DITCH DAYS WITH DAD – AN ORIGIN STORY

It was August 1986 and five year old me had been in school for two weeks. First Grade was a big transition from kindergarten as we said goodbye to nap time and snack breaks. It was the expectation that we now spent our time reading, writing and ‘rithmatic…ing.

I guess I was a good student? I was most certainly a good reader, as I spent reading time with the 3rd graders. Writing seemed to be a strength with me as my cute little stories were getting pinned to the wall on a regular basis. Math… that’s a different story. Numbers were boring to me, they didn’t tell a story, at least one that I was interested in anyway. Being an only child of parents that both worked – a lot- I was often left to my own devices, which mostly consisted of reading and watching movies. LOTS of movies. Being a latch key kid and all my parents splurged and got “the good cable”. We had Nickelodeon (Pinwheel, Today’s Special and You Can’t Do That On Television), USA (Cartoon Express, Silk Stockings, but most importantly “UP ALL NIGHT” with Rhonda Sheer and Gilbert Gottfried- where at the age of SIX I saw CHOPPING MALL for the first time). HBO, Cinemax, AMC, etc…. I was watching A LOT – EARLY.

But nothing beat the experience at the cinema with my dad. Growing up in Reno, Nevada- the CINEPLEX at MEADOWWOOD MALL was a family favorite, and the GRENADA 4 downtown was my first cinema experience of note, having seen RETURN OF THE JEDI at the ripe old age of three. While I have memories of AMADEUS (and it’s notorious intermission) and STAR TREK III – THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK at the drive-in, nothing compares to the first “DADDY DOUBLE FEATURE” that I experienced the second week of my first grade year…. the day that my Dad checked me out of school to see FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR……and ALIENS.

Dad was very strict about schooling. Being an immigrant from Mexico City, where he had an “ok” education from all reports, it was very important that I do well in school and take it seriously. That’s why it was a huge surprise when the school secretary called me to the office one sunny day a mere two weeks after school began. Being a meek little only child, the idea of being called to principal’s office for no apparent reason sent chills down my spine and tears to my ducts. I grabbed my backpack and did the walk of shame through the classroom. I pretty much tiptoed to the office, step after step imagining what kind of trouble was in store for me. Did someone hear me swear under my breath? Did someone tell on me for trading my juice box for a Twinkie?? When I got to the office, my Dad was standing there by the door with a sullen look on his face.

“What did I do?” I asked.

“We will talk about it later.” he said, grabbing my hand and leading me out of the door.

We got into the car, a beat up 1979 Datsun that was the DeLorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE in my mind – mostly because of how fast my dad drove. I didn’t know what I did, but for Dad to be taking me out of school early, it must have been something bad. So imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the Meadowood Mall and made our way into the cineplex.

“What are we doing Daddy?” I’m sure I asked.

“We’re taking a day off. Everyone deserves a day off now and then. Just remember, do good in school and don’t tell your mother. Now, what do you want to see?” he asked.

GODDAMN! Not only did my dad check me out for a ditch day, but I got to choose my own movie too? I looked at the screen behind the ticket counter. At age five I had no problem reading the films on the list.

“Flight of the Navigator starts in ten minutes!” I screamed.

I had seen previews for it on the Disney Channel, and because we lived near an old Air Force base that tested the Stealth Fighter, I was wayyyy into flying saucers and aliens. My Dad paid for two tickets and led us to the snack stand. One popcorn, Cherry Coke and a pack Red Vines later, we were ready for the film to begin. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be. A story told through the eyes of a kid, and although he was a bit older than me in the film, I was BOUGHT in. The story of a boy taken from his place in time, awakening in some unknown future with only the company of a robot that sounds like Pee Wee Herman Sarah Jessica Parker with pink hair just really worked for me. I never asked my Dad if he liked it or not. In my slightly foggy memory he laughed in places, but mostly it seemed he was enjoying watching me enjoy myself. As the credits rolled I picked up my trash and began to leave the theater with my Dad. But something struck me funny as I led him to the front door. He grabbed my hand and led me back towards the theaters. I looked up at him and with an ever so gentle motion he put his finger to his lips… “Shhhhh”

My little hand in his, we casually walked into a dark theater. Having not paid for a second ticket and paranoid as fuck…. we sat down.

“Daddy, what are we doing?” I asked.

“You picked your movie, now I get to pick mine.” he said with a smile on his face.

The screen lit up and a fanfare of horns blurted. In the darkness…. letters appeared.

Five Years Old Mind You…

The next two hours changed my life completely. I had been afraid of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the transformation scene in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but this was different. Not only did I experience the sheer terror of the ALIEN xenomorphs, but the body horror of the incubation of the species. The most afraid I had ever been in my young life was was when they find the survivor in the cooling tower, the alien nest, who begs the colonial marines to “Kill Me” as the chestburster…bursts from her torso and shrieks – a memory that has stuck with me for 35 years. I remember the terror that NEWT must have felt when she was alone in the flooded air ducts, when the XENOMORPH rises out of the water behind her, or when the queen is revealed to be on the SULACO afte the daring escape from the doomed planetoid. I absorbed all of it – and LOVED IT.

This became a monthly ritual for my Dad and I. At some point during the month, I’d get that unexpected call to the office. It was always a challenge to hide my excitement, instead having to display a faux terror on my face as to not give up the game. Over the next couple years, I remember the following “Daddy Ditch Day” Double Features:

  1. The Great Mouse Detective and The Fly
  2. Labrynth and TOP GUN
  3. Spaceballs and RoboCop
  4. Harry and the Hendersons and Beverly Hills Cop 2
  5. Superman 4 and JAWS: The Revenge ( 2 of the worst films of all time, can you believe it??)

Not many more Ditch Days after 1987. My Dad worked a lot more and I switched schools, so there weren’t as many opportunities, but those couple years molded me into the cinema enthusiast that I am today.

My dad passed away a few years ago. The night of his passing just happened to be the premiere of ALIEN: COVENANT. Needless to say, I was disappointed in the film. I came home that night wondering if my Dad would feel the same way. We both were rather let down by PROMETHEUS. The Alien/Predator series was dear to us, so we both had high expectations. I came home from the premiere late, probably midnight. At six a.m. there was a knock on the front door. When I opened it, there were two police men standing in front of me. I invited them in and they sat on the couch. Over the next ten minutes they explained to me how my dad had taken his life in his car, parked in the lot of the local police station. Of all the thoughts that ran through my mind that morning, the one that stood out was the fact that he probably would have hated ALIEN: COVENANT.

Thoughts went back to the good days; the days of my youth. The early days that molded me into the cinema enthusiast that I am today… and the person that got me there.

I miss you Dad.

The End.

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