So Many Secrets, part 4: A Midnight Run

Downingtown Diner

In the summer of 1957, a just-founded independent film company shot their first feature film in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in the small communities of Downingtown, Phoenixville, and several others. The movie was intended to be a low-budget scream feature to satisfy teenage drive-in audiences, and the title changed at various points in its development — it was originally to be known as The Molten Meteor, with the filmmakers later deciding The Glob would be a good title. Eventually it became the title most of us recognize today — The Blob.

The movie would be released in 1958 and it starred Steve McQueen in his first lead role in a feature film. It was also the last time the 27-year-old McQueen, portraying teenager Steve Andrews, would ever be billed as “Steven” McQueen.

The Blob was produced by Tonylyn Productions, Fairview Productions and Valley Forge Films, on a meager budget of $110,000 and McQueen was reportedly offered a choice — a paycheck of $2,500 up front, or 10-percent of the film’s profits on the backend. McQueen, a struggling actor at the time, needed money and chose the $2,500 paycheck.

Upon release, The Blob was the second title on a drive-in double feature with “I Married a Monster from Outer Space,” but The Blob outperformed the feature attraction and soon the movies were swapped on the bill. The Blob went on to gross nearly four-million dollars at the US box office. Steve McQueen missed out on a big payday early in his career.

Downingtown Diner

Pictured: The Downingtown Diner, The Blob (1958)

Why am I telling you this story? Because it figures into a story I grew up hearing as part of our family lore. Bob, the man I knew as my grandpa when I was growing up (my biological grandfather was the man I wrote about in part one, who committed suicide in jail in 1956) owned the Downingtown Diner when the film company came knocking, wanting to rent the building as the setting for the climax of the film. For a nice fee, he allowed them to use the Downingtown Diner for the final scenes in which the heroes discover they can freeze the blob with fire extinguishers. (I didn’t give you a spoiler alert on that, but hey, the movie came out 60 years ago.) I remember my grandma telling me once that the crew broke a window when they were filming the movie, and instead of immediately fixing the glass, they just sealed it up against the elements and put up a sign to point out the significance of the broken window — “This window broken making THE BLOB” or some such silliness. The movie was released in September of 1958 and my mom has memories of attending the premiere at an unknown theater out east.

My grandpa Bob was an interesting man who had a prominent place in my life. He was an east coast guy through and through, with a love for chunky, masculine jewelry (I still wear one of his garnet rings today), cigars, ice cream and a king-size hoagie. My grandpa is largely responsible for my weakness for ice cream. He would frequently offer me a chocolate ice cream soda, except in his east coast-inflected dialect it would come out “You want a chocolate sodee, Troy?” and my answer was always, “Yes!” He taught me a lot about cars, more than the men who tried to fill the role of ‘father’ in my life, and I credit my grandpa Bob with my love of cars to this day. He showed me what a good car polish could do for an oxidized paint job (Westley’s was his brand, before they got bought by another company), and helped me fix or tow a car on more than one occasion. He had a white Mercury Grand Marquis with a maroon vinyl top that he kept in the garage most of the winter. He was a Mercury guy, and the Grand Marquis was for driving only when the weather was nice. It was a beautiful car, and the very first car I ever saw that had power seats and windows.

Bob worked at a restaurant supply company for a long time when I was a kid, and as a result, he had a lot of commercial-quality utensils and glassware and cooking tools in the house. To this day, I can never find the quality kitchen utensils I’m after, and I attribute that to all the top-notch stuff my grandpa had — the cheap plastic stuff today just doesn’t measure up.

I could go on and on about all the things I learned from my Grandpa and the influence he had on my life, but this story is about something else.

When you’re a kid, you mostly idolize your parents and grandparents and you don’t recognize their shortcomings. Even through dysfunction, kids trudge right through, under the erroneous perception that everybody’s family is like this. You often don’t understand that these older people, the ones who provide for you and teach you and keep you fed and clothed are not perfect people, so when you discover their secrets, it can be a shock. It can make you question who you are as a person. And just like my grandma had secrets — children she birthed but never divulged to family — my grandpa also had secrets that I wouldn’t learn about until I was a grown man.

I knew my Grandpa and Grandma had come from the east coast before I was born, when my mom was just a young child, sometime shortly after their brush with fame and the shooting of The Blob. On the occasions I asked to hear the story of how they ended up in Minot, North Dakota, I got a cover story.

“Grandpa was stationed in Alaska during the war,” I was told, “and he loved it so much that we decided to move back there.” That’s how the story began. They supposedly packed up the car and started driving from Pennsylvania to Alaska, but when they got to Minot, the car broke down. The car was a 1951 Cadillac, dark green, and it was going to take two weeks for the shop to get the replacement parts to fix the car. While they waited, my grandpa got a job, and a friendly Minot resident offered to let the family live in an apartment they had available.

“We met so many nice people, we decided to stay,” the story went. Now, there are a few details of that story that are in dispute, like whether the car broke down (my mom, who would have been about 8 or 9 at the time, doesn’t remember it) and whether someone allowed them to stay in their apartment (she doesn’t remember that, either). Regardless, it’s the story I remember being told, and it’s a nice story, right? A couple in love packs up their life and heads off to find happiness in greener pastures, to start a new life.

The real story, depending on your perspective, could be a story of true love that couldn’t be denied, or it could be the story of a scoundrel. I’ll let you decide.

My grandpa Bob was a married man when he met my grandma Ruth. He owned the Downingtown Diner, where the climactic scenes of The Blob were filmed, and another establishment, the Evergreen Cafe, and my grandma was one of his waitresses. Judging by what happened next, it’s safe to say they were having an affair because about two years after Hollywood came calling to film The Blob in my grandpa’s diner, they packed up the car and took off. As the story has been more recently told to me, they literally absconded in the middle of the night, my grandpa and grandma, my mom, and the family dog, a papered boxer nicknamed Sad Sack (real name Sir Breckenridge of WestTown) after a popular comic strip character. With barely a word to anybody, they left Pennsylvania and any creditors that had business with my grandpa’s diners were left holding the bag. There was a house where my mom and grandma lived (my mom says Bob lived there with them, too, so it’s unclear whether he was living a double life, or if he was separated from his wife, or what, exactly) and it was full of furnishings, but they couldn’t bring ‘em along in Bob’s Caddy, so they sold the contents of the entire place for a hundred bucks, which was considerably more money than it is today, but also a paltry sum of money for the furnishings of an entire home. In hindsight, I believe it says something about the situation — just get rid of all this stuff as soon as possible because we gotta go.

Now, the story here is a little fuzzy, and I’ve heard several different versions of it over the years. In one version of the story, my grandpa didn’t tell anybody other than his closest relatives (his parents) of his whereabouts for years, lest the authorities track him down in North Dakota to collect on business debts and/or child support obligations. In another version of the story, my grandpa’s children were told that he had died and didn’t find out until later that we was still alive, living halfway across the country in North Dakota with a new family. I have since tried to clarify that point (that his children thought he was dead) and I’ve been told that might not be the case, that it might be an exaggeration or embellishment of the tale, but there is no question that he fled to North Dakota without a word to the people who you would think mattered most — his wife and children.

In the course of writing this story, I’ve frequently dipped into an archive of newspapers looking for evidence of the most interesting points. That’s how I came up with most of the details of my uncle Jim’s conviction for murder, and my biological grandfather’s suicide. I thought, if my grandpa Bob really ran out on his family and abandoned two businesses, there might be some press about that in the Pennsylvania papers. In this instance, the timeline isn’t totally clear… it could have been late-1959 or early-1960 when my grandparents left Pennsylvania. So, I searched a broad dateline, and to my surprise, I found almost nothing at all. No stories about a local businessman who had gone missing. No stories about a husband and father who had disappeared. The only reference to my grandpa I was able to find was a short mention of his name in The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8th, 1959 as a Pennsylvania taxpayer who was due a tax refund for his business, the Downingtown Diner, but he couldn’t be located. It seems even when he had money coming to him, he wasn’t willing to come out of hiding to collect his refund. By August of 1960, a classified ad had appeared in a local newspaper.

Business Opportunity: Downingtown Diner. Fully Furnished and Equipped. Large parking area. Will renovate to suit responsible tenant.

Is that last line — Will renovate to suit responsible tenant — a shot at my grandfather by a realtor who was left holding the bag? I suspect it is.

As the details of this story have come trickling in over the years and I began writing, I realized I had a lot of questions to which I’ll likely never know the answer. One of those questions is did my grandpa have other reasons for leaving Pennsylvania? I mean, lots of people have bad marriages, but most of them don’t blow town in the middle of the night. Usually there’s one final argument, the parties involved say hurtful things to each other, give each other the finger, and go their separate ways. Fleeing in the middle of the night, though, that stinks of something more if you ask me. I wonder if my grandpa had mounting debt for his businesses. Did it go even deeper than that? Did he owe money to people who would collect one way or another, in bills or blood? It wasn’t totally uncommon for guys to go to a loan shark back in the day, and if you did, you better be able to pay. I don’t have any evidence to support a suspicion like that, but I do wonder.

I was probably 10 or 12 years old when I heard from my parents that my “aunt and uncle” were coming to visit from Pennsylvania. I’m leaving their names out since I don’t know if they’d want to be mentioned in this story. At the time, I didn’t know how they were my aunt and uncle, or why I had never met them before. I didn’t know that this “aunt” was Bob’s daughter, one of the three kids my grandpa had left behind in Pennsylvania, and the “uncle” was her husband… she was a grown woman, married with children, and she hadn’t seen her father, my grandfather, since he ran out on the family 20 or 25 years earlier. He’d had no communication with them for decades, until his parents eventually contacted him and said his daughter wanted to talk to him, and he gave the OK for his parents to give her his contact information. I assume there were some phone calls and conversations. I wasn’t privy to them, but eventually, a visit was arranged. It made for an emotional reunion, I remember that much. I also remember there were some moments of awkwardness and tension that I didn’t understand but which make perfect sense now, knowing that she was visiting her dad and the woman who stole him away from the family. I wish I had known then what I know now. I would have paid closer attention to everything that was going on.

That kind of brings us full circle on the story of how my grandma and grandpa ended up together, and how they ended up in North Dakota from the east coast. I was a grown man before I heard any of this, before I was told “Grandma and grandpa weren’t married until you were a teenager,” and I was like, “Whaaaaaat?” and then the story about how they came to North Dakota came spilling out. Although they had been a married couple by all outward appearances, they weren’t legally married in North Dakota until quite a few years after they arrived because the status of my grandfather’s previous marriage in Pennsylvania was unknown. He couldn’t be married to two women at once without risking attention from the law. At any rate, Bob and Ruth were together, legally married or not, for nearly a half-century. They found something in each other that they were unable to find with others, and from that perspective, it’s a love story.

If you’ve been reading this story from the beginning, you might be wondering why I’m telling it. It’s a good question, one that comes up a lot, but I’m not sure I have the answer. There are a number of people in my family, including my mom and at least one sister, who have been saying for years that we want to write a book about all of this. But why, right? I mean, coming from a family background like this isn’t something to be proud of, and who reads biographies by regular people anyway? We’re not celebrities, so who cares about our family story? I’ve asked myself on more than one occasion, “If I wrote a book, who would read it, and more importantly, why?”

To be honest, I don’t make many friends writing this stuff. One family member has already voiced an objection at being mentioned, and I suspect there might be more as I continue writing. My mom has confessed she fears what I might write in the future, because we have plenty of things to be ashamed of. I want to be careful and honor my mother, but I also want to tell the truth.

One Merriam-Webster definition of “catharsis” reads: a purification that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension. Another reads: elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression. This story is certainly that. It’s a process of taking ownership of my demons and exorcising them through expression. In some way, I hope that putting this down on paper will take away the power that generations of dysfunction have imposed on my life.

I wish I could quote a famous psychologist or spiritual scholar’s words and tidily explain why I think it’s necessary to tell this story, but I can’t. The best I can do is to paraphrase a quote from Louis Brandeis, one-time Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

The best disinfectant is sunshine.

I have a strong gut instinct that families who harbor dark secrets are harming themselves more than they are helping themselves. The kind of shame and embarrassment that drives families to bottle up secrets like this — never speak of it — also spurs further dysfunction. You might be thinking, Troy, it’s unfair to tell these stories about people who are dead, people who are not here to defend themselves, and I would say you’re right. That’s why I intend to lay my own reputation on the line, too, by telling you some stories about me, about the things I’ve done wrong and the things I’m ashamed of. It will be confessional and embarrassing, but I think it will be educational, too. What kind of kids come out of families like this? Kids who struggle with addiction. Kids with interpersonal communication issues. Kids who don’t understand what real love is. Kids with problems. I speak from experience.

So, if you see some of yourself in this story (and I certainly hope you don’t) my advice would be, tell your story if you must. Lure the shame and embarrassment out of the dark corner where it hides. Drag it into the light and let the sunshine kill it.

Read So Many Secrets: Part 5 or Go back and read “So Many Secrets” from the beginning.



Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.