The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Timothy Hutton Story

In order for this story to make any sense, you need to know two pieces of exposition.

Expository Bit #1: In 1981, nineteen year-old Timothy Hutton won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in Ordinary People. Anyone who has seen the film can clearly understand why. It was a phenomenal performance, however nothing could possibly match Timothy’s acceptance speech. Sadly, a few scant months before the awards, Timothy’s father, actor Jim Hutton, died of liver cancer. Timothy dedicated his award to his father, amidst floods of tears. By the time he was finished, everyone in the audience was sobbing, too.

Expository Bit #2: In 1973, Jim Hutton made a low-budget horror flick called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It was a wonderful bit of Americana-gone-wrong. In the film, a young couple moves to an abandoned farmhouse which, for some reason, has a bricked-up fireplace in the living room. The scary old caretaker (why is there always a scary old caretaker?) warns the couple not to unbrick the fireplace.

Which the wife (Kim Darby) immediately does. What she doesn’t know is that living in the fireplace, beneath the bowels of the house, are terrifying little creatures that like to reach up through the fireplace, grab people, and drag them down to their lair. The only thing the creatures are afraid of is light, and of course once the wife smashes through the bricks, the power goes out and, well, you can imagine what happens.

The point is, I loved this movie as a child (of course, I also loved The Exorcist) and was very sad when Jim Hutton died because I’d never get a chance to tell him how much I enjoyed this schlocky horror film.

In my third year of repertory, I somehow got shanghaied into entering a competition in which veteran, professional actors would be paired with schmos like me to perform various scenes. It was kind of like the Pro-Am Golf Tournament, only without Bob Barker. By sheer luck of the draw, I was paired with Timothy Hutton, whom I had never met but always thought was a marvelous actor. The whole competition was called An Evening With Noel Coward.

Timothy and I talked at great lengths about what we’d like to perform. We finally decided on Blithe Spirit, with me as Ruth and Timothy as Charles. Surprisingly, we both got very into it and we were determined to win. (I especially had a gripe with a very serious rival actress who was doing Private Lives, and I was determined to beat her).

In the weeks of rehearsal that followed, I kept trying to tell Timothy that I had been a fan of his father’s, but it just didn’t seem to work itself into conversation. Finally, with only a few days to go, I decided to just come out with it.

“You know, Tim,” I said, casually one day as we were being pinned for costumes, “I’ve always wanted to tell you…I really was a big fan of your father’s.”

He seemed delighted to hear that. “Really? That’s great! Did you watch him in Ellery Queen?”

“Well, yes, but my favorite…” (and here I stumbled—was I actually going to admit this?) “Well, my favorite movie of his was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.”

Timothy laughed and laughed. “Oh my God,” he said, “I wasn’t even allowed to watch that until I was fifteen!”

We both giggled and then I said, “man, I haven’t seen that movie in years.”

There was a thoughtful silence. “You know,” Timothy said, “I’ve got that movie on videotape.”

I blinked. “There’s a VCR in the green room,” I said.

“What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked, grinning enthusiastically.

“Bringing popcorn. You bring the tape.”

And that’s how it happened. Twenty-four hours later, Timothy Hutton and I were sitting in the green room, eating very bad store-bought popcorn and watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

We both jumped nervously a number of times, and for the rest of the rehearsal period we kept sneaking up behind each other and doing the scary voices that the creatures did in the film. Then we’d collapse in laughter and no one knew what the hell was wrong with us.

As it turned out, Blithe Spirit wound up taking second place, but I was consoled by the fact that I did end up beating the girl I hated.

Timothy, of course, went on to a stellar career and I still get a friendly feeling every time I watch him. Occasionally I get the urge to contact him and see if he remembers me and our terrifying night in the green room.

Only, you know, he might think I was weird.

Next time: The legendary Larry.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

In Security

All summer, I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to obtain a temp job in some office somewhere since I won't get paid by Very Serious University again until the end of September, and I want to avoid debtor’s prison. On Wednesday, they finally called.

It was a two-day job. It was at the local field office of a Very Important Federal Government Agency which I can’t be specific about or I’ll go to Levonworth. The job payed a ridiculous amount of money--way more than the agency usually pays. Immediately suspicious, I asked what exactly I was supposed to do over there.

It seemed that some brainiac in Homeland Security has invented a new kind of metal detector. The Unnamed Agency is considering buying them. Before they shell our tens of millions of our tax dollars, they naturally want to conduct expensive tests.

My job would consist of walking through the metal detectors. All day. Apparently several hundred times. I had no idea why they just don't use government employees for this.

I was then told that after I finished testing them "unarmed," they were going to tape a knife to my thigh and see if I could get through with it. Well, I thought, I sort of need to shave my legs anyway. No biggie.

But wait, it gets even weirder! After the whole knife experiment, they would then give me a gun. An actual gun. I was supposed to conceal the gun somewhere on my person and try to get it through. I sincerely hoped they wouldn’t strip search me.

And here's the big one! Once I was finished with the gun, they were actually going to strap a bomb on my chest. With actual explosives. However, I was told I don't have to worry because "government explosives and demolition experts will be standing by." Yeah, that makes me feel a lot better. Thanks, guys.

(You would not believe the number of government forms I had to sign for this. I'm assuming that they're waivers so my family can't sue the federal government if I get blown up.) I also didn’t know how they would be able to drag this out for 16 hours, although I was told that there's actually a four hour orientation on the first day. Four hours. To explain about walking through metal detectors.

And so, the adventure began.

The following morning, I showed up at the government offices at 8:00. I went into the Visitor's Center and told the woman behind the desk that I was here for the "metal detector experiment."

"Are you with [temp agency]?”


"Fill this out." She passed me a form. "You're not allowed to go any further until you fill it out."

For some reason, the form seemed to deal with information about my car. She then gave me a visitor's pass and sent me over to a group of strangers who were also clutching forms and looking very confused.

Eventually, a very nice woman named Heather came in and told us to "get on the van,” which would then drive all of us to “an undisclosed location.” All of us got on the van. The van took us to a very scary-looking domed building which was surrounded by a 25 foot chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top. The driver of the van opened his window and punched some numbers into a keypad. The doors opened ominously.

"Wow!" said the guy in back of me. "It's just like when I was in prison!"

There was a woman named Lucille waiting for us outside the building. She ushered us inside and took us into a conference room where, she said, we needed to see a brief safety film.
I assumed that the film was pretty basic…telling us where the exits were and how to use the fire extinguishers. That sort of thing.

But no. The film dealt almost exclusively with "what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency." Really. There was a brief moment about fire extinguishers at the end, but mostly it was about where the bunkers are. Yes--bunkers.

We filled out another form, which was a non-disclosure agreement. Basically, we swore that we would never tell anyone what the results of the experiment were. Apparently, it's okay to talk about the experiment itself, though. (And, in case you’re wondering if it’s legal to blog about this, I showed the agreement to a lawyer friend and he said it was no problem.) Lucille collected the forms and shepherded us down the hall, then outside into a parking lot--apparently we were now going to "the lab."

For some reason, the entire paved lot was cluttered with lots and lots of suitcases, some of which were open and had clothes inside. There were literally hundreds of them. I asked, "what's all the luggage for?"

"It's not real luggage," said Lucille, in a low whisper.


"It's test luggage."


Apparently, the engineers who work at that specific site are contracted to do extensive tests on luggage. I have no idea what the tests are or where the test luggage originally came from. It was bizarre.

We went into another building into yet another conference room, this time with donuts and coffee. There were two men from Homeland Security named Ted and Bob. Ted is an engineer, and he told us all about the scientific side of the new metal detectors, which are actually scanners, much like MRIs. Apparently, the new technology is to zap the person passing through with tons of microwaves and X-rays. Some people started to look alarmed, but then Ted reassured us with this:

"Don't worry. This isn't harmful. I've been scanned hundreds of times, and so far there's no brain damage." Thank you, Ted.

Bob got up. Bob talked exclusively about how proud we should be, and telling us that we're serving our country, and that we're fighting terrorism together. It was very inspiring. Lucille came back and told us that the next day the women are supposed to wear a one-piece bathing suit, a t-shirt, a button-down shirt over that, and sweat pants and bedroom slippers. The bathing suit is (and this is verbatim) "in order to protect us from the duct tape."

She then asked, enthusiastically, "do you want to see the machine?"

Of course we did. We all trooped out behind her down the hall to the lab. It doesn't look that scary, actually. It looks like a tollboth. Ted demonstrated it for us. He walked into it, planted his feet on a strip of tape, and held up his hands in the air like he was being held hostage. He stayed that way for 6 seconds, then told us we had to practice it.

One by one, we went into the machine, planted our feet and held up our hands for 6 seconds. We all got it right on the first try. Back into the conference room to wait for the van again. Bob had a parting word of wisdom for us:

"Bring a book."

Day Two started out exactly like Day One: Go to the Visitor's Center, fill out (more) forms, wait with my group, get on the van and drive to the "undisclosed location." We signed in (again) and got badges and waited in the hall. Finally, Heather lead us across the parking lot. We made our way through all the mysterious luggage again and ended up being herded into (yet another) conference room where we were briefed and introduced to the representatives from the electronics company that had actually built the scanners. We then had another pep talk by Bob and Ted about how important we were to their research.

We were all given lists of what weapons we would be given for each scan (each of us had about fifteen scans scheduled) and where on the body they needed to be placed. Reading it, I was extremely glad I had (1) shaved my legs, and (2) worn nice underwear. We were all given numbers, since they didn't appear to be interested in our names.

Here is just a partial list of lethal objects that were taped on, strapped on, shoved in my underwear, and stuck in my bra:

--Four guns, including a .287 Magnum and a hunting rifle
--Knives. Lots of knives. Steak knives, switchblades, folding knives, assassins blades, scaling knives, cleavers, choppers, dicers, and an axe.
--Wooden numchucks
--Chinese throwing stars
--Plasticene explosives
--Gel slurry explosives
--Sticks of dynamite
--A time bomb
--Several random detonators
--Razon blades
--A blow gun (with darts)
--Blasting caps

We were also given a lot of inert objects like Chap stick, a pack of gum, mouthwash, and Tic-Tacs. We were told it was so they could test to see if the scanner was able to distinguish non-lethal items from weapons of approximately the same dimensions.

It was an impressive setup. We had to walk along a designated path to various stations. First we had to go to a table to get our weapons and to have our paper checked by the woman there. We then went into the dressing room with someone who helped us rig the weapons up to our bodies. Then we progressed into the actual scanner, which was being operated by a nice guy named Dan. Dan would yell out our number A guy who was hidden behind a wall would then yell; "Good scan!" and we'd go back to the dressing room, divest ourselves of the weapons, return them to the table where they were checked back in, and go back to the end of the line to do it all over again.

You'd think that with such precise planning everything would run smoothly. But no...after five minutes, things degenerated into what always arises when engineers attempt to interact with non-engineers; total chaos. People were wandering around the lab, deadly objects hanging off their bodies. The scanner kept malfunctioning. Dan kept pressing the button, frantically.

I was having problems of my own. My very long hair kept getting caught in the duct tape and I kept saying "Ow! Hair!" as the woman dressing me fretted. Also, I learned that removing duct tape from bare skin really, really hurts.

Then came an awful moment when one member of my group, who was obese, literally couldn't fit inside the scanner. We had to wait until the engineers dismantled it and re-configured it to accomodate him. Thoroughly freaked out by this point, Bob and Ted sent us all to lunch.

Because we were in a top-secret undisclosed location, we couldn't go to the cafeteria like normal people. We had been told to bring our lunch, so we chowed down in the conference room. Conversation was stilted since (1) we weren't allowed to talk about what we were doing, much like a sequestered jury, and (2) we already knew what we all did for a living--we were all temps. We gave up and read our books (good suggestion, Bob!) until one guy remembered he had a deck of cards.

We decided to play some poker, but of course we had all left our wallets at home (we were told not to bring them) and naturally no one had poker chips. Our problems were solved when one of the more personable engineers went to the warehouse and brought us back a box of five hundred rivets. We happily used them in lieu of chips and proceeded to play no limit hold 'em until Bob and Ted told us we were ready to go again.

The afternoon session went more smoothly than the morning, and by 4:30, we were done. We were once again shoved into the conference room where Ted gave us a triumphant victory speech. "They said we couldn't possibly do 200 scans in an 8-hour day!" he shouted, "but we pulled it off in less than six! You guys rock!" (And how funny it was to hear an engineer say "you guys rock!")

Bob went on and on about how we made air travel safer for everyone and how much he appreciated us donating our time to the experiment. We didn't tell him that we were actually not really "donating" our time--that we were, in fact, being paid an obscene amount of money. In my case, I made more in two days than I do in a week as a professor.

Back in the van. Back to the Visitor's Center where they took my badges and where my car was.

I've thought a lot about it, and, weirdly, I really do feel like I helped make flying less dangerous. I was also sad, though, that we live in a world where an experiment like this is even necessary.

Next Time: The Timothy Hutton Story