Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Fort MacPherson and the Horror Movie
As I read yesterday’s Atlanta paper, my eye caught a headline for an article that read “Fort McPherson Closing.” After over a hundred years as a military base, the 1838 southwest Atlanta land mark shall shut its doors, and the US Army, who has called this one of its Southern homes, will move out by the middle of September of this year.
Growing up in southwest Atlanta, Fort Mac, as we called it, was in spittin’ distance of my childhood home. Located in East Point, Georgia, we passed this institution as we traveled by car to one place or another. I tried hard to dredge up a particular place of which we could have been headed that would take us by its gates, but as I recently read somewhere “there is no accounting for memory as to which things stuck and which didn’t.” Where we were going all those times simply didn't stick.
The soldier guarded gates of Fort Mac were as familiar sight to me as the railroad tracks we crossed to get there. Tracks for Central of Georgia Railroad, which merged with Southern Railway in the early 1960s, ran parallel to Lee Street, originally State Road 29, and it seemed that many places we went by car took us over those railroad tracks.
BTW: State Road 29, before Interstate 85 was constructed, began the first leg of our treks to Virginia. I have to admit that I don’t remember that especially, but my older brother Hunter does.
Up until I was in third or fourth grade, we crossed railroad tracks every Sunday to attend church in West End, where the first home that my parents rented was located when they moved to Atlanta in 1954. I have no memory of that home, but my parents found a church in West End that they were reluctant to give up when we moved to Sylvan Hills.
West End Christian Church no longer exists, but its building and grounds house another denomination; as I looked it up online, its familiar three stained glass window brought back memories and remains a focal point of the sanctuary, a building completed while we were still members. I have to thank Google Maps for allowing me a “street view” of that church.
The area of West End, now on the National Register of Historical Places, preserved some of its oldest structures as it was home to many prominent early Atlantans who built estates along the streetcar system that ran south west out of Atlanta, including Joel Chandler Harris, the writer who created Uncle Remus.
Man, did I get off topic -- anyway ---
I have a memory of Fort Mac seared in my brain from attending a movie in its private theater with Stephanie and Becky. These two sisters‘, whose ages matched my sister and my, father was career military, and they moved to our neighborhood sometime in the early 60s.
Stephanie and Becky lived “down the street” from us even though their house, three houses down, hardly fit that definition. Perched on the opposite side of the street, the layout mirrored ours, but one significant difference to me was that they had a single car detached garage, which in our immediate neighborhood, was one of only two I remember.
The other detached garage belonged to the neighbor on our immediate left. Their garage had a "finished" second floor, and from someone, and not from my first-hand knowledge, I got the impression was where the husband slept. In my childhood imagination, that information was all kinds of weird and caused me great pause.
Another difference of Stephanie and Becky’s house was that their driveway wasn’t solid like ours, but instead had two concrete strips with grass growing in between. This driveway led up the slope to the garage, which sat back from the back corner of the house and seemed enough of a distance from the street for Becky and I to race each other back and forth to the garage and to the street with the strips defining our “foot race” lanes.
I have no idea who won those races, but probably Becky, who was stronger and bigger than I and quite the athlete. Becky, fiery, tough, and red-headed [the first red-head I knew], played competitively with the boys in our neighborhood, and only Ann, an unpleasant neighborhood girl, could intimidate her, but that's a story for another blog.
Becky and I played outside, while my sister and Stephanie, giggling over things known to girls three years older, in my memory, watched us from the porch.
There was much mystery associated with a military family who had “ins” at Fort Mac, and we knew that both Stephanie and Becky got things from the PX at a reduced price. Cosmetics, Archie comics, books, 45s, and clothing we desired seemed easily and cheaply available to them.
The most desirous aspect of being military and able to enter Fort MacPherson with a car pass [which seemed so special] was the movie theater on the base that showed first run movies in a private theater, which was only for the military, their families, and as in this case with my sister and me, their guests.
I have no idea how many movies we attended at Fort Mac with the daughters, but I am confident it was very few since my parents were strict about what entertainment we were allowed to view.
When I think about Fort Mac, I think about one movie, in particular, that I saw in its theater, and, I believe, scarred me for life. To this day, I don’t watch any kind of movie that is reviewed as "horror" or even suspenseful, because all of them can send me back to Fort Mac and a horror film that I watched there.
Fort Mac’s theater probably had room for fifty people. A quarter to get in, its dark and cool confines a welcome respite on a summer night in hot, muggy Atlanta, where air-conditioned environs were sought after by many. On this night, the four of us, driven over the railroad tracks and to Fort Mac by Stephanie and Becky’s mother, watched a horror movie, or should I interject here?, they watched.
The premise of the film revolved around a plastic surgeon, whose wife, disfigured in an automobile accident, demanded that he find her the perfect face to replace her ruined one. The doctor, all frightening in his surgical mask and surgery whites [it was a black and white movie, after all] cut the faces from beautiful women and surgically sewed them to his wife's.
The wife, never satisfied with her final look, sought the most beautiful face in the world, and her husband indulging her, butchered the faces of models, socialites, and other gorgeous women to please her.
BTW: I looked everywhere for the title of this movie -- for some reason, it didn't make the best horror movie list of the time.
The scene that sent me ducking and covering my eyes, and ultimately spending the rest of the movie with my head in Stephanie’s lap,my fingers in my ears to block out the audio, showed the doctor, huge scalpel in hand, descend toward the face of a teenage girl, whose bug eyes and scream sent me over the edge. I have never been so scared or so miserable in my life.
So, when I think of Fort MacPherson, I don’t think about the gates that we had to pass through to get in, the railroad tracks we crossed, or the PX with its cheaper than layman consumer products, instead, I think about that horror movie and my reaction to it.
Fort MacPherson may be going away, and I salute its long history, but that childhood memory is here to stay.