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25 Years Ago! Part IX! Death And Life On June 4, 1982!

Merrick here...
June 04, 1982. 3:45am. It was a still Summer evening not unlike a thousand evenings of my childhood. The night was humid; sweat beaded around my forehead and neck with film noir intensity. I was staying overnight with a friend – one of those childhood friends who mean the universe to you when you’re growing up…whose every secret you know, and who knows your every secret. He was the kid who holds a place in all layers of your life, but somehow slips into oblivion as the years go by. Unlike most of our sleepovers - which were dominated by endless hours of frivolous conversation, late night broadcasts of cheesy Sci Fi / horror flicks, and stealing glimpses of titties and vaginas in girlie magazines (where did he get those, anyway?) - this night was different: spirits were high, adrenaline was at a fever pitch. There would be no sleeping. That it was unusually hot in the house didn’t matter (his mom was single and kept the AC off to lower her bills). There were two huge movies opening in a few hours, and…good geeks that we were…we were going to see them both. On the first day, we were going to see them both. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, and POLTERGEIST. Between the two films, we’d be waiting in lines for close to ten hours – with no sleep the night before. It was going to be a long, tough haul - but we had to see them both THAT DAY. We never perceived another choice. To us, in that moment, there wasn’t one. We laid there silently, waiting for his mother’s footsteps. We didn’t speak for a while – each of us already knew what the other was thinking, so there was no need. We listened…closely. Waiting for footsteps - when we heard them, it would be time to go. FOOTSTEPS. Funny how such simple things take on so much importance when you’re young. My friend’s mother was always profoundly tolerant of our madness, and dutifully did anything within her power to appease our passion for Science Fiction / adventure / fantasy material. She staggered out of bed in her bathrobe around 3:55am. Bully eyed and puffy faced, she groggily donned her purse and palmed her car keys. For an instant I wondered if she was too tired to drive us across town to the theater – I wondered if we might crash and die on the way. I quickly shrugged off my misgiving: I didn’t understand death yet, and Admiral Kirk was waiting for me. I wasn’t going to let him down. So, through the night we went. It was the first time I’d driven through the city so late in the evening. The familiar streets looked different to me. Emptier. Lonelier. Like they were waiting for something, or someone, to come back. Like they were awaiting life. The night, it seemed, had rewritten the world. Then we arrived at this theater: the Aquarius 4 in Austin, TX.
There were already people there – they’d been waiting in line since 10pm the night before, which made them bastards. We weren’t too far back in line, though – we were against the middle “wall panel” of the theater (slightly to the left of the bulldozer in the picture above). We waited. We tried to sleep, but we couldn’t. We were hungry, having quickly exhausted the little snacks that had been lovingly prepared for us the night before. We baked in the increasingly hot morning sun…it often gets into the mid-90s before noon in Texas…we were surrounded by concrete with no shade. But, we were there for STAR TREK – how could one rest when a new movie was at hand? Heat was irrelevant, discomfort a minor consideration. STAR TREK was important now, which was joyous. We could now like space ships and pointed ears without getting beaten up at school. Plus, Orson Welles' voice on the unforgettable teaser for the first–ever TREK movie told us the franchise was important:
We’d memorized every moment this trailer, often emulating Welles' voice for endless hours and hours. That voice…could make you believe anything. It could make you believe STAR TREK was utterly classy and biblically consequential. He could even make you believe Nostradamus was right, and that our world will end in 3797 (I started second guessing this one a few years later). My friend and I recited that damn trailer to each other over and over again, for years, until finally becoming distracted by this trailer:
This trailer told us a lot about what to expect from THE WRATH OF KHAN. A STAR TREK movie that existed in a different photographic and physical universe than STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. Gone were the austere sets and decidedly “epic scope” of the first film – injected were a sense of immediacy, intimacy, grit, and truth of character. STAR TREK and been effectively rebooted for a third time (I’m counting THE ANIMATED SERIES and THE MOTION PICTURE). It was now older, wiser, simpler, and a lot more dangerous. TWOK would set a dramatic and conceptual standard that many fans….25 years later…feel best represents the franchise’s full potential. It’s an approach many feel should be TREK’s direction in whataver lies down the road. THE WRATH OF KHAN was the first Science Fiction film I recall seeing that focused so heavily on character, and dared to show that human imperfection was not only constant…but somehow okay. This was certainly evident in the original STAR TREK series, but never as significantly as in TWOK. My television heroes got kicked around in this film, and so did the Starship Enterprise itself. We’d seen that fine-ass vessel get the crap blasted out of it time and time again…but we’d never seen the physical scarring resulting from this damage. We’d never seen the ship in pain. We’d never seen “cool” space battles resulting in burned and bloodied crewmen. What used to be “fun” was now a tad scary. It had higher jeopardy, and I loved it. And then there’s Spock. He died. The guy whose lines I used to memorize got jacked up by radiation and died. The guy whose fucking poster used to hang on my wall, staring down on me at night, died. How dare he do that! What the hell?! When he croaked, he looked thin and ashen, as if all of his energy had been ripped away. Maybe I was too innocent, perhaps I was just naive, but it never crossed my mind that someone I cared about might (suddenly) no longer be there. I’d understood the existence of loss on a different level – people I’d known had lost people they cared about, and I’d even lost folks in my own periphery – but never someone to whom I was truly attached. It never crossed my mind that this could happen to me; kind of narrow-minded and stupid of me in retrospect. As I already knew Spock was coming back, and as I didn’t have a context for the emotions driving that scene…I just didn’t get it. I understood Kirk was upset because his buddy kicked off an all…but I didn’t get it. I didn’t feel that punch to the gut that takes ages to go away. A few years later, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died slowly for close to a decade. He’d been big and strong and I remember seeing a tear or two in his eyes when Spock passed. When my dad finally moved on, he looked a bit like Spock looked in that final scene. Then, and only then, did I understand the full truth of that agonizing, desperate, final moment between Shatner and Nimoy…separated by glass…in which one man would do anything to stem the tide of what was coming…but couldn’t. All Kirk could do was sit there and watch a best friend die before his eyes; just like I watched my father die before mine. In August 1993, I finally got it. And it hurt like hell. We left the movie for the next leg of our adventure; my friend was shattered and speechless because that green blooded son-of-a-bitch had died. He wasn’t much fun for the rest of the day, but I could deal with it. I was obliviously obsessing about what we were going to eat for lunch. We had Taco Bell, and farted throughout the afternoon. It was bliss. An hour later we arrived at the Lake Hills 4 theater for POLTERGEIST.
This time we got to wait inside. Distracted by glorious air conditioning, the smell of popcorn which constantly permeated the lobby, and the presence of cutting edge video games like JOUST and GALAGA, we waited for several hours. Playing, talking about KHAN, and about nothing in particular. I’d been really, really curious about POLTERGEIST since seeing it’s initial trailer. I loved its trailer. I loved Mr. Voice’s line reading: “The house looks just like the one next to it…and the one next to that…and the one next to that.” We don’t get set-up like this anymore in trailers; it’s awesome.
In an oblique way, POLTERGEIST complements THE WRATH OF KHAN thematically. Both films are about death and how we relate to it. Both are about continuance (emotionally for those left behind, and cosmically for those who have moved on). Both are about angry forces intruding upon the love of a family. There are other similarities, but you get the idea. I had a lot of fun with POLTERGEIST. I liked it’s slightly unpolished look and style. I loved Goldsmith’s score. I had a sexual crush on JoBeth Williams, and a man crush on Craig T. Nelson. The movie was cool, scary, funny, a little bit thought provoking, and memorable. Yet, something about it didn’t ring true to me, even then. It was a little too over the top. It always felt like this excess undercut the atmosphere in which the film functioned best – diluting its sense of dark mystery, the majestic notion that there’s a universe out there which we’ve only begun to understand – to which our smallness is humbling in comparison. 14 years later, I moved into a brand new house – freshly built by my family. Within the first few months of moving there, odd incidents started to occur. Strange displays of light and sound. Insoluble anomalies in the electrical system. The systematic disappearance and reappearance of objects (including pets vanished from, and returned to, locked cages). Footsteps on the second floor when I was the only person in the house. My (then 5 year old) son reported being awakened by “alien voices” night after night, and talked about “fireworks” outside of his window (his window looked directly into a towering wall of cedar trees through which no light could shine at night). My sister was the first person to posit that everything I was experiencing was paranormal. I didn’t want to hear this, and wasn’t even certain that I “believed”. The events continues, on again and off again, for months…then years. Slowly gathering in intensity, the nature of the occurrences became more and more spectacular. More and more deliberate. As much as I resisted the notion, I slowly came to the conclusion that something beyond my understanding was happening to me and my son. My best friends (from out of town) would call me to check on how I was doing; they could sense I was rattled and knew me to be consistently level headed, and rarely dramatic. If I said something was going on…something was going on. It was that simple. When I tried to tell my friends about what was happening in the house, my cordless phones would be blasted offline by a deafening burst of static. I could call someone back immediately, the conversation would progress normally. But, as soon our conversation revisited to what was happening in the house…the phone would again disconnect noisily. I went to the Internet in an effort to research such phenomenon. My computer would gradually slow down (then stop working completely) when I searched for terms like “paranormal”, “ghosts”, “hauntings”…and especially “ghost hunters”. Eventually, I actually needed to leave my house and drive far away in order to discuss the matter on my cell phone. Eventually, I fled into the night with my son – much like the Freelings in POLTERGEIST. We couldn’t take any more. I’m no longer living at that house, but…stuff…still happens there. It’s occupants are trying to explain away the occurrences, blaming it on each other’s forgetfulness or carelessness. Somewhere down inside, they know better. So, POLTERGEIST got it all wrong. The truth nature of the paranormal and haunting is far more insidious, vastly more disquieting, and infinitely more nerve-wracking than portrayed in most movies. It’s 25 years later…today. The theaters I visited on June 4 are no longer there. The Lakehills 4 is a gargantuan music store now. When I was a kid, I chipped the bathroom wall – that mark is still there. And, I swear that…if you try hard enough, wander long enough, and find just the right place in the building…you can still smell the popcorn. The Aquarius is gone, too. 25 years later…POLTERGEIST is now a horror “classic”, targeted for remake. People don’t loose sleep over STAR TREK movies anymore, at least not yet. There’s another TREK movie coming out…which means another reboot of the franchise and mythos. We’ll see what there is to see; we’ll see how well people sleep the night before. Two and a half decades out, this all feels bizarrely familiar. And, 25 years later, I’m finally beginning to feel my age (it’s not the years, it’s the mileage). I’ve seen friends come and go, and people I cared for have left me like Spock left me. I think about life, death, and the universe a lot – how they relate to each other, and how we probably understand very little about what comes next. And my memories often carry me back to June 4, 1982 – when I was first slapped in the face by the notion that there’s more to existence than the myopic little shell in which I grew up for so long. Including death, and beyond death. I wonder what my dad’s up to right now?

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