His closest friends called him “The Silver Fox”. A retired assayer in a remote gold mining community in northern Ontario, he now spent most of his time either doing volunteer work for the local hospital or managing the steady stream of family members that would visit from June to August. It’s with great respect that I describe him as Archie Bunker with a college degree – very blunt but, equally well read. He was my grandfather.
As a kid, I made no secret of the fact that I dreaded those trips to see my large extended family in the summer. My cousins were all either just older or younger enough to make a difference and that made me a perpetual target for teasing. I couldn’t fit in with either group and fairly early on, I gave up trying. Instead, I could usually be found in a corner of the house, reading or scribbling in a notebook and waiting out the week as quietly as possible.
I don’t know whether my grandfather himself ever felt like an outsider but, he did have a fierce loyalty to them. The old man had a relentless respect for anybody that was willing to go against the grain of public opinion. It didn’t matter what the topic was either. He just loved people that would make an effort to screw with the main stream.
I somewhat stubbornly welcomed the notion of being thought of as an outsider. I was proud to be an “indie”, if you will. While all my cousins were great hockey players, at 12 I found my own “defining interest” in movies and hated hockey (I still do in fact).
“The Silver Fox”, of course, sniffed this out and decided to encourage (if not humor) me in my love of movies. In doing so, he helped unlock a deeper appreciation for them. I wasn’t watching them for pure entertainment purposes anymore but, rather studying them – and I loved every minute of it.
It started one rainy afternoon when my father and I were watching TV in the basement of my grandparents’ home. My grandfather was out cold in his chair. Suddenly he woke up and barked “This shit’s boring! Case! Put a movie on.”
He had a modest collection of roughly 8-10 VHS tapes that people had given him over the years. At the time, I was just starting to develop an appreciation for older films. I’d heard William Holden’s name mentioned before but, had never seen him in anything. Almost afraid to speak, I touched one of the boxes and got my order – “The Bridge on the River Kwai – good one! Get ‘er goin’.”
My dad laughed and nodded at me. I did as I was told. We watched the movie and were treated to my grandfather’s expert commentary which: a) was sporadic, b) offered no spoilers, and c) more often than not included the words “goddamn it”.
I learned why he thought Jack Hawkins was one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I stifled a laugh as we all rooted for the Japanese commanding officer trying to break Alec Guinness’ character. I quickly became a huge William Holden fan. When I got home, I charged up to my video store and rented anything I could find with him in it. This led me to the “discovery” of one of my all time favorite movies, Network.
A new tradition was triggered. Every summer after that, the 3 of us would find an afternoon and another of the old man’s favorites would get taken off the shelf. Sometimes I got to pick but, usually he did. Quo Vadis, The Magnificent Seven, and Marathon Man were among the many legendary films screened. Each year, I’d be sent home with a new favorite actor and a renewed mission to see as much of their filmography as I could. I’d come back the following summer with a head full of stories to tell him about everything I’d seen and we’d debate why I should or shouldn’t have liked certain movies.
Most guys remember going through some rite of passage when they turn 16. To many it’s passing the test driver’s license test or getting one’s hands on a copy of Playboy. I did both of those things but, I also got to watch The Exorcist.
A little known footnote in the “Encyclopedia Ryannica” is that my grandfather loved to scare the heebie jeebies out of the latest crop of grandkids aged 15-17 using this one film. He found this practice hilarious – despite being a devout Catholic himself. As an added bonus, it pissed off my grandmother.
He waited until we had the house to ourselves. I swore a blood oath that I wouldn’t rat him out. He secretly knew that I eventually would and later admitted that half the fun was getting caught. Apparently I held out longer than most of my cousins had.
My parents, of course, knew this was going to happen and let him have his fun. I still remember the sound of him howling at the look of revulsion on my face during the “green puke” scene. After my initial shocked reaction wore off, I started laughing with him. To this day, I still can’t watch it without cracking up.
During those afternoons, I not only got to know a little more about what kind of friend “The Silver Fox” was but, he also treated me like one. For the first time in all those visits, I felt like an equal.
My grandfather died about 6 years ago but, that small subset of movies in my library will always have a special place. Victor Borge once famously said that laughter was the shortest distance between two people. I’d respectfully submit that movies are equally short a distance and furthermore are often the root source of said laughs.
“Cut, print, wrap……goddamn it!”