Read an Excerpt
THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING
My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life
By Gavin MacLeod, Mark Dagostino
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Gavin MacLeod
All rights reserved.
I knew it when I was four years old.
I don't think I had ever seen a play, let alone been in one. I'm not sure I knew what a play really was. Yet somehow, when my preschool teacher cast me as the lead boy in our Mother's Day show, it felt as if my whole short life had been leading to that very moment. I knew what to do. I gave it my all. I hammed it up as I went around and asked all the little animals in the forest, "What should I give to my mother for Mother's Day?" When the largest boy in class, who was of course playing a bear, told me I should give my mom a "bear hug" for a present, I went back and gave the girl who played my mom a big ol' bear hug on that humble stage, and the real moms and dads all went, "Awwww."
All of us kids took a bow at the end and, lucky me, I was the last one to go out there. That's when I felt that sound for the very first time: applause.
I think a lot of actors understand that sound—a sound that resonates from your ears to your heart, right down to your toes. That sound says, Somebody likes me. It's full of a sort of love that many actors don't experience anywhere else.
The first time I heard that applause, man, that was it. I was hooked! Whenever I had to write a composition about what I wanted to do with my life, all through school, I wrote that I wanted to be an actor. Whenever there was any sort of community theater happening, or any opportunity to get on stage at Sunday school or anywhere else, I was there: this chubby kid who wanted to act.
My mother supported all my artistic endeavors as a child. I think she liked getting credit for making such a cute kid. In fact, one time she entered my photo in the New York Daily Mirror's "Charming Child Contest"—a picture of me with round cheeks, blue eyes, and curly blond hair—and I won! My little brother was mad. Ronnie ripped up that photo when he saw it. But my mom taped it back together and kept it for the rest of her life. A mom's gotta be pretty proud of her son to do something like that.
My dad? Well, let's just say he had other ideas about what any son of his ought to be doing with his life.
I was born Allan George See on February 28, 1931, in a hospital in Mount Kisco, New York. (I realize "Allan See" isn't the name you see on the front of this book, so I'll tell you about my name change in a little while.)
My mother, Margaret, and my father, George See, raised my younger brother, Ronnie, and me in the nearby town of Pleasantville, which is situated about thirty miles north of New York City. Among other things, Pleasantville was the home of Readers' Digest. My mother worked for Mr. Wallace, the founder, before I was born. There were only four or five girls in the office back then. None of them had cars—they all had to walk to work. For some reason, Mr. Wallace would always pick my mother up and drive her in—something she would speak of proudly for the rest of her life. It's incredible to me to think of the potential career she gave up in order to stay home and raise her two boys.
Not only were my younger years spent in the depths of the Great Depression, which of course were followed by the trying times of World War II, but we lived on what most people would consider the "other side" of the railroad tracks that split Pleasantville in half. By the time the war came around, my father ran a gas station that he owned with another guy. He had worked his way up from being an attendant, and I'd go over there on my scooter just to get a chance to see him. He worked all the time, and he'd put me to work, too, which I loved. I'd get to help clean up the joint, or he'd hand me a little whisk-broom and send me out to sweep the interiors of the customers' cars—including the back of the local funeral parlor's hearse when it pulled up to the pumps. I'd climb right up inside the back of that big, cool-looking car and get it clean as a whistle. It was great! I felt like a little man.
Ronnie, who is two years younger than me, used to come along too. I remember one time he got his hand stuck in the nickel candy machine. He was so eager to get his candy bar, he couldn't wait and reached his whole arm up into the slot. Boy, was my dad mad. He couldn't get the machine open, so he had to call the distributor, who lived all the way down in Yonkers. We each took turns holding up Ronnie's arm for an hour until the guy arrived. The man was nice enough to give him the candy bar once the ordeal was over, though, so it had a happy ending.
My dad did a lot of side jobs too. He was always trying to make some money. Especially since so many of his customers would fill up their tanks, promise to "pay him next week," and then never make a payment. I have memories of going around to some of their houses with my father, knocking on doors as he humbly asked them to pay up. Sometimes they did. Many times they didn't. Those were hard times for everybody.
I remember putting cardboard in my shoes because they had holes in the bottom. That's how broke we were. I had to share a bed with my brother while my mom's brother, my uncle Jimmy, crashed on a bed on the other side of the room in order to help my parents with the rent on our cramped railroad-style apartment. Uncle Jimmy would live there for a few years, until he got married and moved into his own place. Our bedroom was all the way at one end, and we had to walk through my parents' bedroom to get to the bathroom and out to the kitchen and the living room and the front door. But we were rich with love. My grandparents on my mother's side always bought new clothes for us at Easter, and my uncle Al—the world traveler—would sometimes come and whisk Ronnie and me off for a day in Manhattan. So I didn't feel sorry for myself. Not at all. I think we had it better than a lot of people.
Given my physique in those days, it's clear that I wasn't lacking for food. My mom showed her love through cooking, and all the old ladies in the neighborhood thought I was just so cute, they'd stuff me full of cookies and pastries every chance they got. I developed the nickname "Tubber." (Ronnie would follow the same fate and become "Tubber-Two!") I looked nothing like my dad, who was tall and fit. He towered over my five-foot-tall Irish mother, even when she stood on a step in photographs so she wouldn't seem so tiny next to him. He also had a ruddy complexion from working outside all the time.
I didn't really like working outside. I didn't really like hanging out at the gas station, to be honest, other than to see my dad. My friends' parents were doctors and lawyers and other professional people who lived in the nice houses across the tracks. I found those people more interesting and comfortable to hang around than a lot of my dad's gruff friends. In a way, I think he thought of me as the black sheep of the family. Almost as if he never really understood me.
The thing is, in addition to being an incredibly hard worker, my dad was an incredibly popular guy. Everyone loved him. Everywhere we went people said hello. He had friends all over town. I think he inherited some of that likability from his father, my grandfather See, who at one point had a big, beautiful house. Lots of people told me that my grandfather could've been mayor at one time, which I thought was just spectacular. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. I think my father inherited something besides charm from my grandfather too—something much less pleasant.
The day I'd get to see the most of my dad was on Sundays, after church and Sunday school were over. Our mom raised us Catholic, and she took us to mass at Holy Innocence Church, followed by Sunday school with the nuns, which was fun because they had a bowling alley and a stage where we'd get to watch minstrel shows. Dad was raised Episcopalian, so he wouldn't come with us. He would go to his own church. Or not. "Some of those people who go to church every Sunday, what do you think they were doing the night before?" he'd say. He had that attitude toward church. (The ironic thing is that his brother, Al, was just the opposite. He was a lay minister at my dad's church. He would go out in robes and assist the priests. Eventually Al even had his own church upstate. Two brothers. How different they were!)
Out of my mother's five siblings, she was the only one who went to church. We sat in the wooden pews, sometimes upstairs, listening to Father O'Toole, a big man with white hair who was so godly looking, and Father O'Dwyer, who used to play ball with us boys in the fields. Like most kids, I only went to church because my mother made me go. But there were parts of it that I got into, because it was so significant. Learning about the stations of the cross, for example. The God they spoke of in that church, in those days, was a God we should fear. I wasn't a bad kid, but I remember how much I always wanted to do the right thing, in part because God was watching over me and I didn't want to make him mad! In fact, I wanted to do the right thing so badly I'd wind up fibbing when I went to confession. The priests and nuns told us we had to confess our sins, and what did I know? I was a little kid! I was so scared about the whole thing, I'd make something up. "Father, bless me, for I have sinned. I disobeyed my parents six times this week." I hadn't disobeyed my parents at all, but I was actually sinning by fibbing about confessing to sinning! And then I'd feel guilty about that!
Finally, after it was all done, the four of us would come together as a family. Sometimes we would gather at my great-grandmother's house, where I'd sit on the floor and draw pictures while the adults had their conversations. Or I'd go down to the room where they kept their big Victrola and listen to records or the radio. There was always entertainment there, and I could lose myself in those sounds for hours.
The best days, though, were the days when the four of us would pile into the car and take a long Sunday drive.
With all the fights about money and the stress my dad was under, those Sunday drives were the moments when I saw the love that existed between my parents. I can still smell the fresh spring air and picture my dad leaning over and singing to my mom as he drove: "When your hair has turned to silver, I will love you just the same." It was my mother's favorite song. "Peg of my heart, I love you," he'd say. He was the only one my mother ever allowed to call her "Peg."
Eventually my parents would stop the car at a little place up in Chappaqua and treat my brother and me to a hot dog. Wow. Ron will tell you the same thing: to this day, there's something about eating a hot dog that brings back such happy memories. Somehow the smell and the flavor and the sensation of biting into a hot dog bring a feeling of those childhood Sunday drives. I knew that hot dog was all my parents could afford, and it was such a treat.
I longed for that peaceful Sunday feeling all the time as a kid. I liked things simple. Pleasant. But life wasn't like that, even in a place called Pleasantville.
Being poor is no picnic. Even the car at one point—for all of its great memories—became a source of shame for me. It was a rickety old hunk of junk that my dad got from his older brother and barely kept running. I remember one day I was sitting up front while my dad drove, and I saw one of my friends from school, a boy named Richie, coming toward us down the side of the road. I was so embarrassed to be seen in this car, I slid down below the window. "What are you doing?" my dad asked. I made up an excuse about playing a game, saying Richie and I were hiding from each other, but my father must have known.
I disappointed my father for sure when I quit the football team. It was the very beginning of what should have been many years of playing football. I was just becoming a teenager. One day the coach told two of us kids to really take down the other team's quarterback. So we did—and we broke the kid's leg. I didn't like that. I didn't like it one bit. I was really upset and said I wanted to quit, and a lady who was there on the sidelines said, "Hey, Allan, why don't you join the school play instead? They need another boy." I jumped at the chance.
My father couldn't understand it. Just like he couldn't understand when my mother wanted to send me to art camp when I was nine. I showed enough talent that I applied, got accepted, and even won a partial scholarship to a summer program at a school in Chicago. "It's stupid," he said. He just couldn't see the point in spending any of his hard-earned money so his son could draw pictures. He wouldn't let me go.
He couldn't understand when I joined the school marching band, either, or how I could practice my drums—flam-a-diddle, flam-a-diddle, flam-a-diddle—on the table while simultaneously doing homework and listening to the radio. It drove him nuts! The older I got, the more of a black sheep I became to him.
Sometimes in the afternoons I would walk up the hill by the railroad tracks to watch all the folks on the commuter train make their way home from Manhattan. Other times I'd walk up and see the train coming in from Chicago, headed through our town on the way to Grand Central Station, with its dining car and the red roses on the tables just peeking over the edges of the windows. And I'd dream, Someday I'm gonna take that train. Someday I'm gonna go places!
In many ways, living on the other side of the tracks; not having any money; not having the fine things that I saw in the parlors, yards, and driveways of all of my friends' houses on the other side of town—that was the easy part. It was other stuff that left me longing for a real escape.
Once I was old enough, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the movies, where the great stars of that golden era of the silver screen could take me to faraway places as I munched on candy in the darkened theater. I would lose myself on the stage, too, even as a youngster, simply because I could pretend to be someone else for a while. Play rehearsals allowed me to break away, to go somewhere different for as long as I could.
As difficult as this is for me to admit, I needed those escapes—because there were times when I was scared of my father. Not all the time. Certainly not on those Sunday drives. But at other times. Like when he sat around the gas station with his longshoremen pals, smoking and carrying on. Or when he and those buddies went out fishing. Or in the dark of night as I lay awake in bed, wondering where he'd gone off to, hoping he would come home safely but terrified of the things I'd hear when he finally walked through the front door.
In case you haven't caught on yet, I was scared of my dad when he drank.
I don't like to say negative things about people. It pains me to include these memories in my book, but I think it's important not to gloss over it. We all have struggles to overcome. We all have challenges. I don't think there's anyone, no matter how successful he may be or how happy he may seem, who hasn't overcome some adversity in life.
Alcohol was something that would cause a lot of adversity for me.
People didn't talk about alcoholism running in families back then. There wasn't as much awareness as there is today. Drinking was just what people did—men, especially, to take the edge off, to find their own escape, I think, from the stress and awfulness that life could sometimes bring. Grandfather See was a drinker, too, and he lost everything to that bottle. The big house he once had. The chance to be mayor. Everything went out the window because of his drinking and gambling. One day on the way home from school a friend of mine said, "Hey, Allan, isn't that your grandfather?" I looked over and there was a man lying in the gutter, right out in the street, passed out drunk in the middle of the afternoon. Sure enough, it was my grandpa See.
Excerpted from THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING by Gavin MacLeod, Mark Dagostino. Copyright © 2013 Gavin MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.