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The Early Morning Movie

Watching T.V. to learn about my grandfather.

My grandfather's hand came to my shoulder at 3 in the morning, an hour as foreign to me as Madagascar. “Come on,” he said. “Let's go.”

Bleary but curious I pulled myself out of bed and half-stumbed down his carpeted stairs, hung with farm scenes, into the living room. He had the TV on.

“And now, The Late Night Movie” said the T.V. An animated projector spun around towards the screen and the screen went white, then the film came on.

“Rockin' Holiday,” the screen read. It was December 12 or so.

“My God,” said my grandfather.

Music that sounded like the local oldies station came on, a few credits.

It was a totally unimpressive film. Black and white, B-quality. It was the story of some teenagers in a town in Indiana who put together their own band and play scandalous music with a fast beat. After playing a few dances, and despite the censure of their parents and the town elders, the group is invited to play a big Christmas jamboree in Indianapolis, and the winner will get a chance to appear on the Charles Feener radio hour in New York City, all expenses paid. So they decide to write rockin' Christmas Carols (Santa Claus Rock, Reindeer Rock, and the Mistletoe Hustle). I had no idea why I'd been woken up at 3 in the morning to watch the thing.

After a full hour of film and a half hour of incredibly ponderous commercials for the greatest hits of Julio Iglesias and a product that waxed your car like new with only a brush, my Grandfather said, “you awake?”

I was. “Keep your eyes open,” he said.

The commercial ended. We were back at the Christmas jamboree. The camera panned through the audience, and settled on a face. This was Charles Feener himself, the radio impresario who would decide the fate of tonight's contestants.

“Do you recognize him?” my grandfather said, nearly leaping from the overstuffed chair.

I looked at the smooth, angular face on the screen, and tried to place it. The nose was medium-sized, the eyes wide, the jaw strong and clean-shaven. A brown-haired man of authority.

“You know who that is?”

“Who?”

“It's me!” he said.

It was. He looked like a younger version of my father. “Really?” I said, suddenly awake and in awe.

“Yes!”

“How?” My grandfather was on television at three in the morning. I was there with him. It was a totally new experience, one none of my peers would be able to share.

He shushed me, and said, “I'll tell you in a minute.”

The film showed a group of young woman singing a madrigal, which bored Feener but gained appreciative nods from a random contingent of old people in the audience. A small brass ensemble, with piano, did a rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” which had Feener tapping his toes. But then the band - Dave Branley and his Indiana High-Rollers - came on the raised platform and tore into “Reindeer Rock.” The kids went crazy. Feener nodded and said to the toady to his right:

That's the sound I'm looking for. The way-new sound of these rock-and-rollers. Look at the kids, they're crazy for it. Radioland won't know what hit it when I give them some of this for Christmas. Why, it'll be a sensation.

The word “sensation” was delivered with the same portent as a fundamentalist preacher announcing apocalypse. The film went on to show my grandfather awarding Dave Branley et al their prize and telling them they'd all be huge stars. “As big as Bill Haley?” the saxophonist asked. “Bigger!” my grandfather said. “I'll see you kids in New York City!”

A commercial came on, for a set of knives that could cut through a 2-foot wall of iron.

He said, “Didn't think of me as a movie star.”

“No way. I can't believe you were in the movies. How old are you then?”

“I'm 30, I think. A little older. 33 or so.”

“How did you get to do it?”

“I auditioned, I had a friend who--”

The film came back on, outside the Christmas jamboree, a group of young women waiting for autographs from Branley and his players.

“Do you see her?”

“See what?”

“See that woman behind the one asking for an autograph? The tall one wearing her hair back in the dress?”

I didn't; all the 1950s women blurred together in their similar clothes. But I said, “Yes.”

“That's your grandmother, right there.”

And then I recognized her from the photos - she'd died a year before I was born, and she was gone from the screen, like that, as the scene cut to a driving car.

“How could-” I began, and then I looked over to the chair and saw my grandfather's face steeling itself, his lips partly open, and I looked away, ashamed.

Feener went back to New York, and had very little to do in the rest of the film. The night before they were due to leave, the river in the band's town began to flood and the kids in the band decided that staying and helping everyone with the sandbags was more important than any contest, thus earning the approval of the scandalized town elders and demonstrating that civic responsibility is more important than playing in a band. Feener was angry, but then saw the opportunity to tell their story and promote these kids as a good, wholesome rock group - and the film ends with them going on his radio show in New York, and then, after the show, the head of Enterprise Records gives them a record contract and promises them a big concert - with Bill Haley and the Comets, and the Platters - in the next month.

It ended, at 5 AM. The bells in the mantle clock chimed. My grandfather looked at me and shook his head and smiled.

“What'd you think?”

“I totally can't believe it.”

“I was living in Los Angeles. I never wanted to be an actor. Everyone you met wanted to be an actor. I was selling car parts. I liked it. I met people. I got fired, though. So my friend Bill, someone I see twice a week, told me to audition, he said he knew the director. That studio, he said, they're looking for fresh faces that work cheap. He'd always wanted me to do it, kept after me. So what? So I got it. Beginner's luck. The only acting I ever tried to do.”

“That was really Grandma Alice?” She had been very pretty.

“Yes, it was. When they needed extras. She thought it would be fun.”

“Did you make a lot of money?”

“I think I made about 200 dollars.”

This didn't sound like a lot for being in a movie. But I understood that a loaf of bread cost about 15 cents back then. I tried to work it out.

“Why did you live out in California?” It was impossible to see him anywhere but on his own porch, in Kenner.

“I grew up there.”

“Why did you move here?”

“Your grandmother wanted to be close to her family. Did you know that your grandmother had been married before? She was divorced.”

I had not, and I was shocked.

“She moved out there with a fellow from here and after a few years it didn't work out, he was a boozer, and so she was living with a friend who knew my sister, your great-aunt Judy who I don't think you've ever met, and so they set us up, and then I got fired right after, but she didn't mind at all. We got married in Los Angeles, and I promised her we'd move back as soon as I had the money. Your father was born in Los Angeles.” He told it smoothly, somehow rehearsed, his life in a few sentences.

“She was really pretty.”

“She was. So do I look old now?”

“You look different.”

“That's a judicious answer, Pres. Are you glad I woke you up in the middle of the night?”

“That was cool, Pop,” I said, my voice still unbroken.

He laughed at me. “Do you want to go back to bed?”

I had a million questions, but I was tired. So I nodded, and took the extra two hours of sleep for myself. When I woke up he fed me cereal and drove me to school, and we were quiet, as we usually were. I felt in posession of secret knowledge: my grandfather was in a movie. But also confused about my grandmother's divorce, an uncomfortable impermanence.

He had been so different to look at on the screen. I think that he must have been thrilled, seeing all those shadows from decades past. This was in 1984, and he could have owned a VCR, I guess, but didn't understand or trust them, or saw it as a ridiculous science-fiction luxury. So there was no way for him to hold on to the image, the ghost of his younger year. I put the dates together: The film was made in 1955, he'd come back from Germany in 1946 at the age of 23, been born in 1923, married by grandmother in January, 1954, they'd had my father in April, 1954 - cough - and he'd gotten my mother pregnant when he was 18, in '72. And there was my grandfather, watching TV and folding his postwar life into his widowerhood, weaving them together; he seemed stunningly old to me, although he was only 61 when I was 12.

When I recall that memory I think it is the first time I began to fathom that adults had lives of their own, that those lives stretched back into strange territories: films were made, grandmothers were divorced and remarried, families moved from state to state, all of it stunning not in concept, but in its relation to me, that I was a product of these forces. And I began to see that what I was told about life was highly compressed, that my grandfather was not simple, but a stream of memories like myself, a man who would tear up, understandably in retrospect but shocking to me then, when he caught site of his wife on the late movie 13 years after her death.

But then, he was also a man who had caught a glimpse of himself in love and young, on the coast of oranges and sunlight, nearly 30 years ago. And he kept me there with him. I wonder if he knew that that late night would stay with me as long as it has, that I can now call out to that moment and know him, feel his pleasure at that dull film, see his memories of himself wash across his face in a bath of electrons. I understand now that his life was lonely, that his days repeated themselves. But on the television he was bright, resonant, handsome and well-lit, and cut back from commercial, there was his wife, who'd already given birth to his son, and she was in a white dress with stripes, alive, young, smiling.


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