Play It Again Daddy
What follows is an act of writing therapy that later became a chapter of a book. I use writing as a way to understand what happened to me growing up, to integrate it into my conception of the world today and to heal.
This is not an easy read. You will not enjoy it. But it had to be written, because if I didn't, I may not be here today.
I share it with you in the hopes that I can inspire people with similar pasts to me to heal and recover and to help us both feel less alone.
If you have children or younger siblings, you will know just how obsessive they can be when it comes to watching their favourite movies. Often they will want to watch the same show again and again to the exasperation of the rest of the family. Relentlessly quoting their favourite lines and demanding that it is always on.
For the most part, this is a win-win. This hypnotising program can serve as a well-deserved respite from the pressures of raising children. For a few precious hours, they are entertained and mum and dad can relax. They can get onto that project they have been meaning to do, read a book, exercise or have a long overdue adult conversation.
Everyone is happy, everyone except for the older siblings that is. For the brother or sister that is old enough to hate the experience, but ‘too young’ to play on their own or join in with the adults, this experience is hell. Being forced to watch the same program repeatedly, every day is quite literally torture, and could drive even the most stoic special operations solider insane.
This is the story of how Disney’s 1973 cartoon ‘Robin Hood’ became a 90-minute living hell, that I was forced to endure practically every day for a year.
When I was around seven years old, Dad had quite a close relationship with two friends. They were a newly married couple with two young children, twins, roughly my brother’s age at the time. They lived on a large block of mountainous land with a small house at the top and a long driveway leading down to a huge worker’s shed in the valley at the bottom. Bordering the shed was a line of fruit trees and a veggie garden that was fairly well curated.
This shed contained a variety of work tools, land moving equipment, tree doctoring apparatus and also acted as a storehouse for the remains of hobbies long since forgotten. I remember spending a lot of time searching that shed and finding everything from punching bags to old wetsuits, cross country skis and even an assortment of dusty ballet gear.
Being a carpenter, the owner was quite capable of ingenious home renovations and modifications. He was able to install a hidden doorway that looked to the untrained eye no different to the surrounding wall. However, when you pushed it in a certain place it would pop ajar allowing just enough space for one person to squeeze through into a completely hidden room.
Inside this room was what basically amounted to an amateur grow house and drug laboratory. With paraphernalia scattered throughout, small marijuana plants were growing under the care of UV lights. On the floor were random open bags of unlabelled chemicals next to stained red bed sheets. Odd pots and pans were haphazardly strewn across a workbench next to hospital gloves and masks. In the corner was what looked like an oxygen tank.
Upon entry to this room, the smell was intense. Stale, dank and uncirculated air combined with the stench of ammonia. It was overpowering, heavy and intrusive. Your eyes would start to water within minutes. Suffice to say, I did not go in there often. It took me years to realise that I had casually discovered what was most likely a meth lab. Thankfully, I had the common sense not to share my discovery with my younger brother or to play around with any of the contents inside. Who knows what could have happened.
Since they all had such similar interests, Dad became quite close to these two. After a while it was proposed that they would excavate some land and build an extension to their house, which we were to move into once complete. This was not just some stoned pipe dream either, at one-stage bulldozers where clearing the land and plans were drafted. I am not sure of the complete situation, who was paying for what, but at least for a while they were all quite serious about the venture.
So with increasing frequency we would visit them, often for days at a time. They would get very high and leave the kids to their own devices. This once again put me in the situation of a pseudo parental figure. I was forced to ensure that everyone was safe, somewhat fed and out of danger. I could not rely on the adults for much help at all. If I did ask a question or inquire about something, it was met with the typical stoned drawl that had sadly become like a second language to me. Asking for food was met with:
“Zaaaaaaac, it is fine. Just look in the friiiidge. There are some leftovers, just have thaaaaat.”
Upon closer inspection, the ‘food’ in the fridge could be more aptly described as compost. Containers upon containers were filled with what was once edible food, now in varying degrees of decay. Vile to the nose, it was visually worse. Laced with bluey-green splotches of mould and what looked like white moss forming a fresh outer covering.
When looking for food, I often imagined a haughty French waiter serving it to his customers at a fancy five-star restaurant in town.
“Thank you for choosing the Fungal Inn. For your dining pleasure tonight can I recommend our speciality?
It is our classic combination of half eaten Chinese food, aged three weeks to perfection. The astute diner will notice the subtle aromas and texture changes that we are famous for. If Sir so desires, we can leave the dish unstirred so that he may personally mix the upper layers to satisfy his refined pallet. This dish comes with an accompaniment of complementary cold pizza crusts.
For drinks we have water, served on tap into our pre-used coffee mugs. We find that the residue adds a unique flavour that provides a unique counter point to the aromatic flavours of the main. If the dessert mood so strikes, please inform one of the wait staff and they will happily bring you a tablespoon of our famous aged brown sugar. Divine.
You will feel quite moved after this dish. You will be utterly compelled to share and relive your dining experience for hours and days to come.”
Humour helps, trust me.
Often all I could scavenge was assorted condiments served on stale bread. If I was lucky, there was some fresh produce or fruit that I could grab from the garden. Suffice to say, we often went hungry.
As with most drug-affected parents, their children are the ones that suffer. The twins, aged three to four years old, were no different. Constantly wearing dirty, stained and smelly tops, these children were clearly neglected. With perpetually full and unchanged diapers, grotty mouths and lice in their hair they were a mess. I am not sure if I ever saw them eating anything, and given the situation, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were in a perpetual state of malnourishment.
Compared to other children their age they were clearly behind in language development. Speaking with pronounced lisps and shockingly low vocabularies, they would constantly demand attention from their mother and father who of course were always stoned. So, like all neglectful and drug affected parents, they turned to the one baby sitter they could trust the most, one that was free and non-judgemental: television. Think about it, it is always available and ever engaging. With the right programming choices, it can even teach your children those high-minded morals that you would so desire them to embody into their adult lives.
So there I was, sitting on the floor for what felt like the thousandth time watching the same program again. Grainy and dull, it was considered well dated by the time I was watching it. But unlike wine, this one just gets worse with age.
It starts with a God awful whistled tune, sounding like a homeless person’s campfire diddy crossed with the wailings of a young bloated child, waiting to be burped after having soiled himself. A progression of anthropomorphised animals dance across the screen in a ‘comical’ and colourful array of dress. From the rhinoceroses donning pink tunics to the alligators holding flags and the crudely drawn elephants all walking on their hind legs using their trunks as trumpets.
The story itself is slow to get going and painful to watch. Full of moralistic and pretentious do gooder messages and embarrassing clichés. All of the character’s personality traits are one dimensional and overplayed. They often sing or speak their inner thoughts out loud which means that the audience is made abundantly clear of their motives.
Suffice to say I was not amused. However, if I looked beside me, my brother and the twins were enthralled. How many times could they watch this and still be entertained? Sadly, it turned out that the answer was quite a lot. Doing the math, we probably watched it at least 100 times. It was often played more than once per visit and we would visit them at least once per week for two years. So considering the runtime that equates to over six and a half continuous days watching that cartoon. I want my time back. Hell, keep the time, I just want my sanity.
I can’t help but think of the twins, if we watched the movie with them that many times, the mind boggles with the thought of how many times they themselves watched it. To be fair, they enjoyed it, often wanting it replayed the instant it finished, so maybe it was an escape for them. God knows how little they were appreciated and looked after by their parents. But I wonder, what does that kind of intensive watching of a single show do to the developing mind? Would the moral values and the overt black and white diametric thinking projected by the show corrupt their minds? Perhaps they believe that the outside world literally consists of talking animals that are on a noble crusade to overthrow the tyrannical false king. Surely that much television can’t be good for somebody that young, particularly with little to no variation of programming.
Ultimately the couple broke up and had to sell the land. When they moved away, we went and visited them a couple of times, yes watching Robin Hood each time. Thankfully these visits tapered off. I have no idea what happened to the twins. I half expect to one day walk past a couple of people that are raving mad, incessantly whistling that God forsaken tune repeating the words:
“Play it again Daddy.”
Jokes aside, I just hope they survived.
Originally published at https://www.zachary-phillips.com on October 22, 2019.