Movies on the Road, Part Two

When the time came to leave England my wife and I boarded a train in London and soon were speeding across the English countryside towards a large hole, into which we plunged and emerged less than twenty minutes later, and at almost twice our previous speed, flashing across the French countryside.  At first, everything seemed the same.  In a matter of a few hours however we were immersed in all things French; French language, French culture, French food, the works.  We spent a few days in Normandy and then travelled across France by bus, slow train and very fast train to a small city and then a tiny hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  After a few days there we climbed back onto a bus which would take us back to the train, which in turn would take us to Bourg en Bresse, a small city in Eastern France.

Bourg en Bresse was the place on our itinerary that I most looked forward to visiting because there is no real reason for a tourist to go there.  The area does in fact enjoy a small amount of local notoriety for the very tasty chickens that are raised there, and if one is desperately seeking a ceramic chicken with which to decorate one’s kitchen or a kite in the shape of a chicken for the delight of one’s grandchildren, or any other conceivable use that one could wish to make with the image of a chicken, it could be found in Bourg en Bresse.  Unfortunately we did not at that moment have any use to which we could put the likeness of a chicken nor room to carry it if such a use presented itself, so we had to find other attractions to bring us to Bourg en Bresse and keep us there for two full days.

Fortunately those attractions did exist.  For my part I wanted to see a French city or town where the only attraction was French people being French.  Nobody in that city would be seeking to separate me from my tourist dollars any more than they would want to separate anyone else from their French Francs.  Except for my rather longish hair and beard which was somewhat uncommon in France at that time I did not look very much unlike any of the citizens of that city who thronged the streets and sidewalks and shops and parks.  That was exactly what I wanted to see, and I got my money’s worth.

My wife was on another mission.  Decades earlier when she was a teenager she had a pen pal in Bourg en Bresse.  My wife was taking French and a French girl, Edith was her name, was taking English.  They would write to each other in their native languages so that the recipient of a letter could practice reading real English and real French as real people speak and write them.  Now, almost thirty years later, we were standing on a sidewalk in front of the house which shared the same address as was on the letters in the bundle which was tied up in a ribbon and resting in my wife’s hand.

“Go ahead and push the button” i said, pointing to the button at the gate entering into the property where the house stood.  “We’re never going to be here again so why not?”  My wife is a cautious person and ringing the bell of a house owned by somebody we do not know in a city half way around the world from home is not the kind of thing that she would normally do.  This time it was different however, and so to my surprise she extended her digit and the button was pushed.  Nothing happened.  Nobody was home, apparently.  “Ah well, we might as well get a picture of you standing in front of the house”.  She agreed to that and I backed out into the street to get a decent shot of my wife and the squarish front of the large white house where Edith once lived.

These actions were very much out of the ordinary in Bourg en Bresse and we were noticed by an older woman who lived across the street.  I guess French people are not shy about asking slightly shaggy strangers in their neighborhoods why they’re taking pictures of houses, and so this inquisitive neighbor emerged from her house to enquire after our business there.  She spoke French and French only and I do not speak French at all, so the lot fell to my wife to use her high school French learned thirty years earlier to explain our purpose.  She failed miserably in that task.  Apparently there is no easy translation of ‘pen pal’ into French.  We were getting nowhere until my wife hauled out her beribboned bundle of letters, one of which contained a picture of Edith when she was a girl of sixteen.

Understanding flashed across the elderly neighbor’s face like fireworks over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  You could see this neighbor, who had lived there when young Edith was showing neighbors the letters that she had received from a girl in the U.S., connect the dots; that this was the very girl!  She practically dragged us into her house and we waited as she got on the telephone.  I could hear a sporting event on a television or radio somewhere in the house and soon, as the woman was making her calls and explaining her mission, an older man appeared around a corner to see what was going on.  He was a great looking guy, wearing khaki colored trousers, what we call a ‘wife beater’ undershirt, a day’s growth of stubble on his face and a bit of a pot belly topped off with suspenders.

In French he asked, in a few words as is customary with men everywhere, what was going on.  His wife answered, in French and also in a manner which is customary with women everywhere, and told him in excruciating detail what was going on.  I will never forget his reaction.  First a slight lifting of the eyebrows.  Then an ever-so-slight pursing of the lips and a barely noticable tilt of the head which said, as clearly in French as in any language, “Whatever”.  He then retreated back into the interior of the house, presumably to enjoy the rest of the sporting event which I could still hear.  I really wished that he would have opened a bottle of wine and invited me back into the house to watch or listen to the sporting event with him.  Language, I am certain, would not have been a problem.  By the end of our visit with the old neighbor and her disinterested husband my wife was in possession of Edith’s new address and they remain in contact to this day.  I am deeply envious of them and have already written the story of my own still-lost pen pal.

We spent the rest of the day seeing the city; eating delicious snacks, doing laundry, and by early evening we had enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and withdrawn to our very comfortable hotel to relax for the evening.  We showered and made our plans for the next day and then turned on the television to see what the the French people of Bourg en Bresse were watching that night.  By far, the most interesting movie on the tube that evening was Forrest Gump.  We had already seen Forrest Gump in the United States but now we were watching it in a spacious continental hotel on a huge bed with a bottle of extraordinary wine.  Also, we were watching it in Italian.  Now Forrest Gump is a very good movie and the actors all turned in marvelous performances, and soon it didn’t matter that the movie was in Italian.  Between our memories of the general plot of the movie, the magnificent performances and the bottle of very good French wine we were all in with the movie and blubbering along with Forrest as he was talking to Jenny at her grave site under the big tree which they had climbed as children.

Soon after that Forrest saw his son climb into the school bus which brought the movie around full circle, sat down to await his return, and we watched the feather take off and begin to fly to wherever the winds would take it, just as we all do in our turn.  We gave our noses a final blow after the sad scene and then turned the lights off, resting to prepare for the tomorrow’s journey to wherever the winds would blow our feather that next day.

Movies On The Road, Part One

I love watching movies.  The magic which is created on the Big Screen transports me from my mundane (but pleasant) existence of working seven-to three thirty five days per week, with gardening, church, family and friends filling in the rest of the time when I’m not asleep, and moves me to a place where empires strike back, kings return, and very large lizards with very bad breath rise out of the ocean to stomp cities and then return to rest in the lightless depths of the sea until they are needed once again to save us from destruction or, at the very least, entertain us for a few hours.  It is therefore not at all surprising that some of my favorite memories from a trip which my wife and I took to Europe many years ago revolve around movies.

That might strike a person as being somewhat odd, but it really is not.  One can only bounce from one historic site to another via Tube, bus, Metro, taxi or on foot for so long and then it is simply time to return to bed & breakfast or hotel and recharge for the next day’s adventures.  It is when the street clothes are off, the bath taken, a glass of wonderful french wine poured and the weary traveller is stretched out on a big luxurious (or small and cramped sometimes) bed that the television snaps on and the mystical journey into fantasy begins all over again.  In this story I will recall one of three movies which stood our among the dizzying number incredible sights and feelings that I stored up on that trip.

This first movie was watched in London, in an unspectacular bed & breakfast that we stayed in for nearly a week.  But first, a little background on the bed & breakfast.  We arrived in London from Bath early in the afternoon and took the Tube, London’s underground mass transit system, to Hampstead where we had secured a place to stay in advance.  The Tube station nearest to our  B&B was about five or six blocks away and we crossed that distance quickly as we were traveling very light.  When we arrived at the residence we were admitted inside and shown to our quarters.  They looked very clean, comfortable, and well lighted with windows and skylights in abundance.  The only feature which gave pause to reflect were the two female mannikins on the wall attired in S & M leather.  I don’t normally allow trivial things like that to bother me but my wife was instantly put on edge.  We were told that the room wouldn’t be ready for occupancy for another hour or two and we cheerfully agreed to depart until the appointed time.  Immediately upon our departure we consulted our Rick Steves guide and found another B&B less than a block away.  After proceeding to that facility we rang the bell, explained that we were in town without reservations, and were shown the cramped and rather dingy accommodation which was available.  These accommodations, for all of their shortcomings, were reassuringly free of any leather-clad mannikins, and we instantly settled upon renting it for the duration of our stay.  The landlady agreed to call the B&B which we would now not be taking and inform them of the change in plans.

The next day we spent traveling from one amazing attraction to another, and the tale of those experiences deserves several stories in their own right.  The British Museum, which contained artifacts that filled me with awe and in one case led me to tears.  The National Library which contains the Gutenberg Bible and the hand-written manuscript of one of the Beatles’ early songs, among a million other things.  Harrod’s Department Store which is like a small city itself, and the tiny shops and bakeries that line the main roads and back streets of London.  In one hour’s time we left Harrods, I saw my first Mini Cooper, stood in front of the clothing store where Madonna purchased her conical bra whatever thingy that she wore in concert and a little French bakery that would take a story to tell about in order to do it justice.  After a full day of being mostly on foot we took bus and Tube back to Hampstead, had dinner at what was probably the only cigarette smoke-free restaurant in London, and returned to our quarters exhausted but not yet ready to go to sleep.

British television at that time enjoyed the same reputation as British cuisine, so I had little expectation of finding something worth watching.  I could not have been more wrong.  As I flipped through the channels I came upon a scene of a young man on a motorcycle in a motocross race, and being a man (if not necessarily a young one) I was drawn to this movie ever so slightly over the forgettable rest.  My wife was initially unimpressed but as the movie proceeded even she was drawn in.  And I should point out that the movie moved at a pace that only a culture with two thousand years of history could appreciate.  This thing just crawled along!  Still it was compelling and we settled on watching it to the end.  I opened a very nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured the first of several glasses, and we snuggled under the covers on our narrow and lumpy mattress while we got sucked into the show.

The motorcycle racer was the main character and he was young, handsome, cocky and macho, and living on top of the world.  He was very good at a sport for only the strong and reckless and he felt like he was untouchable, just like many another young man in the UK and elsewhere.  It was therefore not a great worry to him when some lumps appeared on his chest.  His girl friend was concerned but initially he brushed her worries off with his hyper-testosterone bravado.  It was only after the lumps became painful and she pestered the hell out of him that he went to his doctor, just to get her off of his back.  The doctor delivered the young man a shock however.  After poking and prodding, hemming and hawing as doctors love to do in movies, he stated that he was concerned and extremely suspicious that the hero had breast cancer.

The young man almost hit the doctor.  “Only birds (English slang for girls and women) get breast cancer, ya bleedin’ quack” he raged.  The doctor, expecting this reaction, remained calm and explained in simple and plain English that men too can get breast cancer, and that it has nothing to do with your manhood or want thereof.  The doctor recommended that the young man get a diagnostic workup for breast cancer, including a mammogram and ultrasound.  After hesitating for a long time and incurring the wrath and severe henpecking of a very worried girl friend and family our hero capitulates and presents himself to a facility where the tests could be made.  Seated in the waiting room he sees that he is entirely alone in a sea of female patients and reception personnel.  After a considerable wait, and when we are talking about British television drama a couple of decades ago I mean a CONSIDERABLE wait, his embarrassment and shame and frustration boil over and he bolts onto his feet and stalks out of the office before being seen.  The drama ends after he sells everything he owns, moves to Thailand where an alternative treatment is offered for breast cancer, and he dies.

I would not have believed that an excruciatingly slow English drama delivered in black and white on a television in a somewhat sketchy London bed & breakfast would have had such an impact upon me.  We were exhausted from a day of crawling all around London and I was several glasses of wine into the bottle by the time that the movie ended and the credits began to roll.  My wife was not up to the challenge and was already snoring softly, curled up against my right side.  I clicked off the television with the remote control, for which I was heartily thankful since it spared me the trouble of having to get out from under our covers in the cold, dank room, and drained the last of my glass of wine before setting the glass on the tiny table next to the bed.  After clicking off the gooseneck lamp which arched over us from behind the bed I snuggled a bit closer to my wife and thought about the movie for a good hour before finally drifting off into a deep sleep, resting for another day of museums, galleries and tours to be taken on the next day.

That movie, the title of which I haven’t a clue, has stayed with me for many years now and has even moved me to make a bit of a row once at work.  A brand new facility dedicated to diagnosing breast cancer was being built at the hospital where I worked and a host of possible names was being kicked around.  A front runner amongst myriad possibilities was the “Women’s Center”.  Remembering that movie I raised a stink.  “Men get breast cancer too” I opined to all who would listen to me or read their email.  “How many men will die because they are not about to go to a ‘Women’s Center’ to get an evaluation for breast cancer?”  Apparently the one-person campaign worked.  The new facility was named the “Breast Care Center” and several cases of male breast cancer have been diagnosed there in the years that it has been open.  I really wish I could find out the name of that drama, its stars and producers, etc.  I would like to thank them for awakening me to a problem and maybe, just maybe, impelling me to agitate for a name change which just might have saved a life.


Many years ago, before there were cineplexes, multiplexes, and myriad other megavenues for enjoying a movie, there was the neighborhood theater. Where I lived in San Diego there were three movie theaters within walking distance of my house and one more only a short bus ride away.  There were matinees every weekend and evening shows all week, and for only fifty cents a double feature could be had for a day’s or evening’s entertainment.

The theater closest to me was the Crest Theater, which was torn down in the early 1960’s after a forty year run, first as the Fairmont Theater and then later as the Crest. The building which housed the Crest sat on a corner of Fairmont and University Avenues and was home to multiple other small businesses. My first dentist had his office there, but that is a story that I would rather forget. The theater itself was all that you would expect of a neighborhood theater in the 1940’s and 50’s; one central block of seats separated from smaller blocks on either side by aisles which ran from the back to the front. Set in the back wall on the right, as one looked back from the stage, was a thick glass window. Behind the window was the “crying room”.  Accessed by way of a hall originating in the lobby, the crying room was reserved for mothers with crying infants who wanted to finish their evening’s entertainment without their squalling child driving everyone else in the building insane. I cannot say that I ever saw the crying room being used for that purpose and must assume that it spoke to a need that existed before I was old enough to go to the movies. Or maybe mothers with young children didn’t go to watch “Fiend Without a Face.”  Could go either way, I guess.

Going to the theater was one of my favorite activities when I was young, which was before parents were afraid to let their children get out of their sight. Most of my friends felt the same way and on a Saturday afternoon I was certain to find a large contingent of my neighborhood’s kids standing in line at the ticket box or already in the door and seated with a coke and a box of popcorn, or Jujubees, or Necco wafers, or licorice, or any of the other seemingly countless candies and other treats offered for a reasonable price at the snack bar. While we waited for the first feature to begin, which would be after a cartoon and the newsreel, we would flatten out our empty popcorn boxes and fly them like Frisbies, or shoot other kids with small white beans through our pea shooters. And then, after what seemed like an eternal wait, the lights would dim and the thick, red velvet curtain would begin to pull away exposing the screen, and it was finally time for the show to begin.

The 1950s were the glory years for the “B” science fiction genre, and between the Crest, the Academy, the State, and the slightly more distant North Park theaters we saw then all. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “The Thing”, “The Beast with Five Fingers”, “Fiend Without a Face”, they all paraded across the silver screen wrenching shrieks from the girls and stoic grimaces from the boys who were much too tough to make a sound at what was, after all, just a movie. Such courage was more apparent than real however. On more than one occasion I was slumped down in my overstuffed theater seat peering barely over the seat back in front of me just in case some gristly beast crawled out of one of my nightmares to jump onto the screen and challenge me in the darkened room. I ducked down from time to time, as did everyone else.

One time I was not prepared. The movie was “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and it was being shown in one of the downtown theaters, the Savoy or the Orpheum I believe, and it was being shown in something new called “3-D.” I had no clear idea what 3-D meant, but when my brother asked if I wanted to go with him I enthusiastically answered in the affirmative. I counted out what remained of that week’s allowance money and found that I had enough for both tickets and a couple of dimes left over to get us there and back on the bus. Brad, my brother, had used up all of his money for the week, hence the invitation to use mine.
We got to the theater, found seats right in the middle, and waited impatiently through the cartoon and newsreel and finally the introduction to the movie, which proceeded at the usual glacial pace. At last things began to heat up;  The good scientist clearly had the affection of the girl while the bad scientist wanted the girl and also wanted to kill rather than capture and study the monster. The boat captain with the weird sense of humor skillfully navigated his way into the Black Lagoon while the third scientist (who was last seen turning Michael Landon into the ‘Teenage Werewolf’) speculated that they might have bitten off more than they could chew.  About this time the girl decided to slip into the water and take a swim in the Black Lagoon. It was as she was doing the backstroke across the pond that Old Fishface boiled up out of the weeds and began to tickle her feet. In 3-D, remember.

I nearly shat my underwear. I did not see that one coming. I was nowhere near slumped back in my seat prepared to make that strategic dip of the head between the shoulders in order to block the view for the few moments I needed to take the edge off. I was sitting there flat-footed and amazed by the 3-D, not to mention the curves on the lovely lady taking a dip in the pool, and then BOOM! It was just him and me. I don’t believe that gravity alone can account for the speed with which I hit the floor.  There was some other power, as yet neither named nor described by science, that pulled me down to the floor at least three times faster than my weight and Newtonian physics would suggest was possible. The girl was safely out of the water and back on board the boat before I ventured to peek over the back of the seat in front of me again. That was one of my best days ever.

The only real downside to my neighborhood theater experience came about when we attended a late showing. In such cases the movies would begin in the bright San Diego sunshine, but by the time that the Giant Leeches had sucked their hapless victims dry, or The Tingler had broken every spine in sight, I would emerge from the Crest with the daunting challenge of making my way home in the dark. Home was located only two blocks and change away, but between point “A” and point “B” there were only three feeble corner street lamps to keep “Them” away from me.

My most frequent companion at these times was Wes. Wes and I were born 10 days apart on the same block and I have known him as long as I can remember. Wes had a considerable advantage when it came to surviving an evening trip from the Crest back to the safety of home; he lived one block closer to the theater than I did. We would cross busy and well lighted University Avenue and dive into the gloom of 44th Street, walking down the middle of the street so that we might have a head start if a slimy tentacle should shoot out from between the cars and trees that lined both sides of the street.  It was a comfort to have Wes there because even if we couldn’t outrun that tentacle and the scaly horror attached to it, I could at least hope that I would benefit from the luck of the draw, and the thing that “Came from Beneath the Sea” would take Wes instead of me. I feel quite confident that Wes was calculating the same odds. Upon reaching the end of the first block and regaining the limited safety of the first street light, Wes would break off of our mid street trajectory and veer to the right towards where his house sat on the corner of the alley which ran between Wightman and Landis Streets. My advantage of numbers disappeared when I saw Wes disappear through the front door. Now, there was only me, one long and pitch black block, and whatever else was lying in wait for me out there.

The dim illumination provided by the street lamp offered a glimmer of safety, but there was no way around the fact that I would not be secure until I disappeared behind my own front door, which waited for me a little more than a block away. As I began my trudge down the middle of 44th Street the glow of the street light was quickly swallowed up by the preternatural gloom which ruled the neighborhood like a tyrant with a spiked iron fist. There were houses facing out towards the right side of the street  which ran for the entire length of the block. Out from the living room windows and open front doors, if it happened to be warm (which it usually was in San Diego), light would usually shine, but it was never equal to the hungry darkness which allowed no challenge to it’s inky reign. I would not be fooled by those light’s empty promise of security into drawing closer to the right side of the street, thereby giving up any advantage that the middle of the street gave to me in the way of a head start.

The other side of the street, the left side, in latere sinistro, presented it’s own unique challenge. On the corner was a church building which was nearly always dark at this hour. After the church there were two houses which were usually dark and offered little cheer, and then came the Park.  The Park was a nearly all-block complex of buildings, fields and courts, and the tennis court was the first thing to meet me as I passed the Last House on the Left. I felt no more threat from the tennis court in the abstract than I felt from any other part of my journey, but that dark expanse of concrete provided to me an awful temptation, and therein lay its real threat. Just a few yards past the far corner of the court lay the lighted basketball court and the recreational center buildings beyond that.  The lights and the activity that could frequently be seen on the other side of the tennis court were inviting but the tennis court presented a challenge that I would not rise up to; it was surrounded by a twelve foot chain link fence and was not lighted.

I will not present myself as a guy who can never be swindled. I have bought more than one metaphoric bridge in my life. But even I, at my tender age, was smart enough to not get suckered by a promise of a quicker release from my anguish of fear into taking that short-cut which took me into a dark cage with gates at only three corners. Tempted as I was, I knew that my chances of completing a traverse of that sepulchral tennis court was exactly zero, so on I maintained my course into the continuing gloom down the middle of 44th Street.

After the tennis court came the shuffleboard courts, low gray buildings with a high and solid wall around the whole complex. The senior citizens of the neighborhood would gather there on weekends and didn’t need to be pestered by the noisy and irreverent kids like myself who infested the rest of the park. At night though the building was silent and brooding, providing ample cover for giant ants, blobs, flies or teenaged this-or-thats which might be lurking in search of a snack.

Passing the shuffleboard courts I only had a small field left to get past until I reached the light at the next intersection. Already I was beginning to make out the colors of the cars parked to my right as the light from the streetlamp on the corner of Landis and 44th wrestled with the dark for primacy in this tiny corner of the city. The shrubs which surrounded the field on the left were losing their malice as I began to make out each individual shape of the bushes among which I played during the daytime.  The increasing light lifted a weight of dread off of me and I rounded the corner, now less than a half-block from my home and with one more street lamp between me and there.

Feeling increasingly safe I nevertheless stayed in the middle of Landis Street until I passed the dark open mouth of the alley (no sense in being foolish with success within my grasp) and then casually strolled around the next corner, patting the pole of the third street lamp affectionately, and scampered four more houses down Highland Avenue to where I disappeared into the safety behind my own front door.

I am now in my sixties and those old childish fears seem silly to me.  I can hardly believe that I was once afraid of…, wait a minute!  What was that noise?