Father’s Day

You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until it finally buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody who says they have to do this. They do it because they love you.
—Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)

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My father died in 1973.  He was 55.  I was 22.  He had made a point of watching The Wizard of Oz annual TV presentations with me from when it was first broadcast in 1956.  The first year I was away at college, 1969, and not keeping track of TV schedule listings, I was shocked walking into the student center one evening and finding a large group gathered around a TV set.  The Wizard of Oz was on!  I rushed to a nearby wall of pay phones and called home to see if Daddy knew and was watching anyway without me being there.  He was, and was wondering if I knew if it was on also.  I told him to think of me while he watched, and I would do the same.  Then I told him I loved him.  He replied, “Same here, son.”  I detected a break in his voice.  That was the nearest he ever came to saying, “I love you.”  He could never handle that word— love, but at that moment I knew for sure that he did.  Every year when we had watched Dorothy say goodbye to all her Oz friends, tears would run down my cheeks.  I would glance at Dad, and spy tears in his eyes also.  Aside from that annual occasion, the only time I saw my dad really weep was in 1971, while watching The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.  (The basis for The Waltons TV series.)  Dad grew up in a very rural area and probably identified with John-Boy in that Depression era setting and age bracket.  So I learned via movies that Dad’s tears meant deep love for family and friends that, while could not be spoken of aloud, could not be doubted or broken.  My only regret is that I did not hug him as tight as I could during The Homecoming, but at the time, I was fearful that I would embarrass him by drawing attention to his tears.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  I still love you.

TV and Love in the Afternoon, 1950’s Style

No, this post is not about soap operas, even though I was captivated by As the World Turns from the time of its premiere in 1956.  But it does orbit around TV technology of the 1950’s, that era when we grappled with terms such as horizontal hold, vertical hold, fine tuning and mahogany cabinetry shielding myriad vacuum tubes, diodes and the magical cathode ray tube which turned electron beams, somehow, into glowing moving images that entertained us.

In those days TV channels could be counted on one hand, so choosing what to watch worked no hardship.   But actually turning on the TV set and watching your choice could be daunting.  Rotating the aerial, adjusting a row of picture-tuning knobs, setting the volume, all to capture the best reception possible.  Not infrequently, you’d get wiggle-squiggles, snow, or worse yet, pops, crackles and no picture at all.  Well, nothing to do then but rush to the phone and dial up that very popular service– TV Repair!

When such scenarios happened at my house, I would sit on the front steps mourning the temporary loss of my friend, The One-eyed Monster, while keeping my own eye riveted to the street awaiting the approach of a paneled vehicle emblazoned with the logo of Brown’s TV & Radio Repair.  No one can fully appreciate my 1950’s happiness at the sight of the TV repairman’s truck pulling into our driveway.  I’d leap from the step and usher the repairman through the front door and point to my sick buddy.  Then I’d crouch behind the TV set beside this big, burly man with “Gus” embroidered on his uniform shirt, a lock of black Vitalised hair falling over his left eye, and together we’d look at its innards with the back removed while he diagnosed the ailment of my magical friend, patiently answering all my youthful concerns.   Diagnosis completed, I’d walk back to his truck with him, watching him sort through the racks of vacuum tubes and wiry switches to find the replacement parts that would restore the glowing images on our TV screen.  He’d tinker within the TV set awhile, me hovering at his elbow, then he would sit back on his heels with short-sleeved arms folded across his broad chest and grin as the picture returned.  It seemed to me he basked in its restored glow– and in the warmth of being elevated in my eyes into a personal superhero.  I loved him.

Operator-assisted Telephone Calls

“Num-ber PA-lee-aaze!” is what that scary, dominating woman’s voice on the other end of the line demanded each time I plucked the telephone receiver from it’s cradle and drew it cautiously to my ear.  Ice-drenched fear raced through the marrow of my bones each time I heard her voice.  I’d quickly hand the receiver to Mom who’d purr, “248-J” into the mouthpiece.  She would then pass the receiver back to me, I’d snug it to my ear, hear a briiing-briiing sound followed by Annie Lee’s cheery hello.  Annie Lee was my godmother;  her husband, Winston, my godfather.  Older than my parents, they dotingly filled the grandparent void as all my real ones had died before I was born.

But back to that telephone operator.  She stood between me and anyone’s voice I wanted to hear.  And worse, Mom had drilled me to pick up the telephone and tell that operator about any emergency that might occur, such as a fire, and she would dispatch help.  Yeah!  Like flames licking at my backside could be incentive enough to propel me to cry out to that malevolent-sounding telephone operator!  Years later, in the psychedelic ’60s when Lily Tomlin regularly performed her “Ernestine the telephone operator” sketches on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, I enjoyed Lily’s quirky, omnipotent Ernestine.  And she didn’t look at all like the ghastly creature at the other end of my telephone line.  I envisioned my telephone operator wearing thick-heeled black suede pumps, a black  dress with glowing eyeballs sewn on the sleeve cuffs, maroon nail polish, thick glasses on a chain around her neck, knotted brows swooping upward and a fat hair bun skewered with green knitting needles topping a very buxom figure.  And it wouldn’t have come as any surprise if red plumes of smoke escaped her nostrils.  Yeeech!

I believe Daddy was afraid of her too.  I remember times at the dinner table, while luxuriantly caressing my dessert with the back of a spoon, hearing Daddy say something like this to Mom, “Lois, get Wilber Ebert on the line, I want to see if I can borrow his wheelbarrow this weekend.”  Seemed he was forever getting Mom to place his calls.  Our community finally got dial phones in October of 1958, but then, Dad continued having Mom initiate telephone calls for him.  Maybe it was just one of those King-of-his-castle things instead of any heart-thumping fear that made him keep Mom toiling at the telephone.

Mom never complained about her household task as Official Call-Meister.  Perhaps it was in her blood.  In the tiny town in which she was raised, her own mother was the official substitute for Miss Eleanor Norfleet, switchboard operator of the town’s telephone service.  She had been hand-picked for the job in 1925 by Miss Norfleet, herself, because my grandmother had the reputation of being a woman who knew about all things and how do them well.  After all, Fannie Jackson was a successful milliner, had designed her own home, the Women’s Club facility, the town’s high school, so naturally, pulling duty at the switchboard would be a cinch, even though Mrs. Jackson preferred the absence of any telephone in her own home.   So, in addition to any planned days off, Miss Eleanor could, at the drop of a hat, go tend to something at home, run an errand, chase a cat or fly a kite.  All she need do was telephone Perkins Meat Market and instruct the delivery boy to run over to Miss Fannie’s and say Miss Eleanor needed her at the switchboard.  Whereupon, my grandmother would drop several hats in progress, march over to the telephone company and (wo)man the switchboard until Miss Eleanor’s return.

No wonder my grandmother was a woman who knew about all things– she probably eavesdropped at that switchboard.

Dizzy World of Gunplay in the Eisenhower Era

The Eisenhower era was the setting for the first generation of children to grow up shoulder to shoulder with that one-eyed monster glowing in the corners of living rooms across America.  We baby-boomers were a special lot, you know, pioneering players in that new American frontier.  And while we were busily playing our day-to-day roles in that vast wasteland, we later learned there had been strong-backed women out on the frontier among us– Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck– dutifully scribbling in their journals, recording the bigger picture of the perils of conquering this new land called Suburbia.

TV captivated much of our attention.  Many of us could probably quote the weekly TV schedule.  Yet TV never held us captive inside.  Our world was still found outside.   But the one-eyed monster did whisper inspiration for outdoor play.  Crime dramas gave us plots, Our Gang comedies gave us impetus.

My neighborhood had concrete sidewalks on each side of the street.  These became our highways when we played our versions of Highway Patrol or Dragnet, with bikes and trikes doubling as squad cars and getaway cars.  Our curbside performances were legendary.  One neighborhood girl, Gail, was enamored with the role of the drunken gun moll.  She would wear her rummage-sale dress-up clothes and a smear of purloined lipstick.  She would rapidly spin behind a nearby bush until quite drunken.  At some point, she would stumble toward a parked “squad car,” toting an old discarded black patent leather purse, and start an argument with the “men,” wildly weaving, bellowing and flailing her arms.   Eventually, she’d reach into that purse and pull out a cap pistol!  Then the heat was really on!!!  I was usually the coroner.

Nowadays, Gail is a fine and respected second-generation pharmacist at the helm of the local still-family-owned drug store.

So much for the evils of childhood gun play–

Local Gun Moll Makes Good!

Thinking about Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

When I was just four, Mother kept me up one night to see a live broadcast of a program on TV.  She said it was special and perhaps I might remember some of it later as I grew older.  It was a live production of Our Town.  Although I’ve seen several productions of Our Town on TV and on local stages in the intervening decades, I have never forgotten some of those shadowy b&w images on that early model TV screen.  I remember the stark, near-barren stage, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs  cooking breakfast on invisible stoves.  I especially recall a mass of huddled umbrellas and a young lady emerging from them dressed in white.  Mother said the girl was dead.  It was her funeral.  I have never forgotten that.  I have attended many graveside funerals since then, and studied Our Town– especially Act III.  And I have taken many peaceful walks through our city cemetery and imagined its residents seated in folding chairs beside their tombstones, unemotionally commenting about my presence amongst themselves as I passed by reading their stones.  “Beloved Wife.” “Daddy.”  “Little Angel.”  Act III tells us the departed grieve the ignorance and blindness of the living.  And if we only could, we’d grieve more for ourselves than for our dearly departed no matter the age or circumstance.  The answer to all of our “whys?” and “what fors?” about the meaning of death lies in Act III of Our Town.  Yet I’ve never found the words to utter that answer aloud– but I can feel it in my bones.

Winston and the mighty Zenith