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  • The Bandit's Summer of '77

    As a 12-year-old overweight, socially awkward kid, I spent most of the summer of 1977 in a movie theater. My dad’s illness — spasmodic torticollis and dystonia — was at its peak four years in, and my parents continued to go from place to place looking for someone to help him.

    My parents spent a month that summer — the summer of “Star Wars” and Elvis’ death — in Los Angeles, where my dad was getting treatment. That meant that my sister and I went to Longview, where my parents were raised and where my grandparents still lived.

    Like many, I used movies as an opportunity to escape my woes, especially during those tumultuous middle school years. I saw “Star Wars” — who didn’t? — shortly after the movie was released at the end of May. But another film released that week captured, and kept, my attention, despite being shot in only 16 days on a $4.3 million budget.

    It was called “Smokey and the Bandit.”

    My dad was a big Burt Reynolds fan, as were a lot of people in those days. Reynolds was riding a streak of hits — albeit with the occasional flop — that made him the top actor at the box office for seven straight years. And he was a popular guest host on “The Tonight Show” that my dad — and mom, when she could stay awake — watched religiously.

    With shades of Three Stooges slapstick, “Smokey and the Bandit” is not art, but it hit my then-12-year-old self squarely in the demographic. Anyone could see the chemistry between Reynolds and Sally Field, my summer of 1977 crush. And it had other “classic” elements: Jackie Gleason’s “sumbitch”; Jerry Reed admonishing his basset hound, Fred, while providing the movie’s theme song (“East Bound and Down”); and the Trans-Am, which my dad was later inspired to buy in his first non-Cadillac move.

    I watched “Smokey and the Bandit” 15 times that summer, either at the Cargill Cinema in Longview or at the Tradewinds in Texas City, where it played on one of the theatre’s two screens for eons. For a long time, one of my prized possessions was an original one-sheet from the movie.

    Reynolds continued to do some interesting work after “Bandit,” which was the second highest grossing film of the year behind, well, you know. By the mid 1980s, though, the hits stopped coming. With minor exceptions — TV’s “Evening Shade,” the Oscar-nominated “Boogie Nights” — his career went on a slow fade to black.

    Today, Reynolds died of a heart attack at age 82, half a lifetime from the movie that made a 12-year-old boy laugh and laugh at a time when I really needed it. Thanks, and RIP.

  • The Search for Equilibrium

    As winter slowly, agonizingly morphed toward spring and Daylight Savings Time came along yet again last weekend to mess with our minds and bodies, things have seemed somewhat off in the collective universe. One look at events in our polarized nation tells you that, but it’s also true on a personal level.

    I’ve always written to process, and whether anyone out there reads this or not, it’s what I’m doing here. Recently my thoughts have been in a variety of places, thanks to a convergence of thorny and complicated events involving family members, acquaintances, movies, and our nation’s fitful — if still mostly lacking and buried — attention to mental health issues.

    Being the parents of a young adult and four teens (yep, Jeremiah counts after living with us for a year) presents a host of challenges, especially now as we embark on a series of significant life transitions and landmarks. I turned 50 in January and Jill hits the mark later this month. 2015 marks 20 years we’ve been together and 10 years since Jill’s mom died.

    By June, Nicholas will finish college and Kate high school. Among our 2016 graduates, Ben remains on tour with Newsies while Emma and Jeremiah plan college visits and summer dance intensives.

    All this results in a collective holding of our breath, with each person wondering, “What’s next?” And the only way we’ll know the answer is to see it play out one step at a time.

    ••••••

    I’ve always said the kids were so close in age that we’ve developmentally belched our way through life, and that’s largely true. As parents, however, we’ve worked hard to help each find their singular path, even when we would have taken another tack or direction.

    Until you experience parenting, you don’t realize how hard that is to pull off, as preconceived notions of what your kids will be become realized, dashed, or expanded upon exponentially. And somewhere along the line, parents realize that their power to alter their kids’ path is anything but omniscient. You just hope it’s not compromised along the way.

    Some time ago, I realized this: You can talk to, influence, help, offer, beg, plead, hope and pray, but you cannot "prevent" someone from making a bad decision. That’s true no matter how hard you try, and believe me, we’ve tried.

    Or, as a friend said on Facebook this week: “Free will. God’s best/worst invention.”

    ••••••

    Part of this long ponder started, as it often does, with movies. Given that we had not seen any of the top nominees for the Academy Awards, Jill and I started playing catch up last month. And we found an interesting theme while watching three Best Picture nominees — “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” and “Whiplash.” 

    Any casual observer with a remote interest in movies can point to those titles and recite the basic plot in one or two sentences. If you’ve seen the films, you can point to the broader themes of anger, frustration, hate, and love. All three also have an underlying current that pulses through them, the unrelenting push to be the best and the toll that it takes on the protagonists, their families, and friends.

    Say what you will about their artistic and entertainment merits, but the spectre of mental illness underlies each movie. “Whiplash” and “Birdman” are fever dreams, films relentless in their pace, obsession, and pursuit of tragedy. Tragedy of another kind — war and its devastating effects on soldiers and their families — courses through “American Sniper,” with the horrifying ending of the protagonist making it home safely and being killed by a soldier with mental illness of his own.

    As parents of a child with a diagnosed mental illness, Jill and I watched all three movies through that prism. We felt the sweat and blood of “Whiplash,” saw the tighty-whitey walk through Times Square in “Birdman,” and sat with dread waiting for the end of “American Sniper.” At small points, I felt the filmmakers had witnessed pieces of our lives.

    What people don’t seem to understand is that mental illness is chronic, not cured. It’s only suppressed and/or managed to the best of an individual’s ability. As a parent, it’s a never-ending waltz — 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 — that becomes a loop of expectations and hopes vs. realities.

    Mental illness is not something you necessarily see, except through actions and reactions you are forced to deal with. It’s most effective when it eats away at a person silently and slowly. That’s because outbursts create awareness that something is wrong, and mental illness gets its power from its ability to mask and deceive.

    Our situation as parents is not unique. Chances are more likely than not that others you know deal with this, too. What we’ve got to do is talk about the sad state of mental health care in this country, and do something about it.

    ••••••

    This was made abundantly clear last month when Jill and I attended a benefit for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization she has worked with in her role with the American School Counselor Association. The benefit, which helped bring attention to the rising number of suicides and veterans, was timely. It was held two nights after the Oscars, and as the trial of the American Sniper killer came to a close.

    Speakers included Major Gen. Mark Graham, who with his wife Carol is the subject of a new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in An Era of Endless War. The book tells the story of the Grahams, who lost one son (Kevin) to suicide and another (Jeff) in combat eight months later.

    The story is devastating, though not without hope, as the Grahams have turned their attention to the increasing numbers of soldiers who return home with mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder. Graham, a two-star general, stands tall and straight as his talks start, but he tears up when talking about his sons.

    “My sons died fighting different battles,” he said. “When Jeff died in combat, we were told how heroic he was. No one mentioned Kevin. And my wife and I thought, ‘We had two amazing sons, not just one.’”

    As a society, it’s easy to recognize and to forget, to push unpleasant thoughts to the background and out of the way. When times are tough, it’s easy to focus on what’s right in life and not confront the things that are wrong.  When you are dealing with something as difficult as depression or mental illness, you have to find someone to talk to about it. You have to find treatment, no matter what it takes.

    We have amazing children. I have a wonderful family, warts and all. Occasionally I have to remind myself of that fact, but in case I need a reminder, all I have to think about is what the Grahams went through. You can’t help but be thankful, committed, and even more determined than ever.

    Go hug your kids — as often as you can.

  • The Day I Kidnapped My Grandmother

    Note: Sunday marks a year since Ben’s Broadway debut in “Ragtime.” This week, Ben’s grandmother saw him in “Billy Elliot,” which made me wonder again how my beloved grandmother would have reacted to the craziness of our lives. This is a true story, with more than a little irony.

    My grandmother sat in the dark auditorium and dozed to the ragtime music.

    I ate my popcorn and glanced at her. Occasionally she would wake and look at the screen.

    The movie was long, so she had a good long doze. She didn’t drink the Coke I had bought her with money she had given me earlier in the day, so the ice melted and left it flat.

    I wished I knew what she was thinking.

    Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was sorrow. Maybe grief. I really wasn’t sure. After all, he had been her husband for more than 50 years, the last five in and out of hospitals. They argued and fought. They kissed and made up. He was cantankerous, a do-it-my-way man’s man who really wasn’t.

    She was an independent sort, a flapper in Louisiana who told stories — true ones at that — of getting rides to work with Huey Long. She was married eight years before her first child was born. Her second, my father, came two years later. She listened to music and cooked in the kitchen. She would slice raw tomatoes she bought from the nigra woman with the big garden down the street.

    The lights came up. Now she would have to go back and visit the mourners.

    “Thanks,” she said, as we walked to the parking lot. I drove, back then it was an adventure because I was only 16 and they had a big Buick that was almost impossible to park. As we walked out of the theatre she squeezed my hand, nearly cutting me with her wedding band. I knew her thank you was genuine.

    I also knew no one would understand what I had done. Kidnapping my grandmother, to anyone on the outside, was not a great idea. Taking her to a movie I wanted to see was a selfish act.

    We held hands as we went out to the parking lot on that drizzly December day. I steeled myself for the drive home and hoped I could back out of the parking lot in the big silver Buick without hitting someone. It was a 50-50 shot at best.

    Grandmama had never driven a car. She was 76 now and not about to start, so asking her was out of the question. But as she looked at me with her eyes so tired, a washed out look that took me back to the first time my grandfather was in the hospital, she smiled and squeezed my hand again.

    The wipers streaked the windshield; they hadn’t been changed. All I could be was critical, because I didn’t know how to change them. Still wouldn’t, if forced. I’m not mechanical.

    She didn’t care. I was her only grandson, and she knew how to spoil me. It was the same technique she had used with my father and it worked. She came from an era that “respected” men for being “men,” even if it meant muttering the word “bastard” under her breath.

    We drove in absolute silence for a mile, which was odd because we were both talkers. Some say I got it from her; my mom has got it, too, even though the two weren’t blood. Grandmama was one of the ones I could talk to about anything and not be scared.

    The wipers muddied the windshield. They weren’t much help at all. We drove across town, probably too fast if my mom had been in the car. But my grandmother didn’t care.

    “It was a good movie,” she said.

    We got home and the family was there. No one said a word. They didn’t know what to say. My aunt (dad’s sister) and uncle scowled at me and shook their heads. I knew I would get a talking to later.

    Soon I could smell the food. My grandmother was doing what she did best, cooking for the family. It was December, so there were no tomatoes this time. She served a thin flank steak, deep fried and battered. Coffee from that morning remained on the stove.

    She didn’t talk much that week or next. It was the Christmas season 1981, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to ruin the holiday season for others. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. The only time I saw her do that was when she missed me leading a youth prayer at church because she got there too late.

    I got my talking to from the people who didn’t understand my motive behind the kidnapping. They didn’t really care what I thought.

    Over the passing months, as she dwindled in size and moved slowly toward the plot next to her husband, my grandmother never brought up that day. Six years later, in the middle of the night, I sat on the floor next to her as she lay on the couch. My father was calling for an ambulance.

    I held her hand again. The wedding ring cut into it some more.

    “Do you remember ‘Ragtime’?” I asked.

    She nodded. I could barely see her in the dim light.

    “Yes, it was a good movie.”