Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Up-All-Night Challenge

I’m writing this story as a promise I made to a friend of mine when we were reminiscing about our childhood fascination with staying up late. You’ll either be very silent and enthralled, or bored to tears and fall asleep. Either way, I win, because I live to bring tranquility to the world. So here goes…

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I always loved the nighttime, even as a child and long before the bar scene—it was a mystery in some way. And like all kids, I was enthralled with anything unknown (as an adult, I just appreciate the low light that hides the circles under my eyes). My mother always told me that I wouldn’t see anything at night that I wouldn’t see during the day. Since I’ve moved to Chicago, I’ve discovered that no longer holds, but in Chillicothe, IL in the late 1970s, mom was probably right, although there WAS a neighbor across the street who used to come outside and piss in his driveway occasionally when he thought nobody could see—and until the summer of my Up-All-Night Challenge, he was probably right, but that’s neither here nor there.

It all happened in the summer of 1977 when I turned nine. The year was in some ways really terrible (the sudden death of my grandmother and the Son of Sam killings) and in some ways really crucial, as a lot of my erotic feelings began to awaken (I didn’t recognize that at the time, although dungeon scenes in medieval-themed movies aroused me for some strange reason), and “Batman” reruns came to syndication on our local channel, which meant Burt Ward every day—need I say more?? And let’s not forget ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” which reached its peak of popularity early that year.

Bad times, good times…

I was a restless kid… I always thought there was something magical just beyond the line of trees that marked the back of our yard. I always wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before: I’d ride my bicycle to the railroad yard next to my uncle’s store because I’d never seen what was beyond the tracks (not a lot, I found out); I rode to the school playground on the opposite end of town, because I wanted to try out their swingset (but I ended up finding vomit and a retainer in the copse of pine trees nearby, decided the place was yucky and vowed to stick to my own playground). To a little kid, who obviously had no car, in a town of 6,000 folks, these were big journeys! I could have been more adventurous and hopped one of those trains to see where it went, but I was terrified of punishment. (And believe me, I’d still be grounded to this day if I’d tried.)

So I decided to do the next best thing and stay up all night. Why not? Why should the adults have all the fun, I reasoned? Never mind that even most of them were in bed by this time (having to work in the morning)—staying up late was a “grown-up” thing to do, and I wanted to do it all the way! And I could, too, since it was summer and I didn’t have to go to school the next day—my parents didn’t really mind as long as I wasn’t hurting anyone. My goal was to stay up until 5:00 in the morning, when my mom was just getting up (she was always up before Dad—he was a heavy sleeper back then, just like I used to be).

It wasn't easy to occupy myself all night. I couldn’t play outside. Grown-up books were kind of boring (like mom’s bodice-rippers) or else too difficult for me to understand in those days, and I’d already read all of mine. I was an only child, so there were no brothers or sisters to aggravate. I had to be quiet so as not to wake up my parents, so that meant no listening to the stereo (we didn’t have headphones yet), and the TV had to be turned down so it wasn’t too loud. But TV meant the sound of human voices, which to me was the same as having someone there—once those voices ended, I was essentially alone and too restless to sleep. And that terrified me. Even one hour of silence was unthinkable to me in those days. Church was torture—especially the hypocrisy of not being able to speak, but having to listen to our dimwitted, bucktoothed priest gas on and on about the same shit every week…

And there were no all-night channels back then, either. This was 1977, and we didn't have cable in Chillicothe (it wasn't available there until 1980, just as we were moving to another town--fate's cruel little joke, right after my new eyeglass prescription). So I had to try to exist on whatever late-night TV offered, which meant the 10:00 news, then reruns of “The Honeymooners” (which began my life-long love of Audrey Meadows), and finally the late show on Channel 19, our local ABC affiliate. They used to have theme weeks, like "Comedy Week," “Western Week,” etc. I remember seeing some adult-themed comedies that are still some of my favorites, although I couldn’t understand why I loved them so at the time: “Divorce American Style,” “Cold Turkey,” “What’s Up Doc?” and “The Wrong Box” stand out in particular.

The comedies were fine—it was the scary movies I should have avoided. This should have been obvious after that spring’s viewing of “Jaws,” which was still playing in our town theater (called, appropriately, the Town Theater), and which I’d begged my mother to take me to see until she’d given in one Friday night in March, only to storm out, grim-faced, an hour and a half later, herding a white-faced, trembling pansy to the car: “I told you it would upset you, but would you listen to me??” We drove home in silence (well, as silent as a 1975 Honda Civic could allow), only to arrive home as Gordon Lightfoot sang about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the “The Midnight Special,” complete with slides of the actual boat superimposed on the screen. Turns out the Edmund Fitzgerald looked an awful lot like the Orca, the fishing boat Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider used in “Jaws,” and that set me off again—I became a whimpering, blubbering idiot. My disgusted mother finally went to bed, no doubt cursing the day she quit taking the pill.

And did I learn from this? Hell no! I was determined to stay up and watch grown-up movies until the sun came up at least one night that summer. This was no mean feat, as even the latest of late movies ended at around 1:30 in the morning. But every night, I tried anew.

My plan came back to bite me in the ass later that summer during the Channel 19 late show’s "World of the Macabre Week" when they showed "The Masque of the Red Death" with Vincent Price. It scared the living shit right outta me—not as bad as “Jaws,” but pretty damned close. I could have coped with that if, the next night, I hadn’t seen Alice Cooper do his guillotine trick on "The Midnight Special.” It was a little too realistic for me, and between that, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” which had shown the week before, it finally built up into a teeming mass of mental imagery that assaulted my senses until I could take no more. I finally retired, half-insane, to my bedroom, leaving the light on all night. At least I felt safe there!

Until I saw that big-ass spider on the wall…

Eventually, however, I made my goal. In August of that year, just before school started, I managed to stay up until 5:00 AM. It was curiously anti-climatic, like Christmas: all that waiting, all that preparation, and once it was over, it was over. In a cruel twist of fate, it was a Friday night, which meant I was too tired to watch Saturday morning cartoons the next day.

But the crossing of any great frontier requires great sacrifice…

**TOMORROW: Aaron satisfies Dirk's curiosity (within reason).**

11 Comments:

OpenID dirkmancuso said...

Man, I love me some "The Masque of the Red Death" with Vincent Price when I was a kid. I used to stay up every Friday night and watch the Creature Feature. "Attack of the Mushroom People" is another classic.

And what's this "within reason" stuff?

9:34 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

"Night of the Lupus" was another (about the killer rabbits--even I couldn't keep a straight face during that one!)

I love "The Masque of the Red Death" now (now I see Jane Asher's father and brother were pretty hawt!), and bought a copy off of Amazon last year. And I love the "dance of death" where all of the guests gradually collapse in waves...somehow that was strangely beautiful...

And there are some things you'll just have to find out for yourself--hence "within reason." ;-) (Oh, and also because there are other friends who read this and they'd be scandalized by some of my doinses--or else just laugh their ass off at me forever.)

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

As another only child, night owl who really shouldn't have watched horror movies, I really loved this story.

The first time I remember staying up all night was after my friend and I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We were eight and spent the whole night constructing booby traps and alarms in case we did fall asleep.

"Attack of The Saucermen" scared the shit out of me. The aliens would inject their victims with alcohol. That's about all the plot I remember.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you remember when the TV stations used to go Off the air late at night?
I used to watch Nightmare Theater hosted by Sammy Terry a ghoulish character who had a pet Spider named Igor. The movies were not very scary though. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was so very horrible and funny.
Go ahead Aaron, tell us everything we can keep a secret. Uncross your fingers Dirk! Ed

1:13 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

That's my kinda plot! From childhood terror to preferred method of intoxication...:-)

I love the vision of you two contructing booby traps all over the house...that's just priceless! My cousin and I used to do similar things when she'd come visit.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Ed: I DO remember when the stations would go off the air. They'd play the Star-Spangled Banner, and then you got a test pattern right after...

When I was doing forensics (speech) in college, I was at the national tournament one year, and one of the coaches from a California school was Sharon Taylor, the lady who had played the reporter in "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes." It happened to be her birthday that week, and the tournament staff decorated the elevators with big paper tomatoes that said "Happy Birthday Sharon!" She was not amused and told them to remove them...:-)

And I'll tell some, but not all...a gal's gotta have SOME mystery! :-)

1:21 PM  
Blogger BC said...

Great story, Aaron. My brothers and I loved staying up late at our dad's house- he didn't have the strict rules mom did. In the Valley, in WI, we had TJ and the ANT. (All Night Theater) We tried so many times to stay up and watch his b-movies, but never made it. I think he played Mask...and it freaked me out, too! But I loved it, and all Price's movies. I recently bought the '73 TV version of Frankenstien, because for whatever reason my parents let me watch it. (I was 9) Some of those images are burned into my memeory for ever!
(paste to see TJ's Tonight Show-esque slide.)

http://i55.photobucket.com/albums/g141/bckalz/TJ.jpg

11:27 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Is the TV Frankenstein on DVD? That was on eof the best Frankenstein movies ever. Dr. Frankenstein was so dreamy. He played Romeo in Zefferelli's version of the lovestruck teens. Leonard Whiting?

10:08 AM  
Blogger David said...

Fro some reason scary never movies never freaked me out as a kid. As matter of fact, they're scarier to me now.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Ed: That's so cool! I never saw that version of Frankenstein, but I saw Andy Warhol's version with Udo Kier...that was about the most recent version I ever saw, and it would have come out in 1974 (I think).

Sarah: I wouldn't be surprised if it is out on DVD now...so many things are that I never thought would be! And Leonard Whiting was indeed Olivia Hussey's Romeo in that version, featuring his magnificent buns. I didn't know he ever played Frankenstein!

David: Ironically, it didn't bother me to see people get shot on crime shows when i was a kid. I knew it was a bad thing, but it didn't really bother me. Now, I HATE watching that. And I especially hate CSI for making it even more gruesome...

9:30 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Sorry, BC, didn't mean to call you Ed! :-) I hope I don't start calling Ed "BC" now! I'm entering my senility early...

9:32 AM  

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