Monday, October 10, 2016

Trek50/B4 Trek: The Boomers Story

Previous posts in this series have been about the generation that created Star Trek.  This post suggests what Star Trek's first audience brought to it, through a kind of personal catalog of the 1950s until 1966...

In the very early morning we watch the snow. It’s not outside, most of the time. Flecks of it scatter in grainy grays across the television screen, accompanied by a loud even whisper, a constant shshshshsh, like the rush of unvaried water.

 On the floor in front of the television, munching cinnamon toast, sleepy-eyed and expectant, gazing into nothing but the snow.

 Until the sudden unpredictable appearance of... the test pattern.

 Then when it suddenly appears, staring at its mysterious symbols, anxious to catch the exact moment that it will be replaced by what we are truly waiting for: Saturday morning.

Off/on and volume knob, station-changing knob to click from WDTV channel 3 to WJAC channel 6. Little knobs in the middle for clearing the picture, and also for making lines go up and down fast or bend across slow--not supposed to play with these (but do sometimes.)

At last it starts--with cartoons—beginning with faded, jumpy ones with caricatures of old movie stars and a band leader that kept asking, Is everybody happy? Betty Boop, Out of the Inkwell,Woody Woodpecker, and forward to Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. (We didn't know we were seeing the history of animation, from the 1920s on...)

 Bowls of corn flakes and Little Rascals, maybe Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin. Old western movies, also faded and jumpy, Tex Ritter, Johnny Mack Brown, Lash LaRue, singing cowboys, galloping chases through the dark. Or boys on elephants in the murky jungle. Dick Tracy fools the bad guy with a hidden gun, Flash Gordon conquers the universe.

Graham crackers or saltines held together with butter, the celery stalk’s canal filled in with uneven peanut butter, bowl of grapes, a peach, a pear. Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (Happy trails to you...) Pluck your magic twanger, froggy! Hiya kids, hiya hiya! 

Captain Midnight--at first just a guy in a leather flying cap introducing old movies, then a series—the Silver Dart, Secret Squadron, SQ1 to SQ2, Icabod Mudd (“with two ds.”)

One year, one after the other: Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Rocky Jones, Space Ranger; Space Patrol; Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers. Ovaltine, Nestles’ Quick.

Johnny Jupiter, about beings from Jupiter who suddenly appear on a hidden TV screen to an innocent earthling. They think human society is pretty strange—the first alien perspective. It gets moved to a different channel with snowy picture and sound fading in and out, replaced by a surf of noise... as distant as Jupiter itself.

School overflows with kids, crowded classrooms. We hear adults talking about building new bigger schools, and some of us soon go to one, or more.

TV on weekday mornings—Ding Dong School, Romper Room, Crusader Rabbit, Mighty Mouse.

 Afternoons: Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Hoody Doody at five o’clock.

TV after supper: Captain Video and his Video Rangers, "return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear..." "Look! up in the sky—it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman... fighting for truth, justice and the American Way!”. “Da-vy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. "Hey Wild Bill—wait for me!" Watch Mr. Wizard, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, the Cisco Kid, the Range-Rider.

In my room Hopalong Cassidy six guns and toy chest, Roy Rogers bedspread, Davy Crockett socks (and coonskin cap, of course) and one Christmas, my own cardboard spaceship.

Passing by the TV, I see gray men in a hazy gray room talking, mother’s anxious eyes watching. "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last..." (The 1954 Army-Joseph McCarthy hearings were one of the first to receive gavel-to gavel TV coverage.)

 Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Disneyland: Man in Space.

Films through a projector at school, about the atomic bomb with Bert the Turtle, “duck and cover” when you see the flash!   Practice jumping under the bolted down desk in the classroom, air raid drills filing down the dim stairs to the edge of the basement darkness.

Movies at the theatre in Youngwood with older kids from down the street at Grandma’s: Snow White, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan. Admission is a dime.

Saturday afternoon movies with neighborhood pals at the Manos and Strand movie palaces uptown, 24 cartoons, serials or comedy shorts, newsreel, double feature. Fueled with popcorn, licorice, Milk Duds, Good & Plenty, Dots, Spearmint Leaves, malted milk balls, along with apples and sandwiches brought from home, to watch:

The Conquest of Space, War of the Worlds, Them!, This Island Earth, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Earth v. the Flying Saucers, The Thing, When Worlds Collide, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Ulysses, Moby Dick, The Lost Continent, Rio Bravo, One Minute to Zero, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Target Earth, Forbidden Planet... 

 All day in the cool mysterious darkness of the movies is 25 cents, popcorn is 15 cents, and candy from the luminous lobby counter or the vending machines up the wide silent carpeted stairs to the vast restrooms, a nickel or a dime.

Climbing trees, making bows and arrows, digging foxholes, catching lightning bugs. Across the yards and fields, around the houses, in the trees and paths of the little wood across the road, down along the questionable creek, playing out the stories, the adventures, the heroes we all saw on TV and the movies.

 Sledding down Jankowsky’s hill all the way down Grove Street, Captain Midnight leather cap, flying like Superman.

Under the two trees between our yards we talk about Ike and Stevenson and atomic bomb fallout.

The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Day the World Ended, Beginning of the End, The Space Children. 

Before TV there were books-- The Little Engine That Could, Little Toot, all the illustrated rhymes and stories in the blue volumes of My Book House.

And records-- Tubby the Tuba and old records I could play on my Howdy Doody phono-doodle.

Saturday trips to the movies begin to include a side trip to the children’s room of the public library. The first book I took out: The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree.

After that a torrent: Hardy Boys mysteries, books on Annapolis and West Point, sea stories, sports books by Joe Archibald and John R. Tunis (The Kid Comes Back) along with Space Cadet (and anything by Robert Heinlein), Islands in the Sky (and anything with the Winston Science Fiction logo.)

When my parents drive down to take me home after a summer month with my cousins in Maryland, my aunt gives me a tin of her homemade cookies for the trip back—and a cardboard box of my uncle’s science fiction pulp magazines, which I read for the entire drive to western Pennsylvania.

Alone in my dark room in the carapace of light from my study lamp over my desk, where I was supposed to be doing my homework, I interrupt the story I was writing (“The Desert Menace”) to record in my brown school notebook: "The Russians, Conquerors of Space. Oct.4, 1957. I have just heard some news which will affect my whole future. Russia has just successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space…How did the Russians do it? Out of their own ingenuity? Did they get information from a spy in America? A traitor? All the work our scientists and top brains did, what for? Will the Russians take advantage of this and use it to start a war?"

Now channel 3 was channel 2 (KDKA) and there were two new stations we could get, channel 4 (WTAE) and 11 (WIIC) as well as educational television on channel 13 (WQED) though our reception for 13 was usually bad.

Zorro, the Buccaneers, West Point Story, Annapolis, Science Fiction Theatre.

Colds, flu, measles (twice), mumps, chicken pox...days in bed with comic books bought at half price, half the cover torn off: old Captain Marvels, Swat Malone, the Little Wise Guys, as well as newer Superman and Batman. Classics Illustrated: From the Earth to the Moon, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds.

Errands to the neighborhood store for bread (20 cents a loaf) milk (a quarter for a quart) and penny candy with the change.

First paper route, frigid fingers, first encounters with small tarpaper covered houses and people who can’t pay (42 cents a week.) Stops for a hot chocolate, a Milky Way or a Hershey’s; or in summer an ice cream sandwich, dreamsicle, a root beer or a Vernors. Not much profit left over.

 Rocky and Bullwinkle, Beanie and Cecil, Tom Terrific and Manfred the Wonderdog.

Now, besides baseball (Pittsburgh Pirates, Bob Prince and Jim Woods announcing, “you can kiss it goodbye!” “a bloop and a blast!” “We had ‘em all the way!”) out of the radio poured rock & roll. Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, the Shirelles.

 Summer and after school hanging out and fooling around at the soda fountain counters and ice cream places in town. Vanilla cokes, ice cream cones (each a nickel), skyscraper cone or Klondike bar at Isaly’s, splurge on a butterscotch sundae (25 cents) or a banana split (30 cents.) Nothing like the malt shops on TV though.

Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver. See It Now, You Are There. Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen. Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train.

 Hennesey, The Twilight Zone. Harvest of Shame.  

Maz homers, Pirates win the World Series! Youth for Kennedy, campaigning in the rain, whooping it up in the election day parade. Up almost all night with Huntley and Brinkley, sleep through the morning until I wake to Jack and Jackie, “now my wife and I prepare for a new administration—and for a new baby.”

Snow in the darkness outside the moving shelter of the bus, making its slow way through the clogged streets to the Washington bus station.

 Staying with cousins never met before, freezing along Constitution Ave. for the Inaugural Parade, seeing the sights the next day, first bowl of clam chowder. On Sunday, the right church, the right time, and the out-of-body moment: shaking the hand of the new President of the United States.

High school, football games, girls. Somewhere beyond the sea, the way you look tonight. Newspaper staff, forensics and debate (argument, evidence, rhetoric, logic.)

 JFK: TV press conference wit, the Peace Corps, physical fitness and fifty-mile hikes, touch football and sailing in Hyannisport. America is young.

As high school newspaper editor, I print a photo of Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn—first three Americans in space—with an excited story on Glenn’s three-orbit flight. Send copies to these three astronauts—get a letter from Shepard and a note from Grissom with the clipping returned. Affronted at first, until I notice that there’s a signature under each figure in the photo: Grissom not only signed it, but got Shepard and Glenn to sign it, too.

 President Kennedy announces the goal: man on the moon before end of the decade.

Trip to New York for high school journalism conference at Columbia. First Broadway play: Camelot.

Chosen as an usher for President Kennedy’s speech in Pittsburgh, told how to identify Secret Service and to report anything suspicious. Watching the crowd as much as the President.

 Days later his face on TV announcing that U.S. had observed Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, the demand that they be removed, and the naval quarantine to prevent delivery of more.

 That week television and radio monitored Soviet ships approaching the U.S. Navy quarantine line.

Changing classes, into an empty classroom to see on the blackboard someone had drawn in white chalk a large mushroom cloud.

Bent over a radio in the newspaper staff room as lunch hour ended, as the ships neared each other but the Soviet ships stopped, confrontation avoided, for now. Reprimanded for being late to next class.

That Sunday the news that Soviets will withdraw the missiles—the crisis is over. 

The Defenders, The Law and Mr. Jones. Howard K. Smith: News and Comment. This Land is Your Land, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Blowin in the Wind. 

Train to Washington, bathed in heat, sunlight and wonder, with a quarter of a million dazzled souls marching together for jobs and freedom, We Shall Overcome.

 JFK’s nuclear test ban treaty and Civil Rights speeches, bold historic moves for peace and justice.

 Bye Bye Birdie, PT 109, Captain Newman MD, It’s A Mad Mad Mad World, The Ugly American. Outer Limits, The Lieutenant, East Side/West Side.

Outside running track for gym class, almost forgetting the principal’s announcement over the p.a. about the shooting in Dallas.  But walking up the stairs from the locker room, guys coming down: he didn’t make it. President Kennedy is dead.

 On the floor in front of the constant television coverage for three days, as if it would change what happened.

 One break to help dad drape the Singer store window in black crepe, Main Street silent in the cold, every store closed, with every storefront window draped in black.

On Sunday, family goes to church, I still can’t face anyone.  I watch the funeral.

 I see accused assassin Oswald on TV being moved through the parking garage, startled to see a gun—but no, it’s a microphone. Seconds later, sound of the shot, and the chaos. Oswald is dead.  I've seen a man shot to death on live TV.

Out of the black emptiness of many months, That Was the Week That Was, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Robert Frost and Shelley, Growing Up Absurd, The Hidden Persuaders, The Other America, J.D. Salinger and John Updike, James Baldwin and James Thurber, Please Please Me, The Sound of Silence. The Times They Are A-Changin. 

Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, Doctor Strangelove. The Americanization of Emily.
Away to college in the midwest. Terrible football team but lots of fascinating girls. New worlds of literature, theatre, films. The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Band of Outsiders. Hamlet, The Skin of Our Teeth. A Hard Day’s Night.

That summer the second year of the 1964 New York World’s Fair (NASA Space Park, an updated Futurama, General Electric’s Progressland).

 Greenwich Village, first off-Broadway play: The Zoo Story.

After months of increasing, alarming rhetoric, President Johnson escalates the war in Vietnam in early 1965, sends American ground troops, begins bombing North Vietnam and saturation bombing within South Vietnam, as a general vows to “bomb them into the Stone Age.”

 By the end of the year, troops there number 200,000. Teach-ins on the war and all aspects of Indochina history and geopolitics, economics and ethics, first by our faculty, then visiting professors touring campuses. I become the first student on campus to oppose the war in a public debate.

 We—the young men of our generation—will be called in the draft to fight this war, possibly to die. Catch-22 becomes the book we carry. The society around us doesn’t want to hear about it, goes its merry way: Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Gidget, Peyton Place.

From grade school we knew the future could end in a thermonuclear moment. Later we learned it could founder on an assassination. Now for my generation there was to be another way to stop the future, one at a time, for nothing that made sense. And no one seemed to question, to care. It was all huge gleaming cars with giant tail fins, floor wax and power mowers.

Revolver, Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451...and in September 1966, Star Trek.

1 comment:

Ultrawoman said...

Great article!!! I followed right on the heels of the boomers!!!