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Heartbreak Ridge (S01, E01, Part 2)


Photo credit: boots via photopin (license)

WTF, I hear you gasp. Heartbreak Ridge? Really? Hardly a cinematic gem, granted, but this whole exercise, I would argue, is actually about uncovering gems of other sorts. Or pearls, I suppose, might be the more appropriate metaphor since, at the epicentre of this treatise, must reside an on-going commitment to achieving sufficient personal “grit” (see Part 1) to tackle one’s life in a truly meaningful fashion. Likewise, at the very heart of Heartbreak Ridge beats a thematic imperative breathed into existence via the mystical incantation of three simple words, a sort of intellectual talisman against any potential for physical or existential laxity: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”

We’ve all seen Heartbreak Ridge before — even if we’ve never seen Heartbreak Ridge before —  as my son, who really wasn’t having the time of his life watching it, was quick to point out: “A grizzled, end-of-career NCO [in this case a Marine Gunnery Sergeant] takes a rag-tag collection of young soldiers [in this case a dysfunctional reconnaissance platoon], promptly puts them through their paces to mould them into “real men” and thus, through his gruff, no-nonsense, hard-as-nails approach, demonstrates just how much he actually loves them because now they — or at least most of them — have developed the skills they will need to survive their first battle [in this case the “Invasion” of Grenada].” The going gets tough, the tough get going, and faint-hearted chickenshits are exposed at every turn. Thanks Gunny!

OK, so I have to admit, having not seen the movie in a number of years, it may have lost a bit of its lustre. Whole scenes, for example, seem to unfold as little more than a recitation of some generic military “drop-you-cocks-and-grab-you-socks” litany of verbal pyrotechnics, which, no doubt, I found irreverent and bad ass back in the day. Rings a little overplayed to a more nuanced, more mature ear, however. Plus I never could warm up to Marsha Mason. But you gotta love Eastwood. He marches from one end of that film to the other, rigid and coiled as a high tension wire, raspy voiced and imperturbable to such a degree that his portrayal of the gnarled Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway is almost comforting, almost transcendent in its sheer caricature.

Still, Eastwood notwithstanding, for me the movie — or at least my memory of the movie — was always about those three deceptively simple words: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” This was a clarion call for me in 1986, and — I remember thinking at the time — it was a theme that was played out with an especial metaphorical subtlety in the “T-Shirt Kerfuffle” sub-plot.

T-shirt scene #1: Eastwood shows up to start training his new, motley squad of misfits. He assembles them outside their quonset hut in their PT shorts and mismatched t-shirts, and prepares to take them on their first — first with him, that is — run. But before they sprint away he tells them all to discard their aforementioned tees, because no squad of his is going for a run unless they’re all wearing the same shirt.

T-shirt scene #2: Another day and another run. The squad members form up and appear to be feeling rather pleased with themselves given that they’re all standing there in the same t-shit. “Off with the shirts, ladies,” instructs Eastwood. “Why?” they ask, incredulous. “We’re all wearing the same shirts.” “Not the same as me,” he growls.

T-shirt scene #3: The squad shows up for their next run with each man carrying all the t-shirts he owns — just in case. But none match Eastwood’s. They hurl them to the ground in frustration and run off at Eastwood’s command, shirtless and beaten.

Then one night, after helping another senior NCO take Eastwood / Highway home from jail after he had been arrested (again) for “drunk and disorderly,” one of the marines from the squad encounters Eastwood’s landlady who happens to be walking by with a basket of the Gunnery Sergeant’s clean laundry. Turns out this woman not only does Highway’s laundry for him, but sets out his clean clothes every morning as well. Which means the squad now has “intel” on the on-going shirt situation…

T-shirt scene #4 (aka the t-shirt finale): The next time Eastwood calls them to assemble for their run everybody’s wearing the same t-shirt — i.e. the same as him — and, low and behold, their metamorphosis into disciplined brothers in arms, ready to face the enemy, is nearing completion. Now all they need is a war…

“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”

Life is a challenge at the best of times. Often you have no idea what the answers are and, metaphorically at least, you’re left shirtless. At other times, you’re pretty confident you’ve figured out the answers, but, before you know it, they’ve gone and changed the question on you and, you guessed it, shirtless again.

“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” I told my son. “That’s all I really needed you to get from this movie. That’s the hidden treasure [or the “rare pearl” if you’re worried about continuity]. Whether it’s breaking a t-shirt stalemate, or figuring out how to capture an enemy emplacement, or any other seemingly insurmountable challenge you’re going to face in this life, your best chance for success will always be the same: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. That’s what you need to learn. That’s what you need live.”

Still, I could tell that he wasn’t convinced that it had been necessary for him to sit through the entire movie if that was all I had intended to share with him. But I guess what I’m trying to do with this gestating pedagogical film fest, when all is said and done, is to create opportunities for him to make certain “connections” for himself. To “get” things, rather than just listening to me bleat banal homilies at him over and over again. (Of course, I’m still just making all this up as I go if you haven’t already figured that out for yourself yet!)

Ironically, however, it turned out he “got” the Heartbreak Ridge message far more clearly than I ever could have anticipated. A few days after we had watched the movie I was leaving for work quite early in the morning and reached into the closet, in the still-dark back hallway, to pack up my sneakers for my usual lunch-time walk. At noon I reached into my bag to retrieve the sneakers only to discover that I had actually taken only one of my sneakers, along with one of my son’s sneakers by mistake. Which meant that he would have had no footwear to wear to school — on this, the second day of grade 11 — other than two mismatched sneakers or the dirty, paint-splattered pair of black, low-cut work books he uses to help me around the yard. I swallowed hard: he was going to kill me when I got home!

I walked in the door after work that evening, and as he came upstairs from the family room to greet me, I immediately started apologizing. “Oh, crap,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I accidentally took one of your sneakers this morning when I was packing mine up in the dark. What did you end up wearing to school for shoes?”

He started laughing. “So that’s what happened,” he said. “I looked all through the entire closet and could only find one of my sneakers, and I started having kind of a panic attack because I thought I was going to miss my bus. But then I remembered I had an almost new pair of sneakers in my bedroom closet from gym class last year, so I dug them out and put them on and ran to the bus stop with time to spare.”

Then he grinned at me. “I just thought you hid one of them on me deliberately to see if I was paying attention to the movie the other night,” he chided. “But, you see, I handled it!”

By Jove, I think he’s got it! Score for dad, and hurrah for movie night! The hook is set!

*Thunder crashes, lightning forks through the sky, and a father’s maniacal laughter rings out across the darkened countryside.*

One down, 23 to go…


A World of (Virtual) Wonders

internet photoThe internet never ceases to amaze me.

I’m old enough that I can remember life without the net, and without PC’s in general. And I suppose that this has a huge influence on how continually astounded I am by the rate at which the virtual world continues its exponential evolution. It’s become such a ubiquitous presence that we seldom even think about it any more. But when I do stop to think about what it would be like — what it used to be like — to do the things I take for granted now, without a PC, or a smart phone, or a tablet or an internet connection, I’m often flabbergasted.

Blogging, for example, is a brave new world. Who would have thought that there were so many writers out there just waiting to exorcise their poor, tortured souls onto the virtual page? Imagine, the minute I upload this file, someone half a world away in Sydney can start reading it. Or in Berlin, or Peoria. No editor, no intermediaries — just me, open to the world for business. (Anyone born into the internet age is rolling their eyes at this point, — duh? — but get off your high horse for a moment and just dare to imagine how it must have felt to live in a world without such immediate syncronicity. In retrospect, it felt pretty good actually, but that’s another blog altogether…) And with the emerging availability of on-line translation protocols, folks can even read this flood of blogs in their language of choice. (Must be the death knell for Esperanto.) Oh, what I would have given to have had Google Translate when I was struggling through high school French!

Last week the top part of the agitator in my washing machine stopped turning properly. A couple of minutes on the internet and I soon discovered that the top part of the agitator is actually called the auger. A couple of minutes more and I discovered that, in fact, I was lucky it was an auger issue because this is far preferable to having a problem with the agitator proper (i.e. the wider, lower part of the shaft that twirls the clothes around in the bottom of your washer). If you’re having a problem with the agitator, I learned, it could be a motor or a belt or a clutch problem — all requiring serious and potentially expensive fixes. With the augur, what usually happens is that the plastic “dogs” that turn against the teeth of the main agitator, to keep the upper spindle turning independently, often wear out. When they’re stripped and don’t engage properly the augur doesn’t turn. Five minutes on YouTube with weezie63, the “red neck” plumber, and a trip to the local appliance store the next day to purchase four plastic replacement “dogs” ($8 plus tax), and I was good to go. Back in the day, this would have meant an expensive visit from an appliance repair person. Do they even have appliance repair people any more?

Then yesterday, doing a bit a research for an upcoming blog I’m planning on life lessons gleaned from minor hockey, I went searching for an image of one of those “Hockey is Life” t-shirts that were so popular (for so many sports) a few years ago. Of course, I found one immediately, with my first search query. And then that started me thinking about other funny t-shirts I’d seen over the course of the years — because, hey, this is the internet whose apparent raison d’être is to lure us down these alleys of lateral thinking so that we waste huge freakin’ swathes of our evenings and weekends without even realizing what we’re doing and that it’s already 1:32 in the morning.

Any variation of the classic “I’m with Stupid” shirt, as you might expect, offered no challenge either — found those images in an instant as well. Then I remembered a t-shirt I had seen years and years ago, but have never seen since. A shirt that became the stuff of legend, my grandfather’s favorite t-shirt of all time. We would have seen it together some time in the late the seventies or early eighties — while I was still in junior high school — on one of our summer excursions to a local “Wildlife Park”. This was around the time when “Egyptomania” was on the rise and the funerary treasures of the young King Tutankhamun were being shipped to key museums around the world for display, and attracting huge crowds in the process. Gramps and I certainly never made it to the Met in New York to enjoy the exhibit. But what we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one enchanted summer day at the park was a buxom, t-shirt-clad young lady striding languorously toward us with matching imprints of the sarcophigal (sp?) visage of King Tut emblazoned proudly across each of her breasts. And, below that, — just in case you happened to be a complete moron and miss the pun altogether — the dire warning, “DON’T TOUCH MY TUTS!” Surely, I thought, there’s no way the internet has that one on file. I was wrong…


Provocative pharaoh-centric fashion statements aside, however, don’t you find this vast, seething, unbounded, what? intelligence? of the Net unsettling somehow? The coalescing hive mind at work. Call me a pessimist, but I simply can’t imagine this will end well.

Neo? Neo, help! I think we’ve entered the Matrix…

photo credit: photosteve101 via photopin cc