So there I was, right in the middle of kickoff weekend for the Olympic eating season. I was comfortably full of turkey, waiting for the tryptophan sedative to take full effect and just settling in for the first of many mid-afternoon naps this holiday season. But what did I spy in the satellite channel guide of my Las Vegas host’s 60 inch plasma big screen, but an obscure showing of a not-so-obscure mid-80s film entitled The Breakfast Club.
The timing couldn’t have been better, because right about that time, I was preparing to get comfortable for the late-afternoon airing of the USC – Arizona State game. And not without good reason. Word had it from people in the know at Heritage Hall that, following a bout of catastrophic injuries to key players at mid-season, USC was finally getting healthy, starting to hit their stride, and stood a good chance of crushing the Sun Devils and getting back in to the Rose Bowl hunt (which they did, actually).
So, it was going to take something significant to tear me away from an evening of bone-crushing USC tackles, spectacular last-second Arizona State losses and an altogether satisfying exhibition of college football in which the Trojans finally showed something of the early season promise which ultimately got derailed by that hideous loss to Stanford at the Coliseum several weeks ago. (No way does a west coast team retain any semblance of credibility with the national media after losing to a 41-point underdog at home. But there still remained the chance to salvage what can be salvaged, and the Rose Bowl isn’t exactly chopped liver.)
But . . . something told me to tune in for my umpteenth viewing of this mid-80s teen angst picture that was noted for several commendable performances by a group of young up-and-coming actors then known as The Brat Pack. It certainly would prove to be a change of pace from the day’s non-stop parade of food, fun and football (at least to that point). And since my host and his wife were not particularly enamored of sports of any kind, we all snuggled up to the big screen to sample the bill o’ fare.
Now that I reflect on things, it was a remarkable film. And the great beauty of it was that no matter when you went to high school, what part of the country you come from, or where you fit in the eternal unforgiving high school pecking order, there isn’t anybody who can’t supply their own set of names to this diverse group of high school misfits, all consigned to a interminably boring Saturday of detention for various nefarious wrongdoings.
I have never yet watched this film that I didn’t lick up some timeless truth. It’s that kind of picture. It sneaks up on you. Sure enough, the moment came. I’d seen it many times before. I’d even remembered it. But somehow this time, it struck a harmonious chord like never before. The group was finally starting to bond, as inevitably happens when disparate individuals are thrown together for extended periods of time. It was one of the rare moments when any group of teenagers can agree on anything.
The point of contention, you ask? They all agreed they would never grow up to be like their parents. And in this, the consensus was unanimous. Well, almost.
There was one girl, played admirably by Ally Sheedy. We all have our version of her too. The high school misfit. Never said much; a fashion disaster; no close friends – of either sex; and a general demeanor of a square peg who had no interest of fitting in a round hole.
True to form, she hadn’t said a word throughout the morning detention session. And during the afternoon bull session, she still hadn’t uttered a word either. Until now.
She offered a timeless observation that seems to be part and parcel of the marginalized members of society – particularly those who must contend with the unforgiving meanness of high school tyranny. Such people often develop heightened sensibilities that sharpen their perception since their backs are against the wall as a daily fact of life. On the subject of somehow avoiding the pitfalls of their parents’ mentality, she simply pointed out he obvious.
“It’s inevitable.” She said. “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
This remark was greeted with stunned silence, which is often the case when simple, yet unvarnished truth bursts the balloon of youthful idealism like a pinprick.
Some time ago – in fact, it was 4th of July 2006 – I wrote of my experience at the local high school fireworks show. I related my experience of sitting in the grandstand watching several members of our diverse population running up and down the field waving the Mexican flag and shouting “Viva la Raza!” I wrote of signs posted in Spanish giving directions to the assembled crowd. And finally, I wrote of calling it a night two hours before showtime, after being refused service at the Mexican food stand because they didn’t serve Anglos.
Don’t look for it. It’s not in the archives. It’s not there. I checked.
I ended up at the local private airport with a good friend whose plane is hangared there. During the course of the evening, his son – who had enlisted in the Army the year before – came by to partake of the festivities with the family. This commentary is an update on his situation. Back then, the son had completed basic training, airborne AIT and Ranger school. He was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. That was in July 2006. In September of this year he deployed to Iraq.
The young soldier was your typical teenage deadbeat/slacker growing up through high school. A chronic underachiever, he was equally unmotivated to converse with anyone except his slacker/deadbeat buddies. This drove his father completely insane.
Dad is an American success story. A taller, more ruggedly handsome and magnetically attractive version of John Edwards – without the incipient liberalism – he is the quintessential alpha male. He has, what was called in those thrilling days of yesteryear, command presence. His business grosses on average $450 million a year, of which some 80% are cash sales net 30. The rest are either carried on the books, sold to collection agencies or written off. He operates out of his office at home, and runs a one-man show. No employees. No work comp hassles. No payroll to meet. Just do business and make money.
Simply put, Dad goes out into the world every morning and wins. And that’s all there is to it. Two things happen when he enters a room – Men write extremely large checks to secure his services, and women leave their house keys in his jacket pocket. This drives his wife nuts. And she’s no slouch herself when it comes to attracting attention. She’s a former University of Florida cheerleader, and can still turn heads and stop traffic, even in her mid 40s.
For all his success, he lives a comparatively simple life. He works hard, offers a unique, essential service to business and industry, is disgustingly faithful to his wife, is a committed Christian, and generally all-around good guy. But he will not tolerate anything less than total excellence in everything he does. And that extends to his family as well. Hence, the inevitable collision between father and son.
For all his reluctance to speak to adults, his son sized up his predicament with uncanny accuracy coming out of high school. He gauged (correctly as it turned out) that he wasn’t college material. His grades bore that out, which was another sore point between father and son. He also had to acumen to observe that his job prospects were of an extremely low order of probability. With no education to speak of, he would have to compete with our ubiquitous army of illegal wage earners, without whose dirt-cheap labor all of us would starve to death. So he joined the Army.
His father hit the ceiling when this happened.
Currently, he is assigned to a recon ranger battalion somewhere in Iraq. The way he tells it, the job of his unit is to act as bait for an ambush. When the trap is sprung, they call in the cavalry (I assume whatever passes for the Air Cav over there) and sit back while the bad guys get blown off the map. And if the cavalry doesn’t show up – or if the enemy practices the now time-honored tactic of “hugging the belt” pioneered by the North Vietnamese Army a generation ago – they get to fight it out. The recon team operates exclusively at night. It’s tense, dangerous work, but so far he’s navigated the various minefields of combat ops with skill, initiative and courage.
Dad received notice that his son is going to be written up for a decoration. Bronze Star, Silver Star, or something else. I don’t know which. I also don’t know the specifics of the action, except his commanding officer described the young soldier as having “extreme coolness under fire,” “exercised decisive control”, and had “command presence.” He was also promoted to platoon sergeant, with all the rights and privileges thereunto.
I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Apparently, the newly decorated Ranger is coming up on some much-needed R&R in the near future, provided the destination is in-theater. So, he’s heading for Dubai. The way I hear it, Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Middle East. Highly westernized, it functions is a sort of Disneyland-for-adults in a region of the world where there is no such thing. So, it’s easy to see why it would act as a magnet for young men in the harrowing throes of combat. Consider it this generation’s version of Hong Kong or Singapore.
It was over breakfast not too long ago that Dad promptly announced to me that he was on his way to Dubai to “straighten out” his son.
Up to now, I had little to say about the recent exploits of his son. But at this development I simply could not contain myself. I offered a simple question: On what basis was he prepared to straighten him out, considering the son had gone places and done things the father had not imagined in his wildest dreams?
This question was met with stony silence.
I went on the point out to Dad that I knew something of combat, right down to the command function and all that goes along with being responsible for the lives of men in the desperation of a firefight. And even I wouldn’t presume to “straighten him out.” Some roads you walk alone. And commanding men in combat is one of them.
Straighten him out? What exactly does that mean?
But, it is inevitable that a father who has accomplished so much would have such a degree of disdain for a son who is just now finding his sea legs in a hostile world. And he’s doing it in a craft in which there are dire consequences for failure.
It’s the changing of the guard. And old men – especially those who triumph at everything they pursue – have no way to cope with the one adversary they are powerless to prevail against: the relentless passing of the years.
The father was himself, a 60s hippie who rebelled against authority. He drifted from one pointless activity to another, shrouded in the fog of various drugs, until he got clean and stayed clean. His radical leftist worldview reflected his lifestyle at the time, until he, like so many of us, became part of the Reagan revolution and good things started to happen. He rode the crest of a wave for over twenty years, and lives a lifestyle of prosperity reflective of his efforts.
But it came at a price, as it does for all of us. His openness to all things became more focused. His tolerance for his own failings became a relentless pursuit of perfection. His love for his children morphed into an unbending demand for excellence in all things.
When you grow up, your heart dies.
It’s not a new phenomenon, particularly when it comes to contempt for America’s fighting men. Richard Severo and Lewis Milford wrote an intriguing book in the mid-70s entitled The Wages of War: America’s Veterans Come Home From Valley Forge to Vietnam. Written in the late 1970s – in the immediate hangover period from Vietnam – the authors point out what has been lost in the wake of popular culture: That with the exception of WWII, every group of veterans coming home from defending the country has been treated with neglect, disdain and contempt.
WWII was the great exception. And in the glow of the fire of gratitude for returning fighting men in perhaps the biggest, most crucial conflict America has engaged in to date, it became the apocryphal standard.
It was an illusion. And when the national goodwill faded as the WWII generation assumed positions of leadership in the country, the inevitable complacency, so typical in old men as they age, was made manifest.
When you grow up, your heart dies.
So, the father will soon be winging his way to Dubai to slap down his son hard, and fast for his own peace of mind. The concept of the boy who has become a man is too intimidating, too anxiety-laden, too much for a father to bear who must maintain control over his world. As long as his son remains a deadbeat, Dad’s life has meaning. As long as the young soldier can be forced back into the restrictive box from which he has now emerged, Dad can breathe easy. But if he escapes, he becomes the harbinger of a brave new world that all men who achieve great things must ultimately come to face: that youth and resiliency is something they no longer possess and will ultimately overtake them.
The son appears to have some qualities his father overlooked. He doesn’t say much. He takes careful stock of the world in general and his own situation in particular. And he keeps his own counsel. He may even have the insight to recognize that he will only remain a hero as long as he wears the uniform. In the diminishing opportunities of the world of globalism, he may already have figured out that as soon as he takes off the uniform and competes in the civilian workplace, he will quickly be viewed again as a slacker/deadbeat, with his hand out, whose job can be done better, faster, not to mention cheaper, by illegals. That is, whatever jobs haven’t been shipped off to our current friends in India, or our traditional friends in China.
He may have even figured out that his choices boil down to being a career hired gun, or coming home and living in the shadowlands of the fringes of an America whose identity is being wrung out on the washboard of multiculturalism and whose opportunities no longer have any foundational substance. Stranger things have happened while sighting in down the barrel of an M16.
I did manage to catch the second half of the USC – Arizona State game after The Breakfast Club concluded. I mean it only runs two hours after all. Sure enough, the Trojans crushed ASU 44-24, and went on to hammer UCLA last Saturday to wind up in the Rose Bowl for the third straight year. Not a bad salvage job of the season after that disastrous loss to Stanford.
Still, memories of the film stuck with me. To wit: I wonder whatever became of those kids sitting in detention that dreary Saturday? If ever there was a picture that was tailor-made for a sequel, this was it. I’m surprised the producers never embarked on such a project. In its absence, let’s engage in some enlightened speculation about their fictional twenty-year high school reunion, and what became of them . . .
John Bender (Judd Nelson) – Shows up in central Illinois in his private Gulfstream aircraft. At age 38, he is officially retired and leading the good life, after having topped $1 billion in income as a construction contractor in the wild and wooly building frenzy of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. All that hostility, properly channeled made him a fortune in the two-fisted, bare-knuckle world of the construction industry.
Andy Clark (Emilio Estevez) – Teaches history at a local high school about an hour away from his alma mater. Walked out on a D-1 wrestling scholarship to a Big 10 school (take your pick, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, whatever), when he realized he could no longer measure up to his father’s standards of absolute perfection. He married his college sweetheart. They have a nice life, albeit somewhat predictable. He still yearns to be the best at something. Some demons never die.
Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) – Just promoted to full professor of Physics at Caltech. He never lost his geek status, but did manage to live long enough for it to finally become cool. Married to a fellow doctoral student in engineering while at MIT, she teaches at UCLA, and makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her husband’s lunch (with the crusts cut off).
Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) --- Sobering up long enough to make an appearance at the reunion party, Claire is a broken-down, alcoholic, 40-something trophy wife of a Fortune 500 CEO. The company is headquartered in Chicago, but has offices in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. So Claire gets her share of road trips to places where she can exercise her American Express Platinum card. She has held up well over the years, and understands her role in life very well – keep the home, raise the kids, smile pretty at the office parties, and don’t make a fuss over her husband’s dalliances with young, hot, office interns.
Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) – The resident fashion disaster basket case of the class of ’84 enters a room to turned heads and muted conversation. It isn’t that the years have not taken their toll, but she draws the envious gazes of the assembled multitudes as so often happens when someone enters the room with spine, substance and integrity. She married an independent truck driver. He is currently burdened by how he will provide for his family when the Mexican trucks start rolling across the country far and wide. She works part time, as needed, but mostly stays home with the kids. She’s not flighty, shallow or catty. She’s a keeper. Women know they can trust her, and men know she can strengthen them. She still keeps to herself. Her circle of friends is small, but deep. And she (still) sees the world clearly, and rides the rapids of life with nary a whimper. She is someone you would want to know.
It’s a sequel there for the making. If any Hollywood types are secretly lurking on this site, you can pick the ball up and run with it. The drivel that passes for films in Hollywood these days offers little in the way of substance, and yet we often have to wade through an entire saga of multiple sequels, signifying nothing. Here’s one that, done right, would have some teeth to it.
I know I’d pay to see it.