31 March 2013

The Great Escape

When "The Great Escape" came out in 1963 I didn't see it because I was only nine years old, and didn't get to see a lot of movies unless my folks took me, which wasn't often.  I wanted to see this one.  It seemed to me exciting and adventuresome and thrilling and it had some actors I recognized.  I had seen some advertisements on TV promoting the film and they convinced me I would die if I didn't get to see it. 

I didn't die, but only because I had hope.  I'd noticed that when a film got old enough it would sometimes show up on one of the three television networks.  NBC had a weekly program called, "Saturday Night at the Movies."  So I figured all I had to do was wait it out.
I waited about three years.  I'm pretty sure I was twelve years old when, what I am about to tell you, happened.

I knew "The Great Escape" was coming to TV and I knew the night and the time and I made sure every other person in the family knew it.  I made it clear I was going to be watching that movie and nothing else.  My parents were going out and  I had their permission to stay up late.  The only two who could pull rank on me were my older brother and sister.

My older brother, JW, was a major teaser, and if he were home, would likely change channels or even sabotage the TV set, even if he wanted to see the same show, just to bug me.  He would say something like, "Let's see what's on the other stations." And then make a move for the dial.   He'd get me all worked up about something....all red-faced and threatening to kill him in his sleep and then he'd back off, affecting a puzzled and concerned expression.  "Gee, H. I didn't know it was that important to you."  He was no Wally, but then I was no Beaver.

I guess that's what older brothers do, but I didn't want any distractions.  I didn't want to look away from the screen for even a second.  But that night of nights, thank God, he was working so he was out of the equation, or so I thought. 

My older sister wasn't a factor either.  I can't remember why.  I think she was out with friends at a slumber party. We usually didn't butt heads, anyway.

The original movie was 172 minutes long and back in the sixties the networks allotted nine minutes of commercials to every  fifty-one minutes of show time each hour.   That meant the movie, uncut, would run over three television hours and  I was going to be up past eleven o'clock.  They probably shaved some time off the original movie to make it fit their scheduling, but I wasn't aware of that at the time.

I pulled an easy chair up within ten feet of the TV cabinet.  We had a color  floor model and it was fairly new and reliable.  I made some snacks and let my younger siblings know I was not to be disturbed.  I turned on the set early to give it time to warm up and the colors to stabilize and then settled in. 

The film was all I expected.  The German camp guards were large teutonic and implacable.  The prisoners were determined and wiry and clever and, be they Yanks, Aussies, Scots or Brits, you just knew they were going to get away and cause all manner of trouble, but first there was the digging of the tunnels and all the suspense of dodging searchlights and cave-ins and the Germans sniffing around, and... 

Then the phone rang...and It was not during a commercial break!  Arrrrghhhhh!  'But I had to answer it, it might be my parents calling so I dashed to the kitchen and picked up the black bakelite dogbone out of its cradle and with one eye still on the sliver of screen I could see at that oblique angle, and without saying "hello", just blurted into the mouthpiece, "Call back in five and a half minutes," and hung up and rocketed back to my chair.   

Looking back, I realize I was being rude, but it worked.  About thirty seconds into the next commercial break the phone rang again.  It was my brother JW with a request.  He worked at a Chevron filling station on the corner of 102nd Avenue and Southeast Stark Street and would be closing the station that night and had left his station keys at the house.  He wanted me to bring them to him.

I was watching the kitchen clock.  I could talk for another minute.

     "I'm watching my movie.  Why can't you drive back here and get them, yourself?"

     "I can't leave the station unattended."

     "I don't know where your keys are."

     "They're on the stand next to my bed.  You've got to do this for me, H."

     "JayDub..."  My voice was plaintive, almost whiny, but I couldn't help it.  I had planned for almost every contingency short of a citywide power outage, or act of god.  It was just unfair. 

My brother was silent.  He didn't threaten me, he just waited.  The second hand was on its way up from the bottom of the dial.  "OK," I finally said, "but I'm going to come on the hour commercial break at ten o'clock."  (seven more seconds)  "You be outside at the nearest corner of the lot. Gotta go."  And I hung up the phone and was back in front of the TV. 

The next intermission I got my bike from the garage and moved it to the front yard, quickly checked that the tires were inflated enough not to go flat on me and leaned it against the porch so I wouldn't have to waste time with the kickstand.  I raised the left side pedal so my first mounting step would also start propelling me down the road. I tried to think of anything else I could do to speed my way, but it was too late to invent a bike-mounted ramjet, or learn how to hot-wire a car.   I went back to my movie. 

Just prior to the break, I got up out of my chair and crabwalked toward the front door, keeping one eye on the TV screen.  My younger sister was holding the door open for me and she would open it on my return.  I figured this would gain me a few precious seconds.

Then it was time and I was off.  As I vaulted off the porch and launched my bike westward I felt kind of like that plantation owner in "Leiningen Versus the Ants," who jumps the fire barrier and runs for his life through acres of poisonous army ants.  They cling to him and bite him but he just keeps brushing them off and sprints on.  With me it was seconds instead of ants.  I could feel the accumulated weight of them crawling all over me as I rode. 

Stark Street was a four-lane main arterial and was usually pretty busy but at that time of night had only the odd car every twenty seconds, so I crossed it at an angle, to save time, and pumped as fast as I could.  My bike was one of those heavy single-speed steel-frame chariots with coaster brakes and big balloon tires that they'd been cranking out since the Forties. It took time to get it up to speed, but when you did it could really cruise.  I pumped and pumped like demons were chasing me and by the time I crossed 108th Avenue I was going as fast as I'd ever gone, on level ground, self-propelled. 

I was going fast enough so my eyes were tearing up and my shirt tails were flapping.  If my hair were a wind sock it would have been pointing back the way I came as stiff as a traffic cone, but this was the mid-sixties and I was twelve and my dad gave me a buzz cut every three weeks, so no streaming locks. 

The weather was warm and clear and the road surface was dry and I could see up ahead to the traffic light at 102nd Avenue and the big Chevron sign.  I didn't have lights on my bike or a helmut.  Noboby back then did.  There were streetlights, though and I blinked and tried to make out if JW was following my instructions, but it was still too far ahead to tell.

I crossed 105th and there he was, silhouetted by the station lights and I didn't even stop I flipped the keys to him right-handed, made a sharp left turn and shot across the four lanes to the south side of Stark and streaked homeward.  I'd tried to keep count of the time, at first, in my head, but gave it up after the first few blocks.  I couldn't go any faster.  I would get back when I got back and that was that.  I knew in my heart it was going to be a close thing.

The return trip went faster because there was a breeze at my back and also a very slight downward slope.  I veered from asphalt road to gravel sidewalk at the last driveway before my house and lept from the bike letting it plow into the front yard grass.  It lay there, front wheel spinning as I hurtled the porch steps and flew through the front door held by my accomplice.  The movie was already running when I alighted and I tried mightily to calm my breathing so I would not miss any dialogue, but I still had to ask:  "How much?"

My sister knew I wanted to know how much I had missed. She answered, "five seconds." 

I was content.  I'd made it.  I was rather proud of myself.  I watched the rest of the film in peace and enjoyed every thrilling suspenseful minute of it: the short tunnel, the discovery by the guards, the trains and the Gestapo and the stolen plane and boat and the French Resistence, and, of course, the wild motorcycle ride of the plucky Hilts (McQueen). 

And that is my story.  Just for fun I went to Google maps and checked the scale to measure how far I'd had to ride that night.  It was seven blocks from my house to the station, but the blocks were not all that regular.  The average was perhaps two hundred and fifty feet wide.  I figure the one way trip was eighteen hundred feet.  I then calculated how fast I would need to be pedalling to get to the Chevron and back in two minutes and forty-five seconds and came up with a speed of about thirty miles per hour. 

That night it felt like I was doing at least sixty. 


  1. my favorite line "so, no streaming locks"

  2. This sounds EXACTLY like something that Fletcher would do, and Hannah would have been his designated door-holder.