Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Big Crush on a Little Rat

Simply taking my pulse would have unearthed my secret ailment.

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We lived in Marshall, Texas when television was first introduced in our household. Before that, there was nothing that could keep me indoors. The lure of the Texas & Pacific Rail yards and the brick factory with its clay pits were my everyday haunts. And there was that long hot walk out to T&P Lake—a three-mile trip rewarded by a cool summer swim wearing nothing but underwear.

I remember our first television console well. It was half as big as the Frigidaire, had a round tube, and was capped off with an antenna that telescoped almost to the ceiling. It took minutes for the glow of the picture to change from dim to bright. Slowly the images would appear, snowy and sometimes shivery. Often times the picture that came up was of an Indian in headdress with lots of targets, grids, and numbers.

“Test pattern,” my dad explained. “The channel isn’t on yet.”

I had a strong curiosity about how the darn thing worked. I asked my dad.

“How can pictures scatter like gnats through the air and land in that box and become hooked up together in the right spot like a complicated puzzle?” I was thinking particularly of the puzzle of the redwood forest that took my mom six months to complete because the background patterns and colors were all alike.

“Photons, neurons, atoms, phosphorus, and gamma-charged ion electromagnetic fields—it’s all fairly simple.” I decided my dad didn’t know either, but he sure knew some expensive words.

There were few shows on, and while impressed with television’s magic, I longed for more programs I could enjoy. My dad liked the news shows and the Gillette Wednesday and Friday night fights. I suffered through the slugging, hoping the rapidly expanding menu would begin to favor young people. Soon they added a string of popular radio shows which had simply been converted over to television. It was then my dad told me that the Amos and Andy radio characters weren’t actually black people. Somehow I would rather not have known that.

In time, more and more programs and channels were added. Now there was even a log in the newspaper that told the lineup day by day. The family settled into a watching pattern. I had control from school’s-out until homework-time. Then my mom and dad took over. They often squabbled over what to watch. There was no way to settle the conflict peaceably other than to get a second television. After that, my parents went into separate watching rooms and abdicated all conversation until breakfast.

I was becoming an adolescent—maturing along with a host of young television stars who had grown up with me on-air. I awoke one day to find hair under my arms. Not much, and sort of cobwebby. I wondered if my TV friends were discovering theirs. Spin and Marty looked like they had even started to shave. I mentioned that to my dad.

“Don’t you even think of putting the first razor to your fuzz,” he said. “You do, and it will come back coarse and black like a shoe brush. A first shave promotes shaving thereafter and forever.”

But the fuzz was noticeably less manly than the crisp slick faces of Spin and Marty. I shaved for the first time when I was fourteen. I cut my face and neck in a dozen places and couldn’t hide the damage from my dad.

“Welcome to the first of twenty-seven thousand shaves. That’s once a day for an average lifetime.” He shook his head and went back to watching Ted Mack and the Amateur Hour—a rather boring “grownup” version of the Mickey Mouse Club.

As for the Mickey Mouse Club, no respectable young man, now shaving, would ever watch the Mouseketeers, other than for the Spin and Marty segment. The rest of the program was for pre-teens, and was in a word, silly. The two adult members of the troupe, Jimmie and Old Roy, were even sillier as they donned the famous rat’s ears and participated in hop-scotch and skip-rope routines.

Then it all suddenly changed. In a word, Annette.

Maybe Annette was only fourteen or fifteen, but she had the figure of a Coca-Cola bottle. No young man could escape noticing that among her peers on the stage, she was the only one with an emerging chest. That part about her is what spurred a love affair with America’s young adolescent boys. It was said by Disney that her fan mail averaged six-thousand panting letters a month. I was one of the six-thousand, and more than once. I yearned for an answer back—anything to indicate she saw something different in my gushing prose. Nothing came. Despite no communication from her, I had fallen deeply in love. It was not a boy-likes-girl kind of infatuation, but I believed it to be a love like mature adults must feel. I fully expected her to crash through the picture tube when she did the splits. I expected she would slide headlong into my arms and we would mount a winged white horse and gallop off amidst shooting stars, rainbows, and bluebirds. I noticed that if I moved about the room, her eyes followed me. When I watched her dance I could detect her chest jiggling a bit. My face turned red and my cheeks burned, as if I weren’t supposed to notice.

My dad always studied me curiously as he walked by the TV when he got home from work.

“Kinda old for that aren’t you?” In the same way a Playboy Magazine reader explains his passion by saying “It’s the stories,” I answered back, “It’s Spin and Marty time. They’re my age, and they’re detectives.”

At mid-year, mom and dad bought me a used Cushman motor scooter. Each day I raced home, downed my snack in one gulp, and sat in front of the dancing and singing TV Mice. The show always started with Jimmie and Roy leading the “Mouseketeer Roll Call.” Each cast member did a quick introduction cameo. My heart swelled when it came her turn and she announced Annette! The homogenized milk I had just consumed began to drool from the corner of my mouth. I was smitten. I would have even worn a pair of those cardboard ears except for the fear of being caught by my dad.

At times, it did seem sort of juvenile to be watching such a kiddie-themed show. But I continued to do so every afternoon until the day before school let out for Thanksgiving. That particular day I heard a loud commotion in the school cafeteria. I supposed it was a celebration marking the school holiday, but it continued well beyond that. I pushed my way into the crowd that had gathered around the water fountain to see what the fuss was about.

My friend Jerry Alexander was holding up a piece of paper. He turned it so we all could see. It proudly bore Mouseketeer ears as its letterhead.

He read the letter aloud. “Dear Jerry, Thank you for your sweet note. It was so thoughtful of you to remember that October 22 was my birthday. If you are ever at Disney Studios, I would love to meet you and give you a pair of closed-rehearsal tickets. Thank you for being a fan, and bye-bye for now-- Annette.

Seeing Jerry’s beaming face made me sick. The scooter ride home seemed longer than usual as I mulled over what had just happened. I took my time eating my pimento cheese sandwich and finishing my glass of milk. Turning the television on, I paused at the Mickey Mouse Club long enough to see her one last time. As I brushed her off with a sweep of my arm I thought…I bet your stupid publicist or fat old Roy wrote that letter.

Our breakup had come at the right time. Three clicks of the dial and I was able to join forces with Sky King, even though his show was in reruns. He was the Crime-Fighting-Cowboy-with-Cessna. He flew around in a plane called “Songbird” with his teenage niece Penny. No jump-rope and stage dancing here, these guys chased the real rats of the world.

Oh, and niece Penny? She had a figure like a Coca-Cola bottle!

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