My First Movie, from Bo Keely

December 28, 2015 |

 I read of an experiment run by the army psychological unit that was interested in nature vs. nature in response time. The anecdotal evidence had come from a children's movie being shown on service bases. It was a cheap sci-fi flick. Rubber puppets were filmed in extreme up-close. The creature's first appearance was a cinematic masterpiece. It popped out of a lagoon. Shock was total – children in the audience screamed and recoiled in their seats. The reason seemed to be worldwide.

The psychologists agreed that the reaction to extreme danger was a rational response derived from evolution. But they knew about nurture, and maybe even mutation. So, they wondered if children were born with or without the recoil reflex. It would be counterproductive in terms of survival of the species, but possibly useful to the military, and, I thought, to individual survival.

They sent the movie to remote bases in the Pacific at Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines for a largest possible test sample. The Pacific because they wanted kids not yet exposed to even rumors of the movie. Inconspicuous cameras were set above the screens focusing on the first row. When the monster reared its head, the cameras were timed to snap to capture the stills of thousands of four-to-nine year old children. They all showed the same thing: small children, mouths open, eyes wide, jerking back against their seats, and some bolting for the exit. Except, in one still of a front row, one boy was jumping forward with his hands raised aggressively.

About the same time as the Pacific experiment, I was in the front row, a crewcut nine year old, at an Idaho Falls movie house. 'Old Yeller' is a 1957 Walt Disney family tragedy about a boy and his stray dog in post-Civil War Texas. In a memorable scene where the yellow Labrador mix encounters a western diamondback rattler, the snake coils, rattles, and… But I was out of my seat flung into the screen grasping the viper by its ugly neck to save Old Yeller. As a kid, at my first movie, I thought it was real for a split second. Everyone else in the theater had recoiled in their seats. But I had the snake by the neck.

The monster movie petered out, and the boy probably got labeled by long words, and recruited by the military. But 'Old Yeller' launched me into a life of survivals, by nature and by nurture.


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