start of my Freshman year in high school, saw me at the cusp of an emotional and philosophical breakout. As with most 13-year-old males, I was in a constant state of agitation over girls, school, parents, girls, homework, Playboy Magazine, Boy Scouts (figger that one out), music, girls, reading sci-fi, cars, girls, building car models, going to the drag races, girls... you know, typical stuff. Mostly it was girls and school. I was on the verge of an important personal epiphany, but on that fateful 1970 summer day, it was all about girls. One girl in particular.

Her name was Janet, and although she was the object of undeserved scorn from many of my friends (something about her buck teeth and the way she sat in the cafeteria during lunch), I was smitten. I’d had her in a few classes at junior high but never really got to know her until we paired up at several year-end Friday night dances. In that brief summer between junior and high school, we sorta ‘went around’ (a.k.a. going steady, do teens still do that?), but it was really only a handful of languid afternoons spent at her house, making out junior-high-stylie while her parents were gone, just being dumb teens, you know?

That summer afternoon I walked to her house, making sure her folks were gone because I dinna think they knew what their only daughter had been up to. She let me in, we drank some lemonade, she put on some 45’s and we started necking as usual. After a few minutes of heavy teen-dream-breathing, she pulled away and said “There’s something one of my friends showed me today… wanna try it?” Being as suave as possible, I answered “Uh… well, OK. What is it?” She stood up and instructed me to stand behind her with my arms around her stomach. “I’m gonna start breathing in and out really fast”, she told me, “ …and when I tell you, squeeze your arms really tight around my stomach… it’ll make me pass out for a minute. It’s really neat!”

Before I could say anything, she began to hyperventilate herself and, when she felt lightheaded enough, gave me the signal to squeeze, which I did with vigor. In an instant, she passed out in my arms, something she’d said would happen but caught me by surprise. It was pretty weird and kinda sexy, holding this limp cutie in my arms, but in just a few seconds she came to and began to laugh at what had just happened.

“OH WOW THAT WAS CRAZY NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!!!!!!” she shouted, spun me around and wrapped me in her arms from behind. At this point, I was feeling like I’d rather get back on the couch, but she was adamant that it was my turn to pass out. Wishing I could suck her face instead of sucking wind, I started hyperventilating and after a minute or so, felt lightheaded and gave her the signal to squeeze and then...

I awoke and realized I was lying on the floor, with Janet screaming hysterically and jumping around. I slowly sat up, rubbed the back of my head and felt something wet. I looked at my hand and saw it was covered with blood, same as my arm, the floor, the carpet and the corner of the coffee table that my head had smacked when I passed out and fell because she wasn’t strong enough to hold me up. There was blood everywhere, Janet was screaming, and I gingerly felt the huge opening on the back of my head with my index finger. I stuck it in there and realized I was racked up pretty good, a 2-inch gash at the very least.

I felt OK, maybe a little weak, but was able to stand and get my bearings. Janet was beside herself, looking at the bloody mess in her den, knowing she was in deep shit now, same as me. She threw me a towel and, thanks to my excellent Boy Scout training, I knew to press and hold it to the wound to stop the bleeding, which was flowing pretty good. After a few moments, I told her I needed to get home right away, so without helping to clean the mess, streaked with blood and holding the blood-stained towel to my head, I walked slowly home.

That would be the last time Janet and I ever spoke to each other. I would see her at high school in the fall, but she never again acknowledged my existence. I figgered she got nailed pretty hard by her folks, coming home to find the bloody aftermath of our teenage games. I can’t say that I blamed her, maybe I should have talked her out of the whole thing. Maybe we would have, you know, gotten to first base instead (yeah, right). I really liked her, too… even her buck teeth.

So anyways, I walked the half-mile or so home, with people staring at me all along the way, but that’s not what I was thinking about. I knew that I would have to call my Dad at work and tell him what happened, because I’d need to get stitches at the hospital. I was frantically thinking of an excuse as to how I cracked open my head, because I sure as hell wasn’t gonna fink out on Janet. By the time I got home I had decided that it was a trip and fall accident, hitting my head on the curb, yeah, that’s the ticket, that’ll be a plausible scenario, no one saw me, someone gave me a towel for my head as I walked home, makes sense to me, right right right.

I called Dad. He was really pissed off, but he came home immediately and took me to the ER at our local community hospital where the Doc sewed up my noggin. The Doc asked me what happened, I told him my huge lie, he just went “Hmmm… OK”, and finished the job (thanks, Doc!). It felt really weird having the needle push back and forth through the skin on the back of my head… kinda cool, actually. I got a tetanus shot, they bandaged my head and we left the hospital.

I knew I was in trouble, dragging Dad home in the afternoon to go patch me up, but he seemed bemused, almost like he thought it was funny, so I was relieved that he didn’t start yelling at me for getting hurt. We got home and just hung out for a while when he surprised me with a question. “Son, you probably don’t feel like going to the scout meeting tonite, right? Why don’t we skip it and go see a movie instead?” I didn’t fall to the floor again, but I felt like it… this was a totally unexpected turn. Without hesitation, I said “Let’s go see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey!!”. I instantly knew this was not what he was hoping to hear, but being the most Awesome Dad Ever, he agreed.

Now, this was a Big Deal, skipping our Wednesday night Boy Scout troop meeting. Not only was Dad the Scoutmaster, but I was a patrol leader. We NEVER missed scout metings, so for him to take a night off was rare.

At this point, I need to fold a few pertinent facts into this recipe for context.

Firstly, I had just finished reading the novella of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ by Arthur C. Clark, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. (I recently found out he wrote the novella after Stanly Kubrick had agreed to direct the film but needed more than the original short story). The novella had a dramatic impact on me, and the sci-fi books I was inhaling at the time were simply blowing my mind, philosophically-speaking. I wanted to see that movie… BADLY.

Secondly, I was in the throes of seriously questioning my Catholic faith, and had been for at least a year. After attending the obligatory church studies known as catechism, I found the whole religion thing far more unbelievable and ridiculous than anything I was reading by Asimov, Clark, Bradbury or any of the other sci-fi stalwarts that had captured my imagination. The whole god/jesus/heaven/hell/sinner/saved/bible meme had left me cold, had not incorporated into my brain, had not convinced me that it made one iota of sense. Attending church services seemed like a monumental waste of a good Sunday morning, especially since my brother and I weren’t allowed to have breakfast until after we got home from church. THE HORROR!!!!

Thirdly, I was ripe for a new way of thinking, of understanding the world around me. I had already decided there was more to this existence than what they talked about in church… much, much more, but I didn’t know what that was. I was ready for The Enlightenment, but little did I know that it would soon enough stomp me hard without any warning.

OK, back to the story of that weird day. I knew Dad was going way out of his comfort zone by agreeing to take me to see ‘2001’, just out in its wide theatrical release. He didn’t like sci-fi, didn’t like movies that made you think, only wanted to be entertained. Methinks my bandaged head and ugly wound gave him enough reason to swallow hard and do something that he abhorred, but I reveled in. So we drove to a local theater, known far and wide as one of the few left to still have a live organist play muzak between the features.

How can I describe what happened to me that evening, sitting in that theater with my bandaged head, sitting there with my Dad who honestly would have rather seen any other movie in the world? Yes, I already knew the movie’s plot line, but from the very start of the film, I was transfixed at what I was seeing on that huge screen. The moment when, after discovering the violent uses for their newly-discovered tools, the Chief Ape threw his bone-weapon into the air… and it changed into a modern spacecraft circling the Earth, I was spellbound. When Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ began to play (still my favorite piece of classical music) and the spacecraft swam in the blackness of orbit around the space station, I was OUT THERE WITH THEM, living the reality of our future, floating in zero-g.

That movie… a film, a vision, a director’s perspective… it affected me to my very core. I had read Clark’s words, but when they were transformed into the stunning images before me, well... it moved me deeply. I was sitting right there next to my Dad, and he didn’t have a clue what was happening. Clark’s story came to life for me, it resonated with my understanding of the universe, and it confirmed my newfound concept that religious belief was nothing more than man’s pitiful attempt to explain away the vastness of the cosmos. And at the film’s end, when Dave was mutated from an old man to the Earth’s embryonic savior, returning to protect mankind from his own pending self-inflicted destruction, I found the answers I had been searching for. Which means, of course, that I finally discovered there ARE NO ANSWERS, only questions that push us to seek and explore and query and discover, without end.

We left the theater, me totally changed and raw and new, Dad bored to tears. To this day, he still says ‘2001’ is the worst movie he’s ever seen. I wasn’t the same teenager that entered the theater two hours earlier. I was this new being with an expanded mind and a new understanding about my place in the universe. In the weeks that followed, I would attend church services for the last time, never to return except for weddings and funerals. I had left behind the simple fables of religion. I felt alive, maybe for the first time.

From then to now, the epiphany I reached in that darkened theater still resonates and gives me strength. Would I have felt the same way had I seen ‘2001’ on a different day, under different circumstances? Hard to say, but I’m glad it happened the way it did. I have learned a lot about the world, a lot about myself, but my understanding about my place in the universe, thankfully without the shackles of religious belief, is healthier and more defined than ever.

I reckon this essay was spurred by the pronouncements of former Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a devoutly religious man who claims his God and Bible are first in his life, as he believes it should and must be for everyone. He has belittled the concepts of evolution and climate change, has denigrated the importance of a college or post- high school education (while holding two degrees himself), and claims that “colleges are responsible for indoctrinating liberal ideas in students, coercing them to leave behind their well-formed traditional religious beliefs.” He is not alone in his conviction, as there are many people who feel the same way. How tragic that is.

I’m all for every individual choosing for themselves what and what not to believe, but it seems to me that as a 13-year-old, I was more self-aware and mind-expansive than this man who wanted to lead our nation, using his long and firmly-held religious beliefs as his guide. I read a commentary regarding his statements that asserted it isn’t the education that tramples traditional religious beliefs… it's called GROWING UP, and it happens all the time. The Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch (45-125 AD), said “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled”.

That summer Wednesday in 1970 started out simply enough for my 13-year-old self, but it escalated beyond anything I could have expected. I had no clue that would be the last day I would ever speak to Janet again. I had no clue that I’d crack my head open on a coffee table. I had no clue that by day’s end, I would experience a philosophical and life-affirming epiphany that would stay engrained in my psyche for my entire adult life. But that’s how these things work. You just… never… know.

I’ll never forget those makeout sessions with Janet, coated with the gauzy haze of time and space. I hope she’s still out there, somewhere, wondering whatever happened to the cute moron who got her in so much trouble by bleeding all over everything in her parent’s den.

I wouldn’t trade one split-second of that day for anything.

Update 4/3/12: I watched '2001' again this past weekend, with special thanks to The Artist for recording it. She RULES. I hadn't seen the film in perhaps a decade, but I completely enjoyed the story, the nuanced perspective of humanity and the grand vision that Mr. Kubrick committed to film. I was also surprised at Kier Dullea's subtle but powerful performance as Dr. Dave Bowman, caught in deep space with a rogue computer and nowhere to go but further out. I can totally understand how this film might confuse someone who doesn't have the foundation of reading Clark's novella, but I highly recommend reading the book and then watching the film. It might prove to be a very interesting journey.

Lead image, Gracias de cheap-modern-wall-decor.blog.hr; video 'In The Summertime' by Mungo Jerry (#3 on the 1970 Billboard Top 100!!!), Muchismas Gracias de YouTube.com.

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