Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dazed & Confined

Here's Chevy Chase at the Democratic National Convention in New York, July 1976.



This inspires several thoughts. First, the raw footage from those early video cameras. Just a few months before, at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, I got to operate one of these cams, shooting black and white comedy videos around the English department. They weren't terribly good, and once I embarrassed a shy girl whose cleavage I caught in close-up while focusing on another person behind her. The entire class erupted in hoots and laughter when I screened this, sending the girl sobbing into the hallway. It was accidental, but no one believed me. I was suspended from class for a few days and banned from using the camera. Some of the older guys who thought I was a geek were nicer to me, though.

Second, Chevy's celebrity. Chevy was among the more recognized faces in the country, his fame still rising. Chevy told me about how overwhelming it sometimes was, that he dealt with it in several ways. Here he's on, giving the interviewer what I'm sure he expected. Chevy was at the convention with Louise Lasser, then the troubled star of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. They were shooting a short film for when Lasser hosted Saturday Night two weeks later, but it never aired. Chevy would leave the show that fall for marriage and Hollywood, the former not working out, the latter taking him on an interesting ride that's still in progress.

Finally, the personal-time angle. At the moment Chevy was working the camera, I was locked inside the mental ward unit of Indiana University hospital in downtown Indy. I was 16, somewhat frightened, but mostly pissed off. My stepmother, who belonged there more than I did (talk about brutal projection), decided I was a physical and psychological threat to the family and our friends. She was alarmed by my immersion in violent sports and kung fu movies. She dragged me to several psychiatrists to confirm her prognosis, but none shared her concern. I was a normal male teen, perhaps on the obsessive side, but no real danger to anyone.

These were clearly the wrong answers.

She eventually found an Indian shrink. I mention that because his English was poor, and he had difficulty understanding Midwestern teen male behavior. I certainly wasn't alone in my enthusiasms. Most of my friends shared them. But this guy agreed with my stepmother that something sinister was brewing, requiring closer study. When he suggested I be put away for a time, I naturally became agitated, which didn't help my cause. My anger was proof of a deep violent streak. He phoned the IU medical center to arrange my arrival. I didn't even go home first -- straight to my new digs. It felt a lot like A Clockwork Orange, only no Kubrick there to yell "Cut!"

What the good doctor failed to comprehend was that my interest in fighting grew from being bullied in junior high school. I got my ass kicked on a regular basis until I began studying martial arts with a South Korean fascist (small but very tough), picking up some boxing moves from a kid who was in Golden Gloves. Within six months, I had no bully problems. I began to hang with other guys into kenpo and Wing Chun, and we formed a loose club of sorts. We loved Bruce Lee and enjoyed hockey fights. We fought each other in basements and garages, honing techniques while ridding ourselves of excessive testosterone. We never threatened nor bullied anyone. The jocks thought we were crazy and left us alone. The stoners asked us to show them our "tricks," but that was the extent of it.

I spent all of July 1976, the Bicentennial, in that locked ward. Old Glory designs decorated the white walls. We were allowed to watch some of the festivities on the rec room TV, but our activities were closely monitored. I shared a room with a thirtysomething man sexually obsessed with his mother. He was a pudgy white guy who spoke and read novels in Spanish. He ratted me out to the nurses over a joke. Looking out our room's window, which was on the building's top floor, I dryly remarked, "Freedom's only one jump away." This was perceived as a suicide threat, even though the window was barred, the glass wired. I was taken to the nurses' station where they ordered me to swallow a pill. I hid it under my tongue, swallowed and smiled. They bought the act. I later flushed the pill down the toilet.

For all my supposed violent tendencies, I was relatively peaceful during this time. I quickly learned that showing anger added days to my sentence, so I dialed it back, pretended to get with the program. My drama class experience sharpened my performance. The only violence I engaged in was defensive. Some wiry teen who had numerous behavioral issues attacked me in the hallway. He grabbed me from behind, wrapping his arm across my throat, looking to choke me out. A quick elbow strike to the side of his head dropped him to the floor as two orderlies ran in. "I love you!" he kept yelling at me while being dragged to the solitary wing. "I need you!"

Let the healing begin, eh?

There is much more to this story. Too much for this post. Perhaps I'll finish it another day. But this is what the above video triggered.

I did get to watch the Louise Lasser SNL, however. Lasser was not all there during the show, something O'Donoghue confirmed years later, describing her strange behavior through writing and rehearsals. Yet I was in the mental ward and she on national television. Save your madness for the camera. Another lesson learned.