Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Excerpt from Little Grandpa January 15th

Last night the new version of Battlestar Galactica premiered. It was one of my favorites growing up, and it brought to mind the many hours I spent with my Grandfather in front of the TV.

In 2002 I wrote a book about my Grandpa as a birthday present for my grandmother. It followed the same format as Papa My Father by Leo Buscaglia , and I had a half dozen copies printed and bound and gave them away to family members. All of them. In fact, right now I have neither a copy of the book nor the disks that contain the writing.

Stupid.

But, I do have a few scattered chapters saved on my computer. What follows is an excerpt from the chapter on TV.

You’ll note it’s not the tightest or most sophisticated style, but a lot of that is by design. These were nostalgic recollections of my childhood written for my grandmother. I didn’t feel the need to turn it into a Mickey Spillane piece, and I’m glad I didn’t.

When I was in college they forced you to read a lot of Neal Postman. Postman, for those of you blessed enough to have avoided his work, is a critic of television who’s made a career writing book after book that boils down to television is bad. A neo-Luddite, Postman seems to pretty much hate anything created after the wheel.

In Postman’s world the Baby Boomers and their spawn have thrown away centuries of progress in favor of Cheers and The Brady Bunch. I disagree on a number of levels. In fact, I can prove him wrong about that last point right here: if TV destroyed progress, then don’t blame the Boomers, blame the Greatest Generation.

Boomers didn’t watch Your Show of Shows, The Honeymooners, or Burns and Allen. They didn’t fall in love with Lucy, or dump radio in favor of the glowing box in the living room. Along with D-Day and Midway, that honor belongs to Grandpa’s generation.

Grandpa certainly embraced the boob tube. No couch potato, he still spent many an hour camped out on his recliner in prime time. He even went so far as to buy a radio that only tuned in audio from local television stations - including, proudly, the UHF channels! A forerunner of handheld TV’s, it was his way of making sure he didn’t miss a minute of his favorite shows.

What did we watch together? The list is a veritable encyclopedia of the pre-MTV world. There was the Ken Howard’s The White Shadow, with basketball players crooning Motown together in the shower (which come to think of it, is just plain odd). The Fugitive in reruns, MASH, and hometown favorites Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.

We watched Knight Rider and before that the Dukes of Hazard. [Grandpa stopped watching when Schneider and Wopat went on strike, but I preferred the scabs. Small wonder I wound up Republican.]

He watched The A-Team, even though we both knew it was crud (4000 shots per episode with zero fatalities), Roger Moore’s The Saint, Kung Fu (whose flashbacks confused the heck out of me) and Robert Conrad in The Wild Wild West. And even though I’m sure it bored him, he also watched every episode of the time-travel series Voyager with me.

There were slews of police dramas: Starsky and Hutch, Kojak, The Blue Knight, The Rockford Files, and pretty much anything that featured cops and robbers.

In fact, he liked shows about television too, becoming one of the first fans of Entertainment Tonight. It became a staple of his nightly viewing. . .

. . . Grandpa wasn’t very good at screening what we watched. His viewing choices gave me so many nightmares I may have personally inspired the television rating system.

Besides the relatively mild discomfort of Shogun, we watched a cheap TV movie where a retarded man is mistakenly blamed for a murder. He’s chased into a field, forced into a scarecrow costume, and killed. Scarecrows scare me to this day.

Then there was the Kung Fu movie where the hero is captured, tortured, and brutally killed. I had to leave the room midway through the scene. When I came back Grandpa scolded me, saying he died like a man, refusing to talk even when they burned through to his heart.

Charming.

Or the movie Beau Geste, where a man is buried up to his neck in sand and executed by the glaring desert sun.

Yuck.

Now obviously, Grandpa was the furthest thing from a sadist or I wouldn’t be writing this. Even so, I don’t think he knew how sensitive I was. I must have been sensitive - 1980’s lineup was far milder than the shows my nephew watches today. And some stuff I doubt he could have predicted would bother me. The Man in the Iron Mask? You mean they put a mask on him and never let him take it off? Ever?? Nightmare for Danny.

Geesh. . . .

Critical as I may be of some of Grandpa’s choices, he was just as hard on us. We loved Three’s Company. Grandpa called it worthless poorly done fluff, and in retrospect he’s right. But it was funny. One time we were watching an episode where Jack is posing as a Doctor to impress his Grandfather. Grandpa walked in, looked at the TV, and unloaded his opinion. Fine. Well, as the episode continued we heard a small chuckle from the recliner, then another, and finely a full laugh. Don’t think I didn’t let Grandpa hear about that one.

. . . he and I took in many a Saturday Late Late Show on Channel 6. "Late Late" was a misnomer. I think they started at 10:30, still late for a kid my age but what the heck - Sunday wasn’t a school day and church wasn’t until Noon.

We watched The Poseidon Adventure, Walking Tall, Westworld, and B movies about tarantulas and Canadian Mounties. One of my favorites was a movie about two mercenaries who wound up with a UN task force in Africa as a cover to steal some jewels.

One night we stayed up extra late and watched a Cary Grant movie. It was a pretty bad flick. In it he was a British officer in the Napoleonic wars, trying his best to deliver a large cannon to the Spanish resistance. The cannon is what caught my interest, so we kept watching. As we sat there we gorged ourselves on apple pies from Kohl’s Food Stores, finishing off a couple before we hit the sack. By morning I was sick to my stomach, and I wouldn’t touch apple pie again for years. Or watch that movie.

For all the movies he watched on TV, I don’t remember he and Grandma heading out to the cinema very often. I know they did back when they were dating, but in my lifetime the only one I know they saw for sure was On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda’s grand exit from the screen.

The reason I mention this is that Grandpa swore he saw Star Wars in the theater. This was a vital selling point for me, because I was a huge fan of everything Star Wars. Still, I could never quite believe him, because although he had the main characters down, the finer points of the movie escaped him. This casual knowledge led me to believe a) he knew the story from playing with me and fibbed for effect or b) he saw a similar sci-fi flick around the same time and mistook the two. I still vote for the latter. He seemed to know a lot about the awful Disney film The Black Hole, even buying metrading cards and a Little Golden book about it.

Grandpa also consented to watch cartoons with me. He liked Popeye, which must be a generational thing because I thought it was stupid and violent. We did, however, share a fondness for Warner Brothers cartoons. While I liked the wisecracking Bugs Bunny, he preferred the more cerebral Road Runner. In this, we strongly disagreed, as to this day the Road Runner and Wile E. bore me to tears. Along with his favorite color being brown - which I still can’t fathom - the schism over Warner Brothers was as close as I came to holding him in contempt.

Television is not my favorite appliance - in fact, hard as it is to believe for most people, as of 2002 I still don’t have cable or satellite. But those early years with Grandpa ensured that I also don’t hold the boob tube accountable for all that’s wrong with the world. Even if the show in front of you is slop there’s a chance for lasting memories with friends and family. Especially if you’re lucky enough to share the couch with a Grandpa like mine.

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