“Looking back is a bad habit.”

True Grit Poster

True Grit (1969)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Marguerite Roberts
Starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Jeremy Slate, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin, and Dennis Hopper
128 minutes, G

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In 1989, the summer of my thirteenth year, my mother got married for the second time. His name was Dan, and he had been a fixture in our lives for just about as long as I could remember. I have memories of him helping us move from Tolono to Sidney in 1982. I can remember him helping us move from Sidney to Champaign in 1984, a move prompted by my parents divorcing. To hear my father tell it, Dan was responsible for said divorce, but I have never believed that to be the case.

Approximately a year and a half before my mother married, Dan had purchased a rather nice farmhouse in Guthrie, a small community just 4.4. miles up state highway 54 from Gibson City, which was a small soybean farming community about a half hour northwest from Champaign. After Dan and my mother exchanged vows, it was here that we moved.

Guthrie was a tiny little place. It wasn’t a town. It wasn’t a village. There was a sign on the highway that proclaimed “GUTHRIE” plainly, but that sign included no population information. We had no post office– our address was a rural route affiliated with Gibson City. The only business in Guthrie was an FS facility, positioned diagonally across the highway, where the farmers would take and sell their product that had been harvested from the fields. Fields were all you could see for miles and miles.

Guthrie was comprised of one road, approximately one mile long. Split in two by Highway 54, there were less than twenty residences in Guthrie. To the west of the highway, there was seven or eight houses; there was about ten, including ours, to the east. We lived two houses down from the highway. The house across the street from us had children close to our age– one, in fact, in the same grade as me. The house furthest to the east, Guthrie’s final residence before there was nothing but farmland as far as the eye could see, belonged to the gym teacher at the grade school in Gibson City (he had a child in my brother’s class). Besides that, with the exception of the house immediately next door to the west, we had very little interaction with anyone else that lived in Guthrie.

It should be obvious by now that we were pretty isolated. We were “in the sticks”, as they say. Honestly, my current love for reading and watching movies was fostered as a teenager in that house because there was very little else to do. Being unable to drive yet, it was not uncommon for me to ride my bicycle the four miles down the highway to get new books from the library, or rent movies from the one video store in town. I was isolated, not lazy.

In the house immediately to our west, lived an elderly couple named Tom and Virginia. They often kept us busy as well, paying my brother and I to do odd chores around their house– picking up sticks so that Tom could mow or shoveling a path from the driveway to their door. Tom and I became friends of a sort. I would hang out at their house sometimes, watching westerns or reruns of The Rockford Files with Tom while taste-testing apple cobbler that Virginia had baked. When Dan and my mother worked late in the evenings, my brother and I were often invited over to their house for dinner. Virginia had an organ that I was allowed to use whenever I was trying to learn vocal parts for choir music or community theatre productions I was involved in. They were the consummate neighbors, and always treated my brother and I like we were their own children. Sometimes, I admit, I spent time at their house to avoid my own. I always made a point of checking in on them for a visit whenever I returned home after graduation.

I remember watching True Grit for the very first time with Tom. I was in college and had returned home for the weekend for the wedding of a friend. When I arrived at my mother’s house on Thursday afternoon, I could not get into the house. Both Dan and my mother worked in Champaign, and I did not have keys to the house. So I went over and visited with Tom. I had not seen Tom or Virginia since graduating, and was saddened to see that Virginia had succumbed to dementia in the time since I had seen them last. She did not remember me and was afraid at first to let me into the house. It took some convincing from Tom that I was on the level and that my presence was welcome.

I sat at their kitchen table with Tom while Virginia took a nap. I noticed that Tom had lost quite a bit of weight. He was looking quite gaunt in his face and his eyes were burdened with dark circles. After the usual pleasantries of conversation, Tom got very grave and serious. “I may need your help this weekend,” he said. “If you have time.”

I told him that I was in town for a friend’s wedding. I had obligations on Friday night for the wedding rehearsal and obligations on Saturday afternoon and evening for the wedding and reception. I imagined, though, that I could squeeze in some time to help him. I wasn’t planning to head back to Chicago until Monday morning. I asked Tom what he needed.

Tom then told me a horror story. Apparently, Virginia’s dementia had gotten so advanced that he was unable to leave her home alone for any stretch of time. Several weeks prior, he had driven into town to get some supplies from the Big R. He figured that it was safe to leave her alone for an hour at most, so he did. When he returned, he discovered that she had decided that today was a good day to burn the garbage. It was a rather windy day. Virginia had, naturally, forgotten that she had started the fire. When Tom returned home with the bag of dog food and the canning supplies, Virginia was in the living room laughing at a rerun of The Carol Burnett Show while the south side of their garage was engulfed in flames. Thankfully, the fire had not been going long and Tom was able to douse it with the garden hose before too much damage was done, but, he continued to report, this was not the first fire that Tom had been required to put out in the last month or two.

She had left a pot of boiling water burning on the stove, which had caught some newspapers sitting on the counter on fire. She had left a curling iron, plugged in and turned on, sitting on a towel in the upstairs bathroom. There was a candle lit too close to the curtains. Tom had been home during these instances and was able to quickly remedy the situation, but the garage situation had scared him. If he had been gone any longer, there’s no telling what might have happened. The house could have burned down with Virginia laughing inside.

“She wandered off a couple days ago,” he told me. Unable to leave her home alone, he had taken to making her drive along on his errands. At the pharmacy, he had asked her to stay in the car, but when he returned to the vehicle, she was gone. He could see her halfway up the block, walking with purpose toward her doctor’s office. When he caught up to her, she insisted that she had an appointment that day. The appointment was, apparently, with a doctor that hadn’t been her doctor in years.

I felt badly for Tom. It was clear that the constant need for 24-hour vigilance was wearing on him. I told him that I was at his disposal for any of my available time. “Just tell me what you need, Tom, and I will do whatever I can,” I told him. He told me that he needed me to stay here at home with Virginia while he went into town and spoke to the admissions staff at a nursing home. This made me nervous, given her trepidation about allowing me into the house in the first place, but I agreed.

As expected, Virginia was not happy with this arrangement. She actually cried and told Tom that she would lock herself in the bathroom and never come out again if she left me here with her. Tom told her that she was welcome to come with him on his errand, but that she was waiting in the car and that I would be coming along to wait in the car as well. “What’s it going to be, babydoll?” — I remember him calling her babydoll vividly– “I think you’ll be more comfortable at home.”

Reluctantly, Virginia agreed that she would be more comfortable at home, so Tom suggested that we all have lunch. This would give Virginia a chance to “get to know me” and allow her to see that I was friendly and not planning any ill intent. This was one of the most awkward lunches of my life: Virginia kept asking questions that she would have, a month ago, known the answers to. Even stranger and more odd to me, our conversation kept prompting stories about things that had happened over the years. “I offered the neighbor kid a glass of buttermilk once,” she informed me. “And he didn’t think I noticed that he poured it down the sink as soon as I had left the room.” I was familiar with this story. The kid that had poured the buttermilk down the drain was me.

After lunch, and after Virginia seemed comfortable enough to be left in my care, Tom got her situated in the living room to watch television while I went to the car that I had borrowed from Stephen to get some homework I had brought along to finish. That was my plan: stay out of Virginia’s way as much as possible and work on schoolwork. That’s pretty much how it played out for the almost-two hours that Tom was gone. She didn’t say much to me; she just watched a rerun of Little House on the Prairie and most of an episode of The Waltons. She did tell me at one point that she used to like Charles on that show where he played an angel, which struck me as an odd factoid to keep in a dementia-addled brain, and she asked me if I knew how to play the organ. She told me that the neighbor boy used to come over and use the organ even though he didn’t really know how to play. She also told me that the neighbor boy was a football player at the high school who had hurt his back very badly while competing in wrestling. That would have been my younger brother, who still, at that time, lived in the house next door.

Virginia was asleep in the recliner by the time Tom arrived back home. He seemed to be in better spirits, though he was still, very obviously, tired. I asked him how things went and he said that he didn’t know. He said that one of the doctors at the assisted-living facility wanted to come out and visit with Virginia before allowing her admittance, but that he should know more by the end of the weekend. I watched him, as he kissed his sleeping wife on her forehead, and then followed him into the kitchen, where he was promising coffee and German chocolate cake.

Now, with his heartbreaking errand out of the way, Tom was more interested in idle conversation. He gave me the scoop on some of the local news and controversies. He wanted to know how things were going for me at college. He asked about a girlfriend that my mother had mentioned I was seeing (this would have been my first wife). At some point, he interrupted himself when he noticed the stack of textbooks and schoolwork that I had left on the table. “You’re reading True Grit?” he asked.

I told him that I had finished it while he was gone. “I’m supposed to watch the movie, too,” I told him. “And write a paper on the differences between the two.”

“That’s easy,” he quipped. “One’s a book, and one’s a movie.”

I asked him if he had ever read the book before. This made him laugh. He said that he had probably read six whole books in his entire life and that True Grit wasn’t one of them. He pondered this statement long and hard, and then added, “I take that back. I’ve only read four books.”

A quip like that was typical from Tom, and I was relieved to hear it. It meant that Tom was feeling better and more like himself. Until this point, he had been distracted by the evident turmoil in his home and matter of fact. Things, it felt to me, were becoming a bit more “business as usual” and I could comfortably settle in to being part of a much-needed reprieve from the chaos of his real life.

I was only there in Tom’s house for another ninety minutes or so. Tom seemed back to his old self, though, telling me jokes he had heard while having coffee with friends in town and sharing stories about the history of Guthrie. He told me that True Grit was his favorite movie and that he had gotten in trouble with his first wife when it initially hit movie theatres because he skipped church to go see it. “There has never been a movie made that I didn’t want to see more than I wanted to be in church,” he told me.

Eventually, my mother came home from work and I was able to get into the house. Before I left, Tom asked me if I was planning to watch True Grit that night. I told him that I was. I’d watch it tonight and then work on the paper Sunday afternoon. He asked me if he could watch it with me. He only asked that we do it later, after Virginia had gone to bed. He also reminded me that I needed to bring my VCR with me. “I might even let you drink a beer, if you promise not to tell your mother,” he said with a wink. As I stood up to leave, Tom did something he had never done in the five or six years I had known him and gave me a hug. A solid, bear hug. A bone-cracking hug of unspoken gratitude.

I did watch the movie with Tom later that night. I was surprised to discover that Tom knew the movie’s dialogue so well that he could recite lines seconds before they were uttered. He could even recite them in a passable John Wayne imitation. Yet again, another sign of Tom that I had never witnessed before.

I came back on Sunday afternoon and watched High Noon and The Big Country with him, two westerns near and dear to me, but I didn’t see Tom again for more than a year. Returning home to my mother’s house was not something I did often, and I cannot now recall why I was there, but it was after midnight. In the time that I had been away in college, I had picked up a tobacco habit, a vice that might have prompted my mother to beat me senseless, despite my being an adult and no longer living in her home. I wanted a cigarette, but did not want to explain to my mother why I was going outside, so I opened my second-story window, crept across the roof, and climbed down the television antenna to the ground level. No sooner had I taken my first drag when I heard a voice behind me say “Busted.”

It was Tom. He was standing in the gravel driveway that ran between our houses. In one hand, he held a can of beer– Busch beer, that’s all Tom would ever drink. In the other, he had a lit cigarette identical to mine. Tom was also dressed only in a white pair of underpants. Just enjoying his beer, his Camel, and the night air in a pair of “tighty whities”.

“Tom,” I said, “you just about scared me to death.”

“Are you more afraid of me or your mother?” he asked, motioning toward my cigarette with his.

“I’m not trying to hide it from you,” I reminded him.

“Only because I caught you,” he winked. There was a considerable pause as he took a sip of his beer, and then he added, “Take off your pants and stay awhile.”

This . . . this made me laugh. If you know me, you know that I have a boisterous laugh. A boisterous laugh is often loud. Mine is no exception. That’s how I got caught by my mother smoking cigarettes in the driveway with Tom.

To my mother’s credit, she didn’t give me too much of a dressing down in front of Tom. She just said something like “You’re smoking now, I see,” and alluded to a conversation I could count on at a more reasonable hour. To Tom’s credit, he didn’t seem to be embarrassed to be lounging around in his underpants with my mother standing there any more than he was when it was just me. It is completely feasible that my mother was so filled with ire at me that she hadn’t even noticed. There’s also the distinct possibility that– having lived next door to Tom for almost a decade– this was not the first time she would have witnessed him near-naked in the driveway.

After my mother had gone inside, I stood outside with Tom for a little while longer. It was necessary for me to a wait until it seemed she had retired for the night, all the easier to push off our inevitable argument until later the next day. Tom talked– briefly– about what it was like to live in the house alone now that Virgina had been transferred to the assisted-living facility. Most of our conversation centered around the night sky and how he could more easily see The Pleiades now that my step-father had helped him cut down the apple tree that had died years ago. I hadn’t noticed the absence of the tree until he mentioned it.

When the time came for me to head inside myself, I hesitated, unsure if my mother would have left the door unlocked or if I was going to have to climb the antenna up to the roof. It would be just like my mother to lock it, so that I would have to wake her up to get inside, forcing the two of us into the berating she was certain I deserved. On the other hand, it would also be just like her to close and lock the bedroom window, leaving me to waste my time with the ascent only to be left standing on the roof like a nicotine-addicted idiot. Tom noticed my hesitation, and seemingly able to read my mind, said “You can stay at my house if you want.”

I thanked him for his kind offer, but decided that it was best that I be a man about it and face my mother like an adult. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Your mom looked mad.”

I assured him that I would be all right and bid him a good evening. As I was walking across my yard toward the bottom rungs of the TV antenna, he called out to me again. “Come over tomorrow, would ya? I got a big surprise.”

“Will you be wearing pants?” I asked.

“No promises,” he said.

Imagine my shock the next day when my mother never uttered a single word about the surreptitious cigarette she had caught me inhaling the night before. I spent the entire morning with her– breakfast at a local diner, a trip to the grocery store, a visit with a neighbor across the highway– and she never said a word. My mother had a sadistic tendency– one that started during my Senior year– to not actually punish me when I knew I had done wrong, but force me to spend every waking second waiting for the other shoe to drop. The anticipation, the horror of “here it comes” whenever we were within shouting distance of each other, was often enough to make me second guess some of the behaviors that had made her upset.

At any rate, when I returned home, I saw Tom’s truck in his driveway, so I went over to chat for a while before I made my official exit from the booming town of Guthrie. I got there just in time for a fresh pot of coffee and some carrot cake. The big surprise that he had referenced the night before was a VCR. Tired of watching cable all alone at night, he had purchased a VCR for himself. My mother had helped him learn how to use the interlibrary loan system so that he could order movies for free (Tom was enough of a skinflint that the idea of paying $3 at the local video store every time he wanted to watch a movie was entirely out of the question). Currently sitting on top of the television were borrowed copies of Smokey and the Bandit and Once Upon A Time in the West. There was an empty case for Cat Ballou, the tape itself still nestled inside the video machine from Tom having watched it the night before. Tom seemed most proud, though, of four video cassettes on a nearby bookshelf: purchased copies of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, The Quiet Man, and . . . you’ve probably already guessed . . . True Grit. These tapes had been purchased for him by his children. “They were either for my birthday or as a welcome gift for finally arriving at the present day,” he quipped.

“All John Wayne movies,” I pointed out.

“He’s my favorite,” Tom said.

“I knew that,” I told him.

“I’ve loved him since I was a kid,” Tom said. “I’d like to collect all of them, but that sumbitch made a lot of movies.”

I asked Tom if he remembered which film he had seen first. I should have not been at all surprised to discover that Tom had that information at the ready: it was Dark Command. Tom was twelve when he saw it for the first time. He saw it in a movie theatre. For a shiny quarter, he saw the movie, a news reel, a cartoon, a Green Hornet serial and was able to buy a popcorn and a cherry soda with the fifteen cents he had left over. He told me that things were really busy working on the farm, so he and his father didn’t have a lot of time to go to movies. He said that it was always really special when they did, though, and that they always made time for when John Wayne released “a picture”. In this moment, as Tom described his adolescent adventures with The Duke, his eyes lit up and a genuine smile spread across his face. Not the mischievous smirk I usually saw, but a genuine smile. He seemed to become a boy again right before my eyes. I would have found more pleasure in it if I hadn’t been reminded that the last time I was in his home, I had witnessed his beloved wife, Virginia, also slowly become a child again before my eyes.

“How is Virginia?” I finally asked.

“Not good, Aaron,” he admitted after a pause. “I can take you to visit if you want, but she won’t remember you. It usually takes some time before she remembers me.” There was a long silence, a heavy silence. The kind that strains your neck when you turn to look at it. An uncomfortable silence that would delight in making a fool of you if you let it linger too long. I hate those silences because I don’t know what to say to fill them and if there is one type of silence that needs to be filled . . . Thankfully, Tom was faster with words than I sometimes can be. “She has a VCR in her room, too. She really likes The Quiet Man.”

Before I left that afternoon, Tom and I made some more coffee and ate bologna sandwiches while we watched True Grit. We talked about watching Once Upon A Time in the West, but it’s an almost-three-hour film and I still had laundry to finish and homework to do when I returned home. Just like the first time we watched it together, I found the movie hard to hear with Tom talking two beats ahead of every line of dialogue (Backward. I always go backward when I’m backin’ away) or dropping little bits of trivia along the way (“I was watching Murder, She Wrote the other day and I’ll be damned if Kim Darby wasn’t on it!”), but it didn’t matter. I, too, had seen this movie numerous times. At least six viewings between the first one with Tom and this viewing right now. Watching the movie wasn’t the point, anyway. The point was keeping Tom company because for the first time in the many years I had known him, Tom seemed utterly alone. Today, in that awkward and unbearable silence when I asked about his wife, was the first time that I might have thought Tom was about to cry.

I only saw Tom two or three times after that day. All were visits when I made my way home to visit with my mother. We watched True Grit on one other occasion. On the others, we watched other John Wayne films, including The Green Berets, which I had found two copies of in my own collection (I gifted one to him). Shortly thereafter, Tom himself was in need of some assisted-living and so his children moved him out and put his house on the market. My mother has had many neighbors since, but I haven’t sat in the kitchen and drank coffee and shot the breeze with any of them. I certainly haven’t watched old westerns with them or listened to them tell me how Maureen O’Hara was “the perfect woman” and the object of many a fantasy back in the day. I certainly haven’t had to hold back tears because I was afraid that they were about to cry.

Tom is on my mind recently– in more than the idle ways that one is reminded of someone from their past– because of a co-worker at the grocery distribution center where I am currently employed. He’s a second-shift employee, so our paths don’t intersect much for more than the hour or two of shift transition. I was aware of his existence, but I hadn’t spoken much too him and could not have told you his name. He’s much younger than I am, so I feel justified in calling him a “kid” when I tell you that I officially met this kid when he crashed a forklift not ten feet from me. It was a specialized forklift– one we call “the high mast”– that is only meant to be driven in certain areas of the building. It can only be driven in certain areas of the building because it’s too tall to fit through the entry way into the other sections. Someone didn’t tell him this (or he wasn’t listening), and he made quite the clatter when the top of the forklift mast struck the beam that spans the corridor between our frozen dock and our egg dock. Luckily, he wasn’t injured in any way, only shaken up quite a bit, but the same could not be said for the valuable piece of machinery that he had just destroyed due to his total lack of attention.

As a witness to the incident (and someone actually certified to drive the machine) I waited with this young man while someone else went to get a supervisor and maintenance personnel to, you know, come and extract the forklift from the wall. I noticed that he was wearing a hoodie that had GCMS FALCONS emblazoned across the front. Making idle chit-chat with the kid, in the hopes of keeping him from panicking about the consequences of such a boneheaded move, I told him that I was also from Gibson City. I told him that my mother still lived there. “Well,” I corrected myself, “she lives in Guthrie. If you know where that is.”

“I know where that is,” he said. “My grandparents used to live there.”

As soon as he said that, I knew right away who his grandparents were. This kid looked like a miniature version of Tom, right down to his facial expressions when he talked. This young man standing before me, the one who might be minutes away from losing his job if he can’t pass the drug test required when you wreck a forklift, looked exactly as I pictured a young Tom might have looked whenever I imagined a young Tom waiting in line, shiny quarter in hand, to see the next and newest John Wayne film. He even sounded a bit like Tom, if you didn’t look directly at him while he spoke.

I introduced myself. He introduced himself. We shook hands. He said that he might have a vague recollection of meeting me at Virginia’s funeral (she passed away in 2007), but that he was really young then and really only remembers a massive horde of faces. He asked if I had gone to Tom’s funeral (Tom passed in 2011) and I told him that I had not. I told him that I wished that I had but prior commitments prevented me from doing so. “Your grandfather was quite a man,” I told him.

“I know,” my co-worker said. “He was one of the best.” There was an awkward silence, a far different one than the type I had experienced in his grandfather’s living room on the day he had shown off his new-fangled VCR. This was one of embarrassment, one of shame, one to be burdened alone by a young man who may or not be employed in a minute or two. He kind of shuffled his feet a bit as he wandered a few feet away, his neck craned upward to take in the damage he had done to the expensive piece of industrial machinery. And just as his grandfather often did, he crowded an uncomfortable silence out of the way with a well-timed quip: “I bet he’d be real proud of me right now.”

Later, once he and I had finished filling out our paperwork (he did pass the drug test and was able to keep his job), I asked him if he had been informed about what sections of the building he could and could not take the high mast. He shrugged, “They might have. I don’t remember.”

“I just want to make sure,” I told him. “This is a vital piece of information that we should be telling to new people on the lifts.”

He thought about it a little longer and then said, again, that he couldn’t remember. There was a beat, maybe two, and he said, with a smile, “Looking back is a bad habit.”

This gave me a moment’s pause. I wasn’t looking directly at him when he said it, and he sounded just like Tom. I was filled momentarily with memories of listening to Tom speak the lines of dialogue over the movie during repeat viewings. For a moment, it felt like Tom was standing right there next to me. I laughed, and said, “True Grit.

The new kid shrugged again. “It’s my favorite movie. I used to watch it with my grandpa.”

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