What It’s From

In high school, unwilling to lay claim to original thoughts and deeply held sentiments ourselves, we quoted movies, TV shows, even parents and teachers. This allowed us to try on different personalities and outlooks without risk to our precious reputations. Also, it made conversation easier: it’s a lot simpler, when you want to get a certain point across, to refer briefly to someone else’s already successful attempt to do so. “Hilarious hijinks ensue,” to be sure.

We used an altered tone of voice when we did this quoting, nothing that an outsider would have noticed immediately although it was obvious enough to each of us. No sooner had one of us offered a quote and signaled it in this way, then, another one of us would be asking “what’s that from?” We used an even more ironic tone of voice for this question, aware that it was silly for so much of what we said to be “from” somewhere else, consisting of or at least referring to someone else’s words. But that’s life in the world of sampling and mash-ups.

My high-school friend Tim, who had a way of tauntingly asking “what’s that from?” even about something you’d obviously thought of yourself, left us during junior year to go study in France. The night before his departure, a group of us got together to see him off. Someone had a fake ID and bought a jug of wine, and we set off for a long ramble through the streets of D.C. Eventually, in the middle of the night, we came to rest on the playground equipment of a school in a tree-lined, quiet neighborhood far from any main avenues. This was at a time when I had not yet gotten over my strong initial revulsion to just about any alcoholic beverage, so I barely sipped from the bottle as we passed it among us. I felt confirmed in this decision when another boy named Josh paused in the middle of a sentence to lean over and vomit. I suppose it was not very good wine. The bottle did have a handle.

It was a dark, warm summer night and we felt well-concealed in the shadows by the jungle gym, outside the pool of harsh white cast by the floodlights from the roof of the school building. On the hill behind us, trees rustled gently in an occasional breeze. Conversation lagged, and – feeling what little wine I’d drunk – some sort of campfire impulse inspired me to tell the story of a suspenseful mystery I’d just finished reading, something that my mother, a librarian, had brought home in a pile of books for the family to take along on our just-concluded summer vacation. Mike, who was a year ahead of us and who had produced the fake ID earlier, was particularly taken by the story and agreed with me that certain elements were deliciously disturbing, in particular the killer’s taste for flaying and then wearing the skins of his victims.

The wine was drained and the evening grew late. We walked the ten or so blocks to Tim’s house and hugged him goodbye for the year, then trailed off in various directions according to where home was or where we were staying that night. I had arranged to sleep over at Chico’s house, which lay quite a long way distant from Tim’s. We meandered through the empty streets, past blinking traffic lights, and I felt as if we were in some mysterious realm with little connection to the real world. The occasional passing car sounded alien, compared to the constant din I was used to hearing during the day.

A few weeks after the playground get-together, Mike stopped me in the hall at school and told me of a movie he had just gone to see called Silence of the Lambs. The plot was familiar to him, he said, and he couldn’t at first figure out why he knew everything that was about to happen. What’s that from? Then he remembered: it was the same story that I had told on the dark playground as the jug of wine passed from hand to hand.

High school was of course a fearful time, and it was nice standing there in the hall talking to Mike, whose bona fides as a cool somewhat counter-cultural figure in the school’s cosmology were completely in order. He played in a band and could often be found in the crowd at whatever punk or hardcore show I’d convinced my parents to drop me off at on a Friday evening, standing with friends from another school or friends who maybe even didn’t go to school anymore, which was the next best thing to just being a grown-up. The nice thing about that conversation was that it wasn’t a performance, neither one of us trying to prove how much we knew about a certain band or how nihilistically desolate our souls were (the badge of distinction among those of us who dressed all in black). We were just talking about something that genuinely interested each of us. It was the kind of small moment of connection that suggests that high school might one day come to an end, and everyone in it might turn out to be a human being after all.

One day Mike called me and said he’d heard Julia, another person on the outer fringe of my social group, achingly cool, talking favorably about me. He thought I should call her up and ask her out. My opinion of Mike was that he should know what he was talking about when it came to such things, but, when I called Julia, she quickly turned me down. Interestingly, it wasn’t long before Mike and Julia became an item, and one of the school’s longer-lived ones at that.

From time to time, as I remember the Julia episode, I wonder if Mike really thought she’d go out with me, or if I was a pawn in some kind of weird machination. Did he already have his eye on her? If his suggestion was genuine, did he secretly hope she’d say no?

Trivial stuff, really, but the main reason that this little situation comes back to me and bugs me is that I can never ask Mike what he was thinking. He died a year or two back from a brain tumor, and it is so hauntingly strange to think of his long lanky frame and friendly face turning to dust in the cold cold ground. Mike and I were never terribly close, but the world felt immediately altered when I learned that he was no longer in it.

It is never-endingly strange to me how these little broken-mirror shards we call memories can link up. I was reading a book the other night called The Best American Essays of the Century, specifically an essay titled “Illumination Rounds,” an account by Michael Herr of some time he spent in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969, when I came across a passage in which Herr and a fellow journalist were accosted, as they rode in an Army helicopter, by a member of the flight crew.

“You guys ought to do a story on me sumtahm, the kid said. He was a helicopter gunner, six-three with an enormous head that sat in bad proportion to the rest of his body and a line of picket teeth that were always on show in a wet, uneven smile….

“Why should we do a story about you?”

“‘Cause I’m so fuckin’ good,” he said, “‘n’ that ain’ no shit, neither. Got me one hunnert ‘n’ fifty-se’en gooks kilt. ‘N’ fifty caribou.” He grinned… “Them’re all certified,” he added.

“What’s that from?” I asked myself, and then I remembered the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket that contains almost exactly the same dialog, although it diverges from Herr’s account to include the fictional gunner taking laughing pride in shooting “men, women and children.” (“If they run, they’re VC. If they stand still, they’re well-trained VC.”) In the movie, the reporter leans forward and asks, straining to make himself heard over the roar of the helicopter’s rotors, how the gunner can shoot women and children. “Easy,” shouts the gunner, grinning widely. “You just don’t lead ’em as much.”

So I’d solved that, but, with the book now resting on my lap, my head back against the pillow and my eyelids heavy, I wondered whose voice I was hearing in my head, asking “what’s that from?” In a moment, though, it all came back to me, Tim’s stilted roaring voice and twinkling eyes, enjoying that joke more than anyone, and as my eyes closed I was transported to the alleys of D.C. on Tim’s last night before leaving for France, Mike an older, comforting presence whose absolute generosity of spirit and benevolence was implicit in his producing a fake I.D. just when we needed it, all of us walking along with our cigarettes cupped just right in our hands, back when it felt like everything I knew that was worth knowing came from movies and books and mysterious hints dropped by the cool kids far away down the hall, tempting to pick up and try on but easy – terrifyingly easy – to get wrong.

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