REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)

James Wallace Harris

It’s funny, but we rely on our memories for everything, but studying the functionality of our memory system shows they’re completely unreliable. When I started this rewatching project I intended to explore how I was a different person from the first time I saw a movie and who I am now when I just rewatched a film. I figured by comparing my current experience to my memories I could unearth the differences between myself then and now.

Rewatching The Birds has caused a lot of confusion. I only have vague memories of seeing the movie the first time, and I am not even sure when that first time was. Before I started writing this essay I assumed it was in the 1960s, and it may well have been. I thought that because my memory of seeing The Birds the first time are memories of talking about the horrifying bits with my friends at school. All of us were excited by the bird attacks, and none of us talked about the actors or the story.

The Birds came out in 1963. I was in the sixth grade during the first half of the year, and the seventh grade for the second half. However, I also thought I saw it on TV first, but The Birds didn’t have it’s U.S. television premiere until 1968. By then I was in high school and working five nights a week at a grocery store, so I don’t believe it was then. During 1962-1963 we lived on base at Homestead Air Force Base, and I often went to the base theater, even by myself. It was just fifteen cents for kids. I even remember seeing adult films like Town Without Pity (1961), The War Lover (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The first two I saw by myself and actually liked them (sex and B-17s), but the third I saw with my mom and sister and was bored (politics). So it’s possible I saw The Birds there. I do know in the 6th and 7th grades it became common to stand around with buddies on the playground and discuss the movies and TV shows we had seen the night or weekend before.

One reason why my memory of The Birds is iffy is because up until very recently I never really liked Alfred Hitchcock films. I liked his TV show back in the 1950s, but the tension and intrigued he developed in his films didn’t appeal to the younger me. My friends and I were thought the bird attacks and their creepy gatherings were uber-cool, but that’s my only lasting impression. When I rewatched The Birds the other night, all the attack scenes felt very familiar, and all the scenes of characters relating to each other didn’t.

This time I was amazed by how gorgeous the cinematography looked. I also spent a lot of time amused by Melanie (Tippi Hedren) having to wear the same light green suit for most of the flick (she didn’t bring a change of clothes when she went to Bodega Bay and ended up staying the weekend, a weekend from hell). This time around I was caught up in the interplay between Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie, between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), between Melanie and Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and between Melanie and Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie had a weird personality, almost off putting, but as she adjusted to each person she met becoming a better person for it. All that personality meshing was something that was invisible to me as a kid.

When I talked to my old buddy Connell about this movie today, he said he spent a lot of time as a kid studying people trying to figure them out. He was mystified by other people’s behaviors and struggled to understand the world by understanding why people did what they did. I don’t remember doing that at all. I was very self centered and mainly concerned with what amused me, and what I wanted. I was closer in age to Veronica Cartwright when I saw the film and probably would have reacted to the bird attacks pretty much like her character did in the movie. She was mostly frightened but did stay focused on her new pet lovebirds. I was mostly frightened of the world around me but ignored unpleasantness by staying focused on pleasures and desires.

In 2021 The Birds was an impressive film. A few weeks ago I watched Vertigo and I’m changing my mind about Hitchcock. I plan to rewatch Rear Window soon. This time around I didn’t find the birds particularly interesting, instead I admired the sets, costumes, cinematography, but most of all the characters. All aspects I ignored as a kid.

The main problem I had with the film this time was with the birds themselves, they had no motive or justification for doing what they did. Hitchcock said later that the birds represented nature turning against us, but even that seems too vague. In Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, “The Birds,” her isolated English village eventually learns the birds were attacking everywhere. I wished Hitchcock had featured that in his version of the story. It would have satisfied my science fictional sense of things.

I now feel like I’m a whole person, although if I live to be ninety, I might disavow that when watching The Birds again. I believe the first time I saw The Birds I was a very incomplete person, even though I smuggly felt like a little knowitall.

When do we become a whole person? I’ve always assumed I was unformed and only vaguely a person before age four and five, which is when my memories start filling in. But I also felt I ran on instinct rather than awareness until about age twelve or thirteen when I started thinking about things. I was probably eleven when I first say The Birds.

I saw a lot of movies from age five to twelve, mostly those made in the 1930s and 1940s, with some 1950s B-features. During the 1950s and 1960s, old movies ran on television during the afternoon after school, on the weekends, and at night after primetime. Becky, my younger sister, and I loved to stay up and watch all-night movies during summer vacations. I think my mom let us because we’d sleep till noon and stay out of her hair, and then play outside until it got dark. Like I said, I started going to the movies on my own when I was ten and in the fifth and sixth grade. The base theater played several a week, it was cheap, and only a bike ride away. I’ve seen thousands of film, and I wonder now just how much they shaped my personality, and my evolving personality judged them.

I know all those old 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s movies imprinted on me, especially the ones most suited for kids, like the Tarzan movies, westerns, and science fiction. But I also loved old 1930s black and white flicks from MGM and Warner Brothers. Maybe those movies from simpler times worked well with my simple mind. Many of my friends my age tell me they can’t watch old movies. Hell, I know a lot of people who think old movies means those from the 1980s and 1990s. I love films all the way back to the 1890s.

Even though I admired The Birds this time, it wasn’t really aimed at who I am at this stage of life. Nor did I particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed watching myself watch it, which is why I’m writing about the experience. Most movies and television shows seemed aimed at a young audience. There’s a fair amount of content suitable for middle-aged folks, but I don’t find much storytelling for young geezers like myself in their last third of life. I can pretend to be a kid again, or remember adult issues from middle life while enjoying movies aimed at those audiences, but they’re starting to get harder to watch, even tedious.

It’s much harder to find shows that I love. Three that come to mind are Black Sails, Belgravia, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Strangely, all deal with history. Links are to my reviews. I find it odd now that I never wrote about my enchantment with Mrs. Maisel. I’m not sure if there are any overlapping aspects to these show that reveal why they appeal to my late sixties mind. A few months ago I wrote about three film comedies that grabbed my attention (Genevieve, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Bachelor in Paradise). Beside trying to understand who I was when I was younger by the films I watch, I realize I’m also trying to figure out who I am now by what I like to watch.

Cognitively I can analyze what I must have been like as a kid. I was poorly educated. I was sensitive to the suffering of others but I was burdened by prejudices. I feel I spent most of my K-12 and college years deprogramming my original upbringing. At eleven, I hadn’t started watching the news or reading newspapers, so my worldview was based on fiction I saw on television, at the movies, or read in books. Most of that fiction was not very sophisticated. I believe The Birds was a sophisticated horror film that was over my head in 1963.

The Birds is now considered a cinematic masterpiece, and I might have agreed with that during my middle years if I had seen it again then, but now it’s mostly an artistic curiosity, appealing for what it teaches me about time and my changing personality. My favorite character was Annie, who had to watch Mitch, the guy she loved, fall for Melanie. My feelings for her were so much stronger than my feelings for a story about creepy birds.

JWH

p.s. Sorry to be pounding out so many posts so quickly, but I’ve been laid up with a bad leg and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write when I felt like sitting at a computer again.

Finally Finished War and Peace – But Do I Recommend It?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2020

I began reading War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy back in April after watching and reviewing a recent 6-part BBC miniseries (2016) based on the book. I finished about forty percent of the novel and then stopped reading it in early summer. Then a couple weeks ago I decided I needed to finish it before the year was out. Every year I read one literary classic, and I had promised myself that War and Peace was going to be my 2020 read. War and Peace is currently #7 on The Greatest Books list. It did make an excellent companion to 2020, and illuminated the present with the past.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, War and Peace reminds me of Jane Austen because it’s set from 1805-1812 (plus epilogue 1813-1820), which was around the time Jane Austen was writing her famous novels. War and Peace has always been intimidating for his size – 55 hours and 30 minutes on audio, and 1,300+ pages in teeny tiny print. That’s almost like listening/reading all six of Jane Austen’s novels together. The plot and characterizations of War and Peace is about as complicated as reading all the Austen novels by round robin her novels chapter by chater.

That wouldn’t bother some readers, however, War and Peace mixes in countless pages of Tolstoy pontificating about war, power, military command, freedom, history, free will, leadership, etc., and I’m afraid that could turn them off. Thus it makes for a hard novel to recommend emphatically.

War and Peace wasn’t hard to read. Many people have asked me about that. Yes, the Russian names are problematic, but I think it helped that I watched the BBC series first, and watched the Russian language Mosfilm version that was released as four films over two years (1966-1967) while I was reading the book. Those four films of War and Peace are currently available on HBO Max.

My friends also ask me if War and Peace is worth all the trouble to read. When I’ve mentioned to folks that I was reading it, many reacted like I was doing something yucky. It’s actually a wonderful novel, quite philosophical, but mainly about romances within large aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or Jane Austen, just imagine that kind of story on a much bigger scale with two epic battles, and the downfall of an emperor thrown in. I enjoyed the war parts, but I’m not sure if most readers will.

Again, I’m reminded of Jane Austen. Much of the book is about life and love among the aristocratic which is very similar to Austen. However, in Austen, the men go off to the Napoleonic wars but we’re never told of their experiences. In Tolstoy we are, and it’s important. The men are shaped by their experiences in battle, and two of them have intense spiritual conversions. War and Peace gives us the men’s view of the age, whereas Austen gave us the women’s.

I’ve never really understood Napoleon before. While reading this novel I went and read the entry at Wikipedia about Napoleon, which was very informative. But I actually believe Tolstoy gives a much better picture of this historical figure, even though Tolstoy obviously wanted to write his novel to give a revisionist assessment of Napoleon. I still don’t know enough history to know if Tolstoy is accurate or not, or even if he’s doing hatchet job on the man.

I have to admit that I wished that Tolstoy had published his soapboxing as a separate nonfiction supplement to his novel. It’s quite fascinating to hear Tolstoy’s 1860s knowledge of the sciences, including the new ideas about evolution, applied to events and people. Tolstoy is impressive in his insights, even by 21st century standards. I even used some of them to see Donald Trump in a new light. By the way, I was completely surprised by how important the French language was to Russian aristocrats at the time. I’ve always imagined Russia being very isolated from the rest of Europe.

On the other hand, I was always anxious to get back to the story, and I always wanted to know more about the characters, of which there were too many to chronicle here. Pierre was my favorite, but then he is much like Levin from Anna Karenina, my favorite character in that novel. In both cases, I wondered if those characters were stand ins for Tolstoy himself?

Still, do I recommend this monster of a novel? I am very glad I read War and Peace, and I found it very compelling, but it requires a tremendous commitment. I’m not sure I will ever try to reread it, but I think I will dip into every now and then. Some scenes and chapters are exquisite.

I can recommend reading War and Peace to anyone who loves 19th literature, to anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, or to anyone to enjoys finding philosophy entwined with fiction.

By the way, it’s quite cheap to try War and Peace since it’s in the public domain. Get a free Kindle copy. If you get hooked keep reading. I enjoyed reading it and listening to it on audio. My Kindle edition let me switch back and forth instantly.

JWH

Memory Management in Humans 1.0

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2020

Even though I often bitch and moan about my memory problems, I don’t feel they’re a sign of early dementia. Humans just have poor memory management compared to computers. If Homo sapiens sapiens ever have a spinoff species I wonder if it will have better memory management? Science fiction writers often imagine Homo superior with superhero superpowers but I tend to believe whatever traits that sets our descendents apart from us will be rather mundane. I hope improved memory is one, but it will probably be the adaption to hotter weather and resistance to toxic pollutants.

Today I felt the need for the specific kind of memory if I was Jim Harris 2.0. I belong to a small group of people who discuss science fiction stories by email. This week we’re discussing “Utopian” by Mack Reynolds, which came out in 1970 about the problems people would face in the year 2000. I read two or three short stories by Mack Reynolds this summer and I wanted to reference them in my comments about “Utopian.”

However, I couldn’t recall anything about those stories – at first. Slowly, as I strained my constipated mind, I shat out a few rabbit turds of recollections, that eventually allowed a few larger memories to flow out. The results looked unrecognizable to what I had consumed. It’s a shame. We have rich experiences and all we retain are little piles of memory shit.

What would it be like if everything I read stored perfectly in my mind and I could recall it whole later? Yeah, I would be a computer then, wouldn’t I? But I’m not, so what’s the best work around?

I’m currently reading a novel, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig that’s about a young woman, Nora Seed, who commits suicide at 35. On the road to oblivion she is offered the opportunity to live a different versions of her life, ones based on paths she had not taken when younger. On one path she became an Olympic swimmer, but Nora realized once she was in that successful life just how much she had to give up to become an elite athlete. It required such a single-minded focus that she had to drop everything else she loved.

If I wanted a mind capable of remembering and writing about the work of Mack Reynolds in the kind of depth that I’m fantasizing about, I’d have to have ignored a whole array of other writers and stories I’ve been enjoying. The reason why I’m not great at anything is because I’m half-ass at everything else. I’m not finished with The Midnight Library, but one of the lessons I’m wondering Nora learns is the virtue of being a dilettante at many things.

I’ve tried diaries, journals, blogs, spreadsheets, databases, text editors, note taking software, 3×5 cards, clipping files, mind mapping tools, and so on trying to organize my thoughts and memories. Nothing works. I’m always surfing on a foamy wave of chaotic fragments of memories that I wished were whole. My mind craves the autistic trait of compulsive organizing but I can’t put everything in visually appealing stacks.

Each day I get up thinking of a new project to pursue. Whatever memories I can dredge together and hold in my mind for the course of the day become my entire set of tinker toys to build that project. Once I go to sleep at night, everything gets reset. I feel like Leonard Shelby in the 2000 film Memento waking up and starting over. I can carry a project over to another day, but I must rethink everything about it the next day. Often that takes me in a completely different direction. This explains why on a number of occasions when researching on Google I found articles I had written on the very topic I was thinking about writing that day, but had forgotten I had written. That really produces an eerie feeling.

What I keep searching for is a external tool or a mental discipline that would allow me to build a larger project by not having to restart everything the next morning. I marvel at people who can create large complex creative works over weeks and months. How do they keep everything in their head day after day? I have to assume their minds have laser focus ignoring endless distractions. I’m always seduced by distractions. I love distractions. I can’t resist squirrels and shiny objects.

Even knowing that distractions are keeping from doing what I really want, I can’t ignore their siren calls. There seems to be two kinds of people in this world. Those that get things done, and those that don’t. And it doesn’t appear that memory recall is the key difference between the two types. I’m guessing it’s more about limiting the amount of items the head juggles that’s more important. That managing a smaller set of data is the key to focusing. Which makes me wonder if Walter Isaacson had to forget all about Steve Jobs to write about Leonardo di Vinci?

If I could only think about one project until it’s finished. Maybe that’s the key to managing memory. I sit here thinking about all the interests my mind would have to ignore in one day, and that makes me feel like Wile E. Coyote trying to walk on air high above the canyon below.

JWH

My Father Would Have Been 100 Today

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 12, 2020

It’s been over fifty years since my father, George Delaney Harris, died on May 3, 1970. He was just 49. I was 18. To be honest, I don’t remember my father very well. Partly because he died when I was young, but also because he wasn’t around much, nor was he much of a talker. I can remember damn few conversations I had with my dad. For most of my life I’ve been trying to puzzle out who he was and what he liked from a few clues and a lot of deduction. My mother never talked about him much after he died. My sister Becky and I have traded some memories over the years.

I wrote about my mother on her would-be 100th birthday four years ago. Now it’s my dad’s turn. I am not a religious man, so I don’t expect to see my folks again in an afterlife. All I have are fading memories. My parents exist as long as Becky and I remember them. How many years will that be, probably not many. My memories of my father have lived longer than he did. My mother was a religious woman, and she hoped to see her folks after she died. But mom wasn’t anxious to see dad again. I remember before she died, I kidded her that she’d soon be in heaven reunited with daddy for all of eternity. I think that pissed her off. Their last years together were not happy ones.

The photo at the top of the page is my father, mother, and me. It is the last good photo I have of my father, probably taken in 1952. It’s rather telling that I have no photo of my dad with his wife and children. I have several from when he was growing up, but only one more photo taken before he died. It was Thanksgiving, 1968. That shot was an accident, taken before rewinding the film. I can barely, make him out. That’s dad at the head of the table with a shiny spot on his bald head. He was actually sitting by my mom. I was talking the photo. All the other family photos he took, which wasn’t many, but explains why he wasn’t in any of them. Most of my memories of my father are like this photo, blurry, out of focus, and hard to make out any details. I believe only my cousin Alana from this photo, is still alive. Becky wasn’t in this picture.

The oldest memory I have of my father is probably from around 1955, when I was 3 or 4. He was playing me, chasing me around the yard and letting me chase him. We tried playing with my plastic cowboys and indians together. I was wanting him to pretend the horses were galloping, and he would just slide them quietly along the floor. I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t communicate with him that he should make galloping noises like I heard in the cartoons. To be fair, I also remember having problems communicating with my mother too at this time. I guess my father died before I learned how to communicate well.

My next memory was at our house on 68th Court in Miami, probably 1955 or 1956. I was four, and he was teaching me to ride my little bike after removing the training wheels. I got the knack of it immediately and he went back in the house. I road up and down the driveway by myself. I have a few other vague memories of my dad from this period. I seldom remember him being home, but sometimes he would take me and my sister riding in the car, a 1955 Pontiac, to the 7-11 to get a coke. (Remember when they came in small bottles?) Becky and I would stand in the front seat and sometimes we were thrown against the dash. This was when I first discovered music, on that car radio. My father didn’t like me changing the station, but I loved pushing the buttons looking for music.

I can’t even remember him at the next house, where I started first grade at age 5 at Flagami Elementary. Or the following house. I can remember my mother being there. I can even remember my grandmother visiting and staying several weeks. And I remember Becky. I just don’t remember dad being there. Maybe he was stationed elsewhere.

One possible reason why my father is missing from my memories is in the evenings Becky and I always sat in front of the TV on the floor, and my parents sat on the furniture behind us. I certainly have more memories of watching television than of them.

I have several memories of dad from the 1958, when I was six. We had moved to South Carolina, and lived in a big old house out in the country. My mother had bought two dozen chicks to raise chickens, and two ducklings. Becky and I loved them. My father made us swings on tree limbs that were very high, which meant we could swing very high. Stray dogs which I called wolves kept trying to eat the chicks. My dad had a small .22 rifle his father had given him, and he used to try to shoot the dogs. I was always disappointed he missed. I remember he promised me a pig for taking out the garbage. I never got it.

Two of my best memories of my dad come from this period. The Air Force was my father’s real family and religion. And they taught him not to be prejudiced against black people. One day he tried to teach Becky and I that. He told us never to mistreat the black kids we played with. I couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about. It turned out our playmates were black and I didn’t know it.

While we lived in South Carolina, my dad took us out to the movies for the first time. It was a theater on base, and we saw Snowfire. But also, one night I got and my dad was up watching the all night movies on TV. He let me stay up with him. I didn’t really know what movies were, or who actors were, but I later learned the movie was High Barbaree with Van Johnson and June Allyson. Watching that film made a lifelong impression on me that I’ve written about many times. I just wish I could remember if me and dad talked about anything.

Our next house was in the Lake Forest subdivision near Hollywood, Florida. It is the first house I remember my dad buying. This was probably Fall 1958, and I turned 7 at the end of the year. I have one memory of him driving me to school and he saw the American flag flying upside down. He told me that was the signal for trouble, so he stopped a cop and told them.

In 1959 my dad got stationed in Canada, and my mother got TB and was sent to stay at Valley Forge, PA. My father’s mother, whom Becky and I called Ma, took care of us for six months. We’d get letters from my father. Then he came and got us and we drove to pick up my mother. At first we lived in Philadelphia, but then moved to Browns Mill, NJ, and then New Egypt, NJ. This was 1959 and 1960. I really have to struggle to remember my dad though. I do remember Christmas 1959 was a good one. I got two electric trains and a leather jacket with three stars on the shoulders. I remember my dad saluting me, and helping me set up the electric trains. The only other memory I can dredge up was when Becky and I went hiking through the woods for miles and miles, and found ourselves in Browns Mills just as my dad was driving home from work. I was in the 3rd grade and my sister the 1st. I think he was shocked we had wandered so far from home, but I don’t remember him yelling at us – my mother would have. Of course, we did that all the time. Times were different then. It was like in Peanuts. We lived in Kidsworld and never saw parents much, or let them know what we were doing.

I don’t know if my parents separate or what. But my mother took me and my sister to live in Marks, MS in 1960 for the rest of the school year and maybe the start of the fourth grade. My mom’s oldest sister lived there. Evidently, things got patched up, because we moved back to Lake Forest in Hollywood, FL. This was my favorite childhood home. This was around the end of 1960 and early 1961. I don’t have any memories of my father from this period. Although I do think he was home in the evenings. I believe he worked at Opa Locka Airport at the time.

Later in 1961 he got transferred to Homestead, AFB. We moved to Maine Avenue, and lived on base from 1961-1963. Becky and I loved it there. My father was around a lot then, and 1962 was our best Christmas ever. I have a vague memory of him watching the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies with us. Still I can’t remember any conversations with my dad from this period. I just don’t think he was that talkative, although he loved bartending, so I bet he was. My theory was he just didn’t know how to talk to kids.

Towards the end of 1963, just before JFK was killed, we moved back Hollywood, FL. We drove to South Carolina the day after the assassination. My parents rented another house out in the country, which Becky and I loved, but I don’t think my father was home much. My mother had started drinking in a bad way, and they fought a lot. My father had his first heart attack there. He received a medical discharge from the Air Force, after serving 20+ years. From 1964 to 1970 he had another heart attack and a stroke. But he never stopped drinking and smoking. He could smoke several packs of Camels and drink a bottle of Seagram 7 in a day. Dad would get Becky or I to fix his drink. He liked a glass of ice with a dash of Canada Dry soda water, a full jigger of Seagram 7, and then fill the rest of the glass up with Canada Dry ginger ale.

These were the bad years. My dad would recover enough to get a job, and then end up in the hospital again. My parents fought all the time, even separating several times. I think I don’t remember my dad much because I hated seeing him drunk. And often he was just passed out. That made me afraid to bring friends home, so I often stayed away from home.

I do remember three conversations from this period. Around 1967 he went to a trade school to learn computers. One day he came home and taught me about punch cards and what the holes meant. This was significant because in 1971 after he died I enrolled in a trade school to study computers.

Another time we were having breakfast together – which was very odd. My mother and sister were already gone. The Today Show was on and there was a piece about J. R. R. Tolkien. My father said, “They’re talking about Bilbo Baggins.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but years later I remember he said it. I’ve always wondered if he had read The Hobbit? It was published in 1937. What else had he read growing up? I wished I had asked him. I wish I had asked him many things. Part of the problem I think was the chain of communication was one way. My parents told Becky and I what to do. They often said don’t talk back, go do your homework, go outside and play, go do your chores. We were rambunctious, and it was a never ending job to quiet us.

The last conversation I remember having with my dad was just weeks before he died. I believe now he knew he was dying, but I didn’t know it then. He was drunk, and told me that he loved Becky and I, and even my mother. That felt odd him saying that. It made me worry about him but I had to leave. So I snuck into my parents’ room and took two loaded revolvers out of his sock drawer and carried them around all evening. (I don’t know how people carry guns, it was very inconvenient.) When I came home he was passed out. A few weeks later he was found dead in a hotel room. He had left us again. Another heart attack, but his autopsy showed a variety of internal problems that would have killed him eventually too.

My childhood was all about the failure to communicate. It’s like watching old movies today. So many plots would have been ruined if they had had cell phones in those days. I believe my dad, mom, Becky, and I could have been happier if we could have communicated. But that’s just a theory I fantasize about now.

I was born on my parents sixth wedding anniversary. They had been informed they couldn’t have children. My uncle Bob told me in my teens that my mother refused to believe she was pregnant for a long time. My mother was 35 and my father 31 when I was born. Another of my many theories, maybe a fantasy, is that my parents were happy before they had me and Becky, because they looked happy in all their photos. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and my parents got married in 1945. Before we showed up they had been stationed in Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. While growing up they often mentioned how happy they had been in those two places. Here they are in Puerto Rico before I was born. My mother kept a bunch of mementos from Puerto Rico for the rest of her life.

My father was a restless man. He loved being in the Air Force but we moved so much that I believe he put in for transfers. He also worked two and three jobs while in the service. He loved working at the NCO club or a VFW club as a bartender after his regular duties. I assumed because we needed the money, but as I’ve said, I have theories. One theory is working nights kept him from having to come home. I’m not sure my father knew what do with kids. I also assumed he had a full life away from us. At least I hoped he did.

And the reason why I theorize my parents were happier before Becky and I were born is because most of my memories of them were when they were fighting. For mom and dad, good times always seemed in the past. But I’m sure this is a distortion of what actually existed. If I try hard I can remember family get togethers where they might have been happy. And as a kid I sometimes heard them having sex, so maybe they were happy then too. They often retreated to the bedroom and let me and Becky have the living room with the TV. Maybe they had happy times talking together when they could get away from us. At least I hope they did.

My mother was high strung, and I probably bipolar. Becky and I were too much for her. All my early memories of my mom are of being screeched at. She constantly yelled at us to behave, often going into a rage and switching us. Now I don’t blame her. She was raised with the idea that children should be polite and well behaved. We were wild and energetic. She fought an endless battle to control us. We consistently rebelled. We couldn’t be tamed. So she yelled and yelled. Which made my father stay away. Which made her bitch at him. Both my parents became alcoholics, and I never knew who succumbed first.

My father grew up in an alcoholic family. His father and brothers drank. I think he was disappointed I didn’t start drinking as a young teenager. He hated that Becky and I preferred marijuana instead of booze. Of course, this was the sixties and we were part of the generation gap. My dad was always a steady drinker and could handle it until he started having heart attacks in 1964. My mother was a quiet drinker, and couldn’t handle it. She’d lose her shit. I think she used booze as an antidepressant not knowing it increased her unhappiness. A vicious cycle. But as a kid I didn’t understand any of this. All I knew was my parents often got into big fights. I can remember back then always wondering: Was my dad a drunk because my mother was a bitch, or was my mother a bitch because my dad was a drunk.

However, this is enough of remembering their shortcomings. I don’t blame my parents for anything. They tried as hard as they could. I just don’t think they were cut out to be parents, and I wasn’t much of a son. I was great at surviving them, but it required being selfish and self-centered, and I got good at that.

I’ve always wanted to imagine what my dad was like as a person. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if he had lived and we had finally gotten to talk. I have very little to go on. His favorite TV shows where The Fugitive and Bonanza. He liked Mickey Spillane books and adventure magazines for men like Argosy. He hated rock music. Obviously, he loved to drink. He had a whole world of drinking buddies, and maybe women. He liked fishing, and sometimes took our family fishing out on a rented boat, or me and my male cousins. He talked about how much fishing he’d do when he retired, but after he was forced to retire he did damn little fishing.

I remember my dad taking me to several significant events in my life. But we didn’t go alone together, he would take me and my friends, and he didn’t talk. Or I don’t remember him talking. He took Connell, George, and I to see the liftoff of Apollo 8. That’s a fantastic memory. George kidded me later about how much my dad drank during the trip. He also took the three of us to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. Both were road shows where I had to buy tickets ahead of time. He took me and my cousins camping in the Keys. Bobby, Timmy, and I slept on the beach on a blanket, and he stayed in the car drinking. One of the high points of my life was waking up in the middle of the night to see the Milky Way floating overhead. A majestic memory. My dad was there, but not part of the experience.

I do have memories of him talking about his parents and grandparents. Dad liked the old days, and didn’t like the Sixties. He was born in Nebraska in 1920 but moved to Miami around 1924 I believe. He sometimes talked about the big hurricane of 1926. He once told me a story about how Nebraskan farmers killed jack rabbits. But he was too little to remember that, and I sometimes wonder if he got it in a newsreel. After he died I saw an old newsreel about Nebraskan farmers killing jack rabbits, and it was just like his story.

Going through what few things he left after dying I found a couple newspaper clippings, letters, and photos. I still have them. There’s just not much evidence. I really wanted to know what he dreamed about becoming when he grew up. Of course, his teen years were the depression, so it was probably a job. One newspaper clipping told about how he and some classmates interned at the Miami Herald and learned about composing ads. In high school he delivered telegrams for Western Union on a bicycle, but I only know that because of a photograph. I wish I had Henry Louis Gates to help me decipher my past.

I was a disappointment to my father. He wanted me to go to college, take ROTC and become an officer in the Air Force. Of course, my high school years, 1966-1969 was during the Vietnam War. I had long hair and was against the war. A couple times he called me a long hair commie pinko. I wasn’t, but he couldn’t understand. I was too immature to try to explain things to him, and evidently he wasn’t mature enough to deal with a son who didn’t fit his expectations.

The long hair really bothered him. I think he even worried I was gay. I remember when I was 16 he was so overjoyed that I wanted to borrow the car to go on a date that he lent me his car and gave me his drinking money. Another time he tried to show me a Playboy – now that was embarrassing. I didn’t want to tell him about my stash of girlie mags and didn’t want to think about what he did with his.

I do have a memory of a conversation my mother and father had in bed one night when they thought Becky and I were asleep. They were worried we were doing drugs. We were. They considered calling the cops on us. But they finally agreed that as long as we weren’t doing heroin they wouldn’t turn us in. I was proud of them for that. They were no angels as teenagers. My mother had run off and married a bootlegger (her first husband). I’m sure my dad drank as a teen. Oh, we knew kids doing heroin, but Becky and I didn’t. The closest I ever came was smoking opium with some Navy guys coming back from Morocco – but that was after he died. I remember the first time I got falling down drunk all I could think about was how could my parents stand years of drinking. I considered alcohol an inferior drug.

I did drugs for a few years when I was young, but eventually I realized I had an addictive personality like my father and quit. The lessons of seeing him saved me I guess. He saved me one more time for sure. When it was time to be drafted I was informed I was exempt for being the sole surviving son of a veteran.

Still, I wonder what he dreamed. What did he hope to get out of life? There were many parallels between my father and Jack Kerouac. Both were born around the same time and died around the same time. Alcoholism killed both of them. After my dad died I read a lot of books by Kerouac and about him. Because Kerouac wrote about the times my father lived through I imagined Kerouac thought and did things my father had done too. I saw them as tragic brothers. Both were restless men who compulsively traveled, roaming the United States and never finding what they needed. My father once told me he had been to all 48 states (this being before Alaska and Hawaii joined the union). I figured dad had done some hitchhiking. I did a little myself.

My dad’s father was on the right, one of four boys, and his grandparents were out front. My dad was one of three brothers. My mom was one of five sisters.

My dad as a baby

My dad with a friend in June of 1923. Probably still Nebraska.

My dad on right and his first brother Jack in 1929, now in Miami for sure.

Jack and my dad visiting their grandfather in Nebraska in 1929.

Dad in 1936. Doesn’t he look like someone in a Kerouac novel?

Dad as telegraph delivery boy also from 1936.

Graduating high school in 1938 and then a year later in 1939.

Some photos during the war. He was a drill sergeant.

After the war.

Don’t my mom and dad look happy here?

George Delaney Harris 10/12/1920-10/12/2020

Happy Birthday, Dad.

JWH

Do People Still Read Short Stories?

Yesterday I read, “43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language” by Emily Temple over at Literary Hub. Her essay begins 

Last year, I put together this list of the most iconic poems in the English language; it’s high time to do the same for short stories. But before we go any further, you may be asking: What does “iconic” mean in this context? Can a short story really be iconic in the way of a poem, or a painting, or Elvis?

Well, who knows, but for our purposes, “iconic” means that the story has somehow wormed its way into the general cultural consciousness—a list of the best short stories in the English language would look quite different than the one below.

I was able to look up her 43 titles on the internet and found most of them available to read online. I assume that’s because those stories are taught in schools and colleges and teachers have put them online as pdf files so their students can read them for an assignment. I doubt that’s legal, but it’s convenient for me.

Are these stories iconic because a captive audience has been made to study them? Does forced cultural literary constitute a kind of fandom? I’m sure Emily Temple and I are the kind of book nerds that love these stories, but just how many other people do?

I went to Amazon looking for anthologies that might contain these stories. I assumed if they were iconic then they’d be readily available, but they weren’t. The only anthology I found that had more than a couple of these stories is an old one I already owned. It had 7 of the 43, which is pretty good. That volume, The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn is probably a textbook, but it seems to be out-of-print. I found a few other textbooks that had some of the 43 stories, but at most three. However, the same authors are anthologized over and over again, so there seems to be disagreement as to what their best stories might be.

This still leaves me thinking Emily Temple’s 43 iconic stories aren’t that iconic outside of hardcore bookworms. These stories definitely aren’t iconic like Classic Rock albums or the old TV shows that rerun on MeTV or TVLand which have tens of millions of fans across generations.

I added the 43 stories to a Google Sheet and put in links to where I found the stories online. I plan to read them all. I also plan to add other lists of “iconic” short stories to this spreadsheet, and read them too.

Last night I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a bit of horror fluff that didn’t have much to say philosophically, nor did it reveal anything about life in 1843 America. I can’t believe we make children read it. There’s got to be better Poe to force onto younsters. 

On the other hand, rereading “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omeleas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is intensely philosophical and I imagine an excellent story to trick teens into thinking about deep concepts.

How many people still read short stories after they leave school? Probably damn few. That isn’t to say that Edgar Allan Poe or Eudora Welty don’t have their fans, but are their followers a large enough crowd to swing over the needle of a pop culture meter when mentioned on Jeopardy? Well, some Jeopardy contestants would be the kind of folks to read short stories.

More and more, I’m getting into short stories. I’m reading over three hunded of them a year. But it also feels like I’m withdrawing from reality. My friends want to talk about novels, or movies, or TV shows — and I can’t. And they aren’t interested in discussing short stories.

I imagine kids when assigned to read short stories today feel about the same way as we did when forced to do quardratic equations back in our school days. No, I don’t think the word iconic applies to Emily Temple’s list of old short stories. But what’s the right word?

I wonder if that word is in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I wish I knew Greek and Latin so I could make up a word for loving art forms going extinct. Or a word for cherishing fadding pop culture successes of the past. Anachronostalgia? 

It has been said that writers write to become immortal, but that immortality only lasts as long as people continue to read what they wrote. What’s a word for keeping old works of art alive? It’s kind of a good deed, don’t you think? Of course, not as good as helping a real person in need, but it’s still a kindly thing to do.

JWH