The house that built me.
In our home town there’s a science museum for kids. It’s built in what used to be the old electrical power plant, right on one of the rivers. Inside, there are three levels of hands-on science and technology exhibits that cover everything from how electricity is made to how a tornado forms to why the moon looks the way it does each day of the month. It’s truly a wonder to visit, even for adults.
One of the more fascinating displays is up in the little kids’ area. You crawl inside a dark room and stand in front of a big, blank screen. When you press the button, a bright flash goes off behind you, and suddenly you can see your shadow imprinted on the screen in front of you, which, it turns out, is coated with phosphorescent material to make it glow after being exposed to bright light. Everywhere the light doesn’t hit the screen is darkened by the shadows of those who are in the room, leaving their shapes on the screen behind them.
I’ve often wondered if, in some way, we are doing the same thing every day as we move through our lives. What if, the stronger the experience we’re exposed to in our lives, in those moments, the brighter the light and the more intensely it leaves our shadows behind on the landscape around us – just like that phosphorescent screen? What if that shadow, that imprint of the edges of ourselves in that moment, is that intangible element of our subconscious that we call an emotional anchor?
Through my life, I’ve wondered it a lot. How else can we explain those strong feelings we get when we’re somehow triggered by a place, maybe a smell, or a song, or even something someone says? Something suddenly grabs hold of our sub conscience and rockets us into a memory. There must be something to it, because we’ve all experienced it. Sure, it’s those external factors that are triggering our internal memories, but is it possible that if we could see our world in another dimension, we might just see faded images of ourselves, like a faded film, wandering about those places?
I don’t mean to sound all goofy and new age. I’m certainly not…new age, that is. But, I think there must be something of ourselves left everywhere we go, even if it’s just an emotional imprint. On a plane of the intangible universe that we can’t explain, there are anchors everywhere that trigger our memories, many times based solely on where we happen to be.
A little over a year ago, some friends of ours bought the house that I grew up in. From the time we moved to Indiana when I was just 4 until I was about 24, I came and went to and from that house. It was our home. It sheltered me, it shaped and molded me and my view of the world around me. It was a place of love, it was a place of safety, and it was a place of family. I can say without hesitation that I loved that house and growing up the way I did. I had a wonderful childhood, and still cherish every memory I have of it. And that house is full of my thoughts and memories.
Those friends invited us over for dinner at our old house – their new house – a few weeks ago, my mom and dad and me with my beautiful bride and three little girls. My sister lives too far away to get to attend – she was jealous. And on the way over, with my mind racing and my emotions stirring, I wondered what ghosts of my childhood, teens and early adult years would meet me when I walked through that door.
And meet me, they did. One by one, then in rapid succession…I could almost feel the memories imprinted in those walls rushing out to embrace me. Several times, I had to choke back tears. Some of those memories were almost more than I could bear.
I remembered those Christmas mornings, some in the front room, some in the living room. Grandma Archer would be there, and my sister Brenda and I would wake up early in the morning to rush downstairs and tear into our stockings, hanging over the fireplace, to see what delightful things were wrapped up in white tissue paper and stuffed to overflowing. Johnny Mathis was singing Christmas songs on the record player. The smell of warm cinnamon rolls and coffee would fill the air, and we could barely eat for the sheer anticipation of what gifts had magically appeared under that tree overnight.
Dad and I rebuilt the head on my first car in that garage one winter. I’ll never forget the smell of that garage. It smelled of Grandpa Archer’s old tools, still soaked with grease and cutting oil, and grass clippings from the lawn mower mixed with the smell of gasoline and motor oil. I learned so much about engines and mechanical things in those few short weeks that year, and it indelibly sealed my fate as a car nut. I also remember endless nights out there by myself, trying to wire my first car stereo into the dashboard of that 1984 Honda CRX, cramming myself in under the console with nothing but a shop light to navigate the wiring with. Bump that light wrong and the bulb would blow out, and you’d be stuck under the dashboard in pitch darkness. Mostly, though, I remember the time I spent with my dad out there, learning what it meant to see things through to the end, no matter how badly you bloodied your knuckles between the ratchet and the firewall on the way to completion.
There was the basement, where our whole family spent every weekend together growing up, together building a model railroad that spanned over two 4×8’ sheets of plywood. We would head out to Hobbytown on Saturday mornings, buy a new building or maybe some miniature trees for our HO scale farm on the edge of town, and return to spend the rest of the day gluing things down and, of course, running those trains. I grew to love miniature modeling, and I grew to love the wonder of trains as Dad would recount growing up as a kid and watching the trains go by through his home town, first as steam engines and then as diesel electrics. Later in my life, I would find myself driving to railroad crossings just to watch, listen and feel the trains go by. It reminds me of that basement and our time together as a family.
That yard? Well, it was my first entrepreneurial venture. I learned to mow lawns out there, and it led me to gainful self-employment not long after that. Mowing for the neighbors, I was able to save my own money and buy myself things like model rockets, radio controlled cars and my first radio controlled airplane – that I built in that same train-filled basement one winter. And I would fly my toy airplanes out to that seemingly distant flower garden in the back yard, where I would deploy my troops of GI Joe action figures to hold the line against the bad guys…out there somewhere in the neighbor’s yard.
And that old bedroom of mine…where I asked Jesus into my heart, on my knees, with Mom right beside me, it had the most memories of all. First my bedroom, later my first production office, it was my sanctuary within the sanctuary. My very own little kingdom, walls plastered with posters of fighter planes, rockets and race cars, and don’t forget that autographed photo I got from astronaut Joe Allen. I would sit on my desk chair and spread out my disassembled radio controlled dune buggy on the bed like a 1/10 scale version of the garage at Penske Motorsports, taking it apart to clean it, grease the gears in the transmission and refill the oil in the shocks, because I had to have a car that could beat my friend’s dune buggy. He and I would race our cars out in the street for hours on end, stopping only to recharge our batteries and maybe hit up mom for a snack.
And later in life, when that room became my personal production office while I produced my first and second movie, it was the place where I got the phone call that we were headed to the Sundance Film Festival. It was also the place where I got the fax containing my first real directing contract, to direct a movie with David Carradine in it. And I would sit in that old recliner in the corner and read scripts, and watch movies on VHS with my little 9” television – just for inspiration. And my expansive desk, built on top of an old closet door set on top of two sawhorses, was my first glimpse into learning how to build something that would eventually become my career. And that’s also where I first sat down to a keyboard and began to write. I learned in that bedroom-turned-office that I knew how to write, and even wrote the missing scene for “American Reel” that led David Carradine to say yes to doing the movie. All from my childhood bedroom in that house on the cul-de-sac.
And that room at the top of the stairs, well it was our study, and that’s where I first learned about computers…and Pac Man. Dad taught me how to program in Basic one year, and then taught me how to use AutoCad another year. He knew that it was important to learn how to use new technology, even if I never wanted to work as a programmer or an engineer. And it’s also where I found mom that one morning, asleep in the big recliner, after she and dad had been hit in their car the night before. It was a serious accident, and Brenda and I were home, and I slept through the whole ordeal that night. I awoke to find that my mom was hurt, but she was home. I remember just hugging her and crying. And dad got to go and buy his first Honda, since the Subaru was totaled. That’s probably where I learned to be a Honda nut, too.
I couldn’t help but feel like that house was happy to see us that night, and we were happy to see it, too. It was crazy to think that it had been twenty years since we had lived in that house, and there had been another entire family that had lived in that house and raised their children and moved on since we had done the same. And now the cycle will begin again. And it’s not our house any more, it’s theirs. And I’m so happy to see that it has such a family full of love in it once more. I know that if that house could show emotion, it would be overflowing with love.
One day, I showed our daughters an old Hot Wheels truck that I’ve had since I was a kid. It survived the multiple moves, along with a large part of my diverse and fabulous Hot Wheels collection. I pointed to the dirt still on the wheels and the little plastic snow plow on the front of it.
“This dirt has been on this truck since I was a kid,” I said as I remembered how I would play with that truck in particular out in that flower garden, plowing dirt and making my own roads with it. “This dirt is from that house, that garden, that yard. I remember it like it was yesterday.” They both thought that was pretty cool.
So do I.