Yesterday, an 80s pop culture account I follow on Twitter reminded me that On This Day in 1986, Howard the Duck was released in theatres. How thoughtful of them.
The summer of 1986 stands out for me for the following reasons:
- I wrote exams and successfully completed grade 13.
- I accepted an offer from McMaster University.
- I flew, on a plane, for the first time ever, to spend eight weeks on Vancouver Island.
- I saw Howard the Duck. In the theatre. On purpose.
In the summer of 1985, I joined the Canadian Naval Reserves and completed training in their (now defunct) Summer Youth Employment Program. In the fall of ’85, I started working in my Navy trade of musician. Yes, this is a thing. One of the requirements to advance as a musician in the reserves was to attend the Canadian Forces School of Music (yes, that also is a thing) at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island. There I would be practicing for TQ (trade qualification), performing in bands and other ensembles, and taking part in parades and events with the other students. And, in case you were ever wondering, Homer Simpson was correct when he said “It’s not just a job, it’s a really, really easy job.” (Go Navy!)
This was pretty huge for me, honestly. I had never been away from home for THAT LONG before. I had never even been on a plane, but then one day in early July, my dad dutifully drove my friend and me to CFB Trenton, where we spent the night, then arose bright and early to board a plane to Victoria. Well, ok, we boarded a plane to Winnipeg. Then to Edmonton. Then to Vancouver. Then we got on a completely different plane – one that sat 6 people and luggage extremely uncomfortably – and then, finally, we arrived in Victoria. It was the longest fucking day of my life. Once we arrived in Victoria, we boarded a bus to the base in Esquimalt, and then we collapsed into bed. BUT NOT FOR LONG.
The first few days were a sort of culture shock. We were jetlagged, nervous about the job, trying to get the lay of the land and figure out where we needed to be at any given time.
We were housed in barracks with about 40 other women, required to be present for daily inspection which included our bed and the area around our bed, our locker, the shared bathroom, the common area, etc. We were given rulers to ensure our pillowcases were a certain size, and that our sheets were turned down the appropriate length, with counterpanes tucked in just so, and boots and other footwear lined up under the bed in exactly the correct way.
And, if I’m being honest, I fucking EXCELLED at this. I love nothing more than organizing a closet, making sure things are JUST SO. This part was SO perfect for me. Other parts of being in the military, not so much. But the ironing and the organizing and the cleaning? I was there for it.
Eventually the terror of, you know, everything subsided, and we spent our downtime exploring the base and hanging out with and getting to know the other students at the School of Music.
We had, it turns out, quite a lot of downtime. We were typically finished work for the day around 4:00 pm, and then after supper, our time was our own. With just one stipulation: we weren’t allowed to leave the base.
We watched other people come and go through the gates of the base all the time, but there was a rule for those of us who were new and that was that we had to stay on base for the first three weeks of our tenure there. I still have no idea why. Did they think we run away and never come back? WE WERE ON AN ISLAND, how far could we get? Anyway, that was the rule, and I a and have always been, a rule follower to the extreme. See above for goddamn sheet measuring.
So we were “stuck” on the base for 21 days, and at first it was fine because we were a) terrified and b) we had no money. But once we’d been paid, we were anxious to spend money. And the base activities were growing increasingly dull as the weeks went on. As well, the lucky ones who could escape for the evening would regale us with fantastic stories of pints at The Tudor House (RIP), buses to Victoria for shopping and movies, and tea at the Empress Hotel. ROGERS’ CHOCOLATES, people. It was glorious, and when we finally were able to make our way through the gates, military ID firmly in hand for our return, we were giddy with anticipation. And what had we, as a group, decided on for our first foray into the city? Why, a screening of Howard the Duck, of course.
I vaguely remember the bus ride into town and lining up – LINING UP – to get our tickets. There was probably popcorn and a drink and then the movie itself, which, I don’t think I have to tell you, is one of the WORST movies ever made. And to be honest, I remember very little about the movie. I can recollect precisely zero plot (perhaps there wasn’t one?) although I vaguely remember a suuuuuper awkward bedroom scene that caused 19-y/o UIG to panic in a “OMG there’s not going to be alien duck/human sex, is there? I don’t think I can handle alien duck/human sex right now.” There wasn’t but honestly, fuck you everyone involved in the making of that dumb movie for causing anyone to have to EVER worry about Lea Thompson potentially having sex with that goddamn awful duck.
Our group of freshly-released navy friends exited the theatre, and I think there might have been beers afterward, or at least food that wasn’t served cafeteria-style from bored military cooks, and then we took the bus back to the base, having survived our first big adventure.
The entire summer was one of high adventure, honestly. I was four entire provinces away from my home and my parents. I was working full time for decent pay, so I didn’t have to worry too much about tuition heading to university that fall. I was navigating a new city, figuring things out on my own, AND going for tea at the motherfucking Empress Hotel. It was the most grown-up I had ever felt until that point, and it was a pretty glorious feeling.
So thanks, I guess, Howard the Duck, for being so terrible that people can’t help but talk about you every single year, reminding me where I was, and what I was doing in August, 1986. Perhaps if we’d seen a different, better movie, there’d be less to talk about each year? So I guess I’m grateful?
FINE, let’s go with grateful.