Revisiting “The Promise (1977)”
Inever forgot that night. We were two drunken teenagers talking about our future, not unlike millions of other young adults leaving home for the first time reaching back countless generations.
Nearly 40 years later, looking back, it’s easy to see where our roads became divergent. Danny and I had similar professional interests but had arrived at dramatically different destinations.
When We Were Young (1977)
In my senior year of high school at Washingtonville, New York, I was the new kid on campus. I had just arrived from Southern California. Danny heard that I had finished a paper in my writing class about how to start a mail order business. We met and became fast friends and business partners in a company we named T & G Enterprises based on our surnames.
We built kits for making hot air balloons which accounted for all of our company’s sales. My mother created the artwork for the magazine ad we placed in Boy’s Life Magazine. She drew a hot air balloon in the shape of a flying saucer.
One kid named Ishmael Screen wrote us asking if he could crawl inside the flying saucer and navigate the thing like a starship. The kit contained several paper tissue panels to glue together. Our test balloon caught on fire. It shot straight up and got tangled in the tree branches. We all held our breath hoping the giant pine tree wouldn’t go up in flames. I wrote Ishmael back saying, “Sure you can!”
Danny’s father Frank D. Gilroy won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for his Broadway play The Subject Was Roses. Frank was a writer-director on TV westerns in the 1950s with television, theater, and film credits in the 1960s and 1970s. When I visited their home, he was already locked in the family study with his 1936 model typewriter. How cool is that?
One day Frank emerged from his writer’s lair to ask me what I thought of his new movie From Noon till Three starring Charley Bronson and his wife, Jill Ireland. I saw the film at the local Drive-In in my 1969 Chevy El Camino but was a bit distracted by my date to give him an intelligent review. I saw the movie again a few years later and enjoyed the witty storyline and wicked plot twist at the end.
Frank gave Danny and I passes to see SNL staring the original cast of “The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players” Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Garrett Morris. My first impression was a surprise that the audience seating area and the stage were so small, similar to an Off-Broadway playhouse. Eric Idle from Monty Python fame was the guest host. He looked a lot like the English rock star Peter Frampton who was at the height of his career in 1977 only to see his rising star plummet the following year.
When Danny and I shot pool in his family’s game room with our V-8 drinks in hand, we talked about making a music video parody of Steve Miller Band’s Fly like an Eagle we re-titled, “Fly Like A Beagle.” A beagle sits on a rocky cliff, ears flapping in the cold breeze. He falls forward off the cliff’s icy ledge. The ears catch air like a parachute, begins flapping, then glides like an eagle soaring high above with its tongue sticking out. We sang together, “I want to fly like a beagle to the sea. Fly like a beagle let my spirit carry me.”
T & G Enterprises sold enough kits to break even, but not enough for Danny and I to avoid the inevitable. We had gone to school for twelve years. We needed another four before swearing off formal education forever in our quest to become the success we promised each other that night – teenage dreams with a lifetime to make them come true.
* * *
Only with hindsight is it possible to see the bigger picture. That’s when we can fully appreciate the life arc which becomes our personal narrative.
The utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward was published in 1887 by Edward Bellamy. The main character Julian West falls into a hypnosis-induced sleep for 113 years waking up in Boston in the year 2000.
The novel was wildly popular becoming the third-largest best seller of its time. Hundreds of Bellamy Clubs were formed around the world to discuss and implement many of the ideas expressed in his book. Bellamy wrote: “With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and, veiling our eyes, press forward.”
If we could see the possibility of our future, how many of us would have the courage to chart a new destination and the discipline to stay on course. Of course, it’s so much easier to travel down the road we’re already on.
Only years later – looking back – we clearly see how we navigated life’s riptides and sand traps.
I understand now how I got sucked into my sinkhole salad when I chose a career in corporate America. I broke the promise I made with Danny exactly 30 years ago.
Perhaps, for some of us, the sacrifices we make can be viewed years later in a new light. A life-changing decision made, for instance, may not be as bad as it seems. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George’s angel grants him the ability to see what life would be like in his hometown if he was never born.
Wouldn’t it be cool to see the precise moment we should have zigged, rather than zagged? Knowing the critical decisions we made, and being able to correct the bad ones.
Maybe not. It’s not always a good idea to look back. I did though, suffering the self-loathing that comes with that kind of self-scrutiny.
REGRET. I drove that thought into my mind without mercy. I pounded it in.
I needed to.
Tale of Two Families
So now, let’s take a look backward to compare Danny’s academic and professional life with mine.
I was an A student in high school; Danny got mostly C grades. Danny went to Dartmouth College (his father went to Dartmouth). My father insisted that I attend the local community college. After college, Danny landed a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter on Freejack staring Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger, and Renee Russo. Danny and Renee Russo were married. His older brother Tony has penned several movies such as The Devil’s Advocate, Armageddon, Duplicity, Bourne series, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for the film Michael Clayton. His fraternal twin brother John Gilroy is a film editor known for Michael Clayton, Pacific Rim and Nightcrawler.
Most recently, Danny had written a screenplay and was making his directorial debut in a feature-length movie, Nightcrawler starring his wife Renee Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal. His brother Tony is the film’s producer, and his twin brother Johnny is the editor. His niece Carolyn also plays a small acting part. The film has a host of other actors with their own Hollywood family connections.
Nightcrawler was Danny’s first film as writer-director. His screenplay received an Academy Award nomination.
My father was a businessman in the automobile industry. He was a success at every level of management and retired as Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Acura Automobile Division. Automobiles are his passion, but it wasn’t mine. In college I briefly followed my heart, penning a screenplay for the actor Jimmy Stewart.
I settled on a passionless career in corporate America wearing neckties and pressed shirts with a three-hour daily commute. I should have been a writer wearing jeans and a casual shirt with a ten minute walk to the local coffee shop.
Why I Zigged Instead of Zagged
When I graduated from college, I got a “real job” working at the corporate headquarters of American Honda. I only aspired to reach the level of a supervisor to avoid business travel and being relocated during my career.
This lower management rank allowed me to be home with my family on evenings and weekends. I continued to write on the side, but only after my kids and wife had gone to bed. Several of my books on regional history got published.
Whenever I thought of leaving work to become a full-time novelist and screenwriter, I knew my dream would not come true for me. There was a mortgage to pay, medical insurance to maintain, and a family to support. I wasn’t going to walk away from my responsibilities.
And now, looking back and being honest with myself, I know that it was wrong to compare family backgrounds to explain Danny’s success over mine in making his professional dream come true. It’s not a tale of two families; it’s more like apples and oranges.
Lauren and Maia
The instant my children were born I knew what I had to do: stay planted in my cubicle and plugged into the corporate matrix. I did it willingly.
When I looked into my daughter’s eyes for the first time, my priorities became rearranged. And when I looked into my second daughter’s eyes for the first time seven years later, I knew there were at least two angels born into this world.
I know what you’re thinking. That sounds sappy, doesn’t it? Most parents believe their kids are angels, except for the parents of a child who has committed mass murder and didn’t have the courtesy to include them in their bloody rampage. I am a father first and foremost. What I lacked during my childhood, I have given my children.
I was there for them.