Several times today and over the next fortnight, the channel Movies24+ is showing a film called The Christmas Card, which has made me delve a bit into my past and look up some old acquaintances—in the modern way without actually contacting them, but instead doing a Google search. The Christmas Card is a pleasant enough, indeed warmly likeable Hallmark-style television film about a family-less Army Sergeant stationed in Afghanistan who receives a Christmas card from a stranger in northern California who, as part of a church charity drive, sends encouraging cards to soldiers. He was so moved by the card and the description of her life and beloved town that, when his senior officer rather oddly convinces him not to sign up for another tour of duty just after a colleague dies in his arms, but instead asks him to go lead a civilian’s life and start by delivering that soldier’s dogtags to the ‘widow’ (though I’m sure the previous dialogue established her as his fiancé, but hey, it’s television). He ends up in the town described in the Christmas card and within minutes of arriving bumps into the sender of the card, of course, and falls in love with her. But she’s engaged, and it’s complicated…. Still, he sticks around, gets a job working for her family’s logging firm and even stays in her family home, naturally after saving her father (played by Ed Asner) from getting hit by a car. All sweet with many improbabilities, but it’s all rather endearing if you just accept it.
The plot is not what drove me to look backwards. None of that relates to me. I initially wasn’t even watching it so much as having it on in the background as I worked on the PC, but I turned to see that the hero was someone I recognised as being a well-known child star, because his mouth was unmistakably familiar. I could easily picture it simpering in some wimpy way, perhaps in an 80s sitcom or some big Home Alone –type film as it—more than the rest of the man—was so well known to me. I can place actors quite quickly—even if it’s just from an appearance in a Poirot I’ve seen a dozen times, but this time, I had to resort to the Internet Movie Database.
I scanned the list of films and other appearances, which included some well known programmes like Desperate Housewives and Melrose Place, neither of which I had watched. None of the films were the household names I had been expecting. He was in Alive, playing one of the survivors of an air crash who ate the others, but I hadn’t managed to face seeing that yet (though it’s now on order with Amazon). I’d rather watch something fuzzy and warm like The Christmas Card.
I was baffled. What did I know him from? Then I saw that he was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I grew up. How funny! I thought , but that still didn’t lead me down the obvious path as loads of people are from there, many of whom are decent entertainers—James Taylor, Loudon Wainwright III, Ben Folds, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the dBs and others I can’t think of now, but seriously, there are loads.
Then I saw he was only a few months older than I am. Hmmmm…… So I got out my 1982 yearbook and looked up John Newton in my class and, sure enough, there was the face of the ‘child star’ with the simpering mouth that I was thinking of, but on a skinny boy who looked vastly different. So I was remembering the child, not the star. He certainly wasn’t a star then. In fact, whilst I really can’t picture where he fit into the scheme of things, and I can’t recall whether he’s someone I’d say hello to if I passed by, I definitely think of him immediately as being a bit of a, well, the word dweeb comes to mind but I can’t be certain why. When I searched for clues in the yearbooks of those three years at Chapel Hill High School, looking for his appearances other than his official class photo, I only found him once as a member of the small Dive Club, which I didn’t know existed. Much to my surprise, I seem to be on every page, in every club even though I also volunteered at the hospital until I was old enough to work and then I had a busy job in a department store. I thought I led a quiet existence where I wasn’t noticed too much, but it looks like I was busier than I recall, and my yearbooks are filled with passages written by (often merely vaguely recalled) people thanking me for being such a great friend, even though I usually left the school early to go away so often didn’t get time to pass ‘round my yearbook for many signatures.
It’s all a frustrating mystery. In a sense, I’d quite like to have a day to go back in time and wander around my high school as an observer at that time. I wouldn’t want to find myself, like one of those Disney films, suddenly in my high school body expected to deal with everything thrown at me by everyone and pass exams I hadn’t studied for because I’d been a 43-year-old woman the previous day. No thank you. But I’d like to walk around invisibly beside that me and observe who she interacts with and try to place everything, given that I don’t have the technological record of it all that kids these days do with their mobiles uploading videos to their facebook pages and all that. So I’d just like a refresher course, plus it would be interesting to see what people were really thinking now that I know how to read them better. And see what I was really like because I never seem to have had a real clue about that, or how others saw me.
As I married an Englishman and left the country as soon as I finished University, I lost those ties that many people who stay in the same town retain. Fortunately, a close high school friend is now living in the New Forest so I was able to ask her if she remembered this John Newton. She recognised his name immediately—more than I can say—but when she googled him and saw the photos of this fairly attractive chap who’s in shape and has great hair, she understandably couldn’t place him as a fellow high school student. That’s because, looking at him, you would assume he’s always been attractive, that he was the big man on campus, perhaps the star quarterback. Nay.
That’s what pleases me so much. I really can’t recall precisely what I thought of him, but looking at his fellow Dive Club members, there’s one guy I remember well who was, well, not widely respected as a winner, and I think John probably hung around with him and was judged by that company, plus I think he probably didn’t carry himself with the mature social skills that some of the real Big Men on Campus did. So I’m thrilled for him that he moved on from that and carved out what seems to be a much better life for himself and I hope he’s happy with it.
It seems that, not long after leaving high school where probably not enough of us noticed him or gave him any credit (or just plain thought he was a loser, because we’re all cruel at that age), he was ‘discovered’ and cast as the lead in the series Superboy. Okay, I never knew there was a series called Superboy. But looking at the DVD covers on the Amazon.com site, he really fits the bill even then. He looks like a young Superman, and I can see him playing Clark Kent as well (I would always prefer Clark Kent, though bumbling can be a turn-off). He’s quoted on his IMDB page as having taken up martial arts and the spirituality that goes with it after he left school, and that’s no doubt what led to the fuller body and Superboy look. Again, good on him.
Now he’s a jobbing actor with a wife and I hope he’s happy. He could go back to the high school reunion, if they have those, and no doubt draw a crowd of drooling women who had ignored him then, and—well, not pay them back in a Carrie-like manner, but just get his own back perhaps in the satisfaction that he’s made something of himself (mind you, most people but me seem to have done so!).
Go John! And, as my friend says, seeing him in that 2006 film looking quite good and youthful also reassures us that we’re not as old as we might sometimes feel. I might just watch the film again tonight. The whole reason I had it on to begin with was I’m trying to convince my system that Christmas is on its way, and far too quickly. It was somehow September one minute and now that massive holiday is with us in just a matter of days, which is terrifying. So I could do with a bit more Christmas spirit, and indeed in the film, Christmas seems to be going on for a few weeks.
Flicking through the yearbook briefly, I saw photos of a few boys who I had crushes on for an age (usually until they asked me out, at which point the interest evaporated, a cruel curse I’m not sure I’ve shaken), of people who I have heard are microbiologists and other impressive doctor-y sorts now, and a few other memorable souls. There were members of The Pressure Boys, the great local ska group (who copied Madness’ trademark group walk, and whose Mitch Easter co-produced fine 80s album Jump! Jump! Jump! I was thrilled to be able to get recently from Amazon on MP3 since my vinyl is in the States) and one that caught my eye in particular was Stacy Guess, who was always particularly intriguing—if not a bit out of it—because he was an incredible trumpet player, and I once played the trumpet in the school band, albeit truly dreadfully. He went on to join the fantastic Squirrel Nut Zippers (you must get their Christmas Caravan album and make sure you start any long Christmas journey with Sleigh Ride blaring; it is so tremendously uplifting!) but a few years after leaving the band, he died of a heroin overdose. Very sad.
Another musician in our midst easily caught my eye as I glanced over the class photos: Dexter Romweber. Even at the age of 16 or so, he stands out with his jet black greased paramour rockabilly haircut, and he and similarly coiffed Tony Mayer would always wear distinct long black coats over white t-shirts. They weren’t racing to keep up with 80s fashion like the rest of us; they could care less.
I always liked Dexter. I liked that he looked different and dared to look different. But our paths didn’t cross that often, and I doubt we would have had much in common other than a love of music. I do remember playing some part in our Junior Follies talent show one year, which was thrown to fund the Senior Prom, and sitting with the overseeing teacher, Kip Gerard, auditioning the acts and deciding who would be on the bill and in what order. One band had this drummer I liked (initially because I had a crush on his friend, but then after talking to him a few times I realised he was pretty neat himself, very calm and confident), and I loved that they covered such things as XTC’s Burning with Optimism’s Flame, which ain’t that easy if you want to sound good, and The Romantics’ What I Like About You.
Also on the bill was a noisy rock band I didn’t rate called something about an exit or a motorway, and then The Kamikazes--Dexter and Tony's band. They were special, like having the Stray Cats on our high school stage, but with more of a goth look and less of a pop sound. Everything was black; I feel like Dexter even put black under his eyes like a boxer but I’m probably imagining that. I don’t recall much about their sound now; I just clearly picture Dexter and Tony with their rockabilly-coiffed jet black hair, and Eric Peterson, I think his name was, who really caught my eye with his lovely wilder blonde style (which now brings to mind Sideshow Bob of the Simpsons.) He held more of a fascination for me but didn’t go to our school, as I recall, and I think Tony was younger, but Dexter was in my class.
Around then, Dexter’s sister Sara was finding fame as the drummer in the band Let’s Active, who had a record contract and some great songs, including Room With a View and Every Word Means No, the latter of which I feel certain was used in a film. (There is even a tribute album out for the band, which included Mitch Easter and Faye Hunter). Now Sara's joined her kid brother in the Dex Romweber Duo, and, having had their new album hastily delivered to me by Amazon after stumbling across Dexter again in the pages of my yearbook, I’m so impressed to hear that quiet eccentric-looking kid in my class belting out some of his own songs in such a mature, impressive voice, joined on the album by the likes Cat Power, Neko Case and Exene Cervenka of X (at least two of whom he’s toured with). Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, another local group, joins in on guitar on the odd track, but I am biased against SCOTS (not Scots though, you understand) as one of their past bassists who idolised Tina Weymouth worked with me at a department store and convinced naïve foolish me to lend her my photos that I took from the front of the Talking Heads concert during their Stop Making Sense tour, negatives and all so she could get reprints (back in the old timey camera days), and she STOLE them all, the absolute cow. I hate her for life and am glad she’s no longer in the band and hope she’s now employed scrubbing the toilets at her old school.
But back to Dexter, he sounds so incredibly mature on this album….but then, we are 43-ish, and he’s been in the business since he could walk. On some songs, he sounds like Tom Waits, others Nick Cave, sometimes even Johnny Cash. Many are covers and I liked quite a lot of them. And apparently Jack White (I’m not a fan but I know everyone else is) is a big fan of Dexter’s and suggests he wouldn’t be where he is today were it not for Dexter’s influence, particularly from when he was in Flat Duo Jets. I had no idea what to expect from this album—and there are others on their way—but I am terribly impressed, and I’m highly critical. Good ol’ little Dexter.
And me, what have I done? Well, I haven’t made it big yet. I like to ignore the fact that time is passing and I seem to have a dull, miserable job in a place where I’ve been trapped for most of my adult life which is now becoming unbearable (no doubt because they know we must be thankful to have a job now, so they torment us while they can). I have written trillions of songs, a few of them decent, and I have at least two solid books in my head that I need to find the time to write down before I go senile (which I worry will be soon), and several other plot ideas with scribbled bits of paper all around the house to go in them. If only I weren’t working full-time even out of hours at my stupid miserable job. I worry that, the same way that I let the University experience pass me by by working full time during my 4.5 years there, I am letting my destined life and dreams pass me by by working more than full time now. That would be really awkward, to say the least, if I woke to realise that I was 75 and still hadn’t gotten around to dealing with my creative side that I feel really does have something to offer (though everyone believes that about themselves I suppose) if given the chance. But it may well happen…..
Perhaps that’s why I’m all the more supportive and thrilled for the success that these other classmates have accomplished. Maybe everyone hasn’t heard of actor John Newton. Maybe loads of music lovers haven’t yet been exposed to Dex Romweber, though I recommend having a stab at his music. (I know that even a recommendation from someone like Jack White won’t draw in the public when recommendations about Ron Sexsmith from Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney haven’t brought him the fame he has really earned. In fact, he apparently was passing out fliers for his lawn service the day after the Flat Duo Jets played on David Letterman). But, though it’s a bit unlikely, they could one day be on the future equivalent of Parky explaining that, surprising though it seems when you look at them and where they are now, they were not popular in high school and just did not fit in. And those who really did fit in, where are they now? Maybe failing in the society of high school is a good sign as it’s not the real world and it’s best to wait to bloom later when it counts. Some of us are still waiting!
So that’s the long, rambling stroll down memory lane all caused by a Christmas film that I wasn’t even watching……