The Day I Saw Jack Lemmon

It was a different time


The day I saw Jack Lemmon was a shimmery hot summer day where in the distance, asphalt emits those wavy heat lines. In 1966, the city of Los Angeles was in the middle of the busy July weekend with the streets full of chrome and good looking people. He was cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard in a red and white Chevy convertible. The single most striking component of my memory is that he was wearing a red golf sweater that matched the car contrast color exactly. The car was already a classic and it was shiny and perfect, just like him.

An Oscar winner in 1955, he was at the top of his game in the summer of 1966. With ‘Some Like It Hot,’Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘The Apartment,’ under his belt, he was viewed in Hollywood as both a true actor and one that could be relied on at the box office. He was driving down the street, with his left arm hanging out the window, smoking a cigarette. His black hair was combed back and he looked like he was late for some casual party with his buddies, his family or both. I always thought he was off to play golf with Lee Marvin, Jimmy Coburn or Tony Curtis and was content with his place in life. He looked happy, in control and looking forward to whatever was on his schedule. I don’t think I ever saw anyone so content. He had a couple outstanding roles under his belt and a few more just ahead of him in life and he looked like could see the future and couldn’t wait to see what it had in store for him.

My family and I had arrived in the heart of Los Angeles from the Midwest to experience California and see Disneyland. Like the real-life Griswolds, we had driven across the country with single-minded focus to spend our family vacation experiencing the Magic Kingdom and the children had conspired over six months ago to begin an all-out assault on our parents to visit Disneyland. I personally had thirty-four dollars that I had earned over the last year mowing lawns and peddling papers and it was burning a hole in my dungarees. The city was busy, growing and busting at its municipal seams and we were traveling through its epicenter with constantly dropping jaws and perpetually open mouths. Our goal was Anaheim with secondary stops in Hollywood, the Pacific Ocean, the Hoover Dam and the Gateway Arch.

My father had two weeks off from his job and with the help of my mother, had meticulously planned a trip with a tightly choreographed itinerary with the sole purpose of seeing everything that had to be seen. Our spontaneity was factored in as well with nothing left to chance. We left at the crack of dawn on Saturday from the friendly confines of Bettendorf, Iowa with the station wagon packed to the gills with only essential provisions. The front seat was occupied by my father and his co-pilot, my mother; together they navigated the brood with a sense of purpose and a calm confidence that always told us that they knew exactly where they were and exactly what had to happen to get us to our next destination. Unlike most fathers of the day, our mother was a trusted partner, driver and map-reader and wielded significant influence in the decisions that come up during an adventure.

In her role as co-leader, she was able to keep my siblings and myself in line easily. From her usual perch on the passenger side, she would pivot her attention to one of three points: straight-ahead, towards her husband or directly at the second row of seats that held her three children. She brooked no insubordination but she chose her battles carefully before she made the final decision to engage. If one of us were acting up, she would allow it to go on for a few moments, just long enough for the other two children to mete out an appropriate amount of fellow inmate justice. She would never let it escalate past her to our Dad’s attention, as what he had in driving ability; he woefully lacked in facilitation skills. The usual pushing, shoving and proximity violations were mainly covert but never outside the radar screens of our mother. For the most part, we were all a pretty positive group of adventurers with far more similarities than other families with conflicts mainly brought up by fatigue.

The sunrise caught up to us fairly early despite our speed and efficiencies. We headed south from Bettendorf towards the goal of the supposedly famous and just opened Gateway Arch. There was no specific reason for our visit to St. Louis except to see the new landmark. In our family, seeing things validated them to an extent of believability. As we got closer to the city, it was discussed amongst everyone that there was no need to go up into the Gateway Arch, much less stop at it. We knew no one in St. Louis and since we were Braves fans, we hated the Cardinals so it was decided we would just drive by and only if the spirit hit us, would we stop but there was a high likelihood that we wouldn’t leave the car.

Our family rarely directly argued and when the majority of the participants shelved an issue or a discussion topic, it was usually its unsaid death sentence. Our family had no fear of confrontation but usually when there were equal participants and legitimate two-sided issue, the general reaction was to take it off the table for the time being. It hotly supported by one member of the family, the issue sponsor would do his or her best to resurrect the topic and begin the debate anew. Unless there was new evidence or a recent power shift, the conversation would usually again peter out with behind the scenes wrangling to keep it off the table. Learning a lesson from my family dynamics, today’s political parties have taken more than a few pages from my family to shepherd bills through Congress and when it came to the arch, it was a unanimous decision to skip the onsite visit and keep heading west.

The arch gleamed in the sun and the combination of its sheer size and its futuristic insertion in the middle of the generic town made it stick out like a large, stainless steel sore thumb. I don’t remember the exact approach to the Arch, but I think we just stared at it from the interstate as we drove through the town. It was impressive as any fifty-floor stainless steel structure would be but it lacked an overall usefulness.

"Well, there is the Gateway Arch," said my sister.

"It certainly is," said my father looking up at the structure and actually leaning back as his head ascended, "that must of taken them a long time to make that thing." He hadn’t voted in the St. Louis decision but his silence usually meant consent.

"Any one want to stop?" asked Mom with no confidence in her voice, as she readied the map to call out either the exit to the Arch or the one getting us out of town. Silence filled the car until I felt compelled to say something.

"Why stop?" I said, "It would look the same if we got closer, only bigger. But it is shiny."

"I think we have the perfect view right here," observed my brother, "and getting closer would just make us feel smaller."

"I’ve seen enough of St. Louis," said Dad, "let’s go."

There was a communal grunting of agreement and our Mother called out an exit that would be coming up soon and that would be the one to take to keep going west. Within minutes, the exit sign proclaimed the same information we had just heard, and we took this mid-course correction at St. Louis, and we continued west. One challenge was down and the traveling Gods were on our side, so we continued.

My brother, sister and I shared only one pre-Disneyland goal, which was to stay at a Holiday Inn with a swimming pool. The only available swimming pool in Bettendorf was a municipal travesty of poured concrete and the mediocre efforts of the last remaining members of the Works Progress Administration. Records show that the pool was their last project prior to disbanding and their collective preoccupation with the war or their waning love of public works projects is cast in cement in the center of the City Park. Managed briefly by a transitional Civilian Conservation Corp bureaucrat, the pool was the collective repository of untold generations of urine and random summer energy. What the pool had in unique engineering features was more than made up for with shoddy workmanship. Holiday Inn pools were clean and rectangular and truly representative of man’s quest for engineering excellence. We didn’t care what we ate or what we had to do; all we wanted was a Holiday Inn, any Holiday Inn, with a pool. Ideally, if we spotted one anytime in the late afternoon, we experienced self-actualization, only loudly magnified by three.

Our needs stayed simple: good roads, cooperative weather, Holiday Inns and efficient bathroom breaks, needed or not, when the station wagon was getting fueled up. The vehicle, splendidly surrounded by faux wooden panels, looked every bit like a modern-day covered wagon wheeling across the western plain. After a picnic lunch in a park or after gassing up, we would all pile into our spots for further adventures west. We had no option of listening to music as the radio was controlled by the front seat leadership and even less opportunity to use personal electronic devices to shut out the outside world. The world was right there in our eyes and we were forced to either to discuss things like mature young people or you kept your mouth shut. Our parents, who loved us, did not want to engage in any conversations that weren’t interesting in nature. Our complaints fell on deaf ears and if continued, we would run the risk of angering our dad who wanted either the sound of the wind from the road or a balanced and well-paced discussion on the affairs of the day.

We found ourselves continuing to make wonderful time across the country and we appreciated the ease we covered the miles. The super highways of America were just coming into their own and they were full of large, powerful cars with huge V-8’s zooming down the highway, freedom personified. The rest of the west fell easily to our automobile as we continued to make outstanding time on our country’s superhighway. The majority of entertainment fell to each individual to engage in a passable conversation on a non-controversial topic or quietly entertain themselves as the miles rolled by.

California came early on the third day and we made a direct line to Disneyland. We spent three days there, never leaving the grounds, and as a family was our finest hour. Surrounded by the most cutting-edge attractions available on Earth, we collectively mowed through the best Walt Disney had to offer. We went early, we stayed late and there was not one thing at Disneyland we missed. By the middle of the third day, as all our own agendas were satisfied, we decided to see everything that was left just for the pure Hell of it. Looking back, it was one of our last, best times, as a family unit when everyone was of the same mind and before health and affairs of the heart began to pre-occupy us.

When we left the Magic Kingdom the next morning, we were sated and it had nothing left for us. We were going to become the Bettendorf experts on all things magical and our collective quiet confidence reassured us that our victory was compete. I was already fantasizing our return into Bettendorf, cruising into town, after having been to the outer reaches of all that was known, and having a wonderful and exotic story to tell.

The first week was over and it had been a rousing success. The family dynamic was strong and there weren’t any cracks in our armor. We discussed our next steps as a collection of experienced travelers with a healthy respect for each other’s opinion. My finances were holding up well, and since we have such a successful campaign at Disneyland, my expectations for the rest of the trip were minuscule due to the fact of my complete and utter happiness. The state had opened itself up to us and we continued into the city of Los Angeles to see what else we could do. Dad was very relaxed and each day away from his job, he seemed to become more accessible to everyone. The daily grind at the office was thousands of miles away and he became more animated and more engaging to the whole group. His role as unquestioned family leader was becoming enhanced, as he was less of a benevolent dictator and more like he was democratically elected trail boss.

The car was working fine and our necessities were well portioned out and any fears we had about starving on the side of the road were gone: we were a self-sufficient traveling machine and ready for anything that the road would throw as us. All of us kids were learning and becoming quite good at reviewing maps and suggesting to alternative routes to the front seat. A few suggestions were actually considered with several course corrections credited to the back seat with a genuine collaborative appreciation. Another ritual started on the trip was the need to stop at each formal roadside landmark for some enlightenment. Anytime a roadside marker and plaque was spotted, we would pull the car in and take turns reading what it had to say. Our timetable was well in hand since we only rushed out to California, and we were taking our own sweet time on the way back.

"It says here that ‘the entire Navajo nation once gathered here’ for a meeting of all their tribal counsels," read my sister. "There were over ten thousand people from all across the continent and the tribunal lasted over three months."

We overlooked the valley of this great conclave and collectively tried to imagine such an event happening without today’s modern conveniences. The sheer humanity gathered together to address their rapidly changing ways humbled us and quieted us all for awhile. Our parents were both schooled in history and took as much time as necessary to add context to some of the things we saw on the roadside. This education would evolve into mature discussions about things other than our own world and for the first time, we felt that we were growing up. Our topics of conversation were far ranging and on subjects other than ourselves. Our parents enjoyed being our teachers and introduced concepts that were built on later on the trip or sometimes down the road. Occasionally, the markers had a theme that would be seen at several stops and our parents would eagerly connect the historical dots for us. As we wound our way back to the North and to the East, we paced ourselves for additional conversations so we wouldn’t lose the magic connection we were all sharing thanks to a shared adventure and a growing love of history.

My sister and brother were turning into human beings before my eyes. Instead of being an adversary or a drain on my personal freedom, we were becoming a solid family faction and supported each other in the adventures that the trip was bringing. The backseat was a consistent voting block and with our newly democratic government, was wielding impressive power when issues were placed in front of the people. Our parents wisely let us win a few battles and we were equally wise not to escalate any particular want or need into a war. We were sharing our treasures and engaging in conversations amongst ourselves when needed and providing necessary support to the family when necessary.

"I have to stop and get gas," said my Father.

"Isn’t that backwards?" someone would invariably ask.

"Who has to go to the bathroom?" rephrased my Mother. Several voices would always pipe in and the family would scatter once the car rolled to a stop.

As we watched the attendant fill the tank, wash the windows and check the oil, any non-bathroom visitor or designated family member would also pitch in. Whether the task was to empty trash from the car, inspect the tires, re-fold a map, touch up spots missed by the window squeegee or run a quick inventory of possessions, the assigned representative did it. If everyone had to go to the facilities, we would leave one person in charge of the vehicle until someone else, once drained, would spell them as well. Once we were in order, we would reconvene in the car for a brief check-in and off we would go. The tasks were low level security and maintenance issues, but having our parents trust all of the children, even my sister, with the entire operation was a distinct rite of passage.

As we eased into the Grand Canyon for our last official vacation stop, we were collectively prepared to be amazed. If we had stopped on our way west, the impact would have been clouded by our pre-occupation with Disneyland. The Grand Canyon has a way of humbling its visitors with the sheer expanse of its presentation. Looking down and across the canyon is truly an epiphany and as a family, it brought us further together.

"More than a million people visited here last year," said my sister as she read the pamphlet," 1,689,233 visitors to be exact."

A grumbling of acceptance from both the front and the back seats were heard as she read on.

"At its deepest, it is six thousand vertical feet from rim to river. The width of the canyon at Grand Canyon Village is ten miles rim to rim, though in places it is as much as eighteen miles wide," said my sister calmly. "That is one big ass canyon."

Her use of a well-timed obscenity passed well under the radar of the parents and the vista of the Canyon had just opened up to all of us. We descended into a parking lot with the entire canyon area directly in front of us. The view was so overwhelming that I thought my sister could have admitted to the Lindbergh kidnapping at the same time and it would likely gone unnoticed.

"Wow," said my brother as he pointed across the car window, "It looks like an ocean without the water."

"The Canyon was formed about 5 million years ago. Some of the rocks exposed at its bottom may be 2 billion years old," continued my sister. It appeared she was trying to list all the attributes from the pamphlet before the car was parked. At the moment, she was the expert in the family and she was doing her best to keep her position.

My sister was reading as fast as she could, "There are about fifteen hundred flowering plant species, three hundred and five bird species, eighty-eight mammal species and fifty-eight species of reptiles. And the Grand Canyon National Park was established on February 26, 1919." She took a deep breath and was the last one out of the car.

We took the tour, all of us now armed with pamphlets, could deflect my sister’s apparently infinite knowledge of the park. The tour was educational and the entire family enjoyed it. The Park Ranger, out of sheer rote memorization, took the entire ninety minutes to keep us saturated in park information. There were no attempts to accommodate the child’s perspective or attempt to simplify the narrative because in the mid-1960’s, children were not viewed as an oppressed minority. The tour went swiftly and was on a deadline with no interest in the frail or the affirmed. We were still twenty plus years from the Americans with Disabilities Act so if you went on the tour, you had to keep up and shut up.

The family, still evolving into a team, helped each other through the nooks and crannies with pleasant precision. This type of teamwork would have been unheard of a week earlier but the road had made us a well-oiled unit. If pamphlet were distributed, the first family member would take six and take the responsibility of handing them to the family members, with my sister insisting on taking two. The information presented was a bit dry but with our parents adding a few additional comments, made the experience both educational and insightful. The trip to the Grand Canyon was used numerous times by our parents, and eventually us as parents, when dealing with their children and some initially non-obvious educational experience.

The visit was ending and we all arrived at the car. Windows were rolled down and treasures were stashed. We had seen something significant and all that was left was to find a Holiday Inn. We exited the park quietly, with nothing but the sound of the wind moving through the car. No one spoke for some time and then, my sister said, "’President Theodore Roosevelt said of the Grand Canyon: "Leave it as it is; you cannot improve on it; not a bit.’"

We collectively thanked her for providing a running commentary and she bowed, as best she could from the middle back seat, and packed the pamphlet away with her other souvenirs of the trip. The collection of personal treasures were coming together nicely with Mother’s purchases of a few ceramic pieces for the living room, my covert fireworks and real live Indian jack knife from the Arizona desert, my sister’s impressive collection of everything free and my brother’s periscope. We also purchased four Mickey Mouse hats, Dad chose not to participate, which adorned the back seat of the car like a four- headed monster with protruding but concentric ears. At the time of the purchase, I honestly thought the hats were the coolest things in the entire world, surpassing my Beanie and Cecil propeller cap but the heady atmosphere of the Magic Kingdom was significantly dissipating as we motored towards Bettendorf.

We made solid time heading back home. Moving across and up in orderly diagonals, we continued to stop at landmark signs at our discretion but we have no time worries because everything was still running smoothly. Fears of unplanned maintenance or a flat tire were fading proportionally as we came closer to our home destination. The conversations continued with long discussions on a variety of topics but the novelty of being equal participants was wearing off. Unless you had a true opinion on some subject, you could defer without the fear of losing your position in the family discussion arena. People would grow quiet and allow the natural fatigue that comes with long car rides take over. The energy was waning as a group and we evolved into a survival mentality. We had a successful hunt and we were coming back to our normal surroundings with our prizes and our memories.

The timetable was rarely discussed, thanks to our overall efficiencies as a familial team. We were baring down onto Bettendorf with about a day to spare; plenty of time for Dad to unwind before he went back to work. We were counting down the miles once we crossed the border and continued to re-live and discuss our observations in a measured and mature tone. I have talked to my brother and sister and they concur that none of us have ever felt closer than that trip. We were lucky: schedules were accommodating and we were young enough not to openly question our parents’ authority and finally, it was a different time. Coming from a medium Midwestern town, we had not seen a lot of wonders to date so the novelty and environment resulted in an impact still felt today. There was nothing said by anyone the last twenty miles, as familiar and comforting landmarks took the place of the countless number of mystery historical spots we collectively discovered together. At the time, we weren’t realizing the impact of the vacation or realizing it as a high point in parent and child relationships. We were happy to have gone to California and just as happy to be returning.

As we turned onto our street, I hung my arm out the window, just like I saw Jack Lemmon demonstrate on Santa Monica Boulevard one week ago. And just like Jack Lemmon, we were coming back from some fascinating experience and on top of our game and viewing life as an adventure, not a chore broken up by obligation and limitations. My shirt didn’t match the car and I was not meeting Lee Marvin for a round of golf but I had a glimpse of my future and couldn’t wait to see what it had in store for everyone.

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