Sunday, March 15, 2015

GUEST BLOG #4: Rex Baird

A close friend of many years, Rex Baird is one of the most literary-minded people I know, and the most insightful and knowledgeable about film. The following excerpt is from his superb memoir of the 1950s and '60s, The Work of Moths

Rex Baird is a former bartender, English teacher, speechwriter and running shoe rep turned neuromuscular massage therapist and personal trainer. Although his job history has varied, his love of golf and movies has remained constant despite the humility of higher scores and the impossibility of finding a decent drive-in.

     In the early 60s, I had a high school-friend Norm who was a Lucky Strike man. Like my mother Jane, he was proud of his brand.  Both Luckies and Camels were considered the serious smoker's choice.  Filters were for dilettantes.
     Norm, a member of the golf team, spoke in a double-negative-laden-pseudo-hipster lingo. When I signed up for tryouts simply to take advantage of the ten-cent greens fee offered to the team by a local municipal course, Norm chastised me. “It’s a lie you aren’t in it for the dime time.”
     During my teenaged years, my parents rented a summerhouse next to a golf course on Cape Cod. My father preferred to stay in Boston and would travel down by train only on the occasional weekend. It wasn’t hard convincing Norm to visit. We could ogle girls on the beach every morning and play golf in the afternoon. Better yet, with my traditionally strict father out of the picture, we could drink as many as two beers at night with my mother’s blessing. “It’ll put hair on you chest,” she told us.
      Because he admired Arnold Palmer, Norm mimicked Arnie's golf swing and his smoking style.  Before every shot he'd take a big drag, then launch his Lucky off to the side with a practiced flick of thumb and index finger. After each shot, he'd retrieve the butt and smoke it out of the corner of his mouth like a racetrack tout as he strutted down the fairway. 
     Norm's pantomime was accurate but a bit too hammy for my taste, and rather silly coming from a fifteen-year-old. We were playing late one afternoon under heavy storm clouds. Norm's histrionics were slowing our progress.
     When the first few raindrops fell, I'd had enough.  "Hey Arnie," I said, “are you a smoker or a golfer?"
     Norm--all 5'4" and 120 pounds--looked at me sideways with his version of menace. "It's a lie I can't smoke you in golf and out smoke your mother."
     The first boast was debatable; the second, ludicrous. The rain was falling harder now, and as we hustled down the seventeenth fairway, I formulated a plan.  "Let’s hit the drive-in tonight and you can go one on one with Jane. Just smoke a Lucky for each of her Camels.  Think you can handle it, big man?"
     My strategy was fiendish.  Norm was sensitive about his height.  I knew smoking made him feel bigger, or at least older. I also knew he was worried it would "stunt his growth."  This kind of internal conflict could only weaken his resolve. His obsession with turning sixteen so he could get his driver's license would make going to the drive-in with my mother behind the wheel a demeaning experience.
     The seventeenth green bordered a graveyard. Why not dig the needle a little deeper? As Norm set up over his putt, a twisty, downhill six-footer, I pointed toward the tombstones.  "Try to go ten rounds with Jane, and that's where you'll end up, Lucky man."
     Norm glowered. The Lucky, which he'd forgotten to flick away, was dangling from his lip. As he looked down at his ball, the smoke trailed up toward his eyes. He stabbed his putt and it ran through the break, coming to rest eight feet below the hole. This was going to be fun.
     On the way to the drive-in that night, Norm oozed the false bravado of a promising middleweight trying to move up a couple of classes to fight the heavyweight champ. We agreed he’d sit in the front seat with Jane so he could pace himself appropriately.  The bucket seat restrained his natural hyperactivity.  I sensed he wanted to pace back and forth and shadow box to release his pre-fight jitters. 
    The feature that night was The Counterfeit Traitor, with William Holden and Lilli Palmer.  The rain had intensified, and when the previews began I could see rivulets cascading down the screen.
     Jane set a blistering early pace.  If she’d been in our living room watching a movie on TV, she’d have rested her cigarette on the edge of an ashtray.  But the ashtray in the T-Bird was small, and hard to find in the dark.  So the Camel never left Jane's hand.  And the car's cigarette lighter was broken, so Jane simply used the butt of her first Camel to light the second.
     Jane's first Camel expired in just over twelve minutes. From the back seat, I could see Norm concealing his mimicry by taking a drag ten or fifteen seconds after Jane's lead.  Their battle was taking its toll on me. The car was quickly filling with dense smoke that obscured the screen, but I couldn't crack the rear window more than an inch without getting soaked.
     To make matters worse, the rain pelting the roof of the car muffled the sound from the tinny drive-in speaker hanging inside the window. The movie, which I now could neither see nor hear clearly, had become merely a backdrop for the smoking contest. My eyes were beginning to water, and the billowing clouds had reached a toxic level. I could still make out William Holden's faint onscreen image holding a cigarette. Jane responded by smoking faster.  Less than twenty minutes into the contest, Norm was on the ropes.
     He threw in the towel after the third cigarette.  "I'm forlorn if I don't get some corn," he wheezed as he bolted out the door into the deluge.
      I translated for Jane.  "Norm said he wants some popcorn."
     Jane looked perplexed. "That Norm's a strange boy. He's going to get soaked to his skin."
     Norm had been gone for twenty minutes when Jane suggested I investigate. I hesitated.  I didn't want to get drenched, and didn't relish the idea of finding Norm bent over a public toilet.  Jane turned toward me and raised her left eyebrow.  This was a sign of intimidation she admitted she'd practiced for months as a teenager.  It worked; I departed at a gallop.
     Norm was huddled under the roof of the concession building.  He looked, as Jane might have put it, "a little green under the gills."  It could have been the fluorescent lights, but I doubted it.
     "It's a lie that wasn't fume doom," Norm said, shaking his head like a fighter just revived with smelling salts.
     He looked so miserable I didn't have the heart to rub it in.  "I told you she was tough. You wouldn't expect to outdrive Nicklaus, would you? And hey, smoking Luckies is like playing from the pro tees."
     "I guess, so," he said, still shaking his head. "But I'm a doubtful starter for the back nine." This was Normspeak for I quit.
     "Tell you what. I'll complain about the smoke. Maybe she’ll tone it down a little."
     Jane did slow down, and the rain stopped, allowing us to open the car windows.  Norm didn't smoke another Lucky all night, and the next day on the golf course he lit up only once.  A few months later at a high school assembly, we watched an anti-smoking film featuring pictures of tar-coated and cancerous lungs. Norm made a vow to quit--which he soon broke--but at least he cut back. 
     Even after losing a breast to cancer in 1983, Jane didn’t moderate her three-pack-a-day habit. It took a stroke, ten years later, to put a cramp in her style.

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