The Indispensable Dad: Movies, Father's Day cards and secret handshakes

“Hey Dad, what do you want for Father’s Day,” the eight-year-old me asked.

“Same as last year, son. Make me a card.”

And, boy I did. Just like the year before. I set up my art station beneath my Superman poster and GI Joe set, armed with crayons, “flair pens,” construction paper, glue and scissors, and got about the business of showing my Dad how much I loved him. The result was another multi-colored Father’s Day passion play; me and my strong and mighty warrior man (Dad was a veteran) in the woods. Together.

A whole lotta years later, you should visit my closet sometime. The walls are papered with my daughters’ cards to me, a technicolor landscape of child-drawn pictures of us, misspelled words of love to their Daddy. Each reduced me to tears every Father's Day, and they still do.

Whenever I need a good man-cry, I just retire to that closet. 

Recently I came across one of those cards I’d made back in the ‘70’s. It was the usual theme, Dad and me in front of a fire in the woods, cooking the fish we’d caught in a raging river. I grew up in the suburbs, so I’m not sure that scene ever actually happened. But in my mind it sure did.

A couple of years later, my dad was gone, and today, after making a living as a writer for thirty years, I’m still sorting all of that out, these days very publicly, in my new film "The Secret Handshake."

A funny thing happens in the movie. Brody Jenkins, the thirteen-year-old ne’er do well who’s stalking the daughter of Roy Roper, played by Kevin Sorbo, is kicked back on his bunk bed one afternoon, surfing his Instagram, or maybe something worse in the digital domain.

The door bursts open, and there stands Roy with two other neighborhood men, geared up to hit the trail. “Get your boots,” Roy growls. “We’re going on a little hike.” And against his will-- but with the blessing of his widowed mother played by Amy Grant-- Brody is taken to the woods by the men of his suburban village, where adventure, hilarity and wild men await, to cross him over into manhood.

My plot is hardly original. Throughout human history, most every culture on Earth has had some version of a “crossover” experience for a boy. Literally or figuratively, he’s led away from his village, put through some sort of trial, taught his village’s “secret handshake” and from that day forward, is a man. And who did that crossing over? Fathers. Men.

But we don’t really do that anymore. Sure, Earth’s few surviving “primitive” tribes continue this rite in sometimes bizarre and painful ways, Jewish boys still get Bar Mitzvah’ed, and every good Mafia movie has a “made man” scene. But our modern Western world has pretty much dismissed the ‘Secret Handshake’ tradition. Boys today are largely left to cross over without the men of their village. The lucky ones have a Dad to do it. But a whole lot of boys like me, for whatever reason, don’t.

We’re on our own, to be crossed over by their peers, Hollywood, and technology. And the forecast for boys, and dare I say our whole world, would be very dire indeed, were it not for Dads. Men. Because just as Amy Grant’s character asks, as she reaches out for help with her troubled teenage boy, “What do I know about being a man?”

My Dad passed before crossing me over but in that brief time he was here, he was able to teach me pretty much all I needed to know to be a Dad, and a man. It took me a long time to figure out what he was saying to me, but I think I did when I wrote this story.

“Teach that boy what you know,” the wild man in the woods tells Roy Roper. “And watch his back. That’s the only secret handshake there is.”

When I found that old faded card I’d made my strong and mighty warrior man Dad, I looked anew at the picture I’d drawn: Father and son, under the stars, a campfire in the woods. And it dawned on me...

The drawing was the exact frame I filmed as the boy crossed over, at the end of "The Secret Handshake." Forty years after I drew it, my card came to life, under those stars in the Tennessee woods. I felt my Dad’s smile. And I went in my closet and cried.

Howard Klausner is the award-winning writer/director of The Secret Handshake which released Jun 2nd. He co-wrote the screenplay for the Clint Eastwood film “Space Cowboys,” and the forthcoming biopic of Ronald Reagan, “Reagan”.