It was a Sunday morning, the last in November and just after Thanksgiving. The Time Machine, the 1960 George Pal version, came on one of the classic-movie stations, and I could not get out of bed to shower, begin the day, even make coffee (I drank three-day-old eggnog from the carton), and I became a child again. I was even equipped with flu or cold symptoms that I associated with getting out of school, attention from Mom (if she was on the right chemical mix), and masochistic affirmation of my sensitive, tubercular, and poetic nature. I loved that story, both the thin novel by Wells and that movie — certainly not its recent remake; but I was driven mad for half the day, tormented (still tubercular and poetic, you see) because I could not remember the actor’s name, the one playing George, the protagonist. He was a very cool Australian who also starred in the ’60s television series Hong Kong.
Can’t remember much about that show except that the actor played the coolest guy in the world and always had a drink in his hand. In my adolescence, I would always sneak Coca-Colas I was not allowed, put them over ice in a highball glass, and pretend it was “Scotchandbourbon,” some drink I imagined the guy in Hong Kong favored. This no doubt explains much about my blossoming alcoholism later.
It is sometime later, and I still cannot remember the actor’s name, though it has been engraved in my memory for decades. I’m sure you know what it is if you’re over 40. My memory’s failure is evidence of brain damage under the bridge (a metaphor that mixes like scotchandbourbon) and evidence of encroaching senility.
“Rod Taylor,” my friend Bill (Jose Sinatra) Richardson told me telephonically that morning, before I ever finished the question. In fact, less than a third of the way through it. “The guy who starred in the 1960 version of The Time…? Boom. “Rod Taylor.” He went on to tell me that Taylor and another actor, William Smith, put on screen the most convincing and brutal fistfight of any duo in cinematic history in Darker Than Amber, based on a Travis McGee novel, by John D. MacDonald. “The two guys actually beat the crap out of each other,” he concluded, sounding very happy about it, in fact.
Jeez. “Yeah, well, thanks, man. ’Preciate it.”
“Hey, remember, our birthdays are coming up in two weeks.”
“How could I forget?”
That weekend a letter appeared in these pages from a very nice man, very complimentary, who assumed I was his age: 70. I found this funny until I realized he was only 13 years off — not that long when you get up into this thinning atmosphere. I am not 83 either. I was more moved and gratified by that letter than anything in recent memory. I hope no one finds anything the least bit artful or clever about this. To the man known only as “Name withheld by request,” I thank you. It came at a damned good time, too. If you write to me through the Reader, sir, and let me know how to contact you, it would mean much to me — and my father.
It’s folly to try to determine how I ended up in my present position, but the childhood experience of reading and seeing the motion picture The Time Machine had something to do with it. H.G. Wells had something to do with it and with why I became a writer, but then so did Raymond Chandler and J.D. Salinger and a dozen others. I should have known I would fail to get at it here, in a single column, but if the prospect of failure is to dissuade one, don’t bother getting up in the morning.
Actually, that was my plan B that Sunday after Thanksgiving — and likely this morning as well. I should have known I would never become any of those writers — or later, say, Eric Clapton; but — and this is implicit in the better time-travel stories or Theodore Dreiser’s novels, to make a “huh?” kind of leap — but I loved Dreiser, too, for his fatalism. And I find real irony there when I look at the other fiction writers who moved me. If I knew the inevitable mediocrity waiting for me down the road, I doubt I would have ever quit my job at the zinc foundry in Illinois when I was 16.