THE HOUSE THAT ROCKY BUILT

Halloween 1984 – 4 year me stood in front of the full length mirror in my parents room admiring my costume. This would be my first time trick-or-treating and I was ready for it. Before I was to grab my extra large pillow case and head out into the neighborhood, I made a few minor adjustments to my ensemble. I made sure to straighten the thick gold plated chain (fake of course) so that the multitude of medallions hanging from it were perfectly aligned. My large fake earrings looked to be on point, and as I made one last adjustment to my bald cap with Mohawk, I nodded at myself in the mirror and knew that I was ready to make a splash. There was a problem though, the dark bronzer on my face began to creep into my eyes, making them water. I blotted them with some toilet paper but realized that I had smeared some of the bronzer off. I quickly called for my father who ran into the room to apply more. Done and Done, I was ready to go. I grabbed my child sized silk robe with gold trim, put on my boxing gloves, grabbed my pillow case (the best I could with 3 oz boxing gloves on my hands) and headed out the door. I met my friends on the corner, excited for them to see my ensemble. Their reaction was as expected.

“WHOA! YOU LOOK JUST LIKE HIM!” yelled one of my neighborhood pals.

“What, are you a pirate or something?” asked another.

The grownups in the group were not as impressed, as they looked at me disapprovingly – shaking their heads and whispering to each other. Finally, the bravest of the parents asked me flat out.

“Who are you supposed to be Antonio?” the nervous mother asked.

“Well… I’m Clubber Lang… you know, Mr. T? From Rocky 3?” I replied nervously.

There was some discussion amongst the group of parents about what was to be done, and before I knew it one of the parents had grabbed me by the hand and was whisking me back to my house at the end of the street. We marched up the stairs where they proceeded to knock on the front door – loudly. My dad answered the door, beer in hand with a boxing match on the television at high volume.

“Is something wrong?” he asked in his thick Latin accent that everyone else seemed to notice but me – he was just my dad.

“I don’t know what you were thinking let your child go out in public like this. In BLACKFACE. It’s shameful. How dare you!” the woman said.

I didn’t understand half of these words that this woman was spouting at my dad. All I could read were the emotions and the vocal inflections. I could feel the quiver in my stomach as if I’d done something wrong, but didn’t know what. The uneasiness made me tear up, causing the bronzer to once again run into my eyes, making them burn. My tears didn’t didn’t seem to affect this woman’s tirade, but my dad noticed. He quickly grabbed me by the hand and pulled me inside.

“Fuck you lady!” he said and slammed the door in her face. He turned off the tv and lead me by the hand to the bathroom where he drew a bath. He helped be out of my costume and into the water. I was still crying and my eyes were still burning, but mostly my heart hurt. I had no idea what I had done, or what my dad had done to make this woman so mad. Did I ruin Halloween? What was happening?

“Daddy, what did I do wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing kiddo. I fucked up. I just wanted you to have fun.” he said. As he helped me wash off the bronzer, there was a knock on the door. My dad stood up and left the bathroom. I could hear the creak of the front door open and voices echo through the hallway. It was the woman again, this time with her husband. Through the murmurs I could make out some words:

… where’s his mother… she’s at night school if it’s any of your business….don’t you see how racist this is…. Lady, I’m Mexican. Don’t talk to me about racism…

A few minutes later I heard the front door shut and my dad came back into the room. In his hand was my pillowcase for candy, my black pajamas and one of my mom’s black wide brim hats.

“Fuck it. You’re gonna be Zorro.” he said. Within minutes he had painted an eyemask on my face and fashioned a make shift sword out of a TV antenna and we were back on the street. Halloween was saved! But why was it almost ruined?

Understand that my father was an immigrant from Mexico, who had spent his entire life traveling the world with the circus, and that’s not a joke. There wasn’t a racist bone in his body, in fact he had told me stories of traveling through the south with the circus and being denied gasoline, pulled over for no reason, and being asked to “move along” if he spent too long in one place. He was tough and just pushed through, so this momentary lapse of judgement with my Halloween costume hit him hard. He meant no offense, he was just learning more about racial sensitivity – so why the profanity towards my friend’s mom?

“Fuck Her.” he told me. “She didn’t have to do what she did. She could have just brought you home and talked to me in private. Nothing hurts worse than being humiliated in front of your son.”

As we walked through the streets alone, just the two of us going from door to door collecting candy, I thought about why the night took such a weird turn. It wasn’t my Dad that wanted to dress me like Mr.T, it was me. I did because the year before I was already Rocky, and I couldn’t be Rocky twice. He was just letting me what I wanted to be, and I wanted to be that because for me and my Dad – ROCKY was EVERYTHING.

If my dad hadn’t been brought up as a flying trapeze artist in the circus, his dream was to have been a boxer. He was short, 5’2″ maybe, but he was quick and strong and surprisingly intimidating. I used to watch him punch the heavy bag with such intensity that I actually felt bad for the bag! He hated the idea of me being bullied and teased, especially since I was a shorty as well, and although I didn’t know at the time, he knew that someday I would be picked on for either the color of my skin or my short stature, and both turned out to be true. He got me into boxing and we trained often. He would get the big fights on pay-per-view and invite his friends over. Every time the bell rang at the end of each round, my dad and I would throw on our gloves and “spar” in front of his friends until the next round started, impressing them with my skills and determination. Yes, we were a “boxing” house, and how could you be a boxing house in the 80’s and not be a huge fan of ROCKY.

It was actually Rocky 3 that introduced me to the fantastical series. I didn’t finally see the original film until I was about 12 or so, it was just a little too slow for my taste as a child. I was hooked on the Rocky of the 80’s – full of adrenaline, testosterone, pulsating arena rock anthems and Carl Weathers racing Stallone down the beach in slow motion in the worlds shortest shorts. It’s like a live action cartoon for the masses – and I was all in. We probably watched Rocky 3 at least fifty times in my early years, but as 1985 rolled around, something new was coming, something that would change my life…

For Christmas in 1985, we got this. Probably the most shameless exploitation of the COLD WAR between the USA and Russia ever committed to film for the sake of entertainment. Stallone’s metaphor for American Success (and the joys of capitalism to boot) was a MONSTER at the box office, bringing in more than 300 million dollars world wide, and my family added at least 50 bucks to that tally, having seen it in the theater three times. We owned the Soundtrack, first on vinyl, then on cassette so we could listen on the way to school. It’s pulsating rock anthems that are strewn about the film are designed to get your adrenaline rushing. I listened to it dozens of times, I even did a lip synch routing to “HEARTS ON FIRE” in my first grade talent show that was well received (at least to my parents..) Thinking back on my first viewing of the film in the theater, the slow motion shot of two boxing gloves, one with the American Flag, the other with flag of Russia – clashing together and bursting into flames is forever cemented in my brain.

The story picks up immediately after part 3 (Stallone gives a shit about time-lines, as part 5 takes place immediately after part 4 but came out 5 years later, where Rocky’s son is suddenly turns into a pre-teen overnight). Rocky, now a multi-millioniare after his retirement, is enjoying his sweet sweet life in his ridiculous mansion full of swimming pools, Roman columns, and of course, his very own Robot which he gifts to Paulie for his birthday (and face it, who didn’t want that robot?). News breaks about a Russian boxer that is storming the scene, looking for a worthy opponent to take him on. With Rocky and Apollo Creed now retired, the Russian monster known as Ivan Drago is thirsty for blood, but Apollo, not content with retirement and aging out, decides to fight Drago in a highly publicized exhibition fight. However, the Russian proves to be too much for Creed, and the fight ends in tragedy. Feeling that it’s all his fault, Rocky comes out of retirement to fight Drago, but this time on Russian soil. Sparks fly as the two superpowers go to war, albeit in a boxing ring where the two premier athletes destroy each other. Of course, Rocky didn’t go there to lose.

Along with Ghostbusters, Gremlins and The Goonies- the Rocky series shaped my childhood, especially the relationship with my father. We both loved movies, and the Rocky films were the ones we enjoyed together the most (maybe Rambo as well.) Every year a Rocky film came out, we were there to see it opening day. Rocky 5 was seen at a rinkydink little theater in Heber City, Utah, the small town we moved to after spending my childhood in Reno, Nevada. We had to wait 16 years for Rocky Balboa, which we saw over Christmas where I, now an adult, flew out out to Seattle to se my folks, and of course see the new Rocky Film. Anytime we would have a get together, as well as the last few years of my father’s life where he lived with us, we would marathon the films, starting early in the morning and finish well into the evening, drinking beers all throughout, so by the time the last chapter played, we were oblivious to what was going on.

We didn’t get to see Creed in the theater together, which was just as well as it wasn’t really Rocky’s story anyway. We did marathon a few times more before his passing in 2017, and honestly, I haven’t been able to watch a Rocky film since… it just wasn’t the same.

Recently, it was announced that Stallone was going to re-cut his classic Rocky 4, and earlier this month (November 2021), ROCKY VS DRAGO – THE DIRECTORS CUT was released. I made myself a martini (several actually) and watched this new cut with zero interruptions. I found myself… split. Gone was the 80’s story of excess (as well as the robot), and gone was most of the 80’s pulsating arena rock that I loved so much (the montages were still there though, thank god.) I didn’t hate what Stallone was trying to do, but I did feel that film wasn’t re-cut for people like me. It was made for the youth of today, or those that never experienced it when it was first released. It was made for the generations after, the ones that judged it for it’s praise of excess and dare I say, Nationalism. It was re-cut to appease a new generation of movie goers, those who are more critical of the political and social messages a film puts out. And while I agree that message of the original cut of Rocky 4 is dated and problematic in today’s society, It is the film I grew up with, a film that constructed my childhood and fortified my relationship with my parents. We were a Rocky house, until the very end.

See you next time!

A

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