Chapter 11 – Light and Memories
People often ask, how’d you get into this particular line of work? Did you go to school? I say no. No, I wanted to make movies so I moved to California. Now I go back to Alaska to make television. And this statement is made for effect even if it stings me inside and feels a bit like failure or disappointment or years of struggle and goals not quite yet realized. But that’s okay. People smile and usually say something to the effect that it must be an interesting job and I usually reply that most things are interesting if you don’t do them every day.
Most exchanges never get beyond this point but if they’re a curious person or more interested than most then I’ll take them a little deeper. See, I like curious people, because I too am a curious person.
It IS and interesting job but I strive for an interesting life and I haven’t failed in this regard and I’ve seen things and done things that once upon a time I could never have imagined.
I’ll tell them how movies were always my favorite thing to do. Always the best treat and most cherished experience. Growing up in remote Alaska without electricity I could count on my fingers the number of movies I got to see in a theater before I was a teenager. And there was no television until midway through high school and it was used sparingly, maybe a few nights a week and only for an hour or so. If we visited a friends house the best thing that could happen was for them to put a movie on. But this was a rare occasion as well, often months between. Yes, movies were a rare and special treat.
The first one was Starwars. My mother took me. I must have been about four and I don’t remember much about the experience except the feeling I had when I left. Joy. Ultimate possibility. Euphoria. Our father took my brother David and I to the second one. I remember him picking us up and asking if we wanted to buy some toys or watch a movie. I was probably five but I was the oldest so I got to choose. A movie of course. He took us to see Alien. Probably thought we would like a space movie. Undoubtedly didn’t bother to research. But I loved it. And I don’t remember being afraid, I remember being captivated. Fascinated. Spellbound.
If the conversation goes on long enough I’ll tell people how Starwars and Alien were the first two movies I ever saw in a theater and they remain favorites to this day. Top five of all time for sure. As one is a dream and the other a nightmare they became the yin and yang center of my cinematic aspirations and inspirations and understandings and pursuits.
Yes, if you live in a small cabin without the benefit of modern infrastructure or comforts or luxuries, then yes, you can leave and you can travel out and be something more and be a part of something bigger and wider. And yes there are monsters in the dark and yes, they can hurt you. And so you must be brave and you must be strong.
But after David’s accident I didn’t feel brave at all. Or strong. I struggled to make sense of anything. I struggled to understand how this could happen. I puzzled at the synchronicity between our fathers fatal accident and David’s own crippling injuries. I grieved at the prospect of life without my brother and I felt very alone as he is the only piece of our father I’ve had for the last 35 years and he’s is my oldest friend and I couldn’t love a person more. I realized how much I hadn’t shared with him about our early years and I wondered why and found no answers.
And looking for understanding or reason or some moral in this very personal mythology I realized that the stories I had been telling about myself were not entirely true. Sinking back to the foggy, dream state early memories with my brother I remembered things that I had somehow forgotten…
This may not be exactly accurate David. It was a long time ago and we were very young. It may be mixed up, jumbled, blanks filled in, part memory, part dream, part fabrication part who knows what but it’s what I remember. I remember the light. The light of the summer sun that hangs forever in the interior Alaskan sky. The light of the sun as it crawls slowly like a snail, horizontal across the horizon and shining clear and bright through the willows and fireweed’s and reeds along the river bank late in the day.
I remember the river. Slow and powerful, dark water flowing on and on forever like time itself. I remember boat rides with faces I can’t recall and playing in the sand along the banks, just you and I alone for hours. Walking down gravel roads and trails alone. Exploring and searching and playing, just you and I most days, long days that somehow never seemed to end.
There were some other children, a girl about my age, maybe a bit older. Maybe she had a brother too. I can’t remember and I can’t see their faces or remember their names or if they were even real but I’m sure we must have played together. By the river and other places. There were adults but I can’t recall them either, or their names or their faces. I’m sure that most days we were mostly alone, left to our own devices and missions and explorations and my job was to keep you safe while our father worked. At least that’s the way I remember it.
They knew us at the airport because for a week or so we went every day. Our father had ordered a bike for me and we went down to the airport every day, leaning on the chain-link fence waiting for the cargo plane to land and then walking out onto the blacktop to watch while they unloaded it. Right there on the runway, maybe a dozen paces away while they pulled boxes out of the big planes belly. Eventually someone would walk over and shake his head. Maybe tomorrow. And we’d wander off and find something else to do. Until it finally came and I remember seeing the box come off the plane and you were just as excited as me and it wasn’t even your bike. You were still too young for a bike.
I guess I learned to ride it but I don’t remember that part. I remember the day our dad took the training wheels off and I went speeding down a dirt road, all wobbly with you running behind, excited as ever. And then I rolled off the side of the road and crashed and tore all the skin off of one knee and I stood up and you had stopped too and you looked so worried and our dad was yelling and I remember thinking, why are you yelling, I’m the one with the bloody knee.
But he yelled a lot and I wish I could tell you different but that’s what I remember. Most of the things I remember about him were when he was yelling or pissed at something we did or asking me how to deal with you. Maybe that’s just how memory works, maybe that’s just what sticks. I don’t know, it was long time ago.
Funny but the best memory I can conjure about our dad, except the movie maybe, is when he would say, c’mon, we’re gonna go down to the roadhouse or bar or whatever it was. What are we gonna do, I’d ask. We’re gonna bullshit. And we’d go down there and he’d sit at the bar and bullshit with whoever was behind it and you and I would sit next to him on barstools and drink pop and eat pretzels from a dish in the dim light. Like we were a couple of kings. Still not really understanding what bullshitting meant.
I remember time away from our dad. And I remember time away from our mom. But I don’t remember you ever not being there. I don’t remember that.
But that last summer we spent with him in McGrath, and this is the part I only recently remembered, that last summer before he died, many nights we’d walk down the road, and I don’t think it was far. We usually went alone, like we did a lot of things. There was a tent, a long tent. It was probably a military mess tent or something like that. There was a popcorn machine by the door and a couple dozen folding metal chairs and at one end a small portable screen and at the other end a projector.
I don’t remember anyone else. There must have been but it was so long ago and memory is strange that way. We’d sit near the front and eat popcorn from little paper bags and watch the only movie that ever played. Bambi. I bet we watched that movie over a dozen times. I bet we did. You liked Thumper. You’d say his lines and try and tap your foot like him. Watching you do that was just about the cutest thing in the whole damn world.
And I never really put it together until your accident but the story of Bambi is pretty much your story. And my story. This little child that looses his father and has to grow up and learn how to be an adult without the kind of guidance your supposed to get from a father. If your faced with that kind of tragedy at a young age, even if you can’t remember it, it changes you. I’ve witnessed what it did to you. It’s that gleam in your eye and that desire to live as much as you can because you know full well, you know very very well that it can all go away in a second. I know it too.
There’s a reason why you and I are explorers and artists and dreamers and not content to just let life slide by. Or slip away. And I’m quite sure that the things that make up you and I are as much products of genetics as they are products of circumstance. But who can say where more of the credit goes. Not I.
I make my living telling stories and consider myself blessed in that regard. Entertainment is perhaps the least valuable and certainly most basic benefit of a story. Of a movie. Of a book. Stories provide a context for the tragedy and heartache and joy and mystery and madness of our own lives. Stories are probably the very reason we ever learned to speak somewhere far back down the chain of evolution.
I long to tell you more stories David. I long for you to tell them to me. I long for that day to come.