Daddy George and the Last Pilgrimage

I never got the chance to meet my other grandfather, George Emery. He passed away from a sudden brain aneurysm when my mother was sixteen years old, two years before I was born. My mom was one of six children, with the youngest being eight years old. 

As I grew older, I became very interested in learning more about my grandfather. As a senior in high school, I made a twenty minute documentary about him called Daddy George. This was a very important step for me because it eventually became the subject of my first screenplay, also titled Daddy George, later renamed The Last Pilgrimage.

My aunt Rita, who coincidentally married an unrelated Moyer, wrote this short story about my grandfather: 

Dad Never Did Like Cats 

Dad never did like cats…or so he said. It was a matter of record around our house that no being, other than human, was permitted access through or about the premises. That’s not to say we didn't try to bend the rules here and there. With six children under one roof, the subject of acquiring a pet was bound to come up rather frequently. And we all wanted a cat.

Dad would listen patiently while we took turns pleading our case, insisting he would not even know the cat was around. He received six promises to care for and feed the proposed cat and several whole-hearted guarantees to clean and empty the litter box. He silently shook his head when we suggested that even he would benefit from the presence of a cat.

After all our begging, Dad would sit us down and, with all our arguments exhausted, quietly tell us, once again, that the answer was no because he didn't like cats and didn't want one in his house. In an effort to pacify his six brooding, catless children, Dad went out and bought a huge aquarium. We all crowded into the local pet shop to pick out a few exotic fish. He had to peel us away from the kitten window to choose the fish but, eventually, we filled the aquarium.

The fish were okay for minimal amusement, but they got pretty boring after a while. Then, one of my brothers brought home a large, shimmering black fish and, the next day, all the other fish were gone. So much for the aquarium.

We were back to pleading for a cat and Dad was getting tired of hearing it.

It was around then that our family spent the day visiting another family who lived on a farm. They just happened to have a cat with several fully weaned kittens. We took turns all day spending time with the kittens. The overall favorite was a cute little calico colored with alternating stripes of pale gray and orange. Her playful antics entertained everyone throughout the day. Dad pretended not to notice.

Towards the end of our visit, the begging and pleading began anew. This time, with the tiny kitten nestled in my sister's arms, Dad could not refuse. Amid squeals of delight, we journeyed home with our new pet. The entire drive back to the city was spent trying to choose a name for our kitten. After several emotional debates, we all agreed on the name Sylvia.  

Sylvia was spoiled rotten from that day on.

Since the effort to acquire our cat had been so great, the pleasure of having her around was incredible. Sylvia was a queen and we, her loyal subjects. Except for Dad. Sylvia seemed to know he didn’t like her and she stayed clear of him most of the time. Occasionally, Sylvia would saunter up to Dad and try to win him over, but he would only shoo her away. He was never mean to Sylvia, just discouraging. After all, he made it very clear. He didn't like cats.

That was all my brothers and sisters and I ever saw of the relationship between our father and our cat.

It was many years later, long after both Dad and Sylvia were gone, that my family sat reminiscing about the old days and our very first cat. When the conversation turned toward Dad's intolerance of cats, my mother revealed a startling and very well kept secret. It seemed, after years of declaring how he didn't like cats, Dad was annoyed to find he'd developed a genuine affection for the kitten we brought home from the farm. Unwilling to listen to an eternal chorus of "I told you so” from his kids, Dad kept his newly found friendship to himself and swore my mother to secrecy.

Each night, with all his children tucked safely in their beds, Dad would settle down to watch a little television. Taking this as her cue, Sylvia would cuddle up close to Dad and bask in the gentle love and attention he would give her only when no one else was around. Mom laughed as she recalled how, by day, they ignored each other, but at night, they were inseparable.

Yes, Dad and Sylvia had a very special relationship…even though he never did like cats.

-Written by Rita Emery Moyer

In my senior year of high school, I took a mass media class taught by Mr. Ahern. He wanted us grouped into pairs, but I approached him about working by myself on a personal project. He originally shot me down, then compromised and assigned another student to work with me.  

It was a short documentary called Daddy George about my grandfather. I interviewed my mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles while they talked about the circumstances surrounding his sudden death from a brain aneurysm and the effects it had on them. 

I watched each interview over and over and made extensive notes about which clips to use and where to place them. This was my first real experience with editing. A local videographer, Jay Delp, kindly donated his time and helped me edit the video in his studio.

Here is the ending from the twenty-minute long documentary. Please remember this was filmed nearly 25 years ago on VHS tape while I was a teenager.

I got an "A" for the project, but more importantly, I learned about my grandfather and found myself wondering what things would be like had he lived. This inspired me to write my first screenplay, Daddy George, which I eventually re-titled The Last Pilgrimage.

I was only eighteen years old when I started writing the script. I attended a two-day screenwriting seminar in Philadelphia hosted by author Michael Hauge and it gave me the confidence and motivation to finish the script.

Looking back, this screenplay was poorly written and a blatant ripoff of many films, mostly Back to the Future. In addition to a time-traveling train, there were similar lines of dialog, such as a scene where an authority figure calls the main character a loser and tells him that he’ll never amount to anything. There is even a moment where the main character is asked what he wants to do with his life.

The story centered around a college student, essentially myself, returning home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday. He takes a train that travels back in time to the day his grandfather passed away. He meets his grandfather and also young versions of his parents, another nod to Back to the Future. He gets a brief chance to save his grandfather, but a time paradox stands in the way. Did I mention similarities to Back to the Future?

A friend of mine, Stan Cohen, owned a local video store called Salford Video. He had a cousin, Mitch Goldman, who was a top executive at New Line Cinema. Stan personally mailed my script to Mitch, who made sure it was read by someone at the studio. They passed, but were kind enough to send me the coverage notes, which was exciting because it featured the company letterhead and came in a big envelope from New Line Cinema.

The beginning of The Last Pilgrimage features a tailgating incident that really happened to me, with references to Risky Business, National Lampoon’s Vacation and The Twilight Zone. The main character also plays a Led Zeppelin 4 audio cassette in the car, which is a tribute to Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Little did I know that fifteen years after writing this, the actor who portrayed Damone, Robert Romanus, would appear in one of my films. This opening sequence can be read on the book’s website. 

For the first script in the book, I felt it was fitting to start with the scene where the main character meets his grandfather after traveling back in time. He also fights a character that is very similar to Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. I even made the mistake of having my main character beaten up in the first act, leaving him with a black eye and a swollen lip for the rest of the movie! Who would attempt to film that?

I made all the mistakes of a first-time writer and learned from them. While The Last Pilgrimage is not my best work, it was an important first step, and not just for my writing. It gave me the chance to meet my grandfather in my own creative way. Between my short documentary Daddy George and the screenplay that followed, I felt like I knew my grandfather, and that somehow, he knew me.

CLICK HERE to read this script excerpt from the book.