I was 9 years old in 1989. Luckily for me, my mom didn’t pay much attention to movie ratings. I don’t remember the first time I saw Die Hard’s John McClane looking the everyman in his sleeveless t-shirt and bare feet, probably because I watched the film over and over in my youth. I never had the chance to see Die Hard on the big screen when it arrived in 1988; I was eight and couldn’t decide on a whim to head to the movie theater. My father was gone and my mom didn’t have disposable income for things like movie tickets.
Video was the way to go back then anyway. You couldn’t go to the theater in pajamas, and the oversized sodas always induced in me the frantic need to urinate during the best parts. Instead, I would settle in at home, on my stomach on the floor, or cross-legged on the couch, watching in wonder.
When I was nine, I thought it was cool to see McClane shoot out another man’s knees, or pull an oversized shard of glass from the bottom of his foot. What budding adolescent male wouldn’t love exploding helicopters, fierce gun battles, and every curse word in the book, including that now-unforgettable catchphrase, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”?
Back then, it was cool; now, I realize John McClane helped shape the man I have become.
We all have our heroes. I could have just as easily chosen Rambo (the less-flawed one from First Blood Part 2, not its predecessor), Daniel Larusso (from The Karate Kid), Marty McFly (Back to the Future), or even Maverick (Top Gun). In fact, these characters, whom I grew up with, probably all had something to do with the way I turned out. I talked about them with my friends. I pretended to be them next to the swings at school, flexing my underdeveloped biceps to wrap an old rag around my head like Rambo, or slowly raising my arms and leg for the crane like the Karate Kid. Every time I paused to mimic Maverick — “I feel the need, the need for speed” — or McFly — “Nobody calls me chicken” — I was paying homage to these popular idols.
McClane was different. I didn’t talk about him much. We didn’t act out scenes from Die Hard. My admiration was more internal.
Perhaps this is because I was nine, and other nine-year-olds weren’t allowed to watch Die Hard. Maybe it was because I didn’t understand some of the character motivations, or even some of the language. But as I look back, I can’t help but think that this internal admiration was because McClane filled a hole in my life, left by my deadbeat dad. Talking about McClane would bring up thoughts of my father, and I didn’t like to think about him back then.
First a little about McClane. He is not a very deep character, necessarily, but he is more than the stock action hero. The first glimpse of who he truly is comes after an argument with his wife, Holly, at the beginning of the movie. The argument is about how Holly uses her maiden name and not “McClane.” When it’s over and she storms away, he bangs his head against the wall, saying “Very smooth, John.” He obviously wants to be back in his wife’s life. He wants her to have his name. And as we found out just a few scenes earlier, he wants to stay with his wife and children — even if only in a guest room — for Christmas.
I remember my dad as a roofer. For a time, he had a paper route. He was also a musician, with guitar as his musical forte. He worked hard to provide for us when we were babies. He left when I was young; I can’t remember how young. I saw him again when I was ten. My brother and I had gone to the beach with his side of the family, and I didn’t recognize my father when he walked in the door. I never saw him after that week.
I did hear tidbits about him. He was in Florida with a new family. He died of Hepatitis C complications in 2006. In these tidbits, I learned something new — he drank too much. At his funeral, which I did attend, the preacher said some words about him being a good father to his children, with only a passing mention of forgiving past mistakes. I imagine the preacher was talking about his new children with his new family in Florida. And maybe forgiveness deserves only what the preacher gave it — a passing regard.
Every day, I fear I will end up like him. As I’m writing this, my wife and I have an 18-month-old son and I wonder what type of father I will be. Will I run from the pressures of parenthood or will I learn from my father’s mistakes? In many ways, I am already like my father. Like him, I currently work multiple jobs. I’m an adjunct instructor at James Madison University, an adjunct instructor at Blue Ridge Community College, and a freelance writer and editor. I do all these because adjunct instructors don’t make a lot of money and I need the multiple jobs to pay multiple bills. I have come to love teaching and this is what I have to do to be able to call myself a teacher.
Is it too much? My father worked multiple jobs, was around when I was young, and then he left. Am I headed down the same path?
I think about McClane now. He was a father who longed to be with his children, despite a tumultuous relationship with Holly. He had a job he loved — a New York cop — and he made the effort to visit his kids on Christmas so his wife didn’t have to forge his name on the gifts, like my mom had to do during the holiday.
He didn’t want to be in the middle of a hostage takeover. In fact, he never wanted to be a hero. In Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment in the series, McClane explains himself to new sidekick Matt Ferrell:
“Fuck being a hero. You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. You get a little pat on the back, blah blah blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can’t remember your last name. Your kids don’t want to talk to you. You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, kid, nobody wants to be that guy.”
Ferrell then asks McClane why he does what he does (this conversation follows some surreal gun battles and car chases, of course). McClane simply says he does the right thing for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. This is all explanation of points Die Hard junkies already know. McClane curses himself enough in the first movie that we realize he is unhappy with many of his decisions in life.
Perhaps one of the most touching moments of self-doubt in the first Die Hard occurs as McClane dislodges glass from his foot. He embarks on an almost-sedate radio conversation with Sgt. Al Powell, as he fears he may not make it out of the building. As action movies go, this is not unusual; high-energy scenes are often followed by calmer moments. Nonetheless, McClane is sincere in these words, adding depth to his character. He says, tearfully,
“Tell her that … uhm … tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I’ve been … but that when things started to pan out for her I should have been more supportive … and I should have been behind her more … tell her that she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times, but she’s never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’ I want you to tell her that Al. I want you to tell her that John said he was sorry.”
The “her” is Holly. He has to force out the shaky words. His decisions in life have been questionable. He’s like my father now. I doubt my father believed leaving behind his wife and two children was the right thing to do. Even a money order now and then would have shown his desire to heed his responsibilities.
The difference is, for all of McClane’s bad choices, he excels in extreme situations. When the bad guys have guns, he wins. When he fears his own death, he prevails. My father ran when my mother threatened him with legal action. While that’s not as extreme as German henchmen with machine guns, it’s a big deal to a pre-teen. Maybe my father found some solace in the bottle and I should have some sympathy for him. Maybe he did care, and spent his life regretting the decision.
But he’s dead now, so I don’t know his motives.
As I said, I last saw my father when I was 10, but I did speak to my father once on the phone in my early 20s. I was at my grandmother’s — his mother’s — for Christmas and he called to wish everyone a happy holiday. I didn’t want to speak to him at first. My wife, realizing the momentous occasion, gently urged me on. Shakily, I held the phone and retreated into the kitchen.
“It’s been a long time,” I said.
“I know,” he replied, nervous. “It’s been hard.”
We didn’t say much more than that. We wished each other Merry Christmas and went on our way. But really, I was wondering how hard it could have been for him. At its simplest, it’s a matter of responsibility. I understand divorce; sometimes people fall out of love and they shouldn’t stick around if that happens. I don’t understand leaving kids behind completely.
When I was 9, McClane hopping on an airplane, attending Holly’s work Christmas party, and hoping to stay in the house with his children was what I wanted my father to do. But my father left my mother with the burden of raising two young boys. She did a great job and later she married a good man. But my father didn’t know what was going to happen when he left. He didn’t know if she could handle the burden. And really, I don’t think he cared. He might as well have handed us over to the German henchmen with machine guns. He didn’t rise up in the face of adversity, like McClane would have. He didn’t prevail against all odds. He snuck away. Imagine if McClane had done that. It would have been a movie about McClane getting out of a building, and everyone else, including his wife, dying on an exploding, skyscraping rooftop.
I don’t want to be my father; I want to stand up, not run away. Despite bad choices — some of which I have already made — I want to move on, to make better what went bad. I don’t own a gun, but if I did, and if I were in a hostage takeover, I would want to shoot the bad guys and revel in the thought that later, I would see my son.