For years I have been drawn into (what little I can understand) the writings of Stephen Hawkins. I recall staying up through the night delving into Hawkin’s A Brief History of Time. His exploration and discoveries relating to black holes intrigued me to no end. His absolute choice to live into his highest potential and to work with unchosen, unwanted and monumental circumstances is more than astonishing. While attending Cambridge in the 60’s he was diagnosed with a disease that gave him two years to live. He, supported by his lovely wife, called forth his innate capacities to defy and harness seemingly insurmountable, inevitable predictions of demise; he called forth the raw courage it took to resurrect those hidden Inner Forces. And he is very much alive to this day.
I simply found myself weeping, watching the previews of this forthcoming film portraying his life. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, with Hawkins played by the British actor Eddie Redmayne, comes to the movie theaters on November 7. If the film is anything close to the previews, it will touch the psychic depths of our generation and deliver a well deserved Oscar. See you at the movies.
Okay, stay with me now. My memory banks are bristling and enlivened!! I am at once taken back in time to my boyhood when my dad was THE manager of the only movie theater in Ayden, our eastern NC village of 1000, where I was born (and lived in the same house until I was married). This little post-Depression, pre-war Southern village was getting off the ground, thriving economically in the middle of countless tobacco farms. The “Show” was THE entertainment center of our town, jam packed every weekend, and it was located two blocks from my home. The electric energy influenced by movies was palpable. The collective influence of many movies at that time excelled any technological device available today. I vividly recall the trance-like feeling of seeing Bambi in technicolor!! At times, all was euphoric in that southern “Pleasantville” —as far as I knew.
GONE WITH THE WIND came out in 1939 when I was five years of age; I felt so proud to see my dad standing on the stage before the show started, personally speaking to a packed house. Movies became my open window out into a wider world. I watched countless movies two or three times a day, memorizing and quoting certain phrases, from the time I was 5 until I “graduated” from my various jobs at the show. I sold my first bag of popcorn to a customer when I was in the third grade; the kind black gentleman gave me a dollar and I gave him $1.65 in change, for a ten cent bag of popcorn. He quietly walked over to the ticket booth and talked to my Dad about something. My dad came over to me and said, “Sonny boy, you can bring me the money from now on and I will help you make change, okay?”
I worked at the show during WWII, watching my dad divvy out gas rationing stamps and sell war bonds. My mind was riveted by the gruesome Hitler-dominated war pictures on “Time Marches On,” the regular newsreel updates. My identity in that small community hinged on my being the oldest son of the manager of the local show. By the time I was in the 8th grade I got up the courage to tell my mother than I wanted to stop working with Daddy at the show, and she knew it would be quite a challenge for my dad to get this news. “You go tell your father,” she encouraged me. It took a few days but I got up the courage to say the words. Indeed, it was a traumatic paradigm shift to bravely announce to my dad, sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch, that I was going to work somewhere else. He silently sulked, feeling abandoned by his oldest son, and I “broke away” and got a job washing cars at a filling station; then I worked at the local hardware store. Those were huge decisions for that 8th grader, believe me!
I find myself taking a nostalgic, spontaneous trip back into those post-Depression, pre-war, war-time and post-war years in the South. While I am “there” in my mind, sitting here with you now, I must say that I grew up in what I now realize was a pitifully unconscious “Christianized” racist bubble, and working at the “show” slowly helped unravel and awaken my naivety. Our black brothers and sisters at that time sat upstairs in wooden seats in the balcony; we whites sat below in the cushioned seats. I felt an overwhelming sense of unfairness that “they” did not have restrooms and they would come downstairs to literally beg (holding themselves in agony) my dad for permission to run out behind the building to go to the bathroom. Feelings of injustice and unfairness coiled up inside my confused heart. An encounter with Deecie, my beloved black mammy, finally blew me open when she took a switch to my white behind and said, “Hal Junior, don’t you ever again call me a nxxxer, you hear that!!? I’s a person just like you!!”
I didn’t know until years later how that single backyard encounter knocked something loose inside my little head. I was thoroughly brainwashed by an entire culture and, because Deecie confronted my unconscious innocence, I somehow realized I had a choice—to remain locked into prejudice or begin to deal with my own stuff. In retrospect I can now see that I truly experienced a radical change in my perception of reality, and I came to realize how Deecie’s vulnerability and agony came through her words, “Is a person like you.”
I thank Deecie for setting me on my own personal “road less traveled” as a southern white boy. That woman, God bless her dear soul, loved me and she ushered me out of that limited Southern cultural mindset when she voiced those words.
I think, because of that early boyhood encounter, I later found myself drawn to sit upstairs in that tiny hometown theater, alone, near the stairwell, among my black “family.” Sitting there, wondering how they felt about me being there, I felt odd and I felt something healing deep in my soul before I could even begin to put conscious words around it. Something, far deeper and beyond any rational thinking, drew me upstairs time and time again. I never told any white person about this. When Daddy found me upstairs he would gently touch my shoulder and tell me it was time to go home.
These are happy and grateful tears I feel when I trevisit my Gone with the Wind years with Deecie and boyhood movies (thanks to the energizing nudges provoked by this new movie trailer depicting the dedicated life of Stephen Hawkins). This man’s dedication to find and follow his life mission reminds me that a greater and more important world continues to evolve and challenge us into that mystical Oneness where “…all things belong.” (1 Cor. 3:21)