Tuesday, August 16, 2011
A couple of days in the country was about all my Dad could handle before getting restless for civilization---which meant a 60 mile drive to Nashville to see the latest James Bond film or something that was getting good reviews in the papers. As the eldest son, I usually rode shotgun on these trips. I'm not sure what inspired this more ambitious road trip, but one day in mid-August we left McEwen TN for another small town, Dayton. Dad wanted to see the home of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" which had been dramatized in a famous play and film called "Inherit the Wind".
I was 16 and about to enter my senior year of high school in Tampa. My dad was a preacher & teacher & also an in-demand lecturer on Creationism. He travelled the country talking about the subject in scientific as well as Biblical terms and was well-versed in both areas of study (after my dad passed away two years ago his sister Retta revealed that he'd been accepted into MIT but couldn't afford the housing). My dad collected everything he could find ever printed on the subject of Evolution (my passion is creativity and I have the same penchant for books and articles on Surrealism). We were used to traveling together, I'd been with him to various parts of the US by plane & car---sometimes I'd read aloud to him from the scriptures or a book of non-fiction as he drove. So the 200 miles to Dayton was an easy trip for us. As we pulled into Dayton, the first thing I noticed were the whittlers. Old guys in overalls with wood chips piled up around their feet. My dad could talk to anyone anywhere (like the time he talked his way past security and management to meet the Monkees or our visit to Nauvoo, Illinois: both subjects of future essays). He kneels down and starts talking to the old timers. I take the lens cap off my camera and begin taking photos. One guy points with a whittled stick indicating "yonder" and says we need to talk to the guy in the cafe about the Monkey Trial and boy howdy sure he remembers the hoopla "clear as day…it was the Trial of the Century". And he wasn't exaggerating. The trial was conceived as a publicity stunt in 1925 to bring attention to the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee and in that ambition it succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. The nation's two greatest orators--William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense---focused the eyes and ears of the nation on Dayton---the first live nationwide radio feed broadcast the proceedings and numerous reporters--among them H.L. Mencken---sent daily dispatches to their home newspapers describing the drama of the trial.
We walked down the street to Robinson's drug store and its tiny tables where the whole scheme was hatched. In the 1920s the drug store was the social center of small town America where people gossiped and chatted over soda pop & phosphates. Newspapers dubbed Robinson's pharmacist "The Hustling Druggist" in honor of his role as the mastermind of the whole circus. We started talking to some more old timers there who were happy to share their memories of the events and they started pulling photos from the archives out. I took more pictures. Dad could tell we were on to something. He gave me a five dollar bill & told me to get a couple of legal pads. This was exciting stuff and we were there, documenting memories and faces and the stories they told us. The game was afoot. Suddenly we were a team of investigative journalists. They took us to the courthouse & gave us a tour. It was undergoing renovations so there wasn't a lot to see there but we could feel the power of history, the energy of the focal point of "The Trial of the Century" though more than 50 years have passed the hype is still lingering like an aftershock, feeding off the energy field of an oversized historical behemoth celebrity entity. The Famous Hyped Event. A genuine and uniquely American invention. Both real and phony. Kind of like Elvis.
On the drive back to my grandparent's house, we heard the news. The King is dead. Elvis had died that day in Memphis. Every radio station was playing his music. Celebrities and fans were calling in with anecdotes and memories. Everyone seemed to be in shock. This road trip was teaching us something about America and Americans. Fame, fortune, how the blazing spotlights of publicity machines can blind one's eyes or drain one's soul---I'm not sure exactly what those lessons were. Probably nothing that profound. But it was something to talk about. And we talked and listened to each other and Elvis and other Americans on that long ride home.
I realize now the real gift from that day is the memory of the last big road trip I took with my dad, just me & him on that road. A great adventure under our belts. He loved to quote his favorite author G.K. Chesterton, who realized he'd taken the wrong train and instead of being angry or depressed was exultant: "Adventure!". I don't know if he ever wrote anything about the Dayton trip (but my mom recalls so much of what he told her---excitedly of course---about the findings of our mission). I do know that some of the photos from that day would show up randomly in our family reunion slideshows and inspire the usual wisecracks about our '70s clothes and expressions but I would always think about the sheer excitement of dashing to buy a legal pad for my dad so he could get the story. We were collaborating as father & son and living life to the fullest on that day. My dad was a great preacher and orator but he was also a writer, cartoonist, printer and comedian. And a marvelous father and husband and friend and mentor. Ultimately, a great enthusiast for life. He had more fun than any of us on trips to theme parks and tourist attractions, unafraid to exclaim "This is fantastic!". Of course, places like Disney World make it easier for everyone to have somewhat artificial adventures for the inflated price of admission. But what I treasure even more are those memories of adventures in the real world. Adventures open to anyone, anywhere and anytime but so often overlooked in the rush of our daily lives. Nothing elaborate or expensive needed. My dad and his notebook and pens. And me with my camera and Kodachrome. Both of us sharing the enthusiasm of curiosity and the joy of life, investigating and reporting our findings.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Every fan of film comedy should be familiar with Preston Sturges, the writer/director who practically invented the so-called “Screwball Comedies” popular in the 1930s and 40s. There’s a crash course in the art of Sturges in a box set of DVDs called “Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection” (Universal 2006). With seven films in this set, one could become a true fan of Sturges in a week’s time---although if you want to go out on Saturday night, the weakest film of the bunch “The Great Moment” is non-required viewing. At least two of the bunch are solid classics: “The Lady Eve” starring Henry Fonda and “Sullivan’s Travels” with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (she of the ravishing peek-a-boo hairdo). Part of the fun of watching these films is the brilliant thespian work of Sturges’ “stock company”---a group of character actors who each performed in several of his films. The most recognizable of these actors is William Demarest--who played Uncle Charlie in the “My Three Sons” TV series-- a guy who personifies the term “irascible”. Incredibly, these seven films were made during 1940 through 1944---a remarkable feat still unmatched today by anyone.