One of the many new aspects of our life at the house on Elkelton was a color television. The Curtis Mathes set was Colonial in style and made of maple. It was a big box of a thing that sat on four decorative legs about six inches off the floor. To me, it resembled a cartoon pig with legs too small to support its body. In 1968, it was the Cadillac of color televisions. The last time we had a television in the house, it was nothing like this. The old black and white cube of a set with the simulated wood finish had followed us to Spain and back and was sitting in the garage looking every bit the oddity it was. After begging our parents to stop at every motel that advertised a color TV on our drive across the country, the idea of seeing a large screened wonder sitting in our own living room was almost magical.
Years of playing outside with the neighborhood pack on the Navy base quickly transitioned into TV Guide scheduled reruns on school afternoons and late weekend nights. Sliding down grassy banks on flattened cardboard boxes, drawing on the street in front of our house with roadside chalk, playing jacks, and roller skating were replaced by the canned laughter of Bewitched, That Girl, and The Beverly Hillbillies. Gilligan’s Island practically played on loop– ridiculous considering the show only ran two years on prime time. With only three channels to choose from, our viewing schedule was pretty much set.
We watched so much television, I still remember the words and melodies of some of the commercial ditties–like Van de Kamp’s Baked Beans. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, you can go back in time to enjoy this gem my brain has safely stored on its Rolodex.
“All the little things that make you smile and glow!” Or as my stepfather Leo referred to beans when they were on the dinner menu, “Hundreds of magical things.”
We rarely if ever had the ability to make requests of my mom when the time came for the every other week grocery shop at the Navy commissary. But now, we were connoisseurs of whatever brand caught our attention thanks to television. No longer were we locked into the Prell, Crest, Zest household we’d been for as long as I could remember. I can still smell the Pledge furniture polish we used when it was my turn to clean the living room, or the Ivory dishwashing liquid when it was my turn to do the dinner dishes. Soon, Palmolive, Irish Spring, and the Brawny paper towels that only Leo was allowed to use made their way into our lives. Where as before, we walked home from school for lunch each day, now we had our very own supply of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ruffles potato chips or Fritos to stuff into baggies each day. It’s no wonder my weight began to creep up. By the time I was in the 8th grade, my lean body had grown to 130 lbs.
The irony of having a new color television is that I discovered the comfort of old black and white movies. I’d scan the TV Guide for them, marking the listing with a star to make it known I had dibs on the time slot. I was a movie fan in general because the theater and drive-in on the base were free and my parents treated us regularly. But this was different. Other than the Charlie Chan movies that aired on Sunday mornings after Mass which we watched together while making burgers (yes, you read that correctly–burgers for breakfast), I was the only one who seemed to be interested. I soon found my quiet time with Hedy Lamarr and Esther Williams. I fell in love with Robert Young and Cary Grant. Carole Lombard, Lauren Bacall, and Loretta Young all left me start struck. Movies like Mrs. Miniver, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and It’s a Wonderful Life became favorites I to watch to this day when I happen upon one of them and feel the need for nostalgia. Musicals and romance comedies in particular became the perfect escape from the rapidly approaching wool suit of adolescence.
And then there was the news. It would have been impossible not to be aware of world events considering we had lived on a Navy base positioned at the mouth of the Mediterranean during the Vietnam War. But the base was a relatively small community and the US thousands of miles away. Still, we knew how unpopular the war was and of the protests taking place at home. Of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy within less than two months of one another, and just as we were preparing to return home. Of President Johnson deciding not to run for reelection and Richard Nixon deciding to give it one more try. Still, it was like being in a cocoon, sheltered from reality. News happened elsewhere to others.
Now, the news was in our living room, daily. Walter Cronkite reported from Vietnam in fatigues and a helmet. Choppers whooped in the background as men on the ground carried casualties on stretchers to unload them into open bays. Young men burned draft cards, women burned bras. The Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia. Black Olympians raise their fists during a medal ceremony in Mexico City in protest of the violence and poverty Black Americans are subjected to. Astronauts circle the moon and return to Earth safely for the first time.
As much as having a television provided an escape, there was no escaping the harsh realities of life.
To be continued…
This is a draft of a memoir. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo and writing about my life in houses. It’s uncomfortable to put myself out here like this, unedited and by the seat of my pants, but I’ve got 14 days to get a good foundation down for something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. We’ll be off to England then for several weeks, and I hope to have something solid enough to work with when we return. Thanks for reading. All input is appreciated.