asked me what my favourite all-time movie was it wouldn't be the usual reply. While I love great
films like Stanley Kubrick's trio of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange,
Orson Welles' films, great silent films like Metropolis and Nosferatu, and modern masterpieces like
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, Woody Allen's Crimes And Misdemeanors, and Oliver
Stone's JFK & Nixon, a part of me is the irredeemable pre-teen and teen, spending summer late nights
watching tv downstairs, in the dining room of my Glendale home, while my family slept upstairs.
In those times I'd watch great and cheesy sci-fi and horror films from the 30s through 70s.
Those films always affected me more viscerally
than my cinephile's cerebral love for actual art; the same part that's watched soap operas: All
My Children and General Hospital, nearly a quarter of a century, and indulged pro. wrestling over three decades.
It took me to watch old serials on PBS- Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Phantom Empire, Godzilla
flicks, silent films on late night's The Joe Franklin Show talk show on Channel 9- WOR, politics
& fringe things on Tomorrow, with Tom Snyder and the old David Susskind Show.
Yet, two late night shows stick most: the first
was Creature Feature; a 90-minute show highlighting horror and sci-fi films, emphasizing monster,
or creature, films like King Kong, Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Blob, Frankenstein,
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath The Sea, Robot Monster, Gorgo, or Night
Of The Living Dead. It also had lesser known films like Carnival Of Souls, The Last Man
On Earth, and Dr. Cyclops. The other, its rival, was Chiller Theater. Whereas
Creature Feature was mostly about monsters, Chiller Theater was about anything
scary--monsters, sci-fi, occasionally crime films with Jimmy Cagney or John Garfield.
Chiller Theater had a cool opening where
a claymation arm with a 6-fingered hand rose out of a swamp and put out, or took back, clay
letters spelling Chiller Theater, as the hand gutturally moaned, 'CHILL-ER!', and weird
noises emanated from the swamp. Chiller Theater ran films like The Brain From Planet
Arous, Forbidden Planet, Day Of The Triffids, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Day The Earth
Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space, This Island Earth, The Last Woman On Earth, Plan 9 From
Outer Space, The Unearthly Stranger, Curse Of The Demon, and The Thing From Another World.
At times, the films actually scared me--usually
less conventional monsters like the Monster From The Id in Forbidden Planet, or the crystalline
entities from The Monolith Monsters. The films I saw on Chiller Theater always stuck with me--for
their seminal imagery. The first was First Spaceship On Venus--an Eastern European film from 1959
about a first trip to the Morning Star. It's original German title was Der Schweigende Stern
(The Silent Star) and it made the rounds in the USA in the early 1960s, playing on B film double
bills.It boasted an international cast--a black astronaut, and Oriental love interest for the white
Alpha Male. The film was adapted from Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem's The Astronauts.
Lem got international acclaim after Andre Tarkovsky's film of his novel Solaris- after
2001: A Space Odyssey, noted as the greatest space opera.
Still, it's not the film dearest to my heart.
That's another Venus-based sci fi space opera, Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet--a
bowdlerized American version of Russian film Planeta Burg (Planet Of Storms) by low budget
Schlockmeister Roger Corman.
I first saw it at 10 or 11. What
made it creepier than its own designs was it had ideas--it wasn't just
about the scare. As I watched it, and other films in the dining room, every night in the kitchen
I'd hear the scuttle of roaches and waterbugs across the kitchen floor's congoleum. They'd sip
water from our cat Freddy's bowl, even make off with dry cat food nuggets. While I'd seen such
in the tenements of Bushwick there was something unreal that they existed in our home, but only
came out when they thought humans were asleep upstairs. Even more so than my encounters with
red-eyed beings, or Men In Black, the idea there was communal alien intelligence in our house,
beyond our control, which avoided us, frightened me. Despite my presence, the tv's glow and sound,
they thought it safe, or their right, to come out. If I turned on the kitchen light for a drink
of water, or snack, they'd scuttle back to the holes between the floor and the cabinets, down the
sink's drain, or under the stove or refrigerator. If I were barefoot I'd get creeped out if they
crawled over my feet in their panic to escape. Once, engrossed in a film,
we heard footsteps coming up the cellar stairs to the door, which connected
them to the dining room. Was it a burglar, murderer, ghost?"
and forgetting their
presence I went barefoot for water, and crunched a waterbug under my feet. Its deathsound
immediately sent its comrades seeking safety. As I lifted up my foot the smear of red blood, and
thick greenish-white liquid on my callused soles caused me to wince, then clean the mess up.
Even though smaller, translucent roaches were
filthier, and might nip at you, it was the larger, darker waterbugs that looked scarier. I'd
sometimes let our big male cat, Freddy, up during these nights. Mom always wanted Freddy down for
the night, so he could sleep on one of the shelves on the landing to the cellar stairs, but I
let him up to chase the bugs. Before Freddy went senile, and had a second kittenhood from the
age of 7 or 8, till his death in 1990 at 16, he was fearless--a big black and white cat looking
like he wore a tuxedo, or was a penguin if you stood him on his haunches. He was named 'Fearless
by an old woman, Gertrude Webb, who owned him for his first two years, and lived on 77th
Road. She named him after comic strip character, Fearless Fosdick
, because as a kitten he
was found backed into an alley by two big German Shepherds who snarled at him, yet fought back
We knew him as Freddy, or Goings, Fatso, Fatboy,
Blubbomaniac--nicknames I gave him for his size. Mrs. Webb simply couldn't take care of Freddy
so gave him to us the same day in October, 1976 when first basemen, Chris Chambliss of the New
York Yankees, hit his pennant-winning home run against the Kansas City Royals in Game 5 of the
American League playoffs. He was neutered and declawed, and enough time had passed after our
kitten--Suzy-Q, the little black and white mischief-make--died of feline leukemia. Freddy was
25 lbs. of solid cat, not a soft doughy fluffball--but a brick wall, a tank who plodded. He was
very athletic for his size, with a dislike for nightbugs. He'd swat at them until they
retreated--they were invading his territory
, after all.
* * *
the films on at night weren't up to the
standard of First Spaceship On Venus or Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet I'd watch
as Freddy went after the little invaders with vengeance, chasing them to their Hadean realms,
watching as a phalanx might reappear on the opposite side of the kitchen, only to bring Freddy's
wrath. So, it was with surprise I witnessed an event one weekend evening when Freddy, my sister
Christine, and I were left alone for a winter Friday night when I was 12. My parents had
someplace to go to, and I was left as babysitter of 8 year old Christine. Mom and dad would be
out late. We finished watching The Carol Burnett Show, which ended on Channel 2 (WCBS) at
11pm. It was time to go to sleep.
I told Christine to put Freddy downstairs for
the night. She was scared because the cellar was dark. I, too, gained some irrational fears. It
wasn't long after my, and other nabe kids', shared dreams of red-eyed Hoods, as well still-fresh
tales of haunted houses from the lips of the O'Dougal boys. The door to the cellar was kept
shut, on Christine's request. As we argued in the dining room over who should open it and put
Freddy down we heard footsteps coming up the cellar stairs to the door, which connected them to
the dining room. Was it a burglar, murderer, ghost? Christine held Freddy. We heard a rapping on
the cellar door from the inside. I thought, this ain't a burglar because burglars don't knock.
The rapping turned to banging, and got louder. I noticed the cellar door wasn't locked; the old
iron key was still in it. I rushed to the door as I saw the handle start to turn, held it shut,
locked the lock, and removed the key.
Christine was crying and sitting in the corner of
the dining room across from the cellar door. She held Freddy tightly--even he seemed perturbed.
The look on his face convinced me I wasn't dreaming, nor hallucinating with Christine. I ran
next door to see if Mr. & Mrs. Kerner were home--they weren't. Neither were the Steiners on the
other side. All the nearest neighbours were either out or didn't answer their doors, all the
houses on the block, save ours, were blackened. It was as if, in the middle of New York, my
sister and I were totally alone. There was also a silence, reminiscent of the giant overturned
goblet effect I sensed when I first encountered the millkillers in Ridgewood, years earlier.
I returned to the house, and headed to where
Christine was. The noise had stopped, then we heard the footsteps coming up the stairs again.
Then rapping, banging, and a low guttural baritone--almost animal--growl, with muffled
obscenities. I took a flashlight, looked outside and shone the light into our cellar windows
from the outside alley we shared with the Kerners. Who or what was it? I saw
nothing. Inside, I thought the door might be broken down, as the thing on the other side said
it was gonna get Christine and me. I grabbed Freddy, as he was frightened, from Christine.
His back claws dug into my stomach. This had to be real--how could Freddy share our delusion?
It was like the alleycat Friend's reaction to the mill-killers, confirming the 'reality'
of the event to me.
I told Christine to run upstairs to the second
floor, so we had a floor between us and it. She was scared the thing would grab our feet and
pull us through the upstairs stairs directly above the cellar stairs. It took a few minutes,
but finally I convinced her. We rushed upstairs with Freddy, and the three of us slept in my bed
until our parents got home. We still heard the 'cellarknocker'--as I dubbed it--threatening
us as we relented to sleep's grip.
Upon return, finding us all in my bed, mom and
dad ascribed it to a nightmare, yet let Christine sleep with Freddy in her room that night for
'protection'. I had my trusty aluminium bat by my side. Mom used tincture of merthiolate
on the scratches on my and Christine's bellies, left by Freddy's back claws.
Even stranger was the next few days 'Fearless
Fred' arched his back and fur Halloween Cat style whenever he went near the cellar landing,
hissing and spitting at unseen things. For the next week whenever we put Freddy down for the
night the 25 lb. cat would put up a violent struggle, rush to his shelf, and assume an attack
position towards the stairwell. Eventually, things returned to 'normal'. Christine's never
talked of the incident with me. It seems a classic poltergeist case--a shared delusion where
people project their fears into something. Disembodied voices, claims of telekinesis, are often
reported, as well rapping or knocking sounds.
It is the will to believe in bogeymen or spirits
that allows such instinctual and irrational fears to take over. Still, Freddy's reaction speaks
powerfully that something occurred, although he may have sensed the fear of two children. This
may also be why my old cat pal Friend took off and never returned as we hid from the
mill-killers. Christine always had a superstitious bent--never visiting dad's grave for over
7 years after his death, later turning to Roman Catholicism's bugaboos. The irrational isn't
the only thing that can dominate 'the will to believe'. Often, it can be mere philosophy.
* * *
A year or
so after the cellarknocker incident I was in my science class at JHS 119. For two of the three
years I had this cool science teacher, Ronald Wallenfels--born in England, but no accent to
speak of. He had thin, pointy facial features, John Lennon eyeglasses, and a curly blond afro.
He was the best teacher at 119, one of the most popular. The other year I had David Geffner--a
troubled, bearded, brown-haired man suspended a few times for being physically abusive. Both
were 'children of the 60s'--Geffner known for drug use. He'd been a regular buyer at nearby
Atlas Terminal. In the late 80s or early 90s I found out he died of AIDS. Mr. Wallenfels was
different--an impassioned man of science, loved teaching, and opening up young minds.
When Charon, the moon of planet Pluto, was
discovered, all we talked about was astronomy, the planets, how stars formed, whether there was
other life in the universe, etc. Mr. Wallenfels didn't stick to outdated curricula--New York
City textbooks in the late 1970s were 15-20 years old. Consequently, he'd often base lessons on
the latest article on science from Time or Newsweek. He'd rather we experience science as a
vibrant, current thing--not some odd curio placed on a shelf called The Mysterium. He was an
unknown Carl Sagan. Not that he limited himself to the stars. He was a natural explicator, who
drafted you along for a ride. He'd marvel at new discoveries, make you feel you could know as
much or more than he did. Many times he'd ask a kid what they knew about science, what things
interested them, and we'd spend the whole period--sometimes days--talking about whatever that
was. The curiosity of his class drove where we explored.
Mr. Wallenfels seemed to know everything about
current science and loved it, making us love it by his infectious will to learn. Mr. Wallenfels
introduced me to the idea that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded, and may have gone extinct due to
a comet or meteor impact. This discussion was after I suggested talking about dinosaurs, and
showed off the knowledge I gleaned from my science books--especially my How, Why, And Wonder
book on dinosaurs. But, those texts were out of date. Names like Robert Bakker and Jack Horner,
great palaeontologists, came to my life via Mr. Wallenfels.
He introduced us to black holes, relativity, and
things deemed too difficult for Junior High Schoolers by the Board of Education.
Textbooks were dull grey, minted in the 50s, and filled with stale information. Mr. Wallenfels
had none of that. He resented the politicisation of science and teaching. He dismissed
anti-evolutionists, and vividly recreated the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Only a few
years after Roe vs. Wade and we had a heated classroom discussion over abortion.
The next week he split the class into
too, smile years after Mr. Wallenfels, the cellarknocker, old sci-fi films, scudding
over my beliefs, the will to power them, to believe in them. To do so is far easier
than demand proofs. "
pro- and anti-abortionists, and we debated. I was on the pro-side (as in life)
my opponents, with years of experience with girls who had abortions to fall back on. Some kids
refused to participate because of religious beliefs. Mr. Wallenfels called pro-abortionists
, and anti-abortionists anti-abortionists
. To him, euphemisms
were lies of convenience, and science was the pursuit of truth, not comfort. After the debate,
he surprised the class with a human foetus in formaldehyde, from a friend who worked at a
medical lab. We passed it around the classroom as he explained its age, sex, and functions, etc.
Confronted with reality, he had us debate
whether it was human. I led the charge against the religious nonsense of Roman Catholic girls
against abortion. Winning the scientific argument was easy compared to the ethics of abortion
on demand, after rape or incest. I conceded it was alive, and human, but the old acorn/oak
analogy is still apt. I was the only kid cognizant of the fact that the 'humanity'
of a foetus
wasn't the 'real'
issue of abortion--it was whether a person had the right to control
reproduction, even more so than the argument over control of ones body. Mr. Wallenfels grinned
as I digressed to the freeing of slaves in my argument over corporeal sovereignty. Even then I
was capable of a term like corporeal sovereignty
, and blew away my opponents.
As we passed around the human foetus in
formaldehyde yawning through the early drowse of our eighth grade science class, Mr. Wallenfels
was exuberant--as always ready to answer our questions or, better yet, to provoke them:
When Larry Intaglia asked him about abortion
and whether a foetus was a human being, Mr. Wallenfels smiled and simply said, "Can you see?"
He was the favourite science teacher in all of Junior High School 119--a little fruity with his
squared-off glasses, wild blond perm, tie-dyed T-shirts and effeminate mannerisms; but real
cool. Way cooler than Mr. Geffner, the bad-ass with a beard--now long dead from AIDS so that
grass and earthworms can live--who beat the piss out of several back-talking punk students and
then had to grovel and apologize before the P.T.A. board to get his job back.
When Althea Brinkley asked Mr.
Wallenfels about life on other worlds he smiled and coyly said, “We shall see....”, smiling
at the Viking photographs of Mars, smiling when they discovered Charon--Pluto’s
moon--and discoursed on Greek mythology--its place in the dawn of our voyage through
the early waves of time--and that ancient ferryman, smiling during a lesson on astronomy--far
watcher of this cosmic pebble from the buttressed cliff crag of sane distant water’s cove--or
on palaeontology--not at the fragility of folly that the peeled ape constructs but at his morning’s
conquests, creeds, searchings….
I'm still amazed how daring a teacher Mr.
Wallenfels was, how ahead of his time. Also that none of the kids complained to their parents
over his teaching methods, for Mr. Wallenfels, were he teaching today, would've been reprimanded
and censured. Yet, we were better for his techniques, whether kids realized it or not. Mr.
Wallenfels confronted the insidious will to believe
at all costs and shattered myths
with obvious truths.
He truly wanted knowledge to empower
people--even beyond science. I remember the time he invited a friend of his to speak to
our class; not a teacher, nor a man of science, nor a celebrity bent on a PR. bonanza,
but a junky….a Vietnam vet, dirty in his years of searching, lost in his twilight of others’
rising suns, lost in all but his memory of when he first cracked freedom from memory,
and all that entrails. The man spoke of a time he was forced to murder a small Vietnamese girl,
who spotted him on a scouting mission, who could have tipped off an enemy village of the presence
of him and his platoon. To save the lives of his buddies, he murdered. The halting rhythms of his
voice are still with me:
And he talked of his recon missions
and of his scouting, one day, in the squalorous heat and fatigue of a jungle twelve thousand
miles from his self where he hunched quietly in a tree, praying on rosaries, his heart warmed
by the gold cross at his breast, watching a village, through the rising mists of youth, for signs
of V.C. trouble, and the lives of his buddies, forty in all, hung with him from the branches
under which a little yellow girl, younger than any searchings for anything besides life and
death in the lush green palms, stood smiling up at him and waving, her eyes distant frail
as a supernova’s silent beauty incinerating civilizations’ dreams in youth yet familiar like
a gorilla’s inviting the brief interplay of two third chimps lost from the trees of nothingness
and into the sweet dripping juices of fruitful wars where so many yous must die so that I’s
may live like his buddies hanging in the balance of his one hand gripping his golden necklace
tightly his other hand gripping the branches loosely the little girl smiling [eager to tell her friends
of the round-eye in the trees?] till he pounced fragging the first of the many outgrown
laws of the Grand Artificer tracing her smile red from ear to ear in him peacefully as she
lay in a cocktail of too much knowledge silent he rested too soon too much his buddies
lived for that day, eighteen surviving through that war’s harvest, only seven through the
ensuing years of peaceful drought.
As the old young man spoke I
thought the girl but a delayed abortion and told him so as he smiled, and he renewed
as he siphoned till the bell rang, his blear eyes searching beyond the blue lustre of that
cloudless morn and into the deepest black where different suns raise different beginnings
as we rushed past him to the lunchroom and never saw him again and never told of his
telling his tale for Ronald Wallenfels could have lost his job over such creative solution.
And as the foetus came around
to me I saw it for the monster it was--not Kubrick’s love-child--and Larry saw, too,
through others’ psychoses and not through the fearful eyes of old homosexuals in
vestments, and Althea saw through the things behind the shadows in dark caves of
little minds that Mr. Wallenfels shone his destructive beams relentlessly, regretlessly
through as another bell rang and I was wide awake, for the first time in an early day, pondering
through choices-right or wrong, immense or wee, everlasting or singular--that kept some apes
still swinging through ancient trees, that kept poor Chamberlain warm in some peace, that kept
my favourite teacher smiling on and on….
* * *
smile years after Mr. Wallenfels, the cellarknocker, old sci-fi films, scudding over my beliefs,
the will to power them, to believe in them. To do so is far easier than demand proofs. Recently,
I had a dream I was back in my favourite teacher's classroom. I often dream of past schools and
classes, mixing in classmates with people from other dominions of my existence. I was walking
through the crowded halls of JHS 119 and spied a man with a large blond afro. It was Mr. Wallenfels.
As I got nearer he looked at me. It wasn't Mr. Wallenfels--not as I recalled him. His face was
different--not older, not fatter--just off in those ways only dream can distort. What we
conversed of I don't recall. Then, he walked away, and the hall was no longer the hall. It was the
Venusian plank wound around a generator in First Spaceship On Venus, where the black ooze crept
after the trapped heroes. But there is no ooze, only my teacher descending into a place that
never was. I turn around in my old kitchen, I wipe my foot smeared with waterbug death with a
paper towel. I toss its remnants into the garbage can in my Texas kitchen, and wake. Next to me is
Jessica, and my sleeping cats. I'm the only conscious soul in the room, yet know somewhere--even
if only from within--Mr. Wallenfels is watching, impelling me to be better. I will write of him
soon. I drift off. I turn off the tv in my dining room.
At 13 years old the darkness of a
Glendale summer is total. Yet, much remains in the dark that I see and those I do not.