Thank You, Robert Hays
For those of you who don’t know, Robert Hays is the dashingly handsome star of the greatest movie of all time. Airplane! (with an exclamation point!), directed by Jim Abrams and the Zucker brothers, and released in 1980, when I was two years old. If you are not familiar with this film, I give you full permission to stop listening and download it onto your preferred technological device. But just promise me you’ll start from the beginning—“The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only,” and stick with it until the end. The very, very end, when the thirteenth president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, is thanked in the credits.
When Airplane entered my home, it was in its boxed VHS format, at least eight years after its release. Airplane! 2 had already been made, released, and sent to VHS. Leslie Neilsen was promoting his Naked Gun series, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was embarking on his long and totally under appreciated run in TV sitcoms. The late eighties were a time of Phil Donohue, the First George Bush, and Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. I was twelve years old, an awkward Catholic school kid smack in the middle of all that awesome.
I don’t remember my very first viewing of Airplane, though it must have happened on the green shag carpet that underlined most of my childhood in California. I loved it instantly, as did my brother and sister and dad. We watched it daily, and for a long time. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!” we would roar to each other, while my mother stirred far-past al dente pasta on the stove and begged us to shut up. This was before the academy of pediatrics was hell-bent on making parents feel terrible for “screen time”. We grew up in front of the TV, and lived our lives through it. Mornings: the Today show. Afternoons: All My Children Evenings: The NBC Nightly News while we ate dinner and begged incessantly for it to be “our turn”, which meant putting Airplane on.
“Joey, do you like movies about Gladiators?”
Of the hundreds of jokes in that movie, we got maybe ten of them. Ted’s drinking problem was a favorite, and none of us could get enough of Barbara Billingsly speaking jive. I can’t tell you what it was about that movie, but we all bonded over it. When dad laughed, we laughed. When we couldn’t find something to talk to each other about, we talked about Airplane.
“You got a letter from headquarters this morning.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a big building where generals meet. But that’s not important right now.”
We got the news of my father’s illness in June of 1990. Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Ally McBeal. And my dad, with inoperable cancer at age 49. When you’re twelve, and your biggest worry is how much Aussie scrunch hairspray you have for your bangs, there is no preparation for such a thing. We needed Ted and Elaine more than ever.
There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?
Something happens to a home when it holds a sick person. It bursts with movement and energy. It is constantly filled with equipment and clicky prescription bottles, and the smell of other people’s casseroles. All the attention, all the noise… I didn’t mind it. It was the only way to keep from screaming as we watched my father embark on chemo and radiation.
No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.
We as a family endured that painful summer, which is to say we survived it. My mom fell deeper and deeper into despair as the leaves turned, and the conversations in our home were quick, as though we were all made of glass and liable to break if someone used the wrong verb. Airplane played on what could only be described as a constant loop during those cancer days. Every time we couldn’t take another second of sickness, we put on the scene where Ted Stryker dances to Saturday Night Fever. Try watching that scene and crying about the state of your life. IT CANNOT BE DONE.
Twelve is an odd time to watch someone die. At twelve, you feel invincible. You feel like life owes you something. You feel things should be fair. But nothing about what was happening to us was fair, and we all knew it. One night in October, after my dad had been checked in to the hospital for good, I overheard him pleading with my mother. His voice was barely intelligible from drugs and pain. “Let me go,” he moaned to her. “Please, just let me go.”
“Captain, how soon can you land?
“I can’t tell”.
“You can tell me, I’m a doctor.”
“No, I mean I’m not sure.”
“Well, can’t you take a guess?”
“Not for another two hours.”
“You can’t take a guess for another two hours?”
Something happens to a house when a person inside of it dies. It hollows out and echoes, as if it’s in mourning with you. The emptiness was torture for me, but no more so than being the kid at school that every feels sorry for. So I watched Airplane. I showed it to my friends so we could have something to talk about other than my sad, sad mom. We acted out scenes from the cockpit. “We have clearance, Clarence. Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?” We laughed and laughed, and somehow, made it through.
In the many years that have passed now, I have continued to love slapstick. I think of my father every time I watch Modern Family, and how much he would love love love that show. Comedy gets us through hard times. Airplane taught me that it’s okay to laugh when things are unlaughable. And now, when I see clips of that movie, or think of it in passing, I see it as a way of connecting with my dad, whom I missed so much during the Dana Carvey SNL years, and miss today, but in a different way.
As a teacher and now a young adult writer, I have been asked many times about getting through hard times as a child. “How did you do it?” People ask. “How did you get through.” I say lots of different things, depending on my audience, because there’s no one thing that gets a person through pain. But I would be lying if I said Robert Hays and the entire cast of Airplane didn’t have an impact on how I handle difficult times now.
I mentioned this to a grieving friend recently, the ebb and flow of life, and how I look at my challenges as pieces of a great mosaic that came together and formed me. And I thought of Airplane, and the power of laughter, and how it makes me sad that one day when I write my autobiography it cannot be read by the late, great Robert Stack, who was the perfect host of Unsolved Mysteries, but an even more perfect Captain Rex Kramer.
“You mean to tell me that I won’t hurt like this all the time? That I’ll be okay? Surely you can’t be serious."
I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.