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Indiana Jones, 12-Year-Old Me, and the Dial of Destiny

I wonder sometimes where, exactly, my love of travel adventure came from. In past posts, I’ve written about the ambitious and adventurous road trip my family took during the blizzard of ’78, when I was nine, driving a 30-foot motor home from Massachusetts to California and then back again. I used the experience for inspiration in my novel Land’s End, and it undoubtedly was a touchstone for my love of travel.

2005 would be another obvious touchstone year, the summer I traveled abroad for the first time as part of my MFA residency, an experience that ignited my internal circuit board for international travel.

Recently, though, I saw the new trailer for the fifth and supposedly final installment in the long-running Indiana Jones saga, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. The trailer highlights an older Indy, in his 70s in 1969, but watching the trailer doesn’t just show me how old he’s gotten to be—Indy—but how much older I am as well. Which got me thinking about the very first time I saw an Indiana Jones movie, way back in the summer of 1981, when I saw the original, Raiders of the Lost Ark, not once but twice in the same day, how desperately in love I had fallen with the film, and how, looking back, it undoubtedly triggered my passion for travel adventure.

I saw that first film on a sunny afternoon matinee with my friend Earle. The movie had been out for a while but I’d misinterpreted its genre as western, a cowboy movie, based on the commercials I’d seen, and so I wasn’t immediately interested. But over time, with strong reviews and word of mouth, and, most notably, its poster proclaiming that it had been made by the people who brought us Star Wars and Jaws—two of my favorite films, back then and even today—and so I finally succumbed and went.

And then, two minutes in, Indy and his guide’s backs were covered in tarantulas. Then the tomb collapsed. Then Indy had to leap over an open chamber. Then poison darts shot out of the walls at him. Then he stumbled into his dead guide, a speared blade through the center of his forehead. Then a giant boulder chased him out into the South American jungle, where natives were waiting for him with their bows and arrows. Then he escaped again and was chased, through the jungle, to the river, where he swung on a vine and splashed into the muddy water to swim out to a waiting seaplane, dodging arrows then entire way.

And that was just the first ten minutes. An entire movie’s worth of action, drama, and suspense in ten minutes.

This was already the greatest movie of all time.

I thought about the movie all that afternoon and evening, and then, after dinner, I convinced my father to go with me again, and together we saw the seven p.m. show. Things were clearer to me on that second viewing. For instance, after that pulse-pounding opening sequence, the film shifts to a scene in which Indiana Jones is teaching his college class. He’s clean-shaven with his hair combed, gold eyeglasses on his face, and wearing a tweed jacket with bow tie. For some reason, on that first viewing, I hadn’t even realized that this was the same character as the rugged and scruffy guy from the first scene. At twelve years old, I guess I wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb.

But once I’d caught on, the contrast intrigued me. While I suppose it would be fair to say that most Indiana Jones fans adore the cowboy-esque adventurer—dirty, exhausted and desperate, once again, to get himself out of some otherworldly predicament—I was equally fascinated with Indiana Jones, the scholar.

This was a man of books, of learning, who studied history and literature, then took his knowledge out into the world and used it to aquire new knowledge. Then he returned to the classroom to share what he had learned with his students.

I liked that he was not just a man of letters, resigned to the library and typewriter. And he wasn’t just a globetrotting adventurer seeking his next conquest. He was both, and, as a kid who liked to read paperback novels and write stories, that duality fascinated me.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out in 1984, another friend of mine and I decided one hot summer afternoon to walk to the Woburn Cinema to see it. I don’t think we’d even bothered to ask anyone for a ride, or probably even told our parents where we were headed. We just went. It was a long walk—perhaps four or five miles, and we arrived an hour and a half later, sweaty and tired and ready to sit in the a/c for a couple hours, wishing we had a little more money for some drinks and snacks. But, we were there, witnesses to the long-awaited (for me, anyway) Indiana Jones installment. The fact that we’d just completed our own epic adventure in getting there only made it that much sweeter.

When I finally became a teacher myself in 2004, twenty years after that long trek to Temple of Doom and back again, I kept thinking about that duality, about Indy’s comfort in his two worlds. After my first year in the classroom, I spent the summer in my previous trade as a bartender, as much for something to do as the extra income. But as I headed into the next school year, I knew that I didn’t want this to become my routine. There were offers to teach summer school, but that sounded even worse. And not just worse but somehow not right. That a school teacher shouldn’t be someone who gets up in front of a class and teaches, then grades papers all night and all weekend, and then does it again in summer school. I didn’t think that was what made a good teacher at all. Good teachers were worldly, they’d seen things, they’d done things. Been places.

Now, where had I picked up this idea?

So, soon after I completed my masters degree in education, I applied to and was accepted into a low-res MFA program in creative writing. It was an idea I had considered a couple years earlier, when I was in my last year of my bachelor’s and was considering graduate programs. Then once I was teaching, I circled back around to the low-res model, meaning I’d be combining online work in the fall and spring with once or twice yearly on-campus residencies. In this case, the program I was admitted into, The University of New Orleans MFA program, had just one annual residency, during the summer, and rather than complete the residency on-campus in New Orleans, they had several international residencies abroad.

Things were coming full circle, back to that summer of 1981, when I watched Professor Jones go from clean-cut classroom instructor to, well, the other Indiana Jones. The iconic Indiana Jones.

For the next four summers, I traveled abroad, first to Montpellier, France, followed by two consecutive summers in Madrid, Spain, and finally a post-graduate workshop in San Miguel de Allande, Mexico. For four summers I spent my weekdays studying literature and writing, my afternoons working on a novel in coffee shops, evenings drinking pints in bars with other writers, staggering home much too late, buzzed and happy, fueled by these exotic locales and interesting, like-minded people. On the weekends, I traveled farther: Venice, Italy; Paris; Porto, Portugal; Barcelona and San Sebastian, Spain; and even iconic Pamplona, where I danced the night away in the streets during the San Fermin festival, wearing my traditional white attire with a red kerchief, my clothes stained in red wine, and then, at dawn and without having slept, ran with the bulls through the narrow, cobblestoned streets and with the exuberant encouragement of thousands of spectators.

Then, just a few weeks later I was back in my classroom, clean-shaven, my shirt tucked in, eyeglasses on my face. Let’s open our books, class, to page one-thirty-six.

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mutt Williams witnesses Indy complete some incredible task, in some exotic locale, and he’s amazed by what he’s just seen. Awestruck, he watches as Indy catches his breath, and Mutt—in disbelief—asks, ‘You’re a…a teacher?”

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