(This is another assignment for school… an autobiographical essay. I chose a memory from my early years in the film industry. It was quite an adventure.)
My heart was pounding, and I was glad the courier was there to lie for me. He was a lanky guy in his 20s, who seemed comfortable breaking the law. I’d just met him for the first time that morning, and would never see him again after we arrived in Durango. We were changing planes in Mexico City, waiting to go through customs. It was the only place we expected to have problems. I had never done anything this illegal before in my life, and I was terrified. People scurried around us, and the high, glass ceiling caused the constant babble of voices to echo maddeningly. I wanted out. However, I had no other choice than to step up to the desk as the customs official called us forward.
Barely looking at us, the officer said, “Purpose of your visit?”
The courier responded casually, “We’re couriers.”
“What are you carrying?”
Two quick stamps on the paperwork, and we passed through.
The courier leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Told you. Piece of cake.”
I relaxed. This was going to work. Less than 24 hours earlier I’d been sitting in my roach-infested studio apartment in Hollywood when I’d gotten a phone call from my boss. I worked freelance for a teleprompting company, rolling words to be read by the rich and famous. There was a last minute job in Durango, Mexico with the comedic actor John Candy. None of the appropriate paperwork was filed. I was not legally allowed to work, so I was to lie and say I was simply delivering the equipment. One of the film’s couriers was taking raw film stock down, and would accompany me to bribe the officials if necessary. It was terrifying to agree to this job, but in the freelance world you rarely say ‘no.’ Those roaches needed a roof over their heads. Besides, I loved John Candy’s films: Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Splash, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. My college years were filled with laughter provided by John Candy. My roommate and I had watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles often, and loved to repeat entire scenes to each other. Scared or not, I was going to Mexico.
And sure enough, at midnight the next night I found myself standing in Durango’s tiny airport. I said goodbye to the courier, and was greeted by a man from the production company, an assistant to John if I remember right. As we drove in the darkness, the assistant and I made small talk about our jobs and the people we’d worked with. The blackness and scattered lights outside the van told me I was a long way from Los Angeles. He apologized for my accommodations, saying all the ‘good’ hotels had already been booked up by the production. The way he said ‘good’ scared me, and when I got to my room I saw my fear was accurate. The floor was bare cement, and the beds were thin mattresses laid on raised cement platforms. There was some sort of fungus in the shower stall. Sitting on my rock hard bed, it suddenly occurred to me that I was in another country illegally, the town was small enough that nobody spoke my language, and if the assistant didn’t reappear the next morning at 9 as promised, I was in a whole lot of trouble. I wondered how a Midwestern farm girl in her 20s had ended up in this situation. When I was drawn to the glamor of showbiz, this wasn’t at all what I had envisioned.
There was nothing to do other than go to bed and hope it all worked out in the morning. Suddenly I realized I had more immediate concerns. It was time to brush my teeth, and I had been warned not to drink the water. I had no idea if it was okay to even use tap water for my toothbrush. Since I couldn’t brush my teeth dry, I went in search of a vending machine. This was long before the days of bottled water, and I settled for a Diet Coke. I squeezed out some toothpaste, poured some Coke over it, and started to brush. Within seconds, the chemical reaction caused foam to fill my mouth. I couldn’t contain the bubbles, and they poured down my chin. Looking in the mirror, I giggled uncontrollably. I had no idea if my teeth were clean, but at least I wouldn’t be running for the porta-potty while on set the next day.
Thankfully, the assistant showed up on time, and in the light of day I felt better about my adventure. Finally, I could see my surroundings. We sat on a high plain with a beautiful mountain range in the distance. It was a perfect stand-in for the American West. The assistant drove me to the location where I set up my gear on a ridge above the action. They were shooting the movie Wagon’s East in the distance, and below me was the holding area for the spare horses and wagons. I noticed as the wranglers brought the horses back, they loosely draped the reins over a railing instead of tying them down. It seemed risky, but this was a professional movie set, and who was I to say anything.
Like flying and war, working on a film set is hours of boredom punctuated with brief moments of terror. Usually that terror involves trying to meet the demands of a screaming director. In this case, the terror came in the form of a scream from below me. I looked down to see one of the wagons was moving, and realized the horses had been spooked and had begun to run. Knowing everyone on set was in danger, the wranglers began to chase the out-of-control wagon. One man came alongside and leapt for the dangling reins. He caught them, and I watched in horror as he fell, was dragged under the wagon, and run over. I was sure I had just seen a man die, though later we learned he survived with two broken legs.
However, like any good film writer knows, you always follow a moment of tension with a moment of humor, and life did not let me down. Not long after they got the horses under control, it was finally time to do my job. We filmed the bit I was needed for, and then the assistant began to tell John Candy about me.
“John, you have no idea who you’ve been working with. She’s worked with all the presidents.”
I had only worked with Clinton and Reagan, so I blurted out, “Well, hardly all of them. I’m not that old.”
And then… John Candy laughed.
It wasn’t a great joke, but after becoming an international criminal, sleeping in what amounted to a jail cell, becoming rabid, and watching a man get run over by a wagon, his guffaw made everything all right. It was like a million butterflies were let loose in my soul, or if someone tickled every cell of my body with a feather. Inside, I bubbled. He had given me so much laughter, and I felt like I had repaid the debt, just a little.
Less than a month later, when I was safely back in Los Angeles, I heard John died down in Mexico in his sleep. Wagon’s East would be his last film. The loss of his humor was devastating, but I am so grateful he will live with me forever in my memories—standing on a ridge, and sharing a laugh under a bright Mexican sun.