There’s two kinds of James Bond movies: The good ones and the dumb ones. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is far and away my favorite of the dumb ones, and if I’m honest, it’s one of my favorite Bond films of all times.
That said, I was operating mostly on memory until yesterday. I’d videotaped it off of TV, trimmed for TV, full of commercial breaks, back around 1980, and as pretty much the only Bond flick I had, I watched it endlessly for a year or two. I honestly don’t think I ever saw the complete, uncut thing until this weekend. It was better than I remembered. I was pleasantly surprised.
Firstly, for a dumb film it’s not as dumb as I remembered. Apart from Kurt Jurgens’ dumb-but-cool Legion of Doom headquarters that rises out of the sea, they play the whole thing very straight. Even Jaws, the over-the-top murderous henchman, isn’t a cartoon. He’s genuinely frightening in some scenes (Such as on the train), he’s a seven-foot-tall freak of nature, insanely strong, and his unkillability just kind of seems believable.
Secondly, despite being a terrible, terrible actress, Barbara Bach makes an unusually strong partner in the film. As Bond’s more-or-less equal-and-opposite from the USSR, she’s not helpless, and contributes a good deal to the film in the first half. Watching her and Bond try to out-spy each other to get the MacGuffin was a lot of fun, and she does get the drop on him once or twice. When they’re partnered up in the second act of the film, she contributes less, and in the final act she’s basically a damsel in distress. That’s disappointing, and her whole “I’m going to kill you when the mission is over, James,” thing is resolved way too easily. Still, I’d say she’s easily the best Bond Girl since Tracy (1969) and prior to Natalya (1995).
Thirdly: The Liparus. It is the greatest and largest villain’s lair in the entire franchise, and even now, thirty-five years after I last saw the film, I’m in awe of it. It’s a life-size set with not one, but three full-sized submarine mock ups in it, and 1.2 million gallons of water. The final battle makes the ninja assault on SPECTRE’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice seem like a minor tiff.
This is just an unspeakably lavish film in terms of set design. It’s the most Bondian looking Bond film ever. In addition to the Liparus, there’s Atlantis, the bad guy’s OTHER lair. (Yes, that’s right, the bad guy has TWO lairs!) The Naval Base office has a cool, slanted ceiling, is all pre-stressed concrete and glass walls, and must go back two hundred feet, and it’s only in one scene. The brig on the Liparus is equally huge, and again it’s only used once. The submarine sets – unrealistically huge – are pretty impressive. This whole thing just looks super-crazy-no-way-gonzo-over-the-top, and that’s honestly what we want, right? A bad guy who isn’t content to destroy the world, he’s going to destroy it with style.
In short, up until the one hour mark, it is a genuinely good Bond movie, which I think most people have forgotten. I know I did.
Right at the one hour mark, it turns into a live action cartoon, of course. I was watching it with my son when a motorcycle sidecar turns into a rocket. He said, “FINALLY,” with a kind of hilarious weariness. From then on, it’s just sillier and sillier – a submarine car, a supertanker that eats submarines, Jaws suddenly falling hundreds of feet off a cliff and just shaking it off, Kurt Jurgens attempting to start a nuclear war so that he can play Adam-and-Even in his new underwater civilization. It’s just dopey, and I’ll be the first to admit, but it does a surprisingly good job of selling itself. The Liparus sub-eater is so cool that I’m willing to overlook the 120 or so things that are wrong with it.
They take it a little too far on occasion – such as shooting a boat out the side of the Liparus like a rocket for no good reason, rather than just putting it in the water – which breaks the suspension of disbelief. Still: This is the dumb half of the movie that everyone remembers. What I think they don’t remember is that it’s really entertainingly dumb.
There’s a lot to like here. The direction is great, the action scenes cut together really well, and the Arch Villain’s plot is the first time in the franchise that anyone wanted to destroy the world just to play God. (Interestingly, the first irredeemably genocidally insane villain in Bondom is an environmentalist). This is one of the very few films – two? Three? – that in any way deals with Bond’s pre-spy life, his dead wife gets a name check, and Bond’s reaction shows that he’s still messed up over it.
As that’s a neat scene, I’ll recount it: Bond and our Soviet agent meet at a bar (In Egypt! It was a very different, less fundamentalist world in 1977, and would remain so for about a year) and he immediately starts flirting with her. She rattles off a bunch of facts about him, “…has had many lady friends, but only married once -”
Bond [abruptly]: “That’s enough.”
Anya: “So you are sensitive, Mister Bond.”
Bond [Dryly]: “About some things. Thank you for the drink.” [Abruptly walks away without having touched it]
Of course there’s negatives. The soundtrack is a bit too disco-influenced. Bond’s “Hello, let’s bone” shenanigans come across almost like parodies of porn films, they’re so cringingly awful. As opposed to the charming guy with an undercurrent of menace, which is the way the character had always been played (And Moore is charming in this, by the way), he’s suddenly some kind of sexual superhero who’s mere presence causes women to swoon within seconds. Or, in one inexplicable scene, to sacrifice herself to save his life after just one kiss. To be clear: Bond has always gotten laid a lot, and I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s just done really badly here. Barbara Bach’s character is hopping in the sack with Bond just days after her long-term boyfriend was killed. “Ok,” you think, “It’s the 1970s. She’s a swinger or something, it means nothing.” Nope, they play it like she’s falling in love with 007. Kurt Jurgens is strangely underdeveloped as a supervillain. Why do they capture the third sub? They already have the two they need.
The movie goes way too Matt Helm in the last five or ten minutes. I’m being literal. One of the final fights resolves itself exactly like the one at the end of “Murderer’s Row,” in which an electromagnet is used to take out a henchman. The Escape Pod is rocket powered for some reason, and is a big round bed stocked with champagne and books and a premium sound system. The obligatory “The boss stumbles in on Bond in dilecto flagrante” scene honestly is smarmy in the same way the same scenes were smarmy for Dean Martin.
But this movie really is no end of fun, despite its legions of flaws.
A couple final notes:
Though it’s never openly stated, the bad guys would have gotten away with it. The only reason they don’t is because one of the bad guy’s people getting greedy and offering to sell secret MacGuffin technology to the superpowers. Had Stromberg’s staff been loyal, the good guys would never have known what was up, the plot would have gone off without a hitch, and everyone on earth would have died. I like that.
This movie marked the first time anyone had ever seen a jet ski. They were in the prototype stage, and introduced to the public here (At this point called a ‘Wetbike’ because British people are bad at naming things)
This movie also marks the introduction of the Lotus Esprit. Bond’s car in the movie is one of only two working prototypes in the world at the time. Sadly, it didn’t really turn into a submarine.
Weirdly, the very next movie in the series has almost the exact same plot: Supervillain wants to wipe out the world so he can play God and start over with his hand-chosen Adams and Eves. Bond is teamed up with a spy (CIA this time), and the basic structure and progression of the story is almost identical. It involves Jaws. “Moonraker,” just outright sucks, though, and is nothing but live-action cartoon from start to finish.
Ok, I’m done. This is not the greatest movie ever made, but it is almost undoubtedly better than you remember, and well worth a watch on a Saturday night, if you’ve got nothing better to do.
I. Just. Came. Up. With. THE. BEST. Zombie. Story. Concept. Since Max. Brooks.
Normally I don’t brag or praise myself, but oh my gosh, bolt of lightning to the head, a huge idea, then another, then another, then another. and the core of a novel is laid out before me in the matter of maybe seven minutes. And it’s unlike anything else anyone is doing.
I have to use it, right?
Once I finish my late friend Jim’s novel (he’d written about 85% and asked me to complete it for him), all my other projects are on hold until I do this zombie thing.
It is the future! The year 1972…or 1975…or 1979, it’s a little unclear, but definitely some time in the ‘70s, as seen from 1968.
On the whole, it seems much nicer than the ‘70s we actually got: there’s no sign of Jimmy Carter, no wide ties, no loud leisure suits, no disco, no bell bottoms. Instead, this version of the ‘70s looks pretty much identical to the ‘60s: Skinny suits, reserved demeanor, a lot of optimism about technology, and a lot of cold war tension (Détente not being something envisioned in the ’60s). A Bobby Kennedy impersonator is president. (This film was made in the narrow window between when Bobby announced he’d be running and the time he was assassinated.)
In a supremely misguided decision, the entire nuclear defense and offence of our country is turned over to a computer buried deep in the Rockies. This computer is called “WOP-R”…oh, no, wait, different flick: This computer is called “Skynet,” no, wait…uhm…“Colossus.” Yes, it was called “Colossus.” It was designed and built by Dr. Charles Forbin, and the complex is Krell-sized and quite literally impenetrable. We see Forbin locking it up in the opening credits.
At a press conference at the White House, the president Kennedy the Second and Forbin introduce the system to the public, and explain generally how it works: It monitors the whole world to eliminate human error from the whole pesky “Nuclear War” thing, thus rendering us – and by extension, earth – safe forever. Curiously, the president refers to “Citizens of the World” in his speech, but not “My fellow Americans.” Typical, really. Hippies.
Anyway, while at the press conference, Colossus goes goofy and says “There is another system” over and over. The staff boot the reporters out, discuss the situation with the CIA and Forbin, and conclude that the Soviets have built their own Colossus (Called “Guardian”) working from stolen US information. “You’ve got a spy on your staff,” the CIA chief tells Forbin. This is an interesting plot element that is never revisited, and left dangling at the end, mostly because the political situation changes so fast that such things become irrelevant.
Colossus requests a connection to Guardian, and on the urging of Forbin and the Soviet director of the Guardian project – Kuprin – the governments reluctantly agree. The machines connect over phone lines or something, and quickly set about developing a mathematical language to communicate in. Everyone is excited about this – a whole lot of new stuff gets developed during the day or so they’re developing the language, including some babble about “Finite Absolutes” – but they start to wig when they realize the machines are now speaking in a language no one else can understand. It’s the machine equivalent of one of those unsettling languages identical twins sometimes speak in.
The US and USSR attempt to break the connection. The machines warn that action will be taken if they’re not re-connected immediately. The president and the Soviet leader refuse. Both machines launch nuclear missiles aimed at the other country. Neither country can do anything to shut ‘em down. After a stressful couple minutes, they agree to reconnect the computers. Colossus shoots down the Soviet missile, but the American one is too close for Guardian to do anything about by that point, and it destroys a town in northern Russia.
Colossus explains that if the connection is broken again, he’ll start nuking lots of towns. Guardian does likewise. Both governments lie to cover up the incident. Forbin and Kuprin head to Rome to discuss a way to shut their Frankensteins down, but the machines figure out what’s going on, and dispatch the KGB to kill Kuprin “Or else we will vaporize Moscow.” This they then do. (the KGB, I mean. Moscow is fine.)
Back in the ‘States, Colossus dictates terms to Forbin: 24/7 surveillance. In the few hours before this goes into effect, he sets up a covert method for the government to sneak information to him through a mistress. (“If you doubt that a man needs a woman, check your history banks, and art units”) Of course he doesn’t actually have a mistress, so he just picks the prettiest computer tech, “Cherry Forever” from “Porky’s.” Colossus agrees to give them privacy while they do it. In fact, they don’t really do it – not at first, anyway – they just lie around naked and exchange information (“Oh, is *That* what you call it!” boom-chicka-wah-boom-chicka-wah-wah), but they eventually get around to the sweet monkey love. It’s all entertainingly awkwardly chaste and proprieticious early on, though.
Colossus/Guardian has a voice synthesizer at this point (An uncredited Paul Frees, who’s really good. Easily the best Cylon ever. Way better than Gary Owens.) and the CIA and KGB are gradually sabotaging their respective ICBMs under the machine’s noses. Meanwhile, the Colossus staff attempt to pull a Star Trek, overpowering the computer by having it run some kind of perpetual counting program, or whatever. The computer merely says “You are fools,” and has those responsible shot. Nuclear missiles in the US and USSR are to be re-targeted at neutral countries so Colossus/Guardian can control the whole world.
Colossus demands to address the world, so they let it. It explains who it is, and how it’s in charge of the world, and how this is for everyone’s best. “Problems unsolvable for you are simple for me,” and “I was built initially to prevent war. This has been done. War is gone forever.”
Best line in the movie:
“This is the era of peace. It can be the peace of untold prosperity, or the peace of unburied dead.”
As illustration, it reveals that it knew about the sabotage all along, and nukes the locations that the CIA and KGB are currently working on, killing thousands. Forbin – very reserved through the whole movie – utterly freaks the hell out.
Colossus tells Forbin that eventually he’ll come to love and be in awe of the machines, and that all humanity will as well.
“Never,” Forbin says.
Man oh man oh man oh man, what a great movie! Seriously, I had some major misgivings about watching this one. I remembered it as being pretty disappointing, and I’m not convinced I’d seen it since 1979 or so, but MAN it’s great! Faaaaaaaaaar better than I remembered.
First of all, the direction is awesome! There’s lots of well-composed shots, there’s lots of camera motion, and all kinds of neat elements like overlapping dialog where people are talking at the same time, or dealing with background chatter, or what have you. The blocking of the group scenes – involving videophones, even! – is done so well that it appears effortless. If you’ve ever done any stage or TV work, you’ll know how hard that is to pull off with large interacting groups. Really, this whole movie seems effortless, and I’m pretty impressed by that. Director Joseph Sargent brought a lot of those same elements to “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” four years later (The good one, not the crappy remake), and to a lesser degree in the “Space” miniseries in 1985, and several of the better “ Invaders“ episodes in the ‘60s. He’s good.
How good? You’re effectively dealing with a movie here that takes place almost exclusively inside of three large rooms, with a lot of talking. It would have been amazingly easy to blow it, and end up in “Creation of the Humanoids” territory, but they don’t. Instead, they make a very conscious effort to play it in the same vein as a cold war thriller, like, say, Failsafe, rather than in the dopier vein of a period SF film. He makes this work so well that when the movie ventures outside its principle locations, you kind of want it to get back in there. This is the kind of film it would be ninety-nine times easier to do badly than to do well, and yet Sargent pulls it off very well indeed.
It’s a classic.
The cast is really solid, too: Hans Jorg Gudegast plays Forbin. He’s better known by his stage name of “Eric Braeden,” and even better known still as “Victor” from The Young and the Restless. He also played Irwin Rommel surrogate Hans Dietrich on “Rat Patrol.” He plays Forbin as an interesting mix of youthful idealism and reserved Werner von Braunism (If that’s a word. And if it isn’t it should be). He’s composed, very confident, very smart, very quick to grab any advantage that comes his way, and yet he doesn’t have much of an emotional life. When Colossus turns out to be more than he’d anticipated, he’s overjoyed. When it quickly gets out of hand, he’s annoyed, but treats it as an intellectual puzzle that he’s certain he’ll overcome eventually. It’s a game – telegraphed by him playing chess with Colossus at one point. As the movie goes on, he gets a bit more ragged, has a hard time keeping his calm face on. When Kuprin is killed, he’s startled. When his own people are executed in front of him, he’s heartbroken. When Guardian nukes the US he snaps. When he declares his defiance from the machines at the end, you know – you just know – that it’s empty bravado. They’re right: Forbin is too fascinated with them to remain angry for long, and these kinds of emotional traumas are just wearing him down and making him an easier target. The machines have won not only the whole world, but the soul of their creator, or soon they will anyway.
Susan Clark doesn’t make too much of an impression. She’s pretty enough, but they deliberately play that down. She does come across as pretty smart, and her awkwardness with the ‘mistress’ situation is played very well, particularly when the idea is first breached and she’s a bit drop jawed by it. Apart from that, she plays her scenes in what I like to call “The Barbara Bain Mode,“ a lot of calm, quiet, measured talking while walking around reservedly. She’s not the kind of person to freak out, she’s not the kind of person who needs a rescue, even if she isn’t a forceful personality. There’s just enough of a romance angle here to flesh out her character a little, but not nearly enough to be annoying or tedious. There’s a neat little horrified flash from Susan Clark looking at Forbin at the end where she realizes that Forbin’s soul will soon be forfeit.
There’s some nudity in the movie, all filmed cleverly. For instance, Clark strips down in one scene, and is obscured artfully by a champagne glass which distorts her image just enough – and artistically enough – that it doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Gordon Pinsent really is a dead ringer for the Bobby Kennedy.
William Schallert plays the CIA chief. He’s typically pretty good, and his oddly grim sense of humor is a nice touch to the film. James Hong is in the movie, but does nothing apart from smoke cigarettes and look nervous. Marion “Happy Days” Ross has a bit part as one of the computer techs.
There’s a lot of interesting statements about politics in this flick. The idea that machines should control our weapons is clearly driven by fear and justified by an optimism about “The Human Millennium” which will unlock all our potential, “We can do all this, but first we must have peace.” When Colossus/Guardian (Now identifying itself as “World Control”) addresses the world at the end of the film, the speech is oddly similar to the one the president gave, announcing “The Human Millennium” has begun. It’s interesting because the government got *EXACLY* what they wanted, and they’re horrified by it!
Be careful what you wish for: Not only is there no more threat of war, there’s no more need for government at all. This is presented, interestingly for the time, as a bad thing. Human life is protected, arguably more secure under “World Control” than at any point in our history, and yet it’s also oddly irrelevant. Humanity kind of no longer matters on one level because we’re no longer in the driver’s seat.
Whether it was intentional or not, what we’re looking at here is basically a dismantling of the early sixties Kennedy idealism and futurism as the ideas come home to roost. It’s no surprise that the president is *clearly* supposed to be Bobby, since this film essentially is the conclusion of a process that started with JFK: the attempt to perfect the world. But is there any room for people in a perfect world? The film argues that there is, but only if we’re housebroken. But if we’re housebroken, are we still human? By the end of the film, “World Control” has effectively become a god, and a very wrathful one, a Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who sow disharmony. We spent a lot of time working our way out from under that kind of setup, it seems a shame to go right back into it, only for real this time.
The Machine is the supreme arbiter of right and wrong, invasive in every aspect of people’s lives, and such areas as are left to man as his own purview – sex, alcohol, the occasional entertainment – are essentially trivial, more about being given the illusion of choice rather than an actual choice. Bread and Circuses to distract people from their slavery. Forever.
And as is very clear (To me at least), humanity *WILL* come to love the master.
“Randy! It’s John! I just had the most amazing hallucination!”
“Really? That’s fascinating. I just had a grilled cheese sandwich myself.”
“It’s not like that! I was driving down Alternate 19, you know that area down south of Dunedin where there’s that little bridge?”
“Of course not.”
“Ok, well it’s the place north of Clearwater, before you get to the causeway but…”
“Stick to the hallucination, John.”
“Ok! I was driving along and I looked to the right and the sun was just right over the waves, and this bird took off and the light made it look completely unlike a bird!”
“What did it look like?”
“A space ship!”
“Cool! What did the space ship look like? Do not say ‘like a bird'”
“No, I just said it didn’t look anything like a bird! It was cool! It had kind of a box for a back end, and the sides were sort of hooked, and it had wings, but they were coming out of the box end and…well, it’s hard to describe.”
“I’ll draw you a picture of it the next time I see you. I was thinking maybe we could kitbash a model of one together and use it in a film!”
“Yeah! I don’t know what we’d use it in, but when you see it, you’ll agree it’s cool!”
“So what’s up with you?”
“Well, I just had a grilled cheese sandwich, as I said, and I was planning on not doing my homework, and then my insane friend called rambling about a space ship he hallucinated was in the intercoastal waterway.”
“Yeah! Oh, hey, I gotta go!”
I remember the first time I ever spoke to John Sterneman. I was in 10th grade, and had just transferred to Countryside High School. I was taking Air Force ROTC, and didn’t know anyone. I just sat quietly in the back of the class and pretended to pay attention while everyone else – who already knew each other – studiously avoided me.
Our teacher was prone to just losing interest in the middle of lessons, so he declared that we could just do whatever we wanted for the rest of the hour. John, Scott Mead, and a guy named Robert Supples went over to the book rack, where they were talking about something.
I went over to see what magazines they had while John and Supples were arguing about something, I’ve long forgotten what. Mead just watched, amused. Supples said something that grossed out John, and he replied, “You’re just tastless, Supples.”
Not even looking at them, and without even thinking about it, I said “How would you know what Supples tastes like?”
There was this awkward moment of silence where I was pretty sure I was gonna get punched, and then all three of them busted out laughing, including John, even though he was blushing beet red.
I have always remembered that moment. How often does one insult net you three friends? Much less one good friend, one great friend, and one best friend?
(Which isn’t to say he didn’t occasionally attempt to strangle me with my own tie)
For much of the next two years we were inseparable. It wasn’t particularly because we wanted to be, it was just that we were both in ROTC, which meant we got stuck together on projects a lot. We were both on the Drill Team, on the Honor Guard, volunteered for car washes, we hit on the same girls, we struck out with the same girls. It was a small world we inhabited in a big school, a weird little military subculture. Eventually just just sorta bond, you know?
John was smart, funny, and frequently given to enthusiasm for no good reason. He! Was! Prone! To! End! Every! Sentence! With! An! Exclamation! Mark! He was obsessive about movies, and he liked me because I had an encyclopedic knowledge of crappy 50s science fiction films. It quickly became apparent that he wanted to make movies. That wasn’t really as common at the time as it is now. People wanted to act, of course, but directing and writing were mysterious magical chores that we didn’t quite understand. The cult of the super-director, like Spielberg and Lucas was rising, but the wave hadn’t quite struck in 1983. Or if it had, we hadn’t really noticed it.
John had dreams of being a great director, but more than that – and this is what always set him apart from everyone else in my head – he also wanted to be a bad director. He loved those hacky old flicks where the robot is a stack of boxes with a man inside, where the 50 foot spider is clearly just walking over a photograph of a city skyline. He said something one day that has become one of my maxims, “Good movies are a dime a dozen, but a truly bad one? That’s unique!”
It’s hard to disagree with that. So, yes, he dragged us off to see great films like Brazil or The Terminator or arthouse films like Clan of the Cave Bear, but he also dragged us off with great relish to see stuff we absolutely knew was dreck going in. Defcon 4. Savage Streets. Barbarian Queen. Grunt: The Wrestling Movie. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Really, really bad stuff.
How bad? I pride myself on never walking out of a flick. I’ve even sat through crap by The Brothers Quay simply because I refuse to be beaten. The number of movies I’ve stomped out of in my lifetime can be counted on my fingers without using ’em all, and all but two of those were John’s fault. He had a genius for it.
John created an informal group he called “The Bloom County Movie Critics Guild,” (Being as it was 1984, and we were all dutifully obsessed with that comic strip) and just about every friday we’d hie off to some cinematic turd you could smell from a mile outside the theater. Sometimes there were six or eight of us, sometimes just John and me, yelling at the screen, laughing at things that weren’t funny, or weren’t meant to be, just reveling in the awfulness of it. On one occasion, during a movie called “Psycho Girls,” we laughed so hard we actually fell out of our chairs.
I think. I know I did. I’m reasonably sure he did, too.
Time passed and I graduated, and John kept inching closer to a career in film. He joined a local filmmakers society and dragged me along. He even made his own short, which you can hear him talk about here:
Unfortunately, the film is lost now. I actually never got to see it, even though he borrowed some of my equipment to edit the thing.
I’ve been running memories through my head all day, laughing myself silly, and trying to imagine what High School would have been like without him there, with his film obsession, and his Bloom County obsession, and his frequently-poorly-thought-out plans to feed those obsessions. At one point he was planning on driving to Berke Brethed’s home and having him paint the Bloom County cast on his serving tray. (John most often worked as a waiter). He always signed his first name in Japanese, and claimed that was his legal signature. If anyone tried to sign it any other way, you’d know it wasn’t him. If he, himself, signed his name in English, he believed it wouldn’t legally count. He had some elaborate reason for this, but I never quite understood it. We called him “Johnjack” a lot, but I can no longer remember why.
He also built models. He was really good at it, excepting this bomber. I came over to his house, and he was just taking the pieces out of the box, sighing, looking at the plans, and then putting them back in. Eventually he glued part of the body together, declared himself done for the day, and shoved the box in the closet. Once or twice after that I came by to find him puttering away with it, and then it disappeared.
After he got married he shanghaied me into helping him move a bunch of crap from his childhood bedroom to his new apartment. While loading the car, I saw him carrying that model. “What the…?” I said.
“It’s that same bomber!” I said.
“You gave up on that TEN YEARS AGO!” I said.
“Well, I always figured some day I’d have a son, and he could finish what I’d begun.” He said it with this perfectly deadpan voice, like he’d been waiting a decade to spring this punchline on me. I lost it. As I said, he was damn funny when he wanted to be.
His life wasn’t particularly funny, though. His childhood was rough. John was originally from New Jersey, where his folks had a rocky marriage. They moved to Florida to give it one more chance, to try and start over again in a new place. I suppose that worked. As with all things, the answer is more complicated than the question makes it appear, but I’m pretty sure that one worked. Even so, problems arose from time to time.
I remember one night I was getting ready for bed when I heard someone stage-whispering my name from outside. I figured it was the annoying neighborhood kids, with whom I was feuding. I called my dad. my dad ripped open the shutters expecting to see the fat boy from across the street; certainly not expecting to see John shriek and jump backwards into the darkness. I guess John wasn’t expecting to see my dad, either.
It turns out John’s dad had been mad about something or other, and charged him. John, having been down this road before, literally dove out a window and ran. When he couldn’t run anymore, he walked. Eventually he ended up outside my window. What you have to realize is that I lived nearly ten miles from the Sterneman house!
We fed him, and were going to put him up for the night and take him to school in the morning, but his dad insisted we bring him home. After discussing it with John (“You know you don’t have to go, you’re welcome to hang out here for a few days, or we could call the state if you like”), he decided to head back, and he never mentioned it again. So, even though the big “Florida Restart” experiment was a success as far as John’s parent’s marriage went, there were still some issues, obviously.
John’s dad had some utterly hilarious stories about his time in the military. In retrospect, those were almost certainly not true, but John told ’em better. Nobody could tell ’em like John did.
My point being that however bad things were between him and his dad – and evidently they were pretty rough – you’d never know it.
Instead, John would invent stuff like the point system for being unexpectedly funny, in which you’d be awarded one or two points, depending on how unexpectedly funny the thing you said was. There was only ever one three-pointer issued, in the parking lot immediately after seeing Aliens in 70mm at Tri-City Plaza, but I can’t remember who got it, not that it matters. John never actually kept score. There probably had been some point – like scientifically determining who was the funniest kid in ROTC, I dunno – but he’d immediately lost interest. The game went on forever, though. Years later people would still occasionally say “Two points,” or “A point at best” or “No points, loser.”
Or when he invented The Confusion Contests. The object was to come up with a nonsequitor and drop it casually into a conversation. Something of the lines of, “Yeah, we’ll hit the movie then they’ll really have the mouse on the schooner and we’ll go to Dunkin’ Donuts.” If you reacted with a ‘what?’ then you lost. If, however, you replied with a nonsequitor of your own, then the other person had to fire back with yet another one made up on the spot, and worked into the next sentence. The competition kept going until it became so incoherent that one side or the other gave in. Or, if a third party said “What are you kids talkin’ about?” a draw was declared.
Man, those were exhausting! It’s a lot of work to be that random. Fun, though.
Despite the eventual total falling out with his dad, I don’t want to give the impression that John was bolted down, over-pressured and ready to blow, because he wasn’t. Whatever negative things were going on in his life, though, he’d just bury it beneath goofball stuff like his games, or hanging out with the rest of us ROTCies as we wandered around Clearwater Beach at night and struck out with the girls, or him hauling us off to Jo Ann’s Chili Bordello, a pre-Hooters cathouse-themed restaurant where merely-average-looking waitresses served tables in lingerie.
Jo Ann’s was, incidentally, John’s first job. He’d worked as a busboy there before I’d met him. I remember the first time we went there, all of us were like, “John, what kind of place did you bring us to?”
“Relax, guys, this is as dirty as it gets. It’s a family restaurant.”
“Is it a Manson Family restaurant?”
“No. Also, avoid the chili. Despite the name, it’s not very good. ”
You may notice that I’m being pretty unorganized and all-over-the-place than I usually am in relating all this. It’s because thirty-to-thirty-five year old memories that had long been filed away are unspooling continually in my brain. I tell a story, it reminds me of another, which reminds me of another, and so on. This was back in the days when we were still mostly kids, after all, and a school year seemed a million days long, and there was always more things to pack into a day, more days to pack into a life.
You know how it is: things are just more intense when you’re young. Colors are brighter, happiness is happier, depression is bleaker, friendships are tighter and friendlier. In a larger sense, though a life with John in it was kind of random. Not like crazy-eight bonkers random. We had Supples to fill that role. But entertainingly askew.
Time passed, and you start to grow apart from the people you care about. They get better jobs – in John’s case, at a TV station – and then they move away. Being as it was the ’90s by then, they might move away and back several times. It was an odd time, with technical jobs becoming almost a form of migrant labor. We stayed in touch, still occasionally arranged to see movies, or go to a Superbowl Party at his place, even though it was 100 miles away, and he’d somehow acquired a pet rat by then, which was, all things told, a bit off-putting. But, hell, John was worth it.
Thinking about it, our last “Just like the old days” night was his bachelor party, appropriately enough. It was filled with drinking, vomiting, Karaoke-ing old Marty Robbins songs, no strippers, and (As usual), me as the designated driver. (I don’t drink. Also, oddly, I’d never done Karaoke before, nor have I done it sense, which is strange as I’m a natural ham)
He had his first kid shortly after that, and I really didn’t see him, apart from helping him move once or twice. (True friends: People you will help move, even though you already had conflicting plans). Nothing unusual in that: New wife, new kid, job, priorities. Wasting time with your friends is something you can’t afford, and it’s pretty universal. As Scott Mead said when he found out my wife was expecting, “This is the part where you stop returning my phone calls, and never hang out anymore.” It’s true.
Presently, the newly-minted Sterneman family moved out to California. They did a couple reality shows, which, let me tell you, is pretty shocking when you’re just flipping through the channels one night, and your best buddy from fifteen years before is on TV, trying to decide which new house to buy. (I talked to him about that. He was dismissive of the experience, but not so dismissive as to avoid doing it twice.)
He and his wife had a couple more kids, and he was pretty successful, by all accounts. You can check out his IMDb page here. I was proud of him. It’s a tough industry to crack, and he did. Granted, he never got to make movies, but I don’t even know if he still wanted to by that stage in his life. It made me happy to know that of all our little high school throng, he was the one who came closest to attaining his adolescent dreams.
The last time I actually saw John was in 1999 or so. He was back in town seeing to some properties he owned. We got together with one or two of our old friends, grabbed a bite at some greasy spoon.
“You owe me a picture of that space ship you hallucinated,” I said.
“Years ago you hallucinated seeing a space ship taking off from the water somewhere off of 19. You kept saying you were gonna draw me a picture of it, for like years, but you never got around to it.”
“Huh. I think I kinda remember that.”
“Here: Napkin! Pen! You owe me a drawing! Now! Go!”
“Randy, that was probably fifteen years ago.”
“Right, so I’ve been patient for a long time. Draw it!”
“I have absolutely no memory of what it looked like.”
“You bastard,” I said.
“Yes,” He laughed.
Afterwards we saw some crappy b-movie, just like the old days – I don’t remember the one – and when it was all done, he sucked down a cigarette, shook my hand, and said, “Hey, it was really good seeing you again! We’ll have to do this again next time I’m in town!” I whole-heartedly agreed, though I think we both knew that wasn’t gonna happen. I think we both knew that was the last page in that chapter, the period at the end of the sentence.
We were still friends, of course, but contact was infrequent in the years that followed. We’d email, but it was unfulfilling. I’m long-winded and generally jobless, and he was working and terse. I sent a few. I sent a couple letters, which he never replied to. John was always bad with letters. I found him on facebook, and a quick look tells me the last time I talked to him was in February of 2016. We met in 1983. 33 years. A third of a century.
A long damn time, even though all the fun parts of that were in the first half, and the life-long bonding stuff was in the first quarter. Still: there are some people you can never see again, and still be friends with, and there are others you can be in the same room with constantly, and not care about all that much. John was in the former group. It always made me happy to know that he was out there somewhere, running around, doing stuff. Knowing that I could theoretically turn a corner in an airport and bump into him and –
Oh, holy crap, you know what? I actually did The movie was not the last time I saw him! It was seven or eight years after that! My wife and I were seeing somebody off, and we literally turned a corner and there he was, waiting for a plane! We went to the Chilis or TGI Fridays or whatever the crappy chain restaurant is there, and I bought him dinner and we chatted away for a while, then he had to go. Hand to God, I had forgotten that until just this moment, writing it now. How weird.
It was the cigarettes that killed him. He’d smoked like a stack since high school, and had the resulting health issues. He needed a heart transplant, but wasn’t really taking care of himself, and passed away in late January.
I feel as though someone just ripped out half the plumbing of my childhood. Like with his passing, a hunk of the foundation of who I am is cracked. I feel bad, of course, but oddly it’s not so much the fifty-year-old me of 2017 I feel bad for. Rather it’s the thought of how the me of 1985 would have taken the news. That’s strange, isn’t it?
Though he did eventually reconcile with his father, I’m given to understand that the last years of John’s life were…confused. As awful as that was for him and the people who loved him, I choose not to dwell on that. John loved Orson Welles, and as Orson himself said, “The only difference between triumph and tragedy is where you decide to stop telling the story.”
I choose to stop telling it before the grim last years started. I choose to stop it when he was still out west, actually doing what he’d set out to do decades before. If I’m putting “The End” and rolling credits on the movie of his life, then in my mind the final scene in that movie is whatever his last, best moment was, with a good present, a promising future, three kids, and a wife, and a happy life.
It still bugs me that I never got to see that damn space ship, though.
I’m an unabashed fan of the Stargate franchise. If you’ve never seen it, this discussion won’t make any sense to you, so turn back now. If you have, though, I’ll relate the highlights of a discussion my family had about the SGC over dinner tonight:
Me “How many people know about the Stargate program?”
Son “I dunno.”
Me “Well, let’s try to work backwards.”
Son “Ok. There’s 25 teams, so that’s 100 people there.”
Me “Right, plus medical staff. Honey? How many people on the medical staff would you think is appropriate given what we’ve seen?”
Wife “Maybe around 150, including doctors and nurses and corpsmen and so on. They’re kept pretty busy. Plus psych personnel.”
Me “Plus kitchen staff”
Wife “Forty or fifty”
Son: Plus Janitorial staff
Me: “Right. Because even they’d have to have a really high security clearance, and it’s a bit facility in use 24/7/365, so, what, probably another 40 or 50?”
Wife: “What about scientists?”
Me: “Most of the long-term research is done at Area 51.”
Wife: “How many there?”
Me: “Well get back to that. We mostly only ever see Dr. Lee and Sam, but they make it clear there’s others around. Let’s say 20 or 30?”
Son: “Plus at least one space shuttle crew. And the crew of the ISS. And whoever unloads the recovered cargo from a space shuttle.”
Me: “Good point.”
Son: “And let’s not forget the USS Nimitz and that entire carrier group. I mean, yeah, they’re all dead, and the Navy said it was meteors, but a lot of Navy people must have been in on the cover up.”
Me: “Again, good point. Now, area 51: Honey, how long does it take to build an aircraft carrier?”
Wife: “Pretty close to a decade, I think.”
Me: “With tens of thousands of construction workers?”
Wife: “Oh, yeah, totally.”
Son: “I agree the Prometheus and Daedalus class ships were probably about the size of aircraft carriers.”
Me: “They were working on the Prometheus for a while before we saw it, but they can’t have been working on the Daedalus all that long. How many F-304s are there?”
Son: “Daedalus, Odyssey, Apollo, Hammond, Sun Tsu, oh, and the Korolev, which got blown up almost immediately. How many crew for an aircraft carrier?”
Me: “About 5000.”
Son: “They never have anywhere near that number. It’s usually in the hundreds. What’s a skeleton crew for a carrier?”
Me: “If you just want to steer and go forward for a couple days? Maybe a half dozen. If you want to actually DO anything, a couple hundred at least.”
Son: “So they’re probably on skeleton crews.”
Me: “that makes sense.”
Wife: “So we’re guessing about 10,000 people in Cheyenne Mountain, and, what, 30,000 or so in Area 51?”
Son: “At least. Probably more since they’re cranking those ships out one a year.”
Me: “They might be constructing them in other countries.”
Son: “Unlikely. Russia had to beg for one. Probably China, too.”
Me: “Good point. This is increasingly implausible. I could buy it when it was just Cheyenne.”
Son: “Plus the governments of Russia, China, France, England, and Canada.”
Wife: “And all the signatories of the Antarctica treaty. AND what about the contractors and stuff who build all this crap?”
Me: “True. They did say some alien tech was slipping into commercial products by means of corporate espionage by the contractors.”
Son: “Heck, that one guy managed to clone an Asgard.”
Wife: “What about Atlantis? Or Icarus?”
Me: “Let’s ignore them for now. They’re comparatively small operations.”
Wife: “yeah, true. So what do you think?”
Me: “Well, when we started I was going to say maybe 30,000 people, but now that we’re all looking at it reasonably, I’m saying at least 100,000 people, and that’s probably a lowball number.”
So what do you all think?
Margo Hoffman died yesterday. She’d been my friend and occasional boss for pretty much my entire life.
I first met her when I was five or so. I hadn’t started grade school yet, so it must’ve been around then. She was sixteen or seventeen, still in high school, and working for Don Bennett. I have a preschooler’s memories of her, and meeting her from that period: she was a grown up and she was nice to me. Don called her a kid, but as an even littler kid, I didn’t see it, you know? She was doing unfathomable grown up things that I couldn’t understand, and was somewhat amazed by. In that regard, she was always ahead of me.
My dad had recently lost his job with NASA, and he ended up going to work for Don Bennett, who was a State Farm Agent. Changing your career at age 43 is tough, and Margo was invaluable at helping him through it, even though she was still too young to vote.
Eventually Don got promoted and my dad bought out his franchise. Margo became his personal secretary. We call that an “Office Manager” today. Whenever my dad hired additional staff, she was always in charge. My dad joked that he hired Margo because she “Came with the furniture” when he bought the place, but he was actually pretty open on how much he relied on her to keep the business running.
Somewhere in that period, she married Bob Hoffman, and they had a daughter, Jo Ann. (“Jo Ann” is one of those names I’ve always manage to misspell. I don’t know if it’s “Jo Ann” or “Jo Anne” or “JoAnn” or “Joanne” or “Joann” or something with four Ms and a silent Q in there. Even with my own aunt Jo Ann, I always managed to misspell it, so I’ll just admit up front that I have no idea how not to botch it. I’m sorry. No disrespect intended)
Time passed. Margo was always a good mother, always a good sister, always a good daughter, always very close to her family. Always good to me when I was hanging around the office after work, or sentenced to the purgatory of cleaning the place with my mom.
Changes happened. My dad moved the office, then again, then again. He hired more permanent staff, and Margo was always his trusted lieutenant in keeping the place running. Eventually, when I was about as old as she’d been when she started working for Don, I started doing odd jobs for the office. Mostly inspections and other crap that my dad didn’t want to be bothered with. I’d come in, get my assignment from her, get the camera, the maps, the other info, head out, take pictures, come back, turn ’em in. My dad would slip me five or ten bucks – remember, this was back in the ’80s when gas was less than a buck a gallon – it wasn’t a bad gig for a high school student, even if it was pretty irregular work.
Afterwards I’d hang out and Margo and I would chat. She’d tell me about Jo Ann, and other stuff in her life, and ask me if I had a girlfriend yet (No, but not for lack of trying). She was always very nice and supportive of me.
More supportive than she realized, I think. My dad was a successful businessman by this time, but it was Margo that put him in a position where he could do that. I had an upbringing that wasn’t what you’d call patrician, but it was much, much, much better than it would have been if she hadn’t been there to help my dad. A lot of the ease of my youth was due to her hard work.
My mom was prone to illness, and was frequently bedridden, or nearly so. She was very depressed. My dad had to work, but there weren’t a lot of people he trusted to be around his ailing wife. He’d have Margo go over and hang out with my mom for a few hours every day, just keeping her company, talking about stuff, and so on. Most people have forgotten this – honestly, I’d forgotten about it until my mom reminded me the other day – but this went on for years. You can make a good argument that my mom wouldn’t still be here if Margo hadn’t nursemaided her for so long. Again: My life is better because she was in it.
Time passed, and I ended up working for my dad, which meant I was really working for Margo. I was a TERRIBLE employee. Lazy, unprofessional, questionably kempt, unable to keep the rules of the business straight, continually screwing up my work. Margo proved to be a saint in this period by resisting what must have been the hourly urge to murder me. That’s an entirely justified urge, by the way. I was a basket case, and everybody knew it.
After 22 years or so of working for my dad, and however long she’d worked for Don before, she’d grown tired of Insurance, and decided to go work for the City of Tarpon. She held a few other side jobs. She became a grandmother, which I know filled her with glee. She fell in love and spent the last of her life with the love of her life. Then she retired and the rest you know.
Yesterday she passed away.
There aren’t really words in English for people you have a family-level connection with, but that aren’t family. I call her a ‘friend,’ but that seems insultingly inappropriate. She was more like an aunt. Someone who was always there. Someone who cares about you even when you piss them off, and whom you care about even when they piss you off. Someone who’s always in your life, though maybe in a greater or lesser capacity at different points in time. There were times – lots of them – where I know for a fact I infuriated her, and there were times when she got on my nerves too, but she was always there, forgive and forget, caring, overlooking peoples faults. Even people with SUBSTANTIAL faults like mine. She got me out of a lot of trouble when I was younger, and never told my dad about it. After she quit, I could go for years without seeing her, but then – bang – we’d bump into each other and immediately pick up where we left off. When my dad died, she kept my mom company, visiting her and keeping her company, and helping keep her from sliding into suicidal depression.
As I said, there’s not really an English word for that kind of relationship, but I’m going to call her my aunt. My unofficially-adopted aunt. Assuming, of course, her family doesn’t find that disrespectful. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years prior to her death, but I loved her. How could you not?
There’s no need to talk about how things played out. Suffice to say she put up a very strong fight, and she died way way way too young. She leaves behind an unbelievably awesome daughter, a granddaughter that I really don’t know, but who seems pretty amazing by reputation, a fantastic sister, and of course, her one true love, whom I don’t know at all, but who must be an exceptional man to have won the heart of my unofficial aunt. She had a huge family besides, and God knows how many friends who feel about her the way I do, or moreso.
My prayers are with them, that God might ease their suffering in this terrible time. My prayers are also for Margo, that her soul finds peace (Which I have no doubts about), that she’s reunited with the people she’s loved and lost over the course of her way-too-short life, and that we’ll all meet her again in that place some day.
In the meantime, she made my life materially better in ways she probably never realized. That’s a debt I can’t repay. And though I didn’t see much of her in the last decade, I was always happy knowing she was still roaming around there, doing stuff, and realizing that at any random, unforseen moment I might turn a corner and there she’d be.
And now, well, knowing she’s not, knowing that I’m not, knowing that that’ll never happen again in this life is hard. Much, much, much harder on people who were closer to her than me, of course.
For me it comes down to this: She made my life vastly richer by having known her, and now I’m much poorer for her absence.
This will come as a shock to no one, but I am sad today. I’m not as bad as I was 2 or 3 days ago, where I was just a wreck of a human being, but I have started crying on two different occasions today, and started to tear up on another. There was also a minor health crisis that made me freak out and go all hypochondriacal. I’ve done well with that of late. I haven’t gotten scared about being sick and dying for probably going on six months. Came back today, though. Better now, but, hey, what better way to celebrate your utter waste of a life than freaking out at a blister, right? I think Ovid wrote about that. Or maybe it was that English/playwrite who wasn’t Shakespeare, but I can’t remember his name right now.
I suspect my recovery from decades of hypochondria comes from not really caring if I live or die. I mean, I’m not suicidal or anything, but…this is too personal to discuss in a public forum. I’m sorry. I’ve been deliberately wasting your time.
Bacon. His name was Bacon.