Finding The Onion
In the same mental quantum leap taken to find the authentic elements my "Roux", I used the same techniques to find the first of three elements of my "Holy Trinity", my metaphoric "Onion".
Just like an onion, I stripped away memory layer by layer, falling backward in time to get to some kind of purity, that I knew resided at the core, but was lost to me.
I really did stare into the mirror while I did this. I had to look myself directly in the eye, with no more self-generated bullshit attached to the process. My life depended on it.
I was isolated and alone, and felt abandoned and betrayed by anyone outside of my family who I had ever dared to love. I wasn't at the point where I could accept my own personal responsibility for my current lot. Those were the final questions that needed to be acknowledged and answered obviously; that's where any harvestable wisdom and lessons for the future resided and this was only the start of THAT journey. I wasn't ready for that yet. This was only the second of many attempts at "Soul Scraping".
Framed in the context of finding the root elements of a future creative endeavor, that gave me cover to some degree; yet still, the only council I could keep or trust was my own.
As the imaginary digit counter of the years rolled backward, I left a trail of breadcrumbs by the milestone markers to get back to the present.
Every failure, every betrayal, every fucked up thing done, either to me or what I had done to others, got cataloged and then peeled away. Every mask, every facade, every rationalization that led to false justifications got stripped and tossed aside.
This time though, I was on a specific mission. I was in search of "The Test Of Time", but not the versions that were learned in 7 years of car rides with debating the concept with Eddie Hamell.
I was in search of the first awareness of the concept; it's initial discovery. When was that light bulb lit? Where was that one true and pure moment in life that "The Test of Time" not only existed, but that somehow I had simultaneously placed a value on it without attaching an agenda to it? When was the time, and where was that place of security and innocence?
Where's my real "Onion"?
November 22, 1963
Although I have very definitive memories of my first three years on the planet, its difficult to attach specific times and dates. That's why November 22nd, 1963, and its media aftermath is useful as a memory docking station, and point of real verifiable time reference. The rest of early childhood is based alot in part on ritual. Feeding times, bed times, and repetitive, consistent events.
I remember the pain and anguish of all the adults around me, and being aware of the fact that something was terribly wrong. I had never seen real grief before that day. It was scary.
But there was also a frustration attached to those days as well. All regularly sceduled television programming got pre-empted, and more specifically aimed at the rote rituals of a three year old child, all children's programming on the only available three broadcast networks dematerialized mysteriously.
The disappearance of "The Bugs Bunny Show" the following Saturday morning was a crisis of epic proportions, much more so in my life at the time than a Presidential assassination. I became unglued. I remember this morning well, because all hell broke loose at the realization that my ritual was being denied.
I threw a block at the TV in an uncharacteristic three year old blind rage, and got thoroughly thrashed for the outburst. These were the days when it was OK to spank your kids, and although I received MANY of them through my early years by being what in my mind was being benignly mischievous, this one was my first, and my three year old ass was a deserving recipient.
You never forget your first time.
For over a year of hard-wiring cognitive development, my Saturday morning ritual was based around "The Bunny". That was the highlight of the week, and the whole of my toddler existence was scheduled around that singular weekly event, with Sunday's airing of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color" (of which we watched on a black and white set) coming in a distant second. Cartoons were always kind of a crapshoot on that show, and not always guaranteed.
But most importantly, "The Bunny" always was experienced at the side of my older brother Alfie.
My brother was four years my elder, the first born to our little mid-century nuclear family that was housed and based at 12 Gayle Road, Skaneateles, NY.
Alfie was (and still is) a genius. There's no delicate way of saying that. His I.Q. tested off the charts, and he was a child prodigy in many areas. It was normal to me, but in retrospect he must have been pretty scary to some, especially kids his own age. He was that smart, but more so he was freakishly talented in his chosen field of interest by age seven: The graphic arts of all genres, and by relation, the study of Animation.
From the day I spurted out of my mother's birth canal, I became Alfie's charge and he became my protector; He was "Primo" and I, "Secondo". Frick and Frack. Mutt and Jeff. Abbot and Costello. There wasn't a time I can remember where we were separated for very long until he started to go to Kindergarten. Every available moment we had, it seemed like we spent them together.
Alfie knew that if we were going to hang, that he had to get me up to speed and make up that four year gap as quickly as possible. He taught me to read, and he taught me to draw. He sat me down in front of every cartoon available on TV, and deconstructed comic books, from my day one until he finally hit puberty and realized that hanging out with his kid brother as best friend might result in a form of social suicide.
I took that intellectual and skill challenge on. There was no safer, and no more fun place to be for me, than to be pasted at his side.
"The Bunny" was the centerpiece of all knowledge and filial love in 1963, and it grew from there.
As we watched every Saturday, Alf would explain the gags that were dependent on reading, or humor aimed at adults. I knew what cirrhosis of the liver was at the age of three, because of the references to "Sir Osis of Liver and Sir Loin of Pork" from a roundtable scene from "Knighty Knight Bugs"
He taught me what suicide was in 1964. Bugs, Pepe LePew, and Daffy always seemed to commit it, or try to. I wanted to know, and Alfie had the answers.
The punch line of "Good thing I missed!" was much funnier if you comprehended the darkness of the set-up.
He taught me about surrealism through "Duck Amok". Right after viewing it, we'd hit the art books that had paintings of Magritte and Dali. Opera? Right after "The Rabbit of Seville", "What's Opera Doc?" we'd hit the family record collection and listen to Rossini's classic while devouring the liner notes and reading the libretto in Italian, or attempt to plow through Wagner's "Ring" cycle to sing "Kill The Wabbit" along with "The Ride Of The Valkyries"
Why was Bugs commonly dressed as a girl all the time? Here comes the lesson on cross-dressing and Transvestism. Nothing was held back as being "age-inappropriate."
He defined the use of irony in "One Froggy Evening" and "Show Biz Bugs". If you didn't get the reason why the space aged construction guy re-discovers Michigan J Frog in the year 2056 A.D. in a cornerstone placed in 1955 and has the the same delusions of grandeur and moral flaws concerning the frog that the last guy did, you didn't know that he was about to be driven to insanity. You didn't get the joke, the irony, or the absolute existential darkness of the humor being explored and then deployed.
I'd run around the house on Saturday afternoon's singing, "Oh, We are The Boy's Of The Chorus- We Hope You Like Our Show- We Know You're Rooting For Us- But Now It's Time To Gooooo".
It wasn't just a catchy tune. Alfie knew what it really meant, and he made sure that I knew about the concepts of vanity and futility attached to it.
In other words, Alfie had a true understanding of all these things, and made sure he drilled them into me from the jump.
Through the years, Saturday mornings were spent recording The Bugs Bunny Show and its various incarnations and it's network jumps, first with a tape recorder and then with one of the first home VTR's received by both of us as a collective Christmas gift, a fifty pound beast that used 7 inch reel to reel Black and white magnetic tape.
We'd deconstruct the plots, recreate the story boards, type out the scripts and the dialogue and practice imitating Mel Blanc's voice characterizations.
By the time I was seven we were breaking them down frame by frame and tracing each drawing off the television tube.
We'd do it with the rest of the Saturday morning fare.
The Hanna-Barberra stuff, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and any new half hour Saturday animated Kiddie show.
But the animation was crap, even if the writing and voice characterizations were worth careful study study.
By the time I was reading at the age of four, I knew by scanning the title cards and scored the "four horsemen of the apocalypse"; Mike Maltese, Mel Blanc, Carl Stalling and "Directed by Chuck Jones" a winner was about to appear. Alfie made sure my tastes were that refined as far as the output of Termite Terrace was concerned.
Milt Franklyn was an acceptable substitute, but only for special ones like "What's Opera, Doc?"
There was a qualitative difference between McKimson, Freeling and Jones. I was a Chuck acolyte. His stuff just looked better, the animation was more radical while also using incredible subtley at the same time, and the character development was a lot darker. Above is an illustration of the greatest smirk of evil intent ever animated.
By the time I was eight, we were using a Bell and Howell 8mm Film Camera with a momentary control on the shutter, enabling us to shoot frame by frame. Alfie built a light table, peg board and Rube Goldberg vertical camera stand and crane.
We started making our own cartoons.
My mother was always very supportive of all of this. She didn't want Alfie and me to grow up mired in the muck of mediocrity either. She wanted little versions of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and I guess in some form, she ended up with them.
My Mother made sure that every available resource was right at our fingertips at all times; from the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, to Art Books, to college level Animation Text books, to Art Supplies, to the actual advanced technical gear to advance to the point of producing real two-dimensional Animation on film.
All those years, in the act of acquiring all that knowledge, really boiled down to the core in two objectives: I loved my brother and mother with all my soul, and all I ever wanted to do was to please them. Life, from zero to the age of ten, was about seeking that closeness and safety through their collected validation of effort, work, ethic, development of talent, mental and intellectual acuity, and most importantly, creative output.
I can't exactly pinpoint the moment that I realized that The Warner Cartoon Output represented "The Test of Time" to me for the first time. Somewhere between 1965-1968, as I was learning the craft, I put it together. When I started to learn the production dates and did the math certainly helped. Some of these classics were produced as far back as 1948, and to an eight year old, a 20 year gap might as well have been an eon.
But it was more than that. It was their absolute density. How they functioned as not only kiddie entertainment, but functioned on many other levels as well, all at once. Their sheer artistry. That just like a Van Gough painting, you could watch them over and over again, and always be spiritually rewarded on some level in a new and different way. With every single repeat viewing, these seven minute shorts continued to deliver over the span of decades.
They never dumbed it down, or condescended to their intended audience, ever. They weren't worried about some kind of Freudian or Jungian developmental concern for impressionable young minds. They were smart, and the more you dug into them, the smarter you became.
So like Glinda the Good Witch explaining to Dorothy that she always had the power to go back to Kansas, telling her; "Now those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds. ...close your eyes. Tap your heels together three times...and think to yourself...there's no place like home" as a took my freefall back in time to find my "Onion", I realized that I had had it all along, but it was such a fundemental part of me that I couldn't recognize it until I had a soul scrape through my own version of a past "Oz".
My yellow brick road traced a twisting, spiraling path through the folds in my brain, always.
The first awareness of "The Test Of Time" was drilled into me from 1963-1970 on all platforms, but the source of the springwater? The love and care of my brother through the conduit of the entire Warner Brothers Cartoon Cannon.
I had the onion now, and like an onion, this first component of my "Holy Trinity" was a multi-layered thing.
As I re-emerged through the waters of the past to breath the oxygen of my present, my psychological lungs almost burst before I broke the water line. Like swimming out of the amniotic fluid and spurting out the birth canal, I had harvested some pretty major components and was about to have a creative birth of my own.
The onion, and thus the Gumbo, would explore the darkness of the human condition, yet appear to be "light", functioning on many conscious and subconcious levels simultaneously. The Onion would not condescend or cheapen its intended audience in anyway. The onion would be stand repetitive viewings and listenings through multi- layered complexities. The onion at first glance would be funny. The onion was going to have a cast of characters that would be absolutely personality driven.
Everything I knew about the Warner Cartoon Output would be re-interpreted, twisted and personalized, but I knew that those core concepts would be recognized and followed.
And at the heart of it all, and the soul of it all, would stand "The Bunny", as I remembered him from 1962 with my six year old brother sitting next to me with a sketch pad, teaching a two year old how to draw a perfect Bugs with nothing but love and a totally open heart.
I was going to be "The Bunny". As I rushed to to escape the past to gasp the air of the here and now, and broke that water line, the concept of "Little Georgie" was born unto this world.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
(Stay Tuned For Part #6: Finding Another Trinity Component)
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