Dirty Dozen Saturday

When my mom and dad used to tell us stories about kid life in the 1950s, I was baffled. So you listened to the radio all the time? What do you mean you didn’t have 1100 sugary breakfast cereals from which to slurp diabetes? You didn’t have a TV until the 60s? And that only had, like, four channels?

What? Insanity.  

For a middle-class kid of the 1980s, some of these things carried over. Every room in our house had a radio in it. My sister Amanda and I sat listening to the radio for hours so she could hit record and to bootleg her favorite song (Eternal Flame). Otherwise, we listened to cassettes until they were worn down to threadbare strips of magnetic tape that would loosen up and which required a combat ravel with a pencil. We rented movies at the video store. Sometimes we had to deal with the dreaded line of static running up the middle of Vietnam, or Oz, or Lando Calrissian. Our TV (even with cable) had about 12 channels and we became obsessive about “flipping around” to see what else was on, because there was no rewind button. You don’t know the tragedy of watching 70 minutes of a movie you don’t like just to realize that Major League was on another channel the whole time.  

If you were born after 1985, this might sound like a nightmare. But it had a lot of good sides too.

When your favorite song comes on the radio when you didn’t play it, it’s as if the universe has gifted your soul a shot of espresso. Young people don’t understand what it’s like to buy and listen to and fall in love with an album. I asked some students a few years ago “What’s your favorite album?” and, once I explained what an album was, they looked at me as though I had asked what wagon they were planning on taking across the Oregon Trail. There’s also a great understated pleasure in listening to a baseball game on the radio. My dad still listens to the radio announcers while watching the Phillies’ games on mute. My mom does the same for football games.     

There’s a particular joy you get from walking around a video store on a Friday night. The possibilities were endless. It was our version of Netflix and was my introduction to so many bad movies – Ghoulies, Missing in Action I-V, the frankly underrated American Ninja series. Otherwise, we were at the mercy of a handful of cable stations. In the 1980s, someone realized that Saturday and Sunday afternoons were for B World War II movies and westerns. And so on Saturdays and Sundays I was introduced to Von Ryan and his express, Kelly and his heroes, a Bridge over a river called Kwai, Sister Sara and her allotted two mules, and, of course, the Dirty Dozen.

The Dirty Dozen is “a bunch of guys on a mission” film about twelve mostly-condemned military convicts in World War II who get a chance to redeem themselves by going on a top-secret mission behind enemy lines. Though you’d think it would be almost impossible to fuck up a story with this tagline, the book by E.M Nathanson does exactly that, making it the worst novel with the biggest potential in the history of people writing on pages (tied with Jaws). The movie features the gravelly voiced Lee Marvin as a rebellious, blood and guts leader who’s crossed one too many of the brass. Telly Savalas plays the religious fanatic-rapist-murderer aptly named Maggot and, more aptly, looking just like Telly Savalas. John Cassavetes plays Franco, the tough street kid with a chip on his shoulder who don’t follow no one. Jim Brown (almost) makes his famous run at the end and Charles Bronson plays Charles Bronson. Because Charles Bronson only plays Charles Bronson, but with slightly different clothing, a slightly different mustache, and a slightly different reason for blow away mankind.

I was elated. Nothing has yanked my nostalgia chain so hard since I washed down a PB&J with a Capri Sun last summer. I made a bologna sandwich. I poured a glass of milk. I hit play. And with Burke in the background ordering Chinese children in song, I went back to a simpler, quieter time, with Blockbuster Videos and tapes of bootlegged Bangles’ songs.    

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