FOUR DECADES LATER, I STILL DON'T GET IT...

September 17, 2021
FOUR DECADES LATER, I STILL DON'T GET IT...

Back in 1971, while awaiting the fate of his first feature film - the dystopian science fiction parable THX-1138 - and before being inspired to begin work on what eventually became Star Wars, writer-director George Lucas was challenged by his friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, to write a script that would appeal to the larger, mainstream moviegoing public.


Though reluctant at first, Lucas eventually embraced the idea (no doubt in part an “I’ll show him” response to Coppola) and got to work on the first draft of a film that would go on to win widespread acclaim, become the most profitable picture in the history of Universal Studios to that point, and launch the pop culture nostalgia boom that later begat Happy Days. The film was American Graffiti, that funny and bittersweet coming-of-age tale that is equal parts teen comedy and sociological treatise.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I hear somebody back there in the back row murmur. “How the heck can a teen comedy be a sociological treatise?”


I can answer that. In devising his story, Lucas used his own teenage experience as inspiration - in particular the teen ritual known as “cruising,” in which young drivers celebrate the freedom that comes with having a driver’s license by driving around aimlessly, either back and forth along a certain street or around the block in a certain part of town, for hours on end on a Friday or Saturday night. 


“I felt compelled to document the whole experience and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls," Lucas once explained in an interview. To say he succeeded would be something of an understatement. The low budget comedy had cost only $1.27 million to produce and market yielded a worldwide box office gross of more than $55 million - making American Graffiti one of the most profitable films ever and Lucas a millionaire at the age of 29. 

Now I have written on several occasions in the past of my admiration for George Lucas as a filmmaker, a storyteller and what one of my college professors likely would have termed a “cinematic anthropologist.” And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that American Graffiti is one of my favorite films of all time. 

But I have to be honest with you - as much as I admire Lucas, as much as I love Graffiti, I still don’t quite understand the fascination with cruising.

Lucas’ teen memories of driving back and forth along the main drag in his boyhood home of Modesto, Calif., had its equivalents throughout the country during that era. I’ve heard many a tale of the “good ol’ days” cruising on Main Street here in Tishomingo from aging Baby Boomers who cherish those memories. A buddy of mine in the Air Force used to reminisce about cruising the streets of his hometown as if it was the most important activity during his teen years. A college chum used to get tears in his eyes whenever he started sharing stories of his cruising days.

We had our version of cruising back in Kankakee when I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early ’80s. There it was known as “Cruising the Square,” the Friday and Saturday night ritual that so many of my high school classmates participated in on a regular basis. 

The pastime is so fondly remembered by those who were regular participants that, in recent years, there have been festivals dedicated to letting those aging cruisers relive their youth. With some minor changes, of course; the streets that made up “The Square” aren’t there anymore - the result, apparently, of some urban redevelopment that has taken place since I moved away back in 1991 - so event organizers reportedly have had to find new places for all that reminiscing.

To me that’s a little like reliving the excitement of a day at the old Springlake Amusement Park in Oklahoma City by going to Six Flags Over Texas, but I guess that’s a discussion for another time… 

A lot of my friends cruised the Square every Friday and Saturday night. Half the night was spent driving around in circles and the other half hanging out in the big parking lot that served as the Square’s hub, trying (mostly without success) to hook up with members of the opposite sex and getting drunk. Gee, what fun...

I remember many a Monday study hall at school listening to classmates brag about how they got so drunk at the Square that they spent most of the night on their hands and knees throwing up in that parking lot.  And I remember sitting there thinking to myself, “Well, no wonder they couldn’t get a date!”

It was one of those teenage rituals that some of them did not seem to outgrow even after leaving high school; I remember trying to look up one of my old buddies not long after I came home from the Air Force, only to be told by his mother that he was downtown cruising the Square. And then I spent the next 15 minutes listening to his mother carry on about how her 24-year-old son was apparently suffering from arrested development.

I was certainly sympathetic to her point of view. Even when I was a teenager in high school, I never understood the attraction. When I turned 16 and got my driver's license, I was all about hitting the road and actually going places. On Friday nights when so many of my pals were driving around the same block for hours on end, I was jumping in my '72 Volkswagen and getting on Interstate 57 - headed north to Matteson and the Chicago area, or south to Rantoul and Champaign, or occasionally heading east instead and going across the state line into Merrillville, Ind., the home of Al’s Diner and the best darned hamburgers in a 100-mile radius. 

Going places, doing things… sometimes with the girlfriend who would eventually become my wife; sometimes with some of my buddies like Dave Mills, Rick El-Talabani or Robert Dexter; or sometimes even all by my lonesome. Either way it made a heck of a lot more sense to me - then and now - than simply driving around the block for hours, looking at the same people driving in the other direction and wasting gas that would have been better used driving to the B. Dalton Bookseller at Lincoln Mall.

I went "cruising the square" in Kankakee just one time, during my senior year in high school - in part because one of my buddies felt obligated to browbeat me into tagging along because he was trying to get lucky with one certain girl who was there every weekend, and for some odd reason thought I might somehow be useful in that endeavor, and in part because I looked at it as a sort of "social experiment." I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I woke up the next morning STILL not knowing what all the fuss was about. We'd spent four hours that night driving around the block - stopping once or twice to try and talk to some of the "cool kids" we wouldn't be caught within 10 feet of at school - and trying in vain to get my buddy's hoped-for paramour to notice him. She never did... or, if she did, she made a pretty good show of acting like she hadn't. We eventually gave up, stopped off at the local Denny's for a quick bite to eat and a Coke, and then he drove me home. That was supposed to be "fun." 

I guess some people define "fun" differently than I do.

And to be perfectly honest, 41 years later I still don't get it....

(Column copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)


 

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, MOM AND DAD

August 31, 2021

Today would have been my mother and father’s 59th wedding anniversary. Much love going out to them today.


There’s a backstory to their nuptials - one which I’m certain is most interesting but which, after all these years, I am still only partially aware of. Apparently Mom had been engaged to another fellow at some point, but broke it off; whether she broke it off before meeting Dad, or her decision was in fact the result of meeting Dad, is something I’ve never learned. Ultimately it ...


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LEGENDS AND TALES OF SIPOKNI WEST

August 20, 2021

Sipokni West – the REAL Sipokni West, that is – is located in the small town of Reagan, Oklahoma, approximately two hours south of Oklahoma City and just a few miles north of my hometown of Ravia (the childhood home of Gene Autry). Designed as both tourist attraction and motion picture set, this recreation of an Old West town is the brainchild of a buddy of mine, Reagan resident Johnny Shackleford – sort of a hometown Will Rogers, rarely seen without a twinkle in his eye or a funny stor...


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"LIKE A BAND OF GYPSIES WE GO DOWN THE HIGHWAY..."

August 11, 2021

I love road trips. Always have.


I guess that’s one more thing we can blame on my late parents. Many of my happiest memories from childhood revolve around the road trips my family took - not just the traditional summer vacations, but those unplanned, spur-of-the-moment treks we would make whenever Dad got the itch. 


One such voyage in particular stands out in my memory almost as if it happened yesterday. 


It was in the summer of 1969. Mom was still expecting my youngest brother, who would...


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THE BAND ISN'T STYX WITHOUT DENNIS DEYOUNG

July 7, 2021

A friend and colleague of mine who lives in Texas recently persuaded me to give a listen to the latest studio album by the rock band Styx, entitled Crash Of The Crown.


Now understand that the friend in question is one with whom I have more agreements than disagreements when it comes to such things as music, books, movies, et. al. For the most part our tastes seem to be fairly similar, which for me is always gratifying because my personal tastes in general always seem to run counter to that o...


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EINSTEIN, THE JETSONS AND THE VOICE OF WORLD CONTROL...

July 2, 2021

“Books, young man, books!”


It’s probably not the sort of thing a lifelong science fiction nerd like Yours Truly ought to be admitting publicly. There are fellow nerds out there who will almost certainly demand that I turn in my old Buck Rogers secret decoder ring and surrender myself for interrogation by Darth Vader’s sinister Death Star probe droid once the news gets out.


I’ll just have to take my chances, I suppose. After all, I’m the guy who years ago got chased out of a Star Tre...


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LOOKING FOR DÉTENTE IN THE BATTLE OF THE GENERATIONS...

June 16, 2021

I wish I knew what I thought I knew when I thought I knew everything…


At some point - generally around the time its members hit adolescence - every generation comes to believe that it is smarter, better and/or more “with it” (whatever THAT means) than the generation that preceded it. And all too often, that belief is expressed in a way that leaves members of the previous generation confused, hurt and/or angry.


We’ve all been guilty of it at some time or another, whether or not we want t...


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SOME OF MY FAVORITE DC COMICS STORY ARCS

June 11, 2021

So somebody today on a DC Comics fans page asked fellow members to post their five favorite “DC Events” of all time. And then provided a list of storylines that included Crisis on Infinite Earths and all the post-Crisis usual suspects (Death of Superman, Nightfall, Infinite Crisis, Blackest Night, Final Crisis, et al).


My initial response was to yawn and mutter under my breath, “Not this stuff again.” Then I gave the question some deeper thought and - being the rapidly aging, unapolo...


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DARK DAYS COME, BUT TOMORROW STILL BRINGS HOPE...

June 2, 2021
(My granddaughter, Zoey Romania Small - photo taken by her Uncle Josh, May 8 2021)


All his life he’s heard the stories. 

The stories are all he has, to be honest. They are his only link to those long-ago days. He was there, but he doesn’t remember any of it; he was just a babe, after all. The first of a family’s next generation. A generation which, it was supposed, would have the best of everything this nation - this world - might have to offer.


That was the promise. That was the dream. ...


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SOME WOULD BE SURPRISED I MADE IT THIS FAR...

May 26, 2021


Next Tuesday, June 1, I will observe my 58th birthday.


All right, all together now: “BIIIIIIIIIIIGGG DEAL!”


Well, yeah, for me it actually kind of is a big deal. On a couple of levels.


For one thing, it further puts the lie to a couple of teachers I had back in high school who, for whatever reason, fully expected me to have joined the Choir Invisible long before now. To this day I’m not really sure just why they had me, of all people, pegged for an early demise. But they did.


Maybe it has s...


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About Me


John Allen Small John A. Small is an award-winning newspaper journalist, columnist and broadcaster whose work has been honored by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, the National Newspaper Association, and the Oklahoma Education Association. He and his wife Melissa were married in 1986; they have two sons, Joshua Orrin (born 1991) and William Ian (born 1996). Mr. Small is the News Editor and columnist for the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Tishomingo, OK. He obtained his nickname, "Bard of the Lesser Boulevards," from a journalism colleague - the late Phil Byrum - in recognition of the success of his popular newspaper column, "Small Talk." (In addition to the many awards the column itself has received over the years, a radio version of "Small Talk" earned an award for "Best Small Market Commentary" from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1998.) John was born in Oklahoma City in 1963; lived in the Bradley-Bourbonnais-Kankakee area of Illinois for most of the next 28 years (with brief sojourns in Texas and Athens, Greece, thrown in to break up the monotony); then returned to his native state in 1991, where he currently resides in the Tishomingo/Ravia area. He graduated from Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in 1981, and received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais in 1991. The years between high school and college were a period frought with numerous exploits and misadventures, some of which have become the stuff of legend; nobody was hurt along the way, however, which should count for something. In addition to his professional career as a journalist he has published two short story collections: "Days Gone By: Legends And Tales Of Sipokni West" (2007), a collection of western stories; and "Something In The Air" (2011), a more eclectic collection. He was also a contributor to the 2005 Locus Award-nominated science fiction anthology "Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe," edited by Win Scott Eckert. In additon he has written a stage play and a self-published cookbook; served as project editor for a book about the JFK assassination entitled "The Men On The Sixth Floor"; and has either published or posted on the Internet a number of essays, stories and poems. He has also won writing awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Library of Poetry. He is a past president of the Johnston County Chamber of Commerce in Tishomingo; was a charter member and past president of the Johnston County Reading Council, the local literacy advocacy and "friends of the library" organization; served as Johnston County's first-ever Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in 1994-95; served two terms as chairman of the Johnston County (OK) Democratic Party; and has taught journalism classes for local Boy Scout Merit Badge Fairs. He is a member of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society.

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