My Father

I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for my father. I mean, I obviously wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for Mark Royden Winchell, but my mind, my taste, my sensibilities, my humor, my quirks, and my essence are deeply connected to him.
My parents met in the mid 1980s at Clemson University, where they both taught English. They dated less than a year before marrying. They got married and had children later in life than some people do. My father was 43 when I was born. I don’t know what my earliest memories are because I honestly don’t recall being very young, but among the moments that spring to mind from what I can recall is going with my father to the university library to check out books and VHSs of classic comedies. My warped sense of humor has to partially stem from my father repeatedly checking out a big book titled The World of Charles Addams, a collection of Charles Addams’ cartoons from The New Yorker. We would look at the book together, and I would say, “Why is that funny, Daddy?” at pictures such as the Addams Family standing on their roof about to pour a cauldron of hot liquid on some carolers below. Another book that I often checked out was Leonard Maltin’s book on the film comedians, which ranged from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen. With my father’s help, I would look up on the computer if there were books on the comedians I liked. We would go to the book section about films and find them. Often they were big biographies that I was too young to actually read, but I checked out many of them, content to look at the pictures and take from them what I could. My father let me get whatever book interested me. As for the films, I vividly remember getting Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual shorts. I can see the box of one of them still. I also remember getting films from Buster Keaton, especially Steamboat Bill, Jr., and the Marx Brothers. Those old, square husky VHS boxes look like bricks now. It was a regular occurrence for him to take me to the library to check out the books and VHSs. One story that I don’t remember but that I have heard my whole life is that I once dropped my pacifier in the book dropbox inside the library, and we had to go back and retrieve it. They kept it for us because they knew we would be back. And while I’m on the subject of pacifiers and films, I should tell how I finally gave up my pacifier. My parents agreed that if I threw it away, they would let me buy whatever film I wanted at Suncoast video store in the mall. I kept my pacifier much longer than normal. Being daring for my age, I got The Nightmare Before Christmas. My father joked that he would have gotten me Last Tango in Paris if I’d give up the pacifier.
The Winchell family have spent thousands of hours in video stores, libraries, and book stores. Besides the Clemson University library, my father would take me to Movie Gallery and Blockbuster. I am not just old enough to remember video rental stories, I remember when they used to have a silent section. We used to go to Movie Gallery or whatever the name was over the years. It changed many times, including once to Mooovies with a cow logo. I forget how many O’s. We’d go every Tuesday, when new films were released, and I would get a range of old and new films. I didn’t just go in and pick any film real quick. I perused the selection to make the right decisions. My father would always give me my time and space to wander and explore. The same was true of book stores such as Barnes and Noble and video stores such as Best Buy. Books and VHSs were not just entertainments or packaging of the fun. The items themselves were to be cherished, preserved, and ordered. My father kept his books in his own chronological order, and since I was in diapers, I stacked and ordered my VHSs. One of the times I was most angry as a child was when I got Dracula’s Daughter in the wrong box. I had my beloved Universal monster films in a collection that all had the same design on the top of the box. When I ordered the film online, the picture showed the same heading as all my others. Well, the fools gave me the wrong one, and I couldn’t conceive of their stupidity and how they had wronged me. I don’t remember my father’s reaction, but I know that he would have understood my pain.
Besides letting me search for and buy films, my father shaped my love of cinema. I watched a lot of what typical kids my age watched: Disney, The Wizard of Oz, Looney Tunes, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network. Once when I was young I was watching the 1961 Disney version of Babes in Toyland starring Annette Funicello. He said there was an older version of the film starring two funny men named Laurel and Hardy. He didn’t have that film with him at the time, but he did show me their film The Flying Deuces. My father introduced me to the classic comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Bob Hope, and many more. From the earliest age I was watching silent comedies before I was old enough to read the intertitles by myself. He showed me It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, two of my childhood favorite which are both 60s comedies with long titles and have Buster Keaton and Phil Silvers. I was the only 12-year-old who knew who Zasu Pitts and Paul Ford were. My father never forced films down my throat. He showed me a world that many people that age never see. I never cared if a film was in black or white or even silent because I just grew up being exposed to them and loving them. I would like to think that I would have grown up to love films even if my father didn’t show me those older films, that I would have grown to appreciate them on my own, but I don’t know if that would be the case if it weren’t for him spurring my interest at such as young and impressionable age.
Part of this has to be genes, but I definitely have my father’s memory and some of his eccentricities. My brother is high-functioning autistic and if people were actually diagnosed back when my father was growing up, he would probably have been considered Asperger’s. I like to say that I am not on the spectrum, but I’m hovering around it. My father used to be able to reel off authors and dates and facts, not to show off, but because he had the knowledge, and it was almost like he had to say it aloud. I feel the same way about films. Even as a kid, I would make long lists of films. I would list all of the films by my favorite comedians. To this day I can still rattle off all 36 Abbott and Costello films in alphabetical order really fast without hardly thinking, as if I were reciting the alphabet. When we would name numerous works by either an author or a director, it’s not because we wanted to show off our knowledge. We genuinely wanted to spread the information that we had because it interested us and fascinated us. Deep in the recesses of my mind I am operating on a similar mental wavelength as my father. My mind bends and absorbs and blocks the world in the same way to a great extent.
My film knowledge certainly went past what my father knew, but he always remained interested and would see new films with me. When I got old enough to see more adult films in theaters, we would go with me, even all the way to Atlanta for a day of films. I saw my first R-rated film in theaters with my father: The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The opening scene was horrifically embarrassing for about ten seconds, but my father started to laugh, and then it wasn’t uncomfortable. One of my favorite movie theater experiences was seeing Borat on opening weekend with my father with a big crowd. I’ve never heard an audience laugh as hard, as often, and as uproariously. I love so much that my father laughed even harder than I did when Borat brought his own feces back in a bag to the dinner where he was supposed to be learning etiquette.
Some of my other fondest memories of seeing films in theaters with him were the last ones we saw. My father died of cancer ten years ago today. In the last week of December of 2007, between Christmas Day (also my birthday) and New Year’s Eve, he drove me to Asheville, North Carolina, to see Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There where six actors play him. We thought my father’s cancer was gone. He was well enough to drive 100 minutes to Asheville while we listened to Bob Dylan music, see the 2-hour-and-15-minute film, and drive the same distance back home. In less than four months he was in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down. We saw at least four other films over the last months before he was readmitted to the hospital, which he never left. 2007 was an amazing year for films, and we saw No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd, and There Will Be Blood. I remember after seeing the third, There Will Be Blood, he turned to me and jokingly said that, since he was dying, maybe he shouldn’t be seeing all these bleak and violent films. The last film we saw in theaters together was Cloverfield, which opened in January of 2008. I went with my friend Max, and the theater was so full that we sat together, and my father sat in another part of the theater. After it was over, I rushed over to him to see what he thought of the film, and he said with a deadpan face that he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.
My father died on May 8, 2008, at age 59. I miss him every single day. There are so many things I want to discuss with him, to debate with him, and to show him. As great as every new film or television series might be, there is still a sadness lurking around it because I can’t watch it with him. There are older films I never knew if he saw. Political issues I don’t know where he stood on. Stories from his life that I will never know. I have a bad habit of not looking back at my life or even the present and taking in what is going on. I just go forward. I will stop and briefly realize that I haven’t really considered or processed something from my life. My father’s death was cruel and ugly, and I hate that he died so young and when I was so young. It just happened, and I don’t know how much I’ve thought about him being gone. He just is. However, I think he is engrained in me to such a degree that I don’t have to sit and ponder him being gone or what that means. Because he’ll always be there. He’s a part of me. As distinct and opinionated a voice as I have, his is also intertwined with mine. He is my brilliant, quirky, loving guardian angel and film partner.
At his memorial service, I showed this clip from The Flying Deuces where Laurel and Hardy sing “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

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