Chapter 1 : Memory
I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman's Persona after the film breaks and begins again. I am flat on my stomach on the front sidewalk, my eyes an inch from a procession of ants. What these are I do not know. It is the only sidewalk in my life, in front of the only house. I have seen grasshoppers and ladybugs. My uncle Bob extends the business end of a fly swatter toward me, and I grasp it and try to walk toward him. Voices encourage me. Hal Holmes has a red tricycle and I cry because I want it for my own. My parents curiously set tubes afire and blow smoke from their mouths. I don't want to eat, and my aunt Martha puts me on her lap and says she'll pinch me if I don't open my mouth. Gary Wikoff is sitting next to me in the kitchen. He asks me how old I am today, and I hold up three fingers. At Tot's Play School, I try to ride on the back of Mrs. Meadrow's dog, and it bites me on the cheek. I am taken to Mercy Hospital to be stitched up. Everyone there is shouting because the Panama Limited went off the rails north of town. People crowd around. Aunt Martha brings in Doctor Collins, her boss, who is a dentist. He tells my mother, Annabel, it's the same thing to put a few stitches on the outside of a cheek as on the inside. I start crying. Why is the thought of stitches outside my cheek more terrifying than stitches anywhere else?
The movie settles down. I live at 410 East Washington Street in Urbana, Illinois. My telephone number is 72611. I am never to forget those things. I run the length of the hallway from the living room to my bedroom, leaping into the air and landing on my bed. Daddy tells me to stop that or I'll break the bed boards. The basement smells like green onions. The light beside my bed is like a water pump, and the handle turns it on and off. I wear flannel shirts. My gloves are attached to a string through the sleeves because I am always losing them. My mother says today my father is going to teach me to tie my shoes for myself. "It can't be explained in words," he tells me. "Just follow my fingers." I still do. It cannot be explained in words.
When I returned to 410 East Washington with my wife, Chaz, in 1990, I saw that the hallway was only a few yards long. I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It's a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely. I doubt I've experienced it ten times in my life. I felt it at Smith Drugs when I was seven or eight and opened a nudist magazine and discovered that all women had breasts. I felt it when my father told me he had cancer. I felt it when I proposed marriage. Yes, and I felt it in the old Palais des Festivals at Cannes, when the Ride of the Valkyries played during the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.
I was an only child. I heard that over and over again. "Roger is an only boy." My best friends, Hal and Gary, were only children, too. We were born at the beginning of World War II, four or five years earlier than the baby boomers, which would be an advantage all of our lives. The war was the great mystery of those years. I knew we were at war against Germany and Japan. I knew Uncle Bill had gone away to fight. I was told, your father is too old so they won't take him. He put bicycle clips on his work pants and cycled to work every morning. There was rationing. If Harry Rusk the grocer had a chicken, we had chicken on Sunday. Many nights we had oatmeal. There was no butter. Oleo came in a plastic bag, and you squeezed the orange dye and kneaded it to make it look like butter. "It's against the law to sell it already looking like butter," my parents explained. Daddy and Uncle Johnny ordered cartons of cigarettes through the mail from Kentucky. Everybody smoked. My mother, my father, my uncles and aunts, the neighbors, everybody. When we gathered at my grandmother's for a big dinner, that meant nine or ten people sitting around the table smoking. They did it over and over, hour after hour, as if it were an assignment.
After the war, you could buy cars again. The cars were long, wide, and deep, and I was barely tall enough to see out the window. Three could sit across in the front seat, and three and a child in the back. You filled up at Norman Early's Shell station. He pumped the gas by hand into a transparent glass cylinder. He gave you Green Stamps. The great danger was having a blowout. We drove on the Danville Hard Road. It was a one-lane slab. When another car approached, you slowed down and put two wheels over on the side. That was when you had to be afraid of a blowout.
One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past. I remember the day my father sat down next to me and said he had something he wanted to tell me. We had dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese and that might mean the war was over. I asked him what an atomic bomb was. He said it was a bomb as big as a hundred other bombs. I said I hoped we dropped a hundred of them. My father said, "Don't even say that, Roger. It's a terrible thing." My mother came in from the kitchen. "What's terrible?" My father told her. "Oh, yes, honey," she told me. "All those poor people burned up alive."
How can I tell you what they said? I remember them saying it. In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away. It all seems still to be in there somewhere. At our fiftieth high school reunion, Pegeen Linn remembered how self-conscious she was when she acted in a high school play and had to kiss a boy on the stage in front of the whole school. She smiled at me. "And that boy was you. You had this monologue and then I had to walk on and kiss you, with everybody watching." I discovered that the monologue was still there in my memory, untouched. Do you ever have that happen? You find a moment from your past, undisturbed ever since, still vivid, surprising you. In high school I fell under the spell of Thomas Wolfe: "A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces." Now I feel all the faces returning to memory.
The British satirist Auberon Waugh once wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph asking readers to supply information about his life between birth and the present, explaining that he was writing his memoirs and had no memories from those years. I find myself in the opposite position. I remember everything. All my life I've been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn't consciously thought about since. Hypnosis is said to enable us to retrieve past memories. When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.
I lived in a world of words long before I was aware of it. As an only child I turned to books as soon as I could read. There was a persistent need not only to write, but to publish. In grade school I had an essay published in the mimeographed paper, and that led me directly to a hectograph, a primitive publishing toy with a tray of jelly. You wrote in a special purple ink, the jelly absorbed it, and you could impress it on perhaps a dozen sheets of paper before it grew too faint. With this I wrote and published the Washington Street News, which I solemnly delivered to some neighbors as if it existed independently of me. I must have been a curious child. In high school and college I flowed naturally toward newspapers. In the early days I also did some radio. I'll return to these adventures later in the book.
I realize that most of the turning points in my career were brought about by others. My life has largely happened to me without any conscious plan. I was an indifferent student except at subjects that interested me, and those I followed beyond the classroom, stealing time from others I should have been studying. I was no good at math beyond algebra. I flunked French four times in college. I had no patience for memorization, but I could easily remember words I responded to. In college a chart of my grades resembled a mountain range.
My first real newspaper job came when my best friend's father hired me to cover high school sports for the local daily. In college a friend told me I must join him in publishing an alternative weekly and then left it in my hands. That led to the Daily Illini, and that in turn led to the Chicago Sun-Times, where I have worked ever since 1966. I became the movie critic six months later through no premeditation, when the job was offered to me out of a clear blue sky.
I first did a regular TV show when Dave Wilson, a producer for the Chicago PBS station, read my reviews of some Ingmar Bergman films and asked me to host screenings of a package of twenty of his films. I was very bad on television. In person I could talk endlessly, but before the cameras I froze and my mind became a blank. One day Dave asked me to speak while walking toward the camera. To walk and talk at the same time? I broke out in a cold sweat. Later talking on TV became second nature, but that was after some anguish on my part and astonishing patience on the part of others. I found that if I did it long enough, it stopped being hard. In the early days of doing shows with Gene Siskel, part of our so-called chemistry resulted because, having successfully made my argument and feeling some relief, I felt personally under assault if Siskel disagreed. This led to tension that, oddly, helped the show.
Gene and I did the show because a woman named Thea Flaum cast us for it. She will also appear again later. The point for now is: I had no conception of such a show and no desire to work with Siskel. The three stages of my early career (writing and editing a newspaper, becoming a film critic, beginning a television show) were initiated by others.
Between college and 2006, my life continued more or less on that track. I was a movie critic and I had a TV show. It could all have been lost through alcoholism (I believe I came closer than many people realized), but in 1979 I stopped drinking and the later chapters became possible. Had it not been for cancer, I believe that today I would be living much as I did before: reviewing movies, doing a weekly television program, going to many film festivals, speaking cheerfully, traveling a great deal, happily married to my wife, Chaz.
Marriage redefined everything. Although proposing to Chaz was indeed something I did freely, there is a point in a romance when you find your decision has been made for you. I wasn't looking for a wife. I didn't feel I "had" to be married. I didn't think of myself as a bachelor but as a soloist. Yet when I proposed marriage it seemed as inevitable as going into newspaper work. I hope you understand the spirit in which I say that. I am speaking about what seems ordained.
I deceived myself that I had good luck with my health. I had my appendix taken out when I was in the fourth grade and was never in a hospital again except for two days in 1988 when I had a tumor removed from my salivary gland, the same tumor that would return almost twenty years later with such effect. Yes, I was fat for many years, but (as fat people so often say) "my numbers were good." Then I moved to a more vegetarian diet and for several years faithfully followed the ten thousand steps a day regime, lost one hundred pounds, and was in good shape for my age when everything fell apart.
The next stage of my life also came about for reasons outside my control. I was diagnosed with cancers of the thyroid and jaw, I had difficult surgeries, I lost the ability to speak, eat, or drink, and two failed attempts to rebuild my jaw led to shoulder damage that makes it difficult to walk easily and painful to stand. It is that person who is writing this book.
One day in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, still in a wheelchair, I got a visit from Cyrus Friedheim, who had come to Chicago from Philadelphia to publish (rescue) my paper after it was bankrupted by crooks. My reviews had appeared online for several years, but now he advised me to start blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking. At the time I wanted nothing to do with the social media. I feared, correctly, that they would consume alarming amounts of time.
In late 2007 I had my third unsuccessful surgery, at MD Anderson in Houston, and had returned to Chicago to learn to walk again. After all three surgeries, I was not to move so the transplants would not be disturbed. Being bedridden caused my muscles to atrophy, and three times I had gone through rehabilitation. From summer 2006 to spring 2007 I'd essentially been in the hospital, but now I was walking again.
Chaz took me down to the Pritikin Longevity Center in Aventura, Florida, for exercise and nutrition; they'd liquefy their healthy diet for my G-tube. She marched me in the sunlight and lectured me on how my skin was manufacturing vitamin D. On the second or third day there, I stood up to get a channel-changer, my foot caught on a rug, and I fell and fractured my hip. We came back to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, and after enduring the exquisite pain of putting weight on that hip two days after a rod was inserted, I returned to the Rehabilitation Institute to start learning to walk all over again for the fourth time.
That was in April 2008, when I'd been planning to attend the tenth annual Ebertfest, my annual film festival at the University of Illinois. I was plenty pissed off at myself for having broken my hip instead. Then and there, I wrote my first blog entry and began this current, probably final, stage of my life.
My blog became my voice, my outlet, my "social media" in a way I couldn't have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I'd never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made "online friends," a concept I'd scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn't intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. Getting such quick feedback may be one reason; the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I've always written that way. How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn't subjective, there's something false about it.
The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They came pouring forth in a flood of relief.