(Nothing to Fear But…)
The year was 1933 and America was in the depths of the Great Depression. As our newly elected president was contemplating what to say in his inaugural address, here is what he and the nation faced: There was a 25 percent unemployment rate leading some people to starve and many others to lose farms and homes. This was the time of the hobo riding trains across the country (giving Jimmy Rodgers and Woody Guthrie something to sing about). People from the Midwest migrated westward in the hopes of striking it rich in the land of plenty: California. Times were tough and fear was rampant and real. Franklin Delano Roosevelt rightly sensed that Americans needed some confidence, some words of encouragement, a shot in the arm. In the midst of his address, he uttered this now famous line: “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
My comment on that comment was uttered by an even more famous president, Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
With all due respect to Frankie, I have to side with Abe on this one. He may have fooled the others, but he doesn’t fool me. Nothing to fear but fear? You have to be kidding me. I was afraid of everything (this list is exhaustive, but not all-inclusive): needles, spankings, scary movies, doctors, dogs, lockjaw, fear itself, girls, neighborhood bullies, cows, loud noises, Dad, dying, etc. I had nightmares. I avoided going into certain places (anywhere dark to be exact). I was even known to scare myself; it didn’t take much to frighten me. Of course, like me but not as severe, were my three siblings who were afraid of a few things themselves, as the following story illustrates.
Some people would refer to the four of us kids as “a handful” (in the same way a trek up Mount Everest would be referred to as a “good stretch of the legs”), yet Mom seemed to maintain her sanity for the most part. There were times, however, when she needed to get away from us (not to be confused with us getting away from her); a time to engage in adult conversation with regular human beings. There was one hurdle to overcome: finding someone willing to babysit us, if only for a couple of hours.
After numerous phone calls to potential sitters, it seemed strange that they all had “sudden emergencies” to attend to during the two hours in question. Not to be deterred, Mom came up with another plan. She decided to drop us off at the movie theater and while we were safely in the care of the public, she would go to the beauty parlor and get her hair done. The timing couldn’t have worked out better for her.
The particular movie didn’t matter much to Mom, and as she drove away, the three of us turned to Vicki who had all the money. “Vicki, what movie ah we going to see?” Kathy asked.
“It’s a comedy called The Nutty Professor and stars Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens.”
“Jewwy who?” Timmy wanted to know.
This movie seemed innocent enough; after all, Jerry Lewis was a comedian, so what could possibly be amiss? In The Nutty Professor, Lewis plays a nerdy professor who discovers a potion that when consumed, turns him into a suave, handsome, ladies man, and this allows him to pursue the girl he has a crush on, played by Stella Stevens. The movie was initially pretty boring for us kids until one particular scene. As the professor drinks his magic potion, the music begins to turn eerie, which perks up the attention of four little kids sitting side by side in the dark theater (other than us, there weren’t many people watching the matinée). Our eyes became as large as saucers when the camera panned to the professor’s hand, which began to grow thick brown hair and resembled something more like that of a werewolf. This was all I needed to see, and within seconds, I was out in the lobby (I could still hear the scary music and other sounds emanating from the professor out in the lobby and my imagination went into overdrive). If I had stayed in the theater, I would have seen the complete transformation of the professor as he knocked over test tubes and beakers, falling to the ground and finally emerging as Buddy Love. The entire scene only lasted around a minute, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Out in the lobby, the young man at the concession stand asked me, “Hey kid, what are you doing out here? Are you going to buy some popcorn? Candy?”
Startled out of my daydreaming I replied, “What? No, I don’t have any money. Can I stay out here for a while?”
“No. You have to go back in the theater. You can’t stay out here.”
By this time, it was all four of us out in the lobby. We huddled together and weren’t going back into the theater until an usher came out and coaxed us back in. The movie was now back in the boring mode, so we stayed put for a while. When the scene switched to the laboratory and the music changed to scary, we didn’t wait around for the transformation, instead moving en masse to the lobby once again. This time, we were threatened. The usher was firm when he said, “You kids get back in there, or I’ll go get your mother.”
I flippantly replied, “Good luck if you can find her. She went to get her hair done, and we don’t know where she is.”
We stayed one step ahead of the usher by moving between the lobby and the bathrooms and even hiding behind the cameraman’s perch. When the movie finally ended, Mom was out front to pick us up.