Saturday, October 30, 2010

Growing Up With Television

A unique characteristic of baby boomers is that we are the first generation to grow up with television. The history of the development of television goes back to the early 1900’s, but it wasn’t until broadcast networks offered regular programming in the late 40’s and early 50’s that televisions became available to the public. By 1955 estimates are that half of American households had a TV set. There were just a few channels in those days and the programs were in black and white.
It’s the 1950’s shows that I remember fondly. Our TV set was in the basement during much of that time. Part of our basement was converted into a family room with knotty pine walls on which my parents allowed me to hang my precious baseball pennants. There was a brown and beige linoleum floor with an area rug, a coffee table, couch and chair so that our family of four could watch television in the evening. I loved getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch what I considered my own personal shows. I don’t remember the exact lineup, but there were a lot of cowboy programs; The Lone Ranger, Fury, Sky King, Roy Rogers and Hop-a-long Cassidy.
Andy’s Gang was a strange show hosted by Andy Devine and sponsored by Buster Brown shoes. It had some bizarre characters which included a mischievous toy frog named Froggy the Gremlin. Andy would say “Plunk your magic twanger Froggy” which elicited a twanging sound, a puff of smoke and the appearance of a stiff little toy Frog with arms and legs sticking out to the side. Froggy greeted us by saying, “Hiya kids, hiya, hiya hiya”, in a low male voice. One of the funniest bits to my child’s mind was when Froggy confused the teacher by interrupting him in the middle of teaching us something scholarly and serious. The interruption was “And I put it on my head” after which the teacher absentmindedly repeated the phrase and placed whatever he was holding on his head. I’m certain kids across America were laughing with me.
The Howdy Doody Show was the first television program I remember totally getting into. It was our Sesame Street minus all that healthy educational stuff. It took place in Doodyville and even had a Mayor, Pheneous T. Bluster. The most important part of the show for me and what made it more personal was the Peanut Gallery, a bleacher filled with kids just like myself. Buffalo Bob, the host, opened the show by asking the Peanut Gallery, “Hey kids, what time is it?” and all the kids would yell, “It’s Howdy Doody time,” and break into the Howdy Doody song, which was to the tune of Ta ra ra Boom de ay, an old Vaudeville song. I can finally admit that I sang along with the other kids. Some of the other characters on the show were Clarabel, who didn’t talk until the very last show, but instead honked a horn on his belt or squirted someone with a seltzer bottle, Chief Thunderthud who created the not very PC greeting and later resurrected by Bart Simspson, Kowabonga, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, who vanished as a real person and later reappeared on the show as a marionette, like Howdy(unbeknownst to us kids, the actress was killed in a car accident).
The Peanut Gallery concept caught on across America. In the St. Louis area where I grew up, there were several shows that had live kid participation. One was Ernie Heldman’s Parade of Magic. My friend Paul and I got a chance to be on the show with our cub scout troop. TV was such a big part of our lives that to actually appear on it was a huge deal. I remember feeling nervous that Ernie would call on me to come up and help him with a magic trick, but he some chose other kids and I was relieved. Moments before the cameras rolled, our friend Craig spilled coke all over Paul and so Paul was pulled out of the gallery and didn’t get on the show. Later when it was on television we watched it and as the camera panned the rows of kids, I spotted myself. For a few brief seconds I felt the fleeting glory of fame. Then the show was over and my fame was lost in history. Very few of my friends saw that particular show and if one did, he or she didn’t remember seeing me on it.
A very popular show in the St. Louis area was Texas Bruce and the Wrangler Club. The kids were the Wranglers. Texas Bruce and his horse Trusty were popular figures around St. Louis. They appeared at many events. During the show, Texas Bruce allowed the boys and girls to individually say hi to family and friends. Most of the kids said hi to there moms and dads. On one show, a boy said “Hi mom, hi dad,” and then stuck up the middle finger of his right hand, thrust it toward the camera and added, “And this for you Herby.” The kid became legendary. Everyone was talking about him. Who was he? And who was Herby? What did Herby do to him to deserve this? I imagined Herby taking his revenge out on the kid and expected to see headlines in the newspaper, “One of Texas Bruce’s Wranglers murdered in his sleep.” But we never found out anything about the kid or Herby. In fact Texas Bruce denied that the incident ever happened. We couldn’t find anyone who actually had seen this  show. Most parents believed it was all a rumor. But we kids were believers. This one brave boy who stood up to Herby the bully for all the world to see, lives on in our hearts and minds.
The unique feature of television is that you can relive history exactly as it happened in the past. Many of the shows we watched as kids were saved on film and can be viewed on the internet. I don’t recommend it however. The kids’ shows look cheesy and corny and the serious shows aren’t much better. I recently watched a few episodes of Have Gun-Will Travel with Richard Boone as Paladin. The shows concept was great and I would love to see it remade for current times. But when I watched these old episodes, I thought, Man is he ever an obnoxious one dimensional know it all. I guess we can’t really go back to our childhood. We can however savor the memories. I still believe in that lone Wrangler who gave Herby exactly what he deserved. As Texas Bruce used to say, Hasta la vista vaqueros, I’ll be seeing you Wranglers .

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Cola Wars

I opened a checking account at a local bank recently. The teller was trying her darndest to get me to agree to a credit card that I didn’t want. She was good at it too. Even though I deny this to my wife, she was young and attractive and I was enjoying our interchange. She didn’t come right out and ask me if I wanted the card, but got me talking about myself. She shared a little about herself and at just the right moment slipped in the credit card pitch. I listened politely and even agreed with some of the points she made, which was a mistake. I used my standard way of weaseling out of it which is, “Before agreeing to anything, I need to talk it over with my wife.” This is an absolutely true statement. Katie handles the money and is savvier about money matters than I am. But this tactic always feels like a wimp’s way out, like I can’t make decisions for my self. But this young woman was determined. She must have felt she had her fish hooked and now just needed to reel him in. She called me at home that evening. She wanted me to know that I’m a valued customer with the bank and to make sure my overall banking experience had been to my liking. Only after softening me up a while, did she mention the credit card, sort of an Oh by the way tactic. I told her I wasn’t interested. She is still polite to me when I go into the bank, but doesn’t seem to care too much about my overall banking experience anymore.
I guess I should expect attempts to sell me things when I’m at places of business, but I hate it. I don’t like being manipulated. And after all these years I am still susceptible to being caught in their trap. I don’t know anybody who likes being accosted by a sales person, but we accept it as a way of life. Many times I’ve told myself, the next time a sales person comes after me with their phony baloney sales pitch thinly concealed by an interest in me as a person, I’m not going to react at all, but just keep walking. Or maybe I’ll summon up my inner Dirty Harry and out of the side of my mouth whisper, “Get lost asshole”.
I thought I was prepared when I was in the mall the other day. A young man approached me from one of the kiosks. He asked me about my current cell phone service. I told him I had T-Mobile which is what he was selling and he launched into his spiel about a new plan. Before I knew it, I was hooked again. The young man looked a little like my son and I figured he was trying to make an honest living. When I finally pulled away and caught up with Katie and my sister Karen, Katie asked me why I always stop and talk to those sales people. I told her “I don’t know”, and quietly practiced my “Get lost asshole” comeback hoping I’d be ready for the next one.
There is an inherent evil in Capitalism that our former and current enemies see more clearly than we do. Karl Marx built a philosophy around it and the Islamic extremists see it as the enemy of their faith. I looked up the definition of Capitalism in the dictionary: An economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods, characterized by a free competitive market and motivated by profit. It’s from the last 3 words of the definition, motivated by profit, where the inherent evil springs. If there are no other values guiding the profit motive, all sorts of evils can occur.
It was in the mid 70’s when The Pepsi Challenge commercials first aired. A man stood behind a booth on a city street or in a shopping mall and offered passersby sips from two unmarked cups with cola in them. He then asked the individual which one tasted better. The person of course always chose Pepsi. The other cola was revealed as Coke. Coke had its own ad campaign and these dueling advertisements were referred to in the media as the Cola Wars. At the time I was a long haired liberal and into eating healthy foods. I thought both of these beverages should be poured down the toilet.
In the 1980’s, President Reagan deregulated businesses and they began to merge, the big ones gobbling up the smaller ones. I again thought of the Pepsi Challenge and The Cola Wars  and had an idea for a novel, which of course then would be picked up by Hollywood and made into a feature film. It takes place in the future. Pepsi and Coke have become the dominant companies in America. All other businesses are subsidiaries of these two mega-companies. Every employed person in the US has loyalties to one or the other. This included politicians who are financially supported by either Pepsi or Coke. So everyone was a “company person” and had received many years of corporate brainwashing. People were allowed to only talk about what their company approved of. Everyone spewed the company line, even the news organizations, for they were owned by the Cola companies as well. Our hero and heroine were part of an underground group that regularly got together and practiced speaking the truth to one another.
I never wrote the novel, which is probably why I’m writing this blog and not screen plays for Hollywood. But every time I get caught by a sales person spinning a load of crap, I think of my underground revolutionaries practicing truth telling in the shadows. I also rehearse my Dirty Harry imitation. You never know.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

John Lennon and His Four Piece Band

The other day would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. I believe he would have been a cool old man. He loved life and from what I can tell, lived it to the fullest. Every generation has individuals who are deeply important to them as a whole and he was one of those for us baby boomers. I can’t think of any individuals more loved and accepted by a generation than the four piece band John put together in Liverpool in the early ‘60s. The moment, when I heard over the radio that John had been shot and killed, is imprinted in my brain just like when Kennedy was shot, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and two passenger planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Like all icons of any generation, to understand John’s importance to boomers, you have to be part of the generation or talk to people who are. As I recently listened to older news reporters talk about his death and attempt to describe his importance to his “fans”, it was apparent to me that they didn’t really get it. Most young people today have a hard time understanding it as well. I can remember thinking, “What’s the big deal about Frank Sinatra?” But my parents got it.
On February 7th 1964, 77 days after President Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles came to the US. The nation was depressed and needed a lift and the four lads did just that. They were on three consecutive Ed Sullivan shows and played a series of concerts. It was estimated that 45% of Americans watched those TV shows. The headlines read, “Beatles Conquer America”, but it felt like more of an adoption. Somehow the Beatles belonged to us as much as they belonged to England. After all, they embraced our early rock & roll, rhythm and blues and country music, reflecting it all back to us in their own unique way. It was a mutual love affair from the very beginning. Two years and six months later they played their final live performance at Candlestick Park. The venues had gotten too big and the audiences were too loud. Another band may have performed exclusive high priced gigs for the wealthy, but John’s band always belonged to the people.
In the winter of 1967 I was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. One of the few things I liked about the training was marching. Especially when the Drill Sergeants called cadence and we all sang in unison, echoing their creative and often crude poetic rhymes. Much of the marching, however, was done in silence, so I entertained myself by quietly singing my favorite songs. I thought at the time that Rubber Soul was the greatest rock & roll album ever produced. I had listened to it so many times by then, that during those long silent marches out to or back from the rifle range or another training area, I started at the beginning with the first song and worked my way through the entire album.
Not long ago I was at the mall browsing in a music store and came across the Rubber Soul CD. I noticed the songs weren’t in the same order and there were songs from other albums interjected into the mix. I took it up to the counter where I thought the 15 year old sales person could straighten me out about this discrepancy. Or at least this young woman would be interested in my observations about the original album and the differences in this current version. To my chagrin she wasn’t knowledgeable, fascinated or the slight bit interested in my observations. It may have been a female thing because my wife and sister, with whom I was at the mall weren’t interested either.
In the summer of that same year after basic training, I was sent to Army Intelligence school in Baltimore, Maryland. One night while riding around the city with a friend, I heard “A Day in a Life” on the radio. As we used to say, “I was blown away”. When we returned to the barracks, one of the guys had the Sergeant Pepper album. It became the musical background of the barracks for the rest of our time in training and no one ever complained. In a few weeks or months we would all be in Vietnam.
I recently re-watched Imagine, the film created around video footage John had shot of his and Yoko’s personal life. I again remembered his openness and honesty toward the public, especially in his songs. We didn’t love him because he was perfect, but because he was real. He was one of us and we knew it because of the way he acted and from what he said. Aware of his own imperfections, he chose to use his celebrity as a spokesperson for peace. Listening to John’s music and Beatles music today, I’m struck by how positive the songs are. They reflect the growth, struggles, and aspirations of an entire generation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Farewell to Mercury

1952 Mercury
Here I am alongside a  Mercury convertible. It was at a car show that my friend Jim and I went to in the Seattle area. When we go to these shows, we like to pick out our favorite car of the show and this was mine, a 1952 Mercury Monterey convertible.  I recently read that Ford was phasing out its Mercury brand by the end of the year. GM had already announced stopping production of Pontiac. I don’t know what I expect, but these historic car models are not going to be around anymore so it should be a bigger deal than it is. I’m certain there were plenty of articles in newspapers and magazines and announcements on the news, but I don’t remember seeing very much. A few years went by before I realized Chrysler no longer made Plymouths. Production stopped in 2001. And GM stopped making Oldsmobile in 2004.
I have to admit I turned my back on most American cars sometime in the 1970s. They just weren’t built very well during that decade. If you don’t believe me, watch any episode of The Rockford Files which ran in the mid ‘70s. That was the era of the car chase and James Garner, an experienced car racer, made sure there was one in almost every episode.  His car was a Firebird, which he puts through its paces. It appears to handle the rough treatment pretty well, but the full-size ‘70s cars that are chasing after him are squeaking, floating and bouncing all over the road; you expect to see parts fly off around every corner. And in the background are plenty of examples of the crappy small cars that were built at that time like Pintos, Vegas and Gremlins.
I grew up in the ‘50s. Now that was a good decade for American cars. Our first family car that I  remember was a 1952 Pontiac. It was cream-colored with a dark blue top. Shading the front windshield was an external visor. It had a cool chrome hood ornament of an Indian warrior. After a few years, my parents traded it in for a blue two tone 1955 Mercury. I had my first major rock & roll experience in the back seat of that car and it had nothing to do with sex. I was only 8 years old and we were returning home from a family vacation in Wisconsin.  That was when I first heard Elvis on the radio.
As we cruised down the two lane highways in our Mercury, whenever an Oldsmobile passed by my Dad would say, “Now there’s a good highway car.” I don’t know why he never bought one. My friend Paul’s parents had the same exact Mercury except it was red. He and I first met around this time and we both thought that fact was extremely significant. My parents traded the Mercury in 1959 for a successive string of Chevrolets. Paul’s parents stuck with Mercury, trading the ‘55 in for two 1960 models. One was a white Monterey convertible, a behemoth of a car, the other a black Comet. 
In 1964 Paul’s parents switched over to Pontiacs,  a GTO and Firebird. He was the envy of many a guy driving around in the  GTO which had a 389 cubic inch engine and 3 two barrel carburetors. The two of us spent many weekend days cleaning our cars together in his front yard. Today you would call what we did detailing. The GTO had a white interior and Paul had to use a small brush and a lot of elbow grease to keep it up.
The first Plymouth I remember belonged to my mom’s cousin, Marie. It was a 1947 and had a semi-automatic transmission. Marie explained to me how the semi- automatic worked, but to this day I’m still confused about it. She told me she would give me the car some day. I of course have remembered that conversation all my life, but she had no recollection of it. One day when visiting my grandmother in south St. Louis, Marie was there visiting with her brand new Nash Rambler. Without a word, my Plymouth was gone forever.
I could go on reminiscing about the various Mercurys, Pontiacs, Plymouths and Oldsmobiles I’ve known over the years, but even fewer people would read this blog than already do. If you like cars, I’m sure you have plenty of your own memories, but just one more quick one. Funnyboy’s parents owned a 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix when he and I were in high school together. They used to let him drive it to school every now and then and he’d take me with him. That was a sweet ride.