Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Memorable Birthday

For my seventh birthday, my mother decided to throw a party. I didn’t have too many friends, so she invited people she knew who brought their kids, most of whom were strangers.

The children’s party was held in the dining room while the parents socialized in the adjoining living room. The gifts, I remember, weren’t all that great. A belt, a tie, some socks, and a book on astronomy I was pretty sure I’d seen at someone else’s house a few months earlier.

The highlight of the kids’ evening was to be a showing of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which had come out earlier in the year and I hadn’t seen yet. One of my mother’s acquaintances was an amateur cineaste who’d somehow obtained a bootleg copy of the film.

After cake and obligatory singing, the man set up his projector to show the movie on a bare wall. We kids sat cross-legged on the floor. Babette, whom I was deeply attracted to, whispered, “I’ve seen it already. Wait until the little mushrooms come!”

When the man had finished threading the film through the various cogs and gears, he turned on the projector, made sure everything was working, then flicked the ceiling lights off and left the room.

We waited. The projector whirred and clicked. The cooling fan made a wooshing noise.

Without warning, a woman strode onto the screen, riding crop in one hand, wearing a military jacket with a swastika on it and a Nazi officer’s hat. She appeared not to have pants on. She faced the camera and took off the jacket. She was naked beneath it.

 There was a gasp shared by the viewers. Babette leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t remember this part.  And there’s supposed to be music.”

The woman stood, a nasty Nazi-ish sneering expression on her face. A man walked onto the set, a cartoon of a Frenchman complete with beret, striped shirt and baguette. He didn’t have any pants on either.

The woman looked at him with disdain, then barked something (this was a silent film) and hit him on the butt with the riding crop. A kid behind me said, “Ai! Ca ferait mal, ça!” I agreed; that must have hurt.

The woman walked around the man a couple of times as if inspecting a side of beef. She shouted at him and he took his shirt off but kept the beret. The same kid said, “Il resemble à mon papa!”

I didn’t know the kid’s dad so couldn’t tell if he really looked like the man on the screen. The Frenchman and the Nazi woman embraced; the camera followed them as they sank awkwardly to the floor. The man lay on top of the woman and his butt moved up and down. The woman’s mouth was a round O though really she looked sort of bored by the whole thing.

At this point, Babette said out loud, “I’m pretty sure this isn’t Fantasia!”   

No one else said anything; all eyes were glued to the scene on the wall.

The door opened a crack. My mother checking on the kids. It opened a bit more, then I heard her whisper, “Mon Dieu!”

She rushed the projector and tipped it over. The screen went black. A kid started crying, then another. The reels were dislodged and rolled around the room spewing 16 millimeter celluloid.  The filmmaker rushed in yelling “Quoi? Quoi?”

My mom started shouting at him as he frantically tried to rewind the film onto the reels. “Une erreur, madame! C’était une erreur!”

Kids ran out of the room and found their parents. One boy I knew slightly pocketed the present he’d brought, a cheapish cap gun. Within minutes, most of the parents had left. My mother supervised the cineaste as he gathered his equipment and bits of broken film strips. He kept muttering the same words, “Une erreur, madame! C’était une erreur!” She showed him and his wife to the door and slammed it shut after them.

Babette and I hadn’t moved. We’d both been entranced by the eruption of noise, falling equipment, yelling mother and wailing children. .We were still sitting on the floor and she said, “Ça, au moins, c’était amusant!”

I agreed. It was probably the best birthday party I’d ever attended.   





  1. Totally hilarious!! I want to see a book -- Growing up French...or something like that -- :)

  2. Actually, the book's already written...