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Eighteen Minutes in 1977


0:00-2:00   

The first thing we see, in that blurred mud-and-algae color palette of so much film stock from the 1970s, is a boy in the woods feeding several deer through a chicken-wire fence. He appears to be thirteen or fourteen years old. While they eat from his palm, he talks lovingly to them. A park ranger drives up and invites the boy, whom he clearly sees regularly, to come in to help him feed the bevy. He also tells the boy that he’s recommended him for the summer youth program. The boy, who’s clearly happy to hear this news, will be the ranger’s helper. While they empty buckets of feed into troughs, the film’s credits appear. Meanwhile, a mournful flute begins to play.

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If you still log in to Facebook occasionally, there’s a good chance you’re close to my age. And if you’re close to my age, there’s a good chance you have at least a dozen Facebook friends you haven’t seen in person since that June day long ago when you and everyone else ignored the principal’s warnings not to fling your mortarboard high into the air at the end of high school graduation because someone might catch a corner in the eye. There’s also a good chance, I would wager, that several of these Facebook friends never post anything but memes—just memes and memes and memes. And if this is indeed the case, then you’ve probably seen this meme at least a dozen times: a photo of a film projector on a wheeled cart accompanied by this poorly worded text: Back in the day, when you walked into class and saw this, it was gonna be a good day.

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2:00-2:45

Cut to a shot of three boys in the concrete world of a city. They push one grocery cart into a car and another down a flight of stairs. They start a fire in a trashcan and then run away as a firetruck approaches. They let the air out of car tires. Having a great time, they laugh throughout. One of these boys is the boy who likes deer. He breaks a window with a rock. With a can of spray paint, he then adds more graffiti to a graffitied wall. In red, he writes JASON.

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For the most part, I’ve grown immune to the pandering sentimentality of so much that now targets my generation, Generation X, but the first time I saw this projector meme, I have to confess that it hit me right in the feels (as the internet once desperately wanted me to say). Immediately I was taken back to elementary school, a time I rarely think about much anymore, especially now that even my children’s own elementary school days have come to seem like the distant past. It took me back to blunt-tip scissors, cursive practice on slightly furry grayish paper, and that prized box of sixty-four crayons, the one that came with a sharpener that didn’t meet my high standards for crayon maintenance. In other words, for a few seconds, I forgot about interest rates and house repairs and medical appointments needing to be scheduled. For a few seconds, I was a third grader again.

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2:45-5:00

Cut to a shot of the same three boys sitting in the back of a classroom, playing cards. Their teacher, a meek-seeming man, asks Jason about his missing homework. Jason says that he didn’t have time to finish it, even though he’d been given a week. The teacher then talks to the entire class about some recent instances of vandalism at the school—film projector stolen, windows in the gymnasium broken, air let out of the tires of the cars in the parking lot during parent-teacher conferences. Jason and his two friends do a poor job of suppressing their amusement. In reaction to their laughter, the teacher asks Jason to put himself “in someone else’s place for a change” and consider what he might do if the air were let out of his tires. Jason says, “I guess I’d hitchhike.” Everyone laughs except the teacher, looking weary. Behind him on the wall are unsmiling portraits of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and e. e. cummings.

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Hearing the distinctive clunk-rattle of the cart’s wheels as they bumped over the rubber threshold strip of the classroom doorway was always a thrill because it meant we were being rescued from the dull clutches of learning. At the time, I always assumed that its unexpected entrance was due to how deserving of reward our class had recently been, but now I know what must’ve been the truth most of the time: our teacher had simply had enough of us and needed at least an hour of darkness and relative quiet. A film projector temporarily freed her (and, yes, it was always a her) to sit at her desk and do absolutely nothing but listen for the slap slap slap of the end of the reel.

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5:00-5:30

Cut to a shot of Jason lying on his bed, eating a piece of fried chicken, and listening to generic rock music through massive orange headphones.

Cut to a shot of Jason feeding deer through the wire fence again. Once again, he talks lovingly to them as they eat from his palm. The mournful flute has returned to haunt the scene.

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Sometimes the films in those battered silver canisters were actually movies we’d already seen on TV, like Swiss Family Robinson or The Apple Dumpling Gang, but mostly they were archaic nature films with stilted voiceovers—beavers building dams, bears emerging from hibernation—or even more archaic films with even more stilted voiceovers about the good manners and etiquette of boys and girls from the Eisenhower era. Not that it mattered to me. I didn’t discriminate. I loved every film heartily and equally, even when I actually hated what was being shown. All I really cared about was that the bulb not burn out, because that would mean a return to the overhead lights and more learning. Even now, all these years later, I can still hear the warm, clattering hum of those machines as they unspooled and spooled in the classroom darkness. What a wonderful sound that was—until the day it wasn’t.

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6:00-8:45

Cut to a shot of Jason’s teacher proudly holding up a first edition of an e. e. cummings book, which the poet “personally autographed” for him. He then reads “in Just-” in rapturous appreciation. After being woken by his teacher, Jason mocks a girl who made an appreciative comment about the poem. One of Jason’s two friends then tapes a note to the back of their teacher’s jacket while he’s writing “mud-luscious” on the chalkboard. After the teacher discovers it, he sends the trio to the office, but not before telling them that they’ve failed for the year and will have to take summer school.

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I don’t remember which of my teachers showed it to us, the movie I’ve begun describing minute by minute here, but one of them did, and as is the case with everything that stays with you forever, I was never quite the same afterwards. Maybe it was the stern but nice Ms. Hunsaker, who relentlessly drilled my class until we had all learned our multiplication tables. She was missing the last section of a pinky finger, which I found hypnotic in its strangeness. Or maybe it was the stern (and only stern) Ms. Wilson, who once got so mad at my friend Mike, the biggest kid in the third grade, that she slammed him against a wall much more violently than, even then, I knew was right. Regardless, I forgive whichever one it was because, undoubtedly, she knew nothing about what she was going to show us. All she knew was that it had received the school district’s approval, otherwise it wouldn’t have been sent along with all the other reels, the ones that showed us what the inside of a beaver’s dam looked like, the ones that showed us how Phil was doing his best not to be mistaken for that ill-mannered agent of chaos, Mr. Bungle.

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8:45-9:15

Cut to a shot of Jason dejectedly kicking at rocks as he walks home from school by himself. Once inside the house, he finds a note left on the refrigerator by his mother; she won’t be home until after dinner. He angrily crushes the note and then angrily throws it to the ground. He angrily opens the refrigerator door and then angrily slams it shut. 

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For more than forty years I didn’t know the name of this movie. For more than forty years, all I had to work with were my limited memories from the one time I’d seen it. Occasionally, usually at a party where my fellow Gen-Xers and I found ourselves drunkenly immersed in a shared nostalgia for such things as avocado-green and harvest-gold kitchen appliances, the extravagance of Swanson TV dinners, and the impressive stretching ability of kitchen phone cords (again, usually avocado-green or harvest-gold), I’d describe what I could remember, hoping to trigger someone’s recollection so that we then could burrow into it together, but nobody I ever encountered could recall having seen anything like the movie I described, especially its ending. Continuing to remain alone in my experience, I started to wonder if maybe I’d never actually seen what I thought I’d seen. How accurate could I expect my memories that old to be, anyway?

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9:15-11:15

Cut to a shot of the three boys entering the woods. They come to the deer enclosure seen earlier. Jason’s two friends want to climb the fence, but he doesn’t want to. It’s clear that he doesn’t like how his separate worlds have come together, but after his friends climb the fence, he joins them begrudgingly. His friends immediately begin chasing the deer and throwing rocks at them, and Jason tells them to cut it out, but they don’t stop until one of them finds a shed. They decide they’ll break into it. Jason tells them there’s nothing there, but this doesn’t stop them. Inside, they find burlap bags of deer feed. Jason pulls his friends out and threatens them with a pitchfork, but only playfully. “That’s what you ought to do to Mason,” one of his friends says. “I’ll show you what I’ll do to Mason,” Jason says, and then he angrily stabs the bags of feed over and over and over, spilling their contents everywhere. When they hear someone coming, they run off, leaving both the door open and us thinking about how the teacher’s name must be Mason. We’re also left thinking about what we saw only briefly at 10:41 and 10:46: a box of poison, spilled.

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After the internet and then Google came along, some impulse or another would compel me every couple of years to search a few carefully chosen phrases in the hopes that something might pop up to validate my memories, but nothing ever did—at least not until recently, when I ran across something written fourteen years ago. Only the almighty algorithms know why I hadn’t run across it earlier. On a since-abandoned blog, a guy named Bill posted about a film he remembered seeing in the late seventies, one that he as well “never forgot.” But unlike me, not only did Bill know the name of it, he even had screenshots. It was called The Boy Who Liked Deer, and the fuzzy photos he shared from it took me right back to Northlake Elementary.

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11:15-16:15

Cut to a shot of the three boys breaking into their empty school. In their teacher’s room, Jason stands behind Mr. Mason’s desk and pretends to be him. In a pompous, affected voice, he reads “in Just-” from the autographed first edition. His friends jeer and throw books at him in response. All three laugh. Jason then tears a handful of pages from the book and tosses them into the air.

Cut to a shot of a station wagon pulling up to the school.

Cut to a shot of the boys now destroying the classroom: ripping posters from the walls, dumping the contents of the trashcan onto the floor, throwing potted plants at the pictures of the esteemed poets. Jason’s friends then hear someone coming. They run off, but because Jason has to circle back to retrieve his jacket, he’s forced to hide behind a magazine rack as someone draws close. Mr. Mason walks into his classroom. He’s in shock at the sight. When he notices his desecrated book, he cradles it like a dead child and weeps. Jason, pained by this sight, can’t watch. He closes his eyes.

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The Boy Who Liked Deer was an eighteen-minute film made in 1975 for elementary and junior-high-school audiences. According to the website for the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, the film, which had been made by the Learning Corporation of America, “shows how a boy who routinely commits acts of vandalism comes to realize the consequences of his actions.” In other words, it was propaganda meant to mitigate, one American classroom at a time, the urban blight of the era that had brought us both the Cuyahoga River fire just southeast of Cleveland and the Keep America Beautiful “Crying Indian” commercial, the one that famously zooms in on a single, heartbroken tear shed by befeathered Iron Eyes Cody—an Italian-American actor who made a career for himself portraying Native Americans—as he stares out at the polluted state of a land that we understand was once loved and cared for by his people.

Now armed with a title, I quickly clicked over to YouTube, and there it was, all ready for me to watch for the first time in forty-five years.

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16:15-end

Cut to a shot of Jason sitting forlornly on his bed, staring into the middle distance.

            Cut to a shot of Jason now walking by himself through the woods. When he reaches the deer enclosure, he sees the park ranger dragging a deer by its legs toward his truck. Other deer are lying on their sides nearby, completely still. Still other deer are grunting and bellowing in what sounds like agony. The look on Jason’s face is one of horror and dismay. The ranger tells him that “some damn kids broke into the shed and spilled rat poison in the feed.” He asks Jason for help, but Jason runs away through the woods, ignoring the calls after him. The last shot of the film, which is a full twenty seconds long, is a closeup of Jason’s face as he leans out of breath against a tree, crying. The mournful flute returns to play until the screen darkens to black.

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I’m sure that the Learning Corporation of America intended for screenings to be followed by thoughtful teacher-led class discussions about such things as personal responsibility, civic pride, and private property, but that wouldn’t have happened in my class. Throughout elementary school, no effort was ever made to integrate any of the films we were shown with any of our instruction; each existed in an entirely separate realm. In fact, our teacher (whichever one it was), enjoying her respite from us, might not have even noticed how The Boy Who Liked Deer ended in a massacre or taken note of the doleful flute. Once the reel’s end—slap slap slap—caught her attention, she probably followed it with something like A Day in the Life of a Dollar Bill and then returned to her daydreams for just a little bit longer, leaving us to contend alone with the lesson we were meant to learn from what we’d just been shown.

But what was the lesson? If you break the law, death will come for the things you love? If so, the lesson failed, as Jason’s crimes made no impression on me—only his punishment did. No memories of the graffiti, the fire-starting, the tire-deflating, or the classroom-destroying stayed with me. I had even forgotten about how it was that the deer ended up getting poisoned. All that stayed with me through the rest of my life was the dead deer being dragged through the dirt by their legs, the dying deer’s moans, and Jason’s terrible sobbing; these things have been embedded deep inside of me now for forty-five years. Watching it again now, I can understand why. There’s no filmic trickery. The deer are real. And the dead ones lying on their sides, glassy-eyed, appear to be genuinely dead. Meanwhile, the dying ones shown in invasive close-ups look and sound as if they’re truly in pain. So, to what lengths did the filmmakers go to achieve this realism? Actual rat poison? The possibility doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you consider that a water buffalo was slaughtered with a machete during the slow-motion climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now four years later.

            Three years before The Boy Who Liked Deer, The Doberman Gang was the first film to receive certification from American Humane (not to be confused with The Humane Society) that no animals were harmed in its production. The Boy Who Liked Deer includes no such certification in its end credits. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that, in fact, no deer  were harmed. All would have died by the time I graduated from high school. Some of them were probably even already dead by the time I saw them projected against my third-grade wall two years later. This is because, on average, whitetail deer only live for about five years. Nevertheless, despite this relatively short lifespan, there are a hundred times more deer alive now than there were a hundred years ago. This exponential growth in population has led to billions of dollars of crop damage over the years, as well as more than a million car accidents annually, nearly two hundred of which are fatal.

            I suppose this is just to say that, despite my horrified reaction to the ending of The Boy Who Liked Deer, the filmmakers could have, reasonably enough, at least from a certain perspective, ended the lives of a few of them in order to achieve their desired goal, which was to persuade children not to vandalize property by appealing to their yet-to-be-diminished loving natures as well as to their inherent gentleness. After all, deer are vandals, too (the herbivorous sort), and for too long there have been too many of them for a healthy ecosystem to sustain, so what was the big deal, right? But as my adult self watched Jason crying at the end of The Boy Who Liked Deer, I felt the sickening ache I remembered from then all over again, and I thought about how cruel this had been back in 1977. After all, eight-year-old me knew nothing about deer overpopulation. All I knew then was that I, too, wanted to feed deer; I, too, wanted to feel their warm noses nuzzle my palm while they ate, and I had never even as much as scratched my name into my desk, much less spraypainted it on the wall of a building, so why punish timid, obedient children like me in order to teach us a lesson that none of us—including the less timid, less obedient among us—really needed to be taught?

Unable to recall exactly what my very timid, very obedient self looked like at eight years old, I dug through dusty photo albums until I finally found my class picture from third grade, faithfully preserved under yellowing plastic by my mother. There I am in the second row from the top—painfully skinny, with a haircut like Moe Howard’s. My mouth hangs dopily open, full of enormous buck teeth. I’m wearing my coveted orange T-shirt with an iron-on transfer of two Jawas (Star Wars had come out the summer before), undoubtedly wanting to preserve it forever in a photograph. I scanned the rest of the class. Of the twenty-seven students lined up with me on the carpeted steps of the lunchroom stage, only three ended up at my high school. And of those three, only one was a Facebook friend. She’s standing behind me. The camera caught her with her eyes closed. Though our interactions since the late 1980s haven’t involved anything more than occasionally liking each other’s sporadically posted photos over the last ten years, I send her a message.

She doesn’t remember The Boy Who Liked Deer, but she does remember our class gathered at Mrs. Wilson’s feet as she read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows to us. Though I thought this took place the following year, I distinctly remember this, too, especially struggling not to cry when Billy’s beloved hounds, Old Dan and Little Ann, die. Old Dan is killed by a mountain lion—disemboweled in gory fashion, in fact. Little Ann dies of grief a few days later, lying on top of Old Dan’s grave. Then, to make Billy’s pain even worse, his father tells him that their deaths were a sign from God for Billy to accompany the rest of the family on a move to the city instead of doing what he was planning to do, which was staying on the farm with Grandpa and the dogs. In other words, Billy, like Jason, needed to understand that innocent animals died because of their selfish thoughtlessness.    

Why do this to us? To toughen us up? To teach us that the world takes pleasure in inflicting pain on the innocent? Where are the nostalgic memes commemorating this, too?

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I look up The Boy Who Liked Deer on the Internet Movie Database. It’s the only entry listed for the young actor who played Jason, Chuck Willen. After a bit of a search, I track down the Chuck Willen I think is the one I want—on Facebook, of course. His profile picture, an older but vaguely familiar face, is smiling as if he’d been waiting all this time for me to find him. Unfortunately, he’s only posted twice in nine years, so I don’t have much confidence that I’ll get a response when I send him a message: “Are you the Chuck Willen who was in The Boy Who Liked Deer in 1975? If you are, I’d be interested in asking you a few questions.”

            Shockingly, I hear back from him two days later. He says that he’d be glad to answer any questions I have. In truth, I only have one question: What about the deer? Chuck says that they were given tranquilizers, and that it took a long time for them to fall unconscious. What about those awful sounds? I ask. Were they added, or were they real? They were real, Chuck says. Though not exactly put at ease by this second answer, I am relieved to hear that the deer experienced nothing more serious than a heavy sleep. But why does this still matter so much to me? Why does it matter that the deer didn’t die then but later, many of them probably in a much more horrible fashion? The answer is that it doesn’t—it doesn’t matter, not really. But the answer is also that it must matter, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting in the dark of my backyard, writing about this on my laptop at 8:56 on the evening of July 8, 2023, instead of enjoying the fireflies that have just emerged from the dusk-darkened trees to flicker at me. 

            Chuck Willen never acted again. I’d like to think that this was because of what he’d witnessed the deer going through for the sake of an eighteen-minute movie meant to scar schoolchildren so that they would behave, but I don’t ask if this were the case. Instead, I ask him about his life now. He’s sixty-one, an insurance adjuster, and the father of three children. He lives in Florida. And though he doesn’t tell me this himself, I also know through my sleuthing that he has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I have a hard time assimilating all of these details with the Jason at the end of the film, the one crying against a tree, the one I always knew was the real Jason, not the one who destroyed things. Despite his best efforts to toughen himself up in the eyes of his friends, Mr. Mason, and even himself, the real Jason was simply too good-hearted to be allowed to survive unscathed. And he has to run away from the ranger so that his real self’s tears won’t be seen. They’re the same tears that, in third grade, I’d already learned that I couldn’t let anyone see, especially not in reaction to something as silly as a movie.  

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Watching The Boy Who Liked Deer as an adult, something else affects me almost as much as the deer poisoning, something that I have no memory of because it didn’t affect me when I was in third grade: the teacher’s grief. Having been an English professor for going on twenty-five years now, I know well what it feels like to try to affect disaffected students with literature that I want them to fall in love with as much as I once did. When Mr. Mason reads “in Just-,” I recognize the joy and awe in his face because I have felt that same joy and awe. In fact, I, too, have read “in Just-” aloud to my class, and I, too, have talked about the lovely perfection of the word “mud-luscious.” And while I don’t own cummings’s Tulips and Chimneys (1923), the collection in which “in Just-” first appeared, I can imagine what the destruction of a book addressed to me by one of my own favorite poets (James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, perhaps?) would feel like. It would feel like a death.

            And Jason, witnessing Mr. Mason’s secret tears from behind the magazine stand, instantly regrets what he has done. In his teacher’s grieving, he sees his own heart—his own hidden deer-loving heart. We know this because he literally cannot watch. With an anguished look on his face, he shuts his eyes to block out the sight. He knows now how much his actions have hurt another. He has “finally put himself in someone else’s place for a change,” you might say. He has seen the error of his ways. But this isn’t enough of a lesson, apparently. Newfound empathy is great and all, but poison was spilled; therefore, punishments need to be imposed—both to him and to us. His comes because of what he’s done; ours comes because, apparently, everyone deserves to feel in advance the pain that bad choices will certainly inflict, even if we haven’t yet made those bad choices or possibly ever would.


 

Kevin Grauke has published work in such places as The Threepenny ReviewThe Southern ReviewStoryQuarterlyFiction, and Quarterly West. He is also the author of Shadows of Men (Queen's Ferry), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. He’s a Contributing Editor at Story, and he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. 

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