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Cecil B. My Father

The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. Cecil B. DeMille

From the time I was a wee lad, and no doubt before I was born, my father insisted there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something. I have no idea where he got this cockamamie idea, but it shaped his life in many ways.

He bought a series of the absolute cheapest gas-powered lawn mowers to use on the high grass in our orchard, and all these mowers were not only ineffective against the grass, but broke irreparably within a year or two, their carcasses piled in an enclosure near the house intended for firewood and eventually leaving no room for anything but the carcasses. When I cleaned out this enclosure shortly before my father died, I found nineteen of these dead cruddy mowers.

When my father was in his forties, he decided it would be fun and good exercise to commute to his office by bicycle a few times a week, a distance of three miles. He bought the absolute cheapest bicycle he could find, made the round trip once, and found the going so difficult and unpleasant, he never rode the bike again.

When his trusty Karmann Ghia needed replacing, he read about Fiats in Consumer Reports, which recommended only one model of Fiat, and that one with reservations. But when my father went to the dealership, he bought the cheapest model available, one that Consumer Reports declared a disaster, and lo Consumer Reports was right on. That automotive mess cost thousands a year in repairs and fixes that could never overcome the inherent flaws of the poorly designed machine.

Creation is a drug I can’t do without. Cecil B. DeMille

When I was sixteen, my father took my mother, my younger brother, my older sister, and me to Europe—the only time I’ve ever been. My father wanted to attend a psychiatric convention in Edinburgh in August and my mother insisted he take her and three of the four kids along, my eldest sister refusing to go.

In anticipation of our grand expedition, my father purchased a Super-8 movie camera, by far the cheapest one he could find (despite the grave warnings in Consumer Reports) because “they’re all the same.” And because he waited, as was his habit, until the very last minute to buy the camera, he did not shoot a test roll of film before we embarked. He also bought a chintzy little editing system with the intention of putting together a masterwork commemorating our European adventure.

We flew from San Francisco to New York and from there to Shannon Airport in Ireland. We then spent two days crammed inside a miniscule rental car driving across Ireland to Dublin, during which journey we were almost killed several times because my father kept driving on the wrong side of the road. We then spent two lovely days in Dublin before flying to Glasgow from where we drove across the Scottish Highlands, crammed into another tiny rental car, to Edinburgh where we spent a happy week.

And all along our way, every chance he had, my father zealously deployed his new camera, often going to dangerous lengths to get just the right angle for his shots of us gawking at castles and lochs and statues and fountains, as well as scenes of Irish and Scottish people and their adorable houses and farms and photogenic ruins—each roll of film giving my father three minutes of footage.

In Edinburgh we were encamped at Mrs. Covey’s Boarding House, and while my father attended his convention, we roamed about without him and his movie camera, and we were glad. Mrs. Covey took a liking to me and every day spoke to me at length, though I understood nothing of what she said, except one time I caught the name Kennedy in the waterfall of her Scottish English, though I knew not whether she was speaking of the deceased president or her neighbor.

From Edinburgh we took the train to London, a mode of travel I found vastly preferable to flying or driving with my father who was forever slamming on the brakes and jumping out of our itsy bitsy rental cars to film something he thought would go well in his impending opus.

Then we spent ten glorious days in London and I went to fabulous plays every night, sometimes with my family, sometimes with my sister, sometimes all by myself because I was sixteen and practically a grownup. In 1966 excellent plays abounded in London, and all British actors were fantastic compared to any American actors I’d ever seen. And you could get tickets at the door a few minutes before curtain and sit in great seats close to the stage for just a few dollars.

1966 was also the year the Beatles came out with Revolver, and I purchased two copies of the British edition of the album (that had more songs than the American edition) to take home and wow my music-loving friends.

And every day my father shot many rolls of film—our suitcases overflowing with the little round plastic canisters.

Then we flew from London across the channel to muggy, filthy, glorious Paris for ten days, and I had lots of time away from my folks, thank God. We stayed in an old hotel called the Hotel Moliere, and many mornings I would bid my family adieu and head out into the unknown with my French vocabulary of twenty words. My sister, fluent in French, sometimes consented to go adventuring with me, and she would speak for us at cafes where the food was inexpensive and delicious and our taciturn French hosts would become sweet and friendly when the American girl spoke such beautiful French.

At Versailles my father shot many rolls of film, and at Chartres he shot two rolls just of the stained-glass windows. And everywhere we went he risked life and limb to get the dramatic shots he wanted for his impending masterwork.

Our last stop in Europe was Amsterdam and way too much Van Gogh. The highlight of Amsterdam for me was wandering around in the red light district at dusk and seeing the prostitutes sitting in their windows, knitting or playing cards in their scanty outfits, waiting for horny customers to ring their bells.

There was an airline strike at the time of our European sojourn, and only American Airlines was flying from Europe to America. As we were about to board our homeward flight, my father was nowhere to be found. My hysterical mother sent me into the vast duty-free market to find him, and after a frantic search I found him far from the boarding area standing at a magazine stall flipping through Popular Mechanics. We then ran to the jet where my mother was throwing a crying fit to hold the plane for my unapologetic father. The stewardesses and captain were furious with us, but we made it aboard and took off.

Lastly we flew from New York to San Francisco, but not before my father shot roll after roll from atop the Empire State building and in the colorful hubbub of Times Square.

Home at last, my father had those hundred-some three-minute rolls of film developed, set the first roll on the viewer of his chintzy editing machine, cranked the film through the little viewer, and thrilled to see his opening shot. And then there was nothing more on the roll until the last few seconds when images appeared again.

This was true of all the rolls of film he’d hung from bell towers, so to speak, to shoot. A few seconds of imagery at the start, a second or two of imagery at the end. Did he throw the film away and admit that perhaps there was a difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something? Nay. He edited all those tiny fragments together and created a title shot (after he got the camera repaired, sort of) of a piece of paper on which he wrote in sloppy cursive Our Trip To Europe—his movie a five-minute fever dream of tiny fragments he projected on the living room wall one time and never again.

A year later, he made another movie while on a Sierra Club base camp trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. And this time the thrice-repaired camera actually captured images on the film. However, being a profoundly crummy camera, the colors were wonky. Everything green came out turquoise, lakes and rivers were pinkish, and human skin was a hideous orange.

Yet from this nauseating color blend he pieced together a movie and showed it to a gathering of people who had been at the base camp. The movie was ostensibly about a girl who doesn’t want to go on a trip into the mountains, but she eventually falls in love with the majesty of the oddly colored wilderness. The film starred my sister for the first half, but then she quit the production and my father found another girl at the base camp to star in the second half, which was confusing since this other girl looked nothing like my sister.

The best part of the film was the beginning. My sister runs across an expanse of sand and trips and falls, and as the camera tracks beyond her, we see scratched in the wet sand The Trip.

My father never used the movie camera again, and for the rest of his life continued to buy the cheapest one of everything he ever bought because he knew, as a person who knew everything, there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and a more expensive version of that something.

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