A Coming of Age Story

If in the 1960s there were parents who embraced the notion of “time out,” Larry and Mona Keenan were not among them. Of their five children, most of the corporal punishment was reserved for my older sister Kate. She had a fondness for all things big—dreams, hair and boyfriends and she tested my parents routinely.

It was 1969 and Kate had just started her freshman year at Great Bend High School.

The lid blew one Saturday evening when Kate blurted the F-word. What compounded the transgression was that her bold display occurred in front of my baby sister Beth.

Punishment was swift and certain, meted out by Larry and Mona. Ever seen a spanking delivered to someone in can-sized curlers in the middle of eyeliner application? Few have. My brothers and I watched the scene unfold from a safe position, behind the couch, with a direct sightline down the hallway as it played out in front of her bedroom.

That year—1969—the world was falling apart and parents everywhere were trying to hold the line. How we spoke around the house was one place my parents were winning the battle.

“Please,” “thank you,” “yes,” “no.” The Dominican Nuns at St. Patrick’s school were worthy allies on this endeavor.

“Don’t say that! Can’t died a long time ago,” Sister Mary Rose would tell us. No one dared say “ain’t.” One of my mom’s peculiarities was no one had “boyfriends” or “girlfriends.” What they had were “special friends.” This symbolism had zero relevance to the big-haired one.

And there was separation. We never did anything together except ride in the car and eat meals as one.

photo courtesy garymackender.com

So one evening over dinner Larry declared we were going to a movie together. His choice? “Patton.” The year was 1971—it had won Best Picture, and was rah-rah at a time when others were burning flags. Plus Dad was a Korean veteran. That part made sense.

What he announced next did not—we were going to see the film at the Great Bend Drive-In. The Drive-In was home to movies that were not in my parent’s wheelhouse. Its screen list was not familiar to Walt Disney—e.g. “The Exorcist,” “Hell’s Angels on Wheels,” “Easy Rider,” “Walking Tall,” and slasher movies—e.g. “The Last House on the Left” (“to avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.’”)

We knew the Drive-In offerings. For one year we lived in a duplex adjacent to it and were able to sneak peeks at the summer fair. No audio was necessary.

And so it happened. The Keenan clan climbed into the Chrysler station wagon with pillows, blankets and sodas and headed off to the west side of town. This was a Five-Star, Red-Letter Day that I remember very distinctly. We arrived, hung the heavy metal speaker on Dad’s window, and the movie started. With five of us in the last two rows of seats, we maneuvered our view around Mom’s hair, which had a silo-like appearance to it.

The opening scene of “Patton” with George C. Scott delivering a narration remains iconic. It got better from there. It had an adult, mature feel to it. And we were soaking it all in. Critics would later describe the movie as one of the best, if not the best, war films ever made.

But the dialogue was very “adult.” In one scene, George C. Scott told his troops about the German soldier: “We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose!” There was more adult vocabulary, including Patton’s exchange with a clergyman that no doubt made Larry’s chest hair stand and salute.

We giggled, guffawed and were mesmerized by it all. Larry did not flinch. Patton was a war hero, beat the Germans and could do no wrong. A little salty language? Apparently Larry approved. The scene where Patton slapped a crying soldier? War is hell.

The Keenan brothers, ages 11, 12 and 14 had come of age. It was also the closest Dad ever came to endorsing any deviation from the code.
We got home and I recall telling Mom, “Patton was a real hero, Mom. My hero!”

Mom smiled. I was safe. I followed the rules. I wasn’t Kate.

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