Recollections of the Younger Damon
When I was seven years old and Damon was eleven, our mother remarried and we were sent on an airplane to Aunt Lucy's house for the honeymoon period. And one day I was being contrary and I refused to get in the car to go to town. Aunt Lucy didn't have children, so she didn't know she should have just said, firmly, "Get in the car." Damon said, "I'll take care of it," and he went wherever I was and closed the door. After ten very quiet minutes, I came out with a big smile on my face and got in the car. Aunt Lucy said, "What did you say to make her change her mind?" Damon said, "It was easy. I just bored her into it." That may have been the only time Damon was boring in my presence.
Most of the time we were just bratty to each other or we played together. There was a game called "Ships" that involved pushing empty wooden poker chip holders manned by Easter rabbit candles around the living room carpet and under the furniture. Now that sounds boring, but it wasn't because Damon was relating the adventures and those bunnies had a fine time playing tricks on each other on the high seas.
We lived in a little town called Westerville on a red brick street with an athletic field at the end. Pretty idyllic. You were very much in control of your local destiny. You could walk to your friend's house or bike to the community pool. The only hard and fast rule was you had to be home for dinner at 6:00 exactly. However, we were the only kids we knew who were allowed to eat dinner in the living room on Wednesday nights when "Disneyland" was on. Later, when I believe the show had become "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" and moved to Sundays, there was a special broadcast of highlights of the new animated "Sleeping Beauty" and it was simulcast on the radio so you got the real stereo effect of the bird twittering to the left of the screen and then flying to the right and twittering some more. Damon was beside himself with the wonder of the new technology. Stereophonic sound. Walt Disney was a fucking genius.
And then we grew up. People in Westerville were shocked that Mom sent us off in a car for an overnight drive to New York City where Damon had a summer job for a relative and I would visit friends on Long Island. It's true, we did look every bit like teenage runaways. We had a note though, signed by my mom. It said, "Damon Rarey and Courtney Flavin have my permission to travel together by car. Sincerely, Betty Lou Kratoville." I was petrified we might actually have to show it to a hotel clerk, but I guess they didn't get many teenage runaways asking for twin beds.
Not long before he died, Damon reminded me that while we were on the road Hemingway committed suicide. Damon read me the headline at a newstand. I must have thought "Oh, interesting. Who's Hemingway?" But I should have known because I spent a lot of time sneaking up to Damon's room on the third floor to look at his books. I didn't know what to make of "Tropic of Cancer," so I stuck to "Mad" magazine. When he went off to Yale, I didn't have to sneak anymore.
I believe Damon was the first person from Westerville to apply to an Ivy League school, much less be accepted, and it was so cool. And then he quit. He worked with disadvantaged kids and fought with the draft board who wanted to take away his student deferment, and just when they were about to do it, he found out that he was permanently deferred because he was the sole surviving son of a veteran killed in World War II. We thought that was it for him and college, but he returned to Yale, considering that his father had just handed him his life and he should do something with it.
So when I wanted to quit college, I'm sure Mom wrote to Damon and said, "Talk her out of it." But he didn't. He said if I was in a place I didn't like, there was a book I should read. I ignored my upcoming finals and read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He also said if I couldn't think of anything else to do, I could come up to New Haven and hang out with him. So that's what I did. I was going to try to work with disadvantaged kids the way he had, but I ended up selling ties at the Yale Co-op. Still it was a good year. He had great roommates and there was a lot of dope around, so it was smoke grass and go to the movies or listen to "The Doors" and watch Reebie's light machine. Damon gave me some lifelong advice at the time. He said, "when you live communally, make sure you find one food that nobody likes and keep it in stock." In his case it was Velveeta cheese food, which if you were from Westerville, you didn't have to be high to like.
In the spring I went with him and Connie, his fiancee, to the first Yale Film Festival. He had entered his animated film "Never Be Lazy" and it did not appear on the schedule the first night, but all sorts of other inspiring films did. Really inspiring. It did not appear on the second night, but all sorts of spectacularly uninteresting films did. It appeared on the third night and we were so relieved it almost didn't matter that people liked it, but they did.
The thing about hanging out with Damon at that time was that if you had been raised with a limited outlook, you started thinking about the possibility of leading a creative life. Not only that you could lead a creative life, but you wanted to. For me it was maybe trying to do something with film. I didn't try it for many years, but I wonder if I would tried at all without that year in New Haven and subsequent years with his first family in Albany, Berkeley, and Oakland. It seemed like I was always arriving on their doorstep, ready to change my life. I would be so broke, and they would be so broke, and it was so much fun. I lived communally with them and a lot of people, and we ate really well -- but now that I think about it, never Velveeta.
And now I live in Los Angeles and on Wednesday afternoons I teach photography to inner city kids. It only took me 35 years to get there, but for that -- and for every other life changing idea or person you brought into my life -- thank you, Damon.
January 16, 2003