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Sitting In the Dark With Dad

May 20th, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon


My dad took me to see Star Wars for the first time on July 3rd, 1982. He was taking the next day off from work and had volunteered to take me to see Star Wars or fireworks for the first time, saying over dinner, “We can do whichever one you want, Jeffrey. It’s up to you.”

I know he meant it generously, giving me that choice, but the responsibility crushed me. Home video was a few years from being affordable, and even though Star Wars was the greatest gift to little boys since gunpowder and matches, it HAD to leave the theaters someday. I knew that much. I’d never seen fireworks, either, and those only came once a year. I couldn’t focus on which one I wanted to do more — because I had to miss one of them, and I didn’t know which one, I anxiously grieved over missing both.

This problem has not yet left me.

I was outside comparing Star Wars and fireworks with the paperboy, who had seen both multiple times when my dad called from the porch. “Go get your jacket, we’re going to see Star Wars RIGHT NOW.”

“But, isn’t bedtime in an hour?” I asked. “This is important, Jeffrey,” my Dad replied, “I’ll meet you in the car in five minutes.”

This is how a responsible father says: FUCK bedtime, this is STAR WARS!

I stood there, blinking, even while my heart soared. Many years later, my boss came to my birthday party and handed me a bottle of bourbon and six Oxycodone, giving me the following day off. The experiences were roughly parallel in their spontaneous, stunning hedonism.

I remember thinking, as the previews started, “This is it. This is really happening to me. I am going to sit here with my Dad and see Star Wars, and nobody is going to make it stop.” I sat there next to my Dad, his warm and enormous presence canceling my fear of the dark while Han shot Greedo on the giant screen.

In the twenty-six years since, we’ve seen a lot of movies together — films about crime and vengeance, cowboys with scores to settle, good cops who bend the rules in a world gone crazy — those do well with us. Dad’s a fan of 24 and The Wire, and to a lesser extent, The Sopranos. He likes the stories but doesn’t like all that bad language.

If there’s one thing my father loves, it’s watching a despicable character get what’s coming to him. Remember that scene in “Witness,” when a bullying tourist paints the Amish man’s face with an ice-cream cone and Harrison Ford jumps out of a buggy and hands out a magnificent, cinematic asswhipping? Dad used to sit there in front of the Betamax, holding the little remote control that connected to the machine with a cord and just rewind that part and watch it over and over and over again.

He read the part in Jurassic Park where the fat guy gets eaten by those poison-spitting dinosaurs to himself in bed every night, chuckling before turning out the light.

After I did a book report on The Godfather in the fifth grade, my Dad and I watched it together, revisiting the scene with the horse’s head over and over, until the scariness of it subsided and I could sleep without any nightmares at all.

We still watch movies and TV together every chance we get – The Wire, 24, Casino Royale all fit the genre perfectly. I really, really want to go see Indiana Jones with Dad this summer, and we’ll probably make it happen. He won’t be able to drive us on a whim late one summer evening, though.

For one thing, I live up in New York, a good eight hours from Virginia. And for another, he doesn’t drive anymore. When we watch movies, he sits close, with one leg up against the TV cabinet, straining to make out the action. I read him the subtitles, call out the little movements in the background that he might miss – a man opening his jacket in the back of a room, the digital readout on a time bomb.

It’s the little things that can mean a whole lot more in the right context.

Sometimes I get mad and upset. I get mad at my dad for not doing things the way he used to, hurt that he won’t talk to me about it, upset at a world that lets his eyesight drain away like this. I get scared that I’ll inherit it, terrified that I’m not doing enough with my eyes now to bank against that creeping darkness. It keeps me up sometimes, makes it hard to sleep.

I get all this evidence that my father, the original creator of spontaneous adventure is only human, and it just makes my eyes sting until I have to look out the window and blink it away.

I’m working on being less mad, letting life happen for awhile. I’m learning that this is what happens – it’s called growing up.

Like Barry Corbin says in “No Country For Old Men”:

Well all the time ya spend trying to get back what’s been took from ya, more is going out the door. After a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.

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