ith my mother now a resident of Neverland, camped out in Europe by choice and what she might do next as ambiguous as the suggestive endings attached to “The Twilight Zone” (among the few TV shows I never missed), my life and times rotated entirely around my father. This was nothing new to me, but the relationship thickened, if that was even possible.
This thickening arose in part from my father’s loneliness, causing him to talk to me about adult subjects only, and in ever-passionate detail. Again, he had always spoken to me as a small man, not a child, but now he appeared to expect the small man, a good listener, to respond. Often I could not.
Wonderful and absurd misunderstandings arose as a result, and a few remain vivid.
After the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign, which had seen Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater fall victim to a Little Big Horn at Lyndon Johnson’s hands, my father dove into the subject of the John Birch Society and its perils to American political thinking, its members as carriers of the virus of extremism – and he in fact used this metaphor, a virus.
This society was led by a few intelligent if misguided men who, if they had their way, would plunge the world into nuclear conflagration.
Never mind that while I understood war I knew nothing of conflagrations.
This was not the worst of it. I struggled to understand that John Birch was actually someone’s name. Instead, I thought perhaps these misguided men gathered around a birch tree, or that what my father meant was not John Birch but Join Birch, which meant all gathered under the tree for a pledge. Of what wasn’t clear, since how could you be in allegiance with a tree, let alone with a conflagration, though it might well be that the conflagration occurred when more such trees grew and began to fill the forests of the world.
Don’t ask, don’t tell was my own policy, well ahead of its time, so I merely nodded to make sure my father understood that I, too, feared the wooden extremism embraced by the tree men.
The 1964 campaign had been silly, or at least its ads had been. The Goldwater people (and did he really come, this man, from gold and water?) circulated an image of Johnson holding up a puppy by both ears with the words or the voice, “He likes to hear them squeal.” It seemed to me this was merely a man playing with a dog, each side consenting to the whims of the other. I had many times wrestled with friendly dogs in mock fights, occasionally getting bit. But it was play.
Johnson’s side countered with ads showing a nuclear bomb blast, then suggesting but not showing Goldwater, and asked, “Do you want his finger on the button?”
I thought often about this button, wondering if indeed a single button existed that if pressed, destroyed the world. My father suggested I ask the John Birch Society, and this got me further than nowhere.
Our boy-man confusions extended into film, and we both loved movies. On weekends when my mother was no longer around we’d sometimes go to four films, two on Saturday, two on Sunday. These I could sometimes talk about.
For example, I wanted to know why my father studiously avoided the horror and science fiction films I so loved.
He told me he found them unsettling. But I persisted and he finally took me to see a mainstream English film called “Village of the Damned,” which included George Sanders in the cast, an actor he liked. The story was about alien haunted children who used their eyes to cause accidents and kill.
The film’s portrayal of these children, about my age, with glowing eyes, kept me awake for weeks. I feared they might be lurking behind my dinosaur book shelves. I wept quietly.
I finally mentioned this to my father who laconically replied, “Now perhaps you understand.” I did.
High on the list of our boy-man collisions concerned the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” which I was not old enough to see, but my father, yet again, talked his way around, insisting I’d otherwise be on the streets alone (in part true). The cashier shrugged, and in I went.
I liked all the action and the man who used his hat as a weapon. I liked the actor Sean Connery who spoke with an accent I’d heard only in London. I liked the idea of someone called Moneypenny and a car that turned into a battleship with wheels.
The problem was another woman.
At a certain point in the film, Bond met his adversary’s assistant, a woman by the name of Pussy Galore. When she introduced herself, Bond inexplicably arched his eyebrows and the audience inexplicably roared.
I later demanded an explanation. When my father said nothing, I kept at him.
Well, he said finally, she, the assistant, was probably the keeper of cats, many cats, hence galore. Since I did not understand galore he told me it was a way of suggested abundance.
So, I asked, she was an abundant cat, and if so, where were the cats in the film? It stood to reason Pussy Galore would want to set her many cats against Bond, in yet another effort to eliminate him.
My father mulled this before explaining the cats would appear in a later film.
I waited and waited for the Bond cat film but it never came, nor did my father ever change his story on Pussy Galore.
I finally had to place this matter under the broad female trouble rubric, already rich in complexity.
I did tell a schoolmate I had seen Pussy Galore but not her cats, and he pulled me aside and dared me to tell the teacher, Mrs. Conte, what I had just said, saying it just the same way.
My female trouble was instantly revived and doubled, if not tripled, until Mrs. Conte realized I had no idea what I was talking about. She chided the boy who’d put me up to this, and told me I should keep my movie adventures to myself, and in any case, James Bond was for adults, not me.
But I lived with an adult.
I knew about Joining Birch and his society.
All this could thankfully be dismissed with a laugh. But it wasn’t always that way.