At the get-go I must tell you that I remember my pre-literate self. I really do. Back in the early 1960s, kindergarten was for learning to count and reciting the alphabet to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, for you serious melody etymologists). I didn’t begin actually learning to read until the First Grade.
These were the years before passive-education television. There was no Sesame Street. There was no Reading Rainbow. Sure there were some puppet shows, like Kukla, Fran and Ollie (John Steinbeck was a fan, but I never was) and the great Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop, Hush Puppy, and Charley Horse. Not to mention our own local practical joker to children, Officer Don on The Popeye Club.
TV was TV and books were books and never the twain did meet.
In my earliest years, my mom’s parenting approach to television was pretty laissez-faire. As soon as I could toddle up to the TV and turn the knob I could watch whatever was on.
If she heard yelling or screaming from the brash, midrangey speaker on the RCA, she might peek into the den from the kitchen to check on things and to see how much my psyche was being wrecked. (Gunplay was not worthy of a peek. Remember, this was the 1960s and shoot-‘em-up Westerns were the norm.)
My mom was not a fan of horror or science fiction, but when it was on I couldn’t tear myself away. If, say, an episode of The Twilight Zone had Burgess Meredith emerging from a bank vault after an H-Bomb attack had left him the last man on Earth, my mom might walk over, touch me on the head and say, “Now dahlin’, that’s just television. You know it isn’t real.”
One afternoon when I was five years old, I saw the old 1956 version of Invasion of Body Snatchers. You know, you got your world-domination aliens who take our bodies and memories, and create these giant pea pods that grow perfect copies of us. Only the new alien-made people don’t have souls. Their non-alien-made loved ones are mystified. They say stuff like, “…but, Doctor, That’s not my daughter!”
Later that same doctor bolts outside and runs into oncoming traffic while man-screamin’ “They’re NOT HUMAN! You’ve got to believe me!! YOU’RE NEXT!”
Okay, I have to admit that movie scared the cocoa-puffs out of me, but I knew it wasn’t real because, as my mama said, it was on television. And besides, Carolyn Jones was in that movie. For a kid like me what TV-mom could be more comforting than Morticia Addams? Still, when it was over I ran to the kitchen and wrapped myself around my mama’s knees, who asked, “Why do you keep watching that mess?” Again, she never forbade me. But she always comforted me, “It’s just television. It isn’t real.”
That became my mantra when I saw something that scared me on TV, “It isn’t real. It isn’t real.”
This set me up for the most terrifying moment of my young life.
• • •
My sister, Sally, had come bounding into the house after school one day. “Diane’s gonna be on TV on The 4-H Hour this Saturday!” Diane invited me to go with her!” Sally began to gush. “May I, Mother? Oh, may I?” (She was workin’ it.)
The 4-H Hour was just that — an hour of kids who were members of the 4-H Club demonstrating home and farm skills. Diane’s mom was going to drive her all the way into Atlanta to the old WAGA-Channel 5 studio to bake a cake on TV! Sally was going to get picked up in the wee hours and ride along, lucky duck. My mother, my other sister, Squiffy, and I would watch the broadcast from home.
You gotta understand, early Saturday morning is the only hour or two this five-year-old could find any true solitude. But the 4-H Hour began at 6:30! There I was, watching Flash Gordon, eating my passive-education cereal ––– Post Alpha-Bits® ––– when I heard my mom’s old wind-up alarm clock go off. Wait! It’s Saturday! Mama must have pulled the alarm plunger out by mistake.
My mom and Squiffy came into the den, and right when Flash Gordon was landing his rocketship next to a giant iguana, my mom changed the channel to The 4-H Hour.
Diane appeared with this glazed look and lifeless smile. Next to her was a boy I didn’t know, named Bobby. He held the same empty stare. Their speech was this weird, one-word-at-a-time kind of talk:
“What. Are. You. Doing. Now. Die-Ann?”
“I. Am. Cracking. Thee. Ayegs. Own. Thee. Side. Of. Thee. Bow.”
“Are. They. Raw. Ayegs?”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Why. Yes. Silly. They. Came. Fresh. From. Are. Hens. Yester. Dee. Morning.”
“Oh. Good. Now. What?”
“I. Will. Add. Thee. Flair.”
I turned to my mama. “Why are they talking that way.”
My mama said, “Shhhh… They’re just kids on television.”
What?! Shirley Temple didn’t talk this way, and she was a kid on television. Neither did Opie. Or The Beaver. Or Boy in the jungle with Tarzan and Jane. Or Dennis the Menace!
Then I thought about what my mom had said about television and reality. I said, “Oh, so this isn’t real?”
My mama said, “Of course it’s real, dahlin’. That’s our friend, Dianne.”
I said, “And Sally’s there?…”
“That’s right. She’s somewhere behind the camera.”
And it hit me. I jump up and yelled, “That’s NOT Dianne!”
“Of course it is.”
No, it’s not! That’s not Dianne! And I bet that’s not Bobby! THEY’RE NOT HUMAN! THEY’RE NOT HUMAN! SALLY’S NEXT!!!
I ran out the door to alert the world. Luckily this was 7:00 on Saturday morning. There was no oncoming traffic on Brookwood Circle for me to run into.
• • •
Apparently, Diane was proud of her appearance on TV. Sally later complained to us, “Ever since The 4-H Hour, Dianne’s just not the same.”
Of. Course. She. Is. Not.
©Andy Offutt Irwin