Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Part 11: How the movie ALIEN saved my life.

I was a fat kid.  Sorry, there is no kind way to put it.  I had been called all sorts of "cute" names throughout my childhood referring to my weight: Pudgy, Fat Christmas Goose, Buster Boy (ok, the last one doesn't seem to be related to my weight, but TRUST ME...if you had heard my father say it, you'd respond, "Oh, I get it.  You're the fat kid."

Wearing your belt high, only makes things worse...I loved my dog, though.
 It wasn't just an awkward age, much of it had to do with heredity, but a lot of it had to do with conditioning.  It is no secret that there was not a parent in the house interested in cooking.  We were far from a traditional household anyway, but cooking became a chore for one of them to do and it was treated with the same level of contempt. 

On weekends, my father would cook huge pots of stuff like stew (with the cheapest, stringiest, hunks of gray meat floating around in it) and then would freeze it for use later in the week.  He'd cook cube steaks (which years later, I discovered were quite tasty when chicken fried) and smother it with some sort of dark, lumpy, semi-translucent gravy that the family called "meat flaps" behind his back.  They were disgusting.

My siblings were picky eaters and both of them had lists of foods that they wouldn't eat. Walnuts, cherries, raisins, their lists went on and on. So you can imagine what dinner was like when suddenly there was a steaming meat flap sitting on the table in front of them.  Let us just say that King Kong would burst through the gate and the evening would be ruined.

I overcompensated.  I tried to still my father's temper by choking down as much of the stew, or flaps, or whatever horror was put in front of me.  And what did he do?  When my sister would refuse to eat her portion, he would scream at her, send her away from the table, and then scrape the remains onto my plate to finish.  Stuffing the Christmas goose. By the time I was 16, I weighed over 185 pounds (and stood 5'8")

I, however, had good taste in movies...
Now, I'm sure some of you are looking at these photos and saying, "Are you kidding?  You don't look THAT bad."  What do you think, I'm crazy?  I seriously can't find the REALLY bad photos of me.  I think I've hidden them from myself.

Towards the end of my 16th year, I broke.  My father had been kicked out of the house and Mom was in charge.  I told her I wanted to lose weight and she put me on a diet and exercise program of her own design.  By February, I had lost 35 pounds and looked something like this:

Ralph Macchio, right?
Needless to say, this completely changed my social life and now I was actually getting dates with girls.

NOTE: Don't worry, there will be monsters soon....I promise....

For my Junior Prom, I asked a Freshman girl, Kim M., (from the "sister" all -girl Catholic School, Archbishop Blenk) to go with me and soon we were "dating."  This was quite the change for me.  I was generally drunk and hanging out with my friends watching Horror films (which wasn't altogether a bad thing) but now things were different.  I was "double dating" with other friends who had girl friends.  My social circle became larger.  I'm not going to say it was good, or was just...different.

Kim's family glommed onto me pretty quickly.  Her mother was convinced I was the son that she had never had and that Kim and I were going to be married.  He father actually tried to help me anneal ball bearings so that I could drill and tap them to build my Stop Motion creatures.  What I'm about to say is the absolute truth...this was fully a YEAR before the movie SUPERMAN was released.

Kim's father told me that I had, "been put on this planet for a purpose."  He wasn't sure what that was, but he was convinced that I was going to make something of myself.

It all seems good in the movies.
This is a lot of pressure for a seventeen year-old.  Purposes, marriage...what?!  I went along with it because I had a date on the weekends, but truthfully, dating Kim was trying.  When I asked her if she was hungry, her answer was "I don't know.", if I asked her what she wanted to do, she'd answer "I don't care."  The scary thing is...SHE MEANT IT.

Kim didn't take an interest in the things I liked, and to be truthful, I didn't know what she liked.  She never told me.  She was making average grades, never seemed to read, had no outside interests in school, she just...was.  The only thing I remember her talking about was her 18 inch waistline (which, when you are 15, is no big deal anyway, right?).

So, how did ALIEN save my life?

ALIEN was opening on May 25, 1979, just over two years since STAR WARS and at the exact same theater, The Lakeside on the East Bank.  I asked Kim if she wanted to go, and she answered, "I don't care."  Unruffled, I picked her up early that night, we went for dinner.  Was she hungry? She didn't know.  We went out to the Lakeside Shopping Center (knowing that there would be a huge line at the theater) and as we walked around she pointed to a black cowboy hat that she liked.  She finally had liked something so I bought it for her.

Cowboy hat in hand, we joined the throng surrounding the theater when it happened.  Two college guys standing ahead of us in line began talking about the soap opera ALL MY CHILDREN and before I know it, I meet Kim.  She goes on and on with these two guys about the characters and situations.  I had no idea.  She had never mentioned it to me.

Jealousy? Well, sure.  I was seventeen, these guys were college guys and they had managed to have a conversation about something with my girlfriend.  However...ALL MY CHILDREN?!  Ugh. 

We finally get to our seats and the movie begins.  I, like the rest of the audience, am terrified.  The incredible tension created by director, Ridley Scott, was so intense, it had stunned us all into silence.  This was not going to be STAR WARS...this was going to be different.

When the character Kane, finds himself on the derelict ship, on a alien planet, surrounded by the now iconic, leathery eggs, I was not sure what I was looking at.  It looked far too organic to be anything, but real.  And when he bent over, looked into the open egg and got a face-hugger on his mug, the audience went nuts!  Screaming, cursing, pop corn went flying; everyone was affected.

What was that stuff?

Then came the big scene.  The scene that would set the standard for motion picture horror for years to come.  The last "normal" group meal on the space-freighter, Nostromo.  We all know what happened.  The character Kane, after the face-hugger has dropped from his face, begins choking at the table and pop!  An alien chews its way through his organs and ribs and now sits in a nest of gore.

Expert work from British artist Roger Dicken
The audience is beyond terrified.  No one is making a sound.  I can't believe what I've just seen.  Then, to my right, I hear Kim.  Kim uses that moment to offer an opinion in a quiet theater, "Oh, look how cute."  And...SHE MEANT IT.

Now, through the decades, counter-culture has produced many contemporary young women who might agree with this.  But recall, that this is 1979.  There was no Hot Topic, there was no Marilyn Manson, there was no "goth", or "Lydia" aesthetic from BEETLEJUICE and what was considered "modern" Make Up Effects were in their infancy.  So this comment demonstrated something to me:  Kim and I had no future together (crazy, isn't it?).

I broke up with a confused Kim.  At least I think she was confused.  I'm sure she was hurt somewhat but she was 15 and would get over it.

Two days later, what I did sank in and I felt like an asshole.  I moped around for weeks.  I avoided my family and friends.  I considered calling Kim and apologizing but something kept me from doing it.  Her family called me a few times to urge me to reconcile, but by that time I had ignited something in Kim and that was anger.

On June 30th, 1979 I was sitting at home, feeling sorry for myself when I received a call from a friend, Pat Nolan, who told me he was on his way to a tri-school Speech Team party.  I told him I wasn't in the mood and he finally talked me into going, even though I was in no condition to go anywhere.

We got to the party, and I look out at a group of familiar faces I had seen at Speech Tournaments throughout the city when my eyes fell to a group of girls sitting on a sofa.  The one sitting farthest from me leans forward and I see the face of an angel complete with a yellow ribbon in her hair.  She introduces herself to me by saying "You're Shannon Shea!"  I knew her.  I had seen her photo a couple of times in the arms of another friend of mine, Tommy Cortazzo.  I had heard her name by Pat Nolan, telling one of my best friends that he was going to set him up with her (it never happened).  I turned to her, "Yes, and you're Tracy Fletcher."

Tracy with her version of the Farrah flip
That began a courtship that, despite the best efforts of her family, blossomed into a relationship that continues to this day.

When I used to watch the Academy Awards, I'd often wonder why most people thank their spouses and now that we've been together for as long as we have.  Now that we've survived disasters natural, financial, man-made. Now that we have raised a daughter to adulthood.  Now that I see how much work and sacrifice has come into our lives....I get it. She makes me laugh; she tries to take care of me; she talks with me (no one who knows Tracy would classify her as un-opinionated -to which I say, thank God), and she encourages me.  I try to do the same for her.

And the most important thing is that we are still in love and very much best friends.

So had it not been for ALIEN, the timing would have all gone wrong.  Who knows what my life would have been like?  Different? Maybe.  Better? No way. 

Remind me to thank Ridley Scott for that when I meet him.


  1. One gigantic "Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww..."
    I knew I liked Ridley Scott for a reason.

  2. oh man, I wish I had that Animal House shirt

    for real, I want it so bad it hurts