Never mind Edward Snowden, where’s Terry the Toad?

Terry the Toad

Have you seen American Graffiti?

I bet I’ve seen that movie twenty times, maybe more. It came out when I was young so the first few times I saw it I wasn’t able to consider the story with any real insight or savvy. I probably just liked all the hotrods and music and such.

But as I grew older and saw the movie again and again I developed a real affinity for this low budget coming of age story. It’s the tale of four young men just out of high school, on the last night they’ll be together before their plans for the future will carry some of them away from the town in which they live.

And on that last night they sort of struggle with the seeming finality of leaving – which is fitting because that’s how us guys think. You know, sort of like “If I leave I’m never coming back”. And since the movie was made by a guy – a fellow by the name of George Lucas – that zeitgeist clearly shows through.

Loretta and I watched Am Graf again the other night and, afterward, sat through the “interviews reel” – that bonus feature they put on DVD’s with interviews of the actors and directors. Typically I almost never watch those things. I think because for me they can spoil the movie in that way where the illusion is ruined as you discover what a doofus the lead actor is – or that the director is an egomaniac.

But not this time – in fact this time I’m glad I watched it.

When interviewed, Lucas talks about the inspiration for some of the characters. There’s Milner, the sort of king of the group who’s getting a bit old for it all, and Curt, the intellectual jester and anti-hero. There’s Steve, a kind of pretender to Milner’s throne who might just stay in town to claim it.

And then there’s “Terry the Toad” – which everyone shortens to just “Toad”. Toad is the fool of the movie – he’s the butt of jokes and the hapless victim of almost everything that goes wrong. But you just have to like him – I think because he tries so hard to be the hero he wants to see himself as.

I don’t know if that’s the reason – I mean the trying too hard thing – but I really like Toad. In fact, as I write this, I am realizing he’s my favorite part of the movie – always has been I suppose.

When I first saw Am Graf I was still easily impressed – and easily impressed for reasons I didn’t understand. But when I learned from the interview reel how much thought and work went into this film in order to make it look as though not much thought or work at all had gone into it (it feels like a documentary that you’re almost a part of) I came to understand that creating a believable narrative is not easy, but rather takes subtlety and forethought.

Which is why the second movie in this, uh, oh shoot – I know what a three movie run is, it’s a “trilogy”, but what’s a two movie run called? A “two-logy”?

Anyway, there are two movies that deal with this group of kids and the second one, More American Graffiti, is almost as bad as the first one is good. Remember when I mentioned subtlety? Well More Am Graf has none of that. It kind of, sort of, picks up where the first one left off but staggers the picking-up over four different years. I know, weird, but just go with it here for a minute.

The four separate years are each vignettes concerning, more or less, the four main characters of the first movie: Milner, Curt (but not really Curt), Steve and Toad. Spoiler alert: Milner dies, Curt (but not really Curt) rebels, and Steve realizes that staying in that dusty little valley town to sell insurance is every bit as boring as it sounds.

And then there’s Toad.

At the very end of the first movie they do a little “where are they now” blurb for each of the four main characters, which is how we find out that Toad, who joined the Army, went missing in action during the Vietnam War. So in More Am Graf we’re all sort of going on the assumption that Terry the Toad is going to get shot, or step on a land mine, or mistakenly kill himself as he tries to fake an injury that would get him sent home (which actually almost happens). But what we’re left with, pretty much, is a vagary – a mystery.

We find out the reason Toad is listed as MIA is because he, well, walked off into the jungle. That’s all – just walked away from his post. And now nobody knows where he is.

If you’ve been reading the news lately you’re familiar with another guy who walked away from his post. His name is Edward Snowden, and his post was with the NSA – the National Security Agency.

Snowden, as an analyst for the NSA, was privy to a lot of secrets our government would be quite happy you never found out about, thank you very much. But you did find out – and so did the Chinese. And the Russians. And just about everybody else.

From what I gather there are about two schools of thought on what old Edward has done. The first one says he stole national secrets from the NSA and provided them to our enemies – and that’s bad. The second school of thought goes something like this: Snowden revealed to the American Public, and the world, that the US Government has been spying on its own people without, ostensibly, good reason – or at least a reason that passes the “smell test”. And that’s not so bad.

If you’re of the first school you likely believe the man to be a scoundrel and traitor. If you’re of the second you might believe him to be a bit of a hero – a champion of freedom and liberty.

I have to tell you – I can see both sides.

The older and more sophisticated part of me – the part that watches interview reels – can see that the man did something wrong. I mean at the very least I want to know what was in the four computers he gave the Chinese. That part just didn’t strike me as very Robin Hood like. Unless you think Robin Hood would give the French information to imperil England just because the Sherriff of Nottingham was English.

But the less sophisticated kid-like part of me can see the other side. The side that says, no matter who else knows, it’s a good thing to be made aware that elements in our government are reading our emails and scrutinizing our phone calls.

And yeah, I know that whatever was in those computers the Chinese got from Snowden is not going to catch them up any time soon. We spend five times as much as China on defense, and nine times as much as the Russians. But still – it’s not right.

I’ll tell you another thing: The ambiguities of this case have left me a little uncertain. I’d like to come down squarely on one side or the other, except that I don’t fully agree with one side or the other.

You know, an interesting part of the interview with George Lucas was when the interviewer asked him where he got the inspiration for the characters. George said that Milner, the hot rodding hero, was based upon his own hot rod exploits. He said that Curt, the intellectual anti-hero who leaves town, was based on the fact that he himself left town. It’s even kind of implied that Steve, a sort of all-American type, was somehow reflective of Lucas. But he never really says anything about Toad.

Well I’ll bet you that Toad was every bit as much George Lucas as any of the others.

So I told you I first saw American Graffiti as a kid – I was still pretty young the first time I saw More American Graffiti too. Young enough that I didn’t really get that the characters were amalgamations – you know, combinations of parts of Lucas’ personality as well as personalities of others he grew up with. I thought the characters were real people. I thought Toad was a real guy – who went missing during Vietnam – and I used to wonder what happened to him.

I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to Edward Snowden. Whether some banana republic will grant him asylum – where he’ll spend his days scanning the skies for drones – or the CIA just grabs him at the Moscow Airport he’s holed up in.

But I can tell you this: While Toad may not be coming back – Snowden sure is. There’s not a jungle in this world deep enough, or a country far enough away, for him to hide in. That man may have left town, but he’s coming back here one day to answer some important queastions.

I’ll probably watch that interview reel too.

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