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Features reporter Jeff Wilkin on pop culture
 

Dr. Blood’s Coffin

By Jeff Wilkin
Friday, June 15, 2012
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I had never told this story to anyone before this past February.

That’s the month my father, Harold “Jeff” Wilkin Sr., passed away in Rochester at age 91. A few days after the funeral, I let my brother Tim in on the secret. He was part of the story ... even though he had never known about his starring role.

I thought Father’s Day — my first one without old Dad — might be a good time to let other people in on this. Because to me, it says something about fatherhood, and what being a dad is really all about. Yeah, it’s sentimental. Probably a little corny, too. But it’s something I’ve never forgotten.

It was 1961, maybe 1962. I was 6 or 7 years old, and part of a Rochester family on the move every morning. Mom would have been up getting Tim and me ready for school. Dad would have been out of the house before 8 a.m., ready for a brisk six- or seven-block walk to the Eastman Kodak Co. My sister Joanne had it the easiest; at 4 years of age, she didn’t have to do anything or go anywhere.

Reading was something we were picking up at old Sacred Heart elementary school. I’d peak into the morning newspaper; I always wanted to see if any kid-friendly movies were opening. Maybe some cartoon thing, as I was a slave to the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. animation studios in those days.

It was around 8 a.m. when I met Dr. Blood. It was one of these big advertisements that all theaters bought for movie pages during the early 1960s. The film was “Dr. Blood’s Coffin,” and all I remember was the image of some skull-faced creep stuffing some poor soul into a large wooden box. The image just scared the hell out of me.

I remember thinking about Dr. Blood and his coffin all through the morning. I figured I would eventually skip over the monster from the newspaper ... I’d forget all about it by lunch time.

But I didn’t. Dr. Blood — basically a guy who had figured out a way to revive the dead — was on call in my imagination the entire school day. Dr. Blood! And his coffin!

We were out of school by 2:30 or 3 p.m. in those days. Tim and I did the usual things boys do in the late afternoon — a few hours outside with friends, inside by 4 or 4:30 to watch television and wait for Dad to arrive home. Then dinner. Then dishes. Then homework.

By 7:30, I still had Blood on my hands. I just couldn’t shake him. But it wasn’t a real pressing issue. Not with four other people in the house, conversations here and there, voices and music coming from the television.

We were sent to bed in those days probably around 8 p.m. The only late night was Friday, when we got to watch “The Flintstones” as a family at 8:30 p.m. Tim and I shared a room, and I could usually count on some talk with my younger brother at lights out. Just stupid things, maybe some kid had puked in the Sacred Heart hallways, maybe there had been a fight in the coat room. Maybe we’d talk about cartoon characters of the day. Too bad Tim had not yet discovered horse racing — he could have put me to sleep with words about races, jockeys and trainers.

But he fell asleep without me. Joanne was also into the dream realm, in another room. And our entire second floor was quiet. I was sure Dr. Blood had found Alameda Street, and was walking slowly from house to house — arm and leg bones sticking out of tattered coat and trousers, old hat covering his skeleton head. He just had to be looking for a 6-year-old kid to stuff into his coffin and bury alive on Seneca Parkway.

I had something going for me — television. Mom and Dad were always watching something in the living room. I’d hear theme songs from shows like “Hawaiian Eye,” “The Untouchables,” “Perry Mason” and could count on 30 or 60 minutes worth of script and story. I was desperately hoping to fall asleep before Eliot Ness — with Rico, Lee and Youngblood — tommy-gunned some syndicate bootleggers to smithereens. Or before Perry won his latest trial in court.

Nothing was working. I was still up at 11, and now had only the local news to bail me out. News, sports and weather all came and went, and that was it. I heard the TV click off and heard Mom and Dad walk upstairs. There was probably a few minutes of muffled conversation as they got ready for bed. Nothing loud, not with three small children sleeping in rooms nearby.

But only two were sleeping. I heard the master bedroom’s light switch off. Our house was now completely dark and quiet. Midnight was coming ... it was the perfect time for Dr. Blood, who had to be sitting on our front porch by now, to make his big move.

I was wide awake. And when someplace is just silent — and you’re kind of expecting something to happen — the quiet seems heavier somehow, thick and pliable. I lay in the dark for an hour, maybe more. I was frantically convinced Dr. Blood had skittered up the side of our house like a spider and had framed his bones around my bedroom window. He was ready for his appointment with me.

There was only one, desperate escape. I ran into Mom and Dad’s bedroom and woke up my father.

I spilled everything. Dr. Blood, the newspaper, the coffin, the dead people, the monster. I had become an expert on the whole stupid movie just by staring at a black-and-white advertisement for 10 seconds.

Dad understood the whole thing. He walked me back to my bedroom and tucked me back in. As we were a Catholic family, we often wore religious medals around our necks — saints and such to offer inspiration and guidance. Not sure where mine was that night; I could have used everyone from St. Agatha to St. Zenobius.

My father slipped off his medal and said I could put it under my pillow, if I was still scared. Then he said something I have always remembered: He told me as long as he was in the house, there was never anything to worry about. That’s all I needed. I was relieved, relaxed and finally able to drift off to sleep.

There’s an epilog to this story. I didn’t really think about Dr. Blood for another 10 years or so. That’s when I ran into him — once again — in the newspaper. “Dr. Blood’s Coffin” was getting either a late afternoon or late evening spot on television. By now, our family had a second television, and I grabbed a couple sodas and probably a bag of barbecue potato chips. I would meet Dr. Blood face-to-face as a fearless 17-year-old.

The 1961 movie, a cheap import from Great Britain, was just lousy. A lot of people running around caves, a couple of guys shambling around in bad make-up. I don’t think Dr. Blood’s coffin even showed up. It was about as scary as a duck pond on a spring day. I laughed the doctor and his imbecile zombie friends into oblivion. In the battle of wills and nerve, I was the victor.

Part of me will always remember Dr. Blood as a more formidable presence, a visitor who came in the dead of time 50 years ago.

But there was a tougher guy in the house that night. And Dr. Blood never had a chance.

 
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