When I was in the fifth grade, a new kid showed up at St. John Vianney Catholic School by the name of Jon-Paul Pepper. Soon enough, the numerous girlfriends I had assembled in the fourth grade were no longer mine (getting glasses didn’t help me either), for they’d all started making J.P. their boy. But it wasn’t just the young girls who were swooning — all of our moms were talking about J.P.’s dad, Pete Pepper, who was one of San Jose’s leading newscasters at the time.
To a 10-year-old, the evening news meant next to nothing, but the celebrity connection only made me resent this new kid more. But as the bizarre circus of childhood politics would have it, J.P. and I suddenly became best friends — a place we’ve remained to this day, despite differing geographies and the march of time — so this TV talking head Pete was soon a fixture of my life in a very personal way, even a second-string dad at times during elementary school playdates and junior high sleepovers.
But there was something different about going to “J.P.’s dad’s house,” as I called it. First of all, J.P. parents’ were divorced, which was a new experience for my adolescent brain, something I slowly tried to wrap my head around. He even had a stepmother named Ann, and she was a serious soul, often cold, even occasionally condescending, though I probably didn’t know that word at the time. J.P.’s mom’s house, meanwhile, was much more like my own — casual, stereotypically suburban, middle-class, not near the country club, with carpets you didn’t mind crossing, furniture you knew what to do with, and walls decorated with paper rather than expensive looking art.
Much more so than my parents or other friends’ parents, Pete was a disciplinarian, so my playtime visits with J.P. often included ditch digging and other forms of yard work — most memorably the “nose mine” hunting detail of picking up after their huge Rottweiler perfectly named Pepper, perhaps the most excellent embodiment ever of a teddy bear beast. Some days, our reward would be a lunch whose ingredients I’d never heard of — goose pates, stinky cheeses, weird fruits, the sort of stuff that, as a kid, you only fear more when you learn what they really are.
With the responsibilities, however, came certain freedoms. From J.P.’s bedroom window, we could easily escape into the surrounding neighborhoods under the cover of darkness, and carry forth with our teenage deviance — some toilet papered trees here, run-of-the-mill golf course vandalism there, and plenty of hurried dashes through the night, each time sneaking back in, usually unscathed. As we grew older, the deviances turned more adult, with intoxicating liquids and combustible substances more easily finding their way into our bodies than at other homes, largely because Pete and Ann weren’t home as much, and the sprawling modern house had more private hiding places. Being dumb kids meant we did get caught from time to time, but the punishments usually reflected our working playtimes anyway — well, at least for me, as J.P. had to deal with more repercussions from time-to-time.
I didn’t really know what being a Vietnam veteran meant when I first heard that Pete was one, though I quickly got the sense that it was deep and painful and disturbing, something not worth poking at. In retrospect, my visits to J.P.’s dad’s house all make sense: the labor followed by freewheeling R&R as the structure Pete knew best. And so does the prevailing sense of tension that loomed over the house on Club Drive in the Alum Rock foothills of East San Jose — Pete was a wounded soul, and he had married another in Ann, and their relationship was built on mutual respect and repair, leaving occasional visitors like myself to wander the fringes, where formality, fine art, and foie gras masked a family’s darker demons.
When J.P. called me a few years ago with the news that Ann had killed herself with a pistol near her and Pete’s new home in Sonoma County, I was surprised, but not shocked. She was more troubled than I knew, clearly, but I was already old enough to have realized that all was not well in the Pepper house of my youth. I immediately asked about Pete, who I hadn’t seen in years, but who I felt more connected to than ever, having become a professional journalist like him, a career where kinship is strong. “Not well” was the response, so J.P. — then already on his path to becoming a surgeon (that’s right, Dr. Pepper!, just like we joked as kids) — set about caring for Pete in his time of need.
Around that time, Pete — who, it turns out, was the commander calling the shots in Vietnam, a supervisor of dozens of even younger kids — was serendipitously contacted by his former soldiers. They hadn’t spoken in decades, but by simply asking how he was, they saved Pete’s life. And so he set about saving theirs, by taking them all back to Vietnam to reconnect with their pasts, and kill the ghosts of war that still haunted them all.
It’s no stretch to call Killing Memories — which has its world premiere as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this Tuesday night, February 1, at the Lobero Theatre — Pete Pepper’s life work. This is the documentary about that trip with his soldiers, who did kill some serious memories on former battlefields, with the daughters of slain combatants, and with the enemies themselves on that fateful trip. It will inspire other Vietnam veterans to do the same, but more powerfully, it carries a message that’s all too relevant today, with more boys and girls going to the Middle East all the time: War doesn’t stop when the bullets fall — it lingers in the minds of even successful broadcast journalists, casting a shadow over lives deep into the future. That’s nearly a cliché these days, but it still doesn’t seem to be the first thing that foreign policy decision makers think of, and it should be, so long as we uphold a sane society and real family values.
Today, Pete appears to be as happy and battle scar-free as ever. His world premiere at the Lobero — where he will be joined by his former soldiers once again and endure a post-film Q&A session run by yours truly — will be a homecoming of sorts, as his grandfather founded Hazard’s Cyclery in Santa Barbara and he did a stint at Los Prietos Boys Camp before being shipped out to the war. The best of news, however, is that Pete will be getting married to a lovely lady this coming Saturday at the mission in San Luis Obispo, where he now lives. Peace, I believe, will finally come to roost in the Pepper house.
The world premiere of Pete Pepper’s Killing Memories is on Tuesday, February 1, 7 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre. It also screens on Thursday, February 3, 10 a.m., at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.