On September 8th, American moviegoers will be able to watch the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel, It. The book had previously been adapted in 1990, with the villain, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, played infamously by Tim Curry.
In 1990, I was 11 years old, the same age as the characters in the story. You see, It is the story of a group of seven 11 year-old kids (self-titled the “Loser’s Club”) who must fight a monster living beneath their small town in Maine. Originally defeating the monster in the summer of 1958, the kids vow to return to Derry, Maine, should the monster ever re-awaken. Fast forward 27 years and the monster, “It”, has awoken and has started eating children again. The seven losers, now all successful adults, make good on that promise and return to Derry to fight the monster one last time.
I am writing this in the summer of 2017. This writing falls 27 years after I first saw It while still a young boy about to enter the sixth grade. In 1990, I was living in a small town very much like Derry. That town was called Miles City, Montana. Population: about 9,000.
I first read It while in high school and read it again earlier this summer in anticipation of the upcoming adaptation. And this summer, much like the characters in Stephen King’s classic tale, I have returned to my old hometown for a trip down memory lane.
Now, let me be clear. There is no monster in Miles City, nor did my friends and I fight any malevolent being lurking in the city’s sewers. However, one of the most poignant moments in the book is when the characters cross over into the Derry city limits after a 27-year absence. They feel a host of unexpected, yet familiar feelings rushing back to them.
In the story, our hero, Bill Denbrough, rides a cab into the city, describing how much the city has changed.
“It hasn’t all changed,’ Bill said…”The Aladdin [theater] is still there.”
“Yeah,” the cabbie conceded. “But just barely. Suckers tried to tear that down, too.”
“For another bank?” Bill asked, a part of him amused to find that another part of him stood aghast at the idea. He couldn’t believe that anyone in his right mind would want to tear down that stately pleasure dome with its glittering glass chandelier…Not the Aladdin, that shocked part of him cried out. How could they ever even think of tearing down the Aladdin for a BANK? (p. 620)
Cruising down Main Street in Miles City, I could empathize with Denbrough. Though, instead of banks, I was stunned to see a number of casinos had popped up in the old downtown. During my childhood years here, casinos were relegated only to nearby Indian reservations. Now, nearly each block has one.
However, unlike Derry’s closed up Aladdin Theater, Miles City’s only theater is still up and running with no signs of slowing down.
The Montana Theater brings back two strong memories. Once, in 1990, while watching Dances with Wolves with my family, I had quickly consumed my 32oz Hawaiian Punch. So, I kept the paper cup nestled on my lap as the epic film pushed towards 3 hours. During that time, the remaining ice had melted and, unbeknownst to me, had significantly weakened the bottom of the paper cup. As John Barry’s musical score rose near the end, I found myself strumming to the beat on the base of the cup with my fingers. It took just a small bit of pressure for my finger to poke through, creating a hole, and consequently soaking the crotch of my pants with ice water. My parents were curious why, upon leaving the Montana Theater just 10 minutes later, had I nervously draped my jacket over the front of my pants.
My second memory is a bit more mischievous. During the summer, my brother and I liked to bring small, hand-sized water pistols to the theater. We thought it wildly funny, in the shadows of a darkened scene, to shoot the water into the air in front of us, wetting those several rows ahead. When the theater manager would appear (responding to complaints of leaking water from overhead, no doubt), we would slyly replace the water guns and enjoy the rest of the film.
The book continues: The Center Street Drug, lair of Mr. Keene and the place where Bill had gotten Eddie his asthma medicine that day, was also gone…Looking inside as the cab idled at a stoplight, Bill could see a record shop, a natural-foods store, and a toys-and-games shop which was featuring a clearance sale on ALL DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS SUPPLIES. (p. 618)
In Miles City, Big Sky Pharmacy was the equivalent of Center Street Drug in Derry. And it still stands today and is in full operation. As I entered, I encountered a smell that I hadn’t whiffed in 25 years. The smell of the pharmacy alone took me back to 1992 when I and my brother would peruse the small comic book rack near the window alcove next to the front door. We’d buy up Marvel and DC comics for usually $1 or $1.25, back when new issues celebrated “First Issue! Collector’s Item!” though just before the wave of foil covers and gimmicky “Zero Issues” which took hold just a few years later in the collectible comic book industry.
One of the most striking similarities between Stephen King’s It and my childhood in Miles City is where the kids go to get away from their families and school. It’s called the Barrens and is a forested area on the outskirts of town. Coincidentally, my brother and I also used to spend copious amounts of time one summer in a very similar spot. It was along the Tongue River near where it empties into the larger Yellowstone River. Complete with abandoned train track and plenty of graffiti, this spot 25 years ago was our summer retreat where we built a fort and set a few trip wires and booby traps.
Next to this spot was a dusty area of bike trails referred to locally as the Honda Trails, undoubtedly where older kids would ride and jump their dirt bikes. For those of us who were 11, riding our regular bicycles at high speed often satisfied the need-for-speed. Though, for me, it also led to me eating a live grasshopper.
You see, in the middle of summer with cicadas buzzing in the trees and grasshoppers bouncing about, it shouldn’t have surprised me to have one jump right into my mouth as I was pedaling hard along the Honda Trails, racing my brother. I remember feeling the small bug lodge itself in the back of my throat. I jumped off my bike and tried to force the critter up, but he was too far back. Closing my eyes, I reached for the water bottle attached to my bike and took a long swig of sun-warmed water, washing the grasshopper into my stomach and hoping my stomach acids would do the trick on him.
In Stephen King’s It, the characters are harassed by bully Henry Bowers and his goons. While I had, for the most part, escaped scorn and torture from bullies, there was a brief time (lasting no more than a few weeks if I recall correctly) when a bully and his friend would wait for me after school during the 6th grade.
The school was Lincoln Elementary and the first incident occurred one day when this boy started mouthing off to me on the walk home. Undeterred, I mouthed off back to him, prompting him to cross the street and, along with his friend, put me into a headlock until I took back my words. It became a daily occurrence and before long, I found myself waiting him out, standing in this exact spot, a landing on the 3rd floor of the school… just waiting and waiting until I guessed he had lost interest and gone home.
Once middle school came and I started to grow more in size, he eventually found other kids to pick on.
I’ll end this post with just a few random memories to preserve…memories that I had forgotten until seeing certain locales.
Next to the train tracks, this abandoned spot used to be either a Pizza Hut or Little Caesar’s Pizza, frequented by the local middle schoolers:
I remember going there in the 7th grade one day and sitting on the floor eating my slice of pizza (it was a to-go only spot I think). Rumors had been circulating that my divorced father was about to marry our old 5th grade teacher (yes, it was true and they are still happily married). One of the girls from my class had asked me about it and when I shrugged, suggesting that I didn’t know if the rumor was true or not, she proceeded to pour her cup of cola over me. To this day, I never understood why she did that. She was always a nice girl up until that moment. Perhaps, for lack of a better response, she did that.
In 1990 or 1991, Nestle Crunch candy bars offered a sweepstakes and grand prize to anyone who could spell the word C-R-U-N-C-H by collecting candy bar wrappers that had one letter each printed on the inside. This was at a time when paper (not foil) wrappers were still being used (and instant win, not “enter this code online” was still a thing). I realized that some wrappers didn’t have letters but had coupons for free Crunch bars. And… I realized that if you pushed down on the wrappers and got the lighting just right, you could see which wrappers had coupons and which didn’t.
So, little thieving me used to go to this exact convenience store and push down on all the Crunch wrappers and buy only those with coupons inside. Then, I’d go outside next to the ice boxes, unwrap them, and re-enter to claim my “free” Crunch bars. It wasn’t really stealing, right?
The Miles City Library sits smack dab in the middle of downtown and looks darn near the exact same. It’s no surprise that I was a bookworm as a child and I recall spending obscene amounts of time in the basement of the library (where the children’s books were located… though they have since been relocated to an extended wing on the first floor now). The Miles City Public Library had a summer reading program that year. I recall a poster of a cartoon dog and a small box of bone-shaped papers. Upon finishing a book, kids would write their names on the small bones and stick them on the giant dog. Over the course of the summer, the student who had the most bones would get a mention in the local paper. I don’t remember if my name ever surfaced, but I do recall the librarian looking at me over the rim of her glasses making sure I wasn’t reading too much Curious George books and was checking out more meaningful, in-depth books.
While going through the children’s books, I remember having read a series of novels about talking animals and nature. I could only remember they were small hardbacks with no dust jackets. After spending about 20 minutes going through every shelf, I finally came upon them!
I can’t believe they are still there and available for checkout!
While a student in middle school, I had my first job. I was a paperboy for the Miles City Star, the local newspaper that was distributed every afternoon. I would go home around 3:30pm and have the papers at my doorstep by 4pm. After loading up my newspaper vest, I would ride out about 4 blocks to the first house on my route, park my bike, and begin the 1-hour delivery.
I made about $100 – $120 a month as I recall. However, as a middle school student, I was too focused on comics and baseball cards, so ended up squandering all my funds towards that. I remember withdrawing $10 every day from the local bank (and the teller giving me a look which said: Shouldn’t you be saving this money?) and going to the local Ben Franklin’s craft store.
Ben Franklin’s used to have a wonderful old 1950’s style diner inside. A wonderful woman there named Bev used to serve up grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and Country Time lemonade (though sometimes chocolate milk was in order). The icing on the cake was Bev’s delicious K-bar snacks, a tasty chocolate and peanut butter soft cookie. Sadly, the store has closed, though isn’t all forgotten. The new owner has preserved the old diner and turned the rest of the shop into an antique consignment store.
And for me, having not seen that diner in 25 years, I can attest that it looks nearly as it did back then (though with much more “vintage” signage and color now).
Finally, not everything has changed of course. While the old Super America gas station where I got busted for shoplifting (yes, more baseball cards) is gone, the nearby M&H gas station still stands. And although the interior shelves are all bright and shiny and the prices have gone up, some small things still linger.
While attending Washington Middle School, we used to spend our lunch hour at M&H where, in 1992, the lunch special was 3 hot dogs and a Pepsi fountain drink for $1.00. Any left over pocket change would be used to buy sour Warhead candies.
And now? Well, like I said, the price has gone up, but not unreasonable considering it’s been 25 years. And as I walk the streets of this old town I occasionally see kids riding their bikes, jeering one another on these hot summer days. I wonder what memories of the town they are making now and what they themselves will have to return to in 25 years time.
Many dismiss Stephen King as being merely a horror writer, but for some of us, the literary value of his craft ties itself much closer to the heart.
I’ll end this with a quote from another Stephen King tale, one called “The Body”, which was later turned into the wonderful film Stand By Me. The quote is the opening of the story and one that seems to round out my nostalgic trip back to this small town in Montana quite well. It goes:
The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
–Stephen King, The Body