I believe I started to grow into the adult I am today in the spring of 1979, all with the help of the movies and books. By that point, I was almost 17 years old. My parents had done what they could. My sisters had contributed what they did. Things all started coming to a head – doors of childhood closing & adulthood beckoning – when my father announced over a Sunday lunch that our family would be moving from West Virginia back to Michigan.
Throughout my childhood, the Rothrocks were a bit of a vagabond family. In my first 18 years, we moved five times and lived in 3 different states. I attended 6 schools in 4 different cities. It was not that my father couldn’t hold a job. He just kept getting better ones as he moved his way up the school administrator ladder from teacher to finance to superintendent.
We had lived in Jackson, Michigan from 1966 – 1968 before moving down to West Virginia. Most of my childhood passed there and I loved it: six years in the northern steel town of Weirton and 5 years in the state capital of Charleston. Then in the spring of 1979, my father got a job at Pontiac Schools and we prepared to move back to the Wolverine State.
By this time, the Rothrock family consisted of three individuals on different life paths. My two older sisters had grown up and moved on to adulthood in other states. That left Mom, Dad, and me in Charleston. But even that did not remain constant once Dad took the new job in Pontiac, Michigan.
He moved up to Michigan with the aim of starting his job and looking for a new place for us to live. That left Mom and I back in West Virginia. It is important to emphasize here that my parents were fine people who taught me most of what I know (Mom passed away in 2002 and Dad in 2014) and I loved them both very very much. But part of growing up is realizing that people can have more than one side. They can be good or bad or ugly and what constitutes the whole person is how they are most of the time. My parents were two lovely people. They just probably should not have been married to each other because they tended to bring out the worst in the other.
It didn’t help that I viewed this upcoming move with as much relish as one views the end of the world. In the midst of high school, I was having the time of my life. For the first time, I had a solid group of friends and was coming out of my introvert shell. Now it was coming to an all too soon end. All that had to happen was for our house to sell and away we would go: away from West Virginia, away from my school, away from my friends.
Consequently, I started spending as much time out as possible with my friends. With Dad in Michigan and me out on the town that left Mom home alone to begin slowly developing a drinking habit and to nurse the suspicion that Dad wasn’t in any particular hurry to find a home and move us up to Michigan.
By the spring of 1979, Mom had decided she had waited long enough and announced that we were spending spring break up in Michigan. On previous moves when Dad had had to go ahead early, he had usually rented a bedroom in some widowed woman’s house. This time around, he had taken a room in nearby Waterford at the Cascade Motel (it is now the Olde Mill Inn at the corner of Dixie Highway and Andersonville Road). He had a two-room “suite” right next to the main office. One room was a living room with a TV and a kitchenette. The other contained the bedroom and bathroom. Naturally, Mom and Dad got the bedroom. I got the sleeper sofa in the living room.
I don’t remember too many things about that week. I am sure we drove around during the day and looked at the malls and restaurants and got the general lay of the land. I know we looked at homes though I cannot recall a single one and we never did end up buying any of them. What I do remember are two things.
The first is that Dad took us out to the movies one night and this was my first trip to the Clarkston Cinema. The movie playing was The Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Directed by Michael Crichton (before he traded in his director’s chair for the life of a best selling author), it told the true story of the first successful theft from a moving train in 1855 England. I remember it to be sprightly and suspenseful. I remember it to be gorgeously photographed by the man who was already my favorite cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth. And I remember thinking that Lesley Anne-Down did a great job filling out the curves of a black corset in a way that got my 17-year-old hormones raging.
But more important than the movie, I remember the theater and falling in love with the Clarkston Cinema right away. It was a rather small neighborhood theater, the kind that is rarely found these days. It specialized in second run fare – the movies that had finished up at the first run theaters but would stay in distribution for a few more weeks after that. This would be the first of many movies I would see at the Clarkston between 1979 and 1991 and I would treasure every one of those visits. It remains my all time favorite movie theater (and the photo at the top of my Facebook page).
The second thing I remember about that visit were the nights back at the motel. It seemed as soon as we were returned there, Mom and Dad would disappear into the bedroom and close the door. I would be left on my own to fill the time watching movies on TV or reading. At the time, I was discovering the works of William Faulkner. Some of my friends were reading his classic novel As I Lay Dying (1930). I started reading it on my own and found myself entranced by his stream of consciousness prose. Most teenagers have their literary cherry popped by J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye (1952). Mine was taken by Faulkner and I have been in love with him ever since.
When I wasn’t reading, I was watching TV. I remember having a hard time sleeping so I stayed up late watching movies. Dad had bought a new fangled invention called a VCR that could record broadcast TV onto videotape – like a cassette tape only this time it recorded pictures.
He had taped the movie Grand Prix (1966) for me, Formula One racing becoming my latest obsession. This John Frankenheimer movie had been filmed during the actual 1966 F1 season and I loved seeing on the screen the tracks I had only read about in books. And I had to admit that the life of a race driver in Europe was looking much better than my upcoming existence far from the Mountain State. Writer or racer? I couldn’t decide.
Another night, I watched Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I had seen it before and I was already a fan of the brilliant director David Lean. I marveled at his ability to transport the viewer to another time and place and make us feel as if we were realy there. How the best filmmakers could bring a distant place alive so that we could almost smell and feel it through the screech and blare of a grand prix race car or the biting whirl of a blowing dust storm in midst of the Arabian desert.
But it didn’t really matter how hard I read or how much I turned up the volume on the TV, neither could hide the noise my parents made behind their closed door. Mostly, they were fighting and bickering and while I don’t remember what they were saying, I clearly remember the tone – bitter, accusatory - neither giving an inch as they would argue hour after hour without ever getting toward any kind of resolution. Looking back, I realize now that while it certainly was not the first time nor the last when I would find myself an unwilling spectator for one of my parents’ arguments that walls could not contain, this move to Michigan was not just another new move for the Rothrocks. This was also the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage. We would eventually buy a house in Waterford and we would eventually move there in December 1979. But things would never quite be the same and my parents would divorce 5 years later.
And what I remember more than anything about that trip was laying on that sofa bed feeling totally helpless and totally deserted. Deserted by my sisters who had done nothing wrong, just grown up and moved away, and deserted by my parents who now seemed totally consumed by their mutual power plays in which I was either the unwanted baggage or a timely pawn.
My outlook on life would brighten more in the future. I would eventually meet some of my favorite people here in Michigan who remain my best friends to this day. But I never forgot that feeling of laying there knowing that I was soon facing a life far away from all my friends and far away from anything I cared about.
The only things I would be able to hold onto were my memories and racing and books and the movies. And to enjoy all good things while they lasted because I never knew when they would end: leaving me alone again on a sofa bed in a second rate motel somewhere in Michigan.