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Archive for September, 2015

Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene's favorite TV Star in the 1950's. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene’s favorite TV Star in the 1950’s. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D,, via Wikimedia Commons

I was born in the century when the world shrank. Television came to my home in 1954 with Howdy Doody and Edward R. Murrow, Milton Berle and the Hit Parade. Through the magic window that flickered in black and white lines, I glimpsed a wider world than I had ever known existed before. I was a faithful acolyte of the new broadcasting cult. I learned by heart the times and names of all the offerings of our one television station, channel 10, WALA, an NBC affiliate, launched only the year before. I could recite the schedule flawlessly from the test pattern at six a.m. to the closing mediation of “High Fight” at midnight even if I were not permitted to sit transfixed before the screen all day, as I surely I would have done had I had been allowed.

A Faithful Peanut Gallery Member

How I admired my fellow member of the “peanut gallery,” my schoolyard chum, Johnny Simms! He possessed a phenomenal and encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles. He even could identify them with his eyes closed as they passed by the playground on Cedar Point Road, correctly identifying the make and model, year and specifications of all the roadsters and coupes and sedans by their sound alone. But I countered in my way and held my own in the schoolyard cluck, preen and strut. I recall my pride as he and I reclined against the warm trunk of a vehicle one day during recess at South Brookley Elementary School, our heels locked into the rear bumper, our backsides comfortably and impertinently resting on the sloping deck of somebody’s incidental automobile, as I recited to him the offerings of the evening’s broadcasting or answered scheduling questions. He was properly impressed at my unique and hard-won knowledge. Ours became a cycle of mutual, reciprocal admiration, even if founded on dubious distinctions.

Although I was acquainted with all the evanescent events of the air, I had my particular preferences. Until the age of nine, of all the snowy programs that danced in half-hour increments before my eyes, my favorite was “The Howdy Doody Show.” I waited patiently to hear the question, “What time is it, kids?” and then to answer along with Bob Smith’s voice, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!” and to sing along with the theme song that inevitably followed. His was a world of wonder and adventure. This wooden-headed red-haired freckled cowboy marionette with his assorted stringless side kicks—Buffalo Bob, wise and kind, Clarabelle Hornblow, who never spoke but honked “her” answers and was lethally armed with a seltzer bottle canon, Chief Thunderthud, the initiator of the interjection “Kawabonga!” and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Tim Tremble, Bison Bill, and other occasional visitors —took me and millions of other children to a world of technological fascination and slapstick comedy. His perennially smiling and forty-eight freckled face (one dot for every star in the flag) became an icon of the energy and hopefulness of mid-century America—and its naiveté. He showed up not only on Saturday morning but also other places, even in the test pattern that began the broadcast day for NBC. His smile encouraged us; the worst of history, it said and we hoped, was behind us, both for us and for the rest of the world, a world of which I was only dimly aware.

A Skip Across the Carribean

It began to dawn on me like a Saturday morning that the world was wider and more complicated than I imagined when I chanced to hear a familiar tune as I cranked the tuning knob of our Motorola around the channels passing the number 4; a crackling voice that sounded familiar sang out “Hola, cabritos! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody!” I stopped and stared through the electronic snow as a dark-haired puppet, my very own “Howdy,” cavorted on the screen. But he was speaking Spanish! A rare atmospheric phenomenon had occurred and the television signal had skipped across the Gulf of Mexico and reflected from the ionosphere beaming over the curve of the earth from Havana, Cuba to Mobile, Alabama. He was speaking Spanish, so I concluded that my wooden friend must be in Mexico, just like the extended family of my human friend, Johnny Hernandez from Birdville, the only person I knew who spoke “the Español.” I watched until the sound grew too scratchy and the broadcast image too indistinct to make out, but the sights and sounds in my imagination never faded. I had seen, for the first time, over the fence of the horizon to a place where children like me laughed at silliness and seltzer shots yet sang in Latin-nuanced voices, “Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! . . .”

It was 1956. It was the year I also first heard of the Russians—and of the Hungarians. Halloween was coming with candy and scary fun, but something more menacing than jack-o-lanterns and goblins intruded into my living room without invitation with broadcasted images of the Hungarian revolt. I saw newsreels of frightened families fleeing through the snow with suitcases in hand. I stared as teenage boys, Budapest youths, only six or seven years older than I, flung rocks and brickbats in anger and frustration at the inexorable Russian heavy armor. One image burned into my visual cortex of such a scene: there in the foreground a young man, uniformed in a sweater that could have been mine and armed with stones alone, opposed a tank painted with a red star with hammer and sickle beside. Behind it was a semicircular colonnade with bronze statues. It was a drama that frustrated me. I was a child and was impotent, yet I was outraged. Here was a nation enslaved but struggling in futile obstinacy alone as I stood by wringing my hands. “The Hungarian Revolt” they call it. It never had a chance to grow into a full-blown revolution. It was over in less than two weeks. America, the savior of Europe, could do nothing.   We were as powerless as children to intervene. But we had seen of what Communism was capable. We had seen what oppression looked like. And we feared that it was possible to happen on Government Street if “they” were to wrest the power from our leaders’ hands by guile or by force.

I gave up on Howdy Doody. I turned instead to Mister Wizard and to Continental Classroom, especially after Sputnik frightened and fascinated me when it tracked overhead the next year. Year by year more of the world filtered into our living room than ever before. Strange-sounding names like “Budapest” and “Debrecen” were replaced with different but equally strange names like “Saigon” and “Da Nang” and “Hue.” I grew to young adulthood seeing with electrons well over the horizon, even though the line of my eyesight was ever blocked by a swampland forest screen, even though my travels as a youth were bounded by waters and my parents’ lives: the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi.

Irány Magyarország Welcome to Hungary

At last I left the swamp and at long last visited Europe for a time with my wife and my own children. We made Budapest our home for three months while I worked as a guest researcher at the national laboratory. The People’s Republic of Hungary was still “socialist,” in 1978 but its leaders had warmed to tacit capitalistic partnerships between individual enterprise and governmental investment.   A thawing breeze blew in from the West in the “Cold” of the war of ideals. The National Science Foundation had seized the opportunity to nudge the scientists of the two nations closer together. But the old hated images came again when we crossed the border with Austria: Hedgesshalom with machine-gun-wielding gray soldiers and suspicious, jealous eyes; the word, “Tilos!,” “Forbidden!” everywhere.   We soon learned that a cartoon of a camera with a line slashing across it meant: “to be taking pictures— tilos,” or more practically there was a post of Russian soldiers around the corner.

I was apprehensive, but I did develop a deep affection for many of Buda and of Pest, even if the saying “one must have sharp elbows to be Hungarian” is true. I had met them in empathy as a child and, now, I appreciated them for the kindness and generosity of true friendship. Riding one day in the auto of my host, Dr. Joszef Gyulai, I was trying to memorize the way from our apartment on Eagle’s Hill to the Zoo at Vidam Tér for a hoped-for Saturday excursion with my young family. Down the boulevard we sped when he pointed out a shop front that he identified as a puppet theater where he had such fun with his daughter Sophie. I thought again, of course, of the televised marionette that danced for me as a child. I thought also of my own puppet Howdy Doody that my parents had purchased for me and that I had loved nearly to pieces. I wondered where Mother had put it.

A Flash of Recognition

Suddenly, I shuttered in a frisson of recognition as I do now while I recount it to you. I glanced ahead to Husok Tér, Heroes’ Plaza. I recognized the colonnade. I had been here before. It was more than déja vu.   I had actually viewed this very scene, from this very spot, but vicariously from my living room in Alabama, twenty-two years before. How the scene had changed; how I had changed; how the world had changed! Gone were the tanks and brick throwing teens. Gone was the cold light of October displayed in stark black and white. It was early September and the sun was shining on the last of the Austrian and German tourists of the season. The scene was washed in golden light and a warm glow. The world had shrunk, indeed, and had revolved as well.

We now belong to a neighborhood where we can stand at the fence of a backyard thousands of miles, half a world, away and see with electronic eyes what triumphs and tragedies are unfolding in Darfur, or Syria, or Sudan, or Rwanda, or Beijing, or Budapest.

I see “migrants” fleeing for their lives from the insanity of war in Syria, and I am witness to a great atrocity. And if we see what is happening next door, I wondered then are we—no, I—not accountable? If we are witnesses, then we must be part of the scene, as well. And if I am part of the event, then am I not culpable? Can I now so easily turn aside to slapstick comedies or “reality TV” or simply change the channel and ignore it all? Do I justly think, “CNN is just good TV”? Can I do this and remain part of humanity? I wonder.

I was born in the time when the world shrank, and then, sadly, I discovered that I had other neighbors, people who were like me whom I had overlooked. The Cyclopic box with a glowing singular eye has brought them into view, my fellows with invisible strings who are not made of freckled wood and who do not always have reason to smile perennially.

The iconic Chain Bridge from the Buda tunnel. Note the popular Russian vehicle the Lada in the foreground. This was the spring of Glosnost. Photo credit: S. Matteson 1978

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First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

From my earliest years I was curious about the things I saw and heard about. “Why?” was a question that my parents heard all too often from this child. “Why does the sun always come up over the bay and set in the swamp? Why do the seasons come when they do? Where did the dinosaurs come from? How old are the rocks?” I looked for answers everywhere: in the encyclopedia, in library books, in magazines, everywhere—even in the field; and since we were church-going folk, I looked in the Bible for answers to my questions as to how the natural world worked.

I Misunderstood the Bible

The picture I took away from the big black leather-bound family Bible, after sifting through the “thees” and “thous,” was that the sun moved across the sky daily like a “bridegroom going forth in his chariot,” that the earth was like a large circular, but flat, picnic cloth that floated on nothing and that God would on occasion take by the edges and shake out in earthquakes. I also read in the margins that—according to a Bishop Ussher—the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C. That was, to my young mind, inconceivably ancient; even older that my Grandpa, or his elder brother Uncle John A. Moates, the oldest man in the world, according to my reckoning. But I was soon presented with evidence that I had severely underestimated the antiquity of the “Ancient of Days;” I had overlooked His unimaginable patience; and I had discounted God’s supreme cleverness at building mechanical universes. I had misunderstood, it seems. I learned that the sun did not orbit the earth in his daily trip across the sky, as I naively envisioned, but rather it was the earth that revolved, carrying me under the sun; moreover, while the earth and the sun did indeed dance, it is not the sun that gyrates but it is the earth, like a small child, that orbits yearly the grandfather sun.

Later as I read again the beautiful words contained in the Psalms, I understood them this time as descriptive of the same experience I shared with Iron-Age readers and the profound truth that interprets this majestic universe as both a paean and a signpost to the Maker. Thus, when I considered evidence of the incredible antiquity of the physical universe at 13.7 billion years, I did not discount what I read in the Word, but instead came to understand that God is so much more senior that I had appreciated and that while old, the universe is not eternal. Furthermore, when I learned of genes, DNA and the unity of life on this planet, I was humbled. That I shared common ancestors with other primates did not make God seem smaller or less capable to me, but, on the contrary, it was an even more impressive miracle in Natural History that instead of arriving in a “poof” and a cloud of magical dust, events were shepherded in just the right way and at just the right time over eons so that mankind, “Adam” and I came to be, distant relatives to the chimpanzee but very much different, imbued with a spirit, the very spiritual breath of God.

A Humbling Thought

I thought “Who am I to tell the Maker of the universe, of the heavens and the earth, how He should have done it?” I find it all so astonishing that God did not perform a colossal magic trick in bringing the myriad forms of life on this water world, but by patience and clever means intentionally formed and animated all earthly life, even humanity. Perhaps he could have done it more straightforwardly, but the evidence indicates otherwise, and I doubt that He would deceive us by putting false evidence in our path to lead us astray.

Instead, I have concluded that God is just far more subtle than I first thought. He is considerate, as well, to let us in on who He is, speaking to us down the millennia through his spokesmen in words and mental pictures we could understand. But to understand His message clearly we must translate the story, its language, its cultural idiom, its cosmology into words and images that make sense to our child-like minds. When we do that job well we see that the truth about God in the book is richer, more nuanced, more exciting than we thought at first. God is far more than we had initially imagined and is even more worthy of our worship than we anticipated at the outset.

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

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The Pines

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

The colors of autumn in Vermont where hundreds of Mattesons fill a graveyard, the citron medallions of Colorado’s aspen, the Emperor’s crimson of a Japanese maple in the garden, all make their claim on my admiration. But give me, instead, a pine tree, or—better—a whole woodlot of evergreen prickly posts smelling of balsam and pine-straw-needle mulch. This is the tree that is my brother, or at least a close cousin.

Our little house in the swamp was built of pine, each board branded SPIB for “Southern Pine Inspection Bureau.”   The studs I knew intimately from when they were installed like soldiers on guard duty, silent, attentive, their feet toe-nailed into the plate. Later they were hidden with camouflage of sheet rock and siding. They were out of sight then, but I knew they were there, standing still and silent, faithful like the trees they had been. I could see the floors, made of pine too, only sanded, varnished and polished to the shine of a yellow mirror where you could see your face when you hung your head over the edge of the bed. And I could smell them. Their balsam scent waffled to me like a balm of Gilead that always soothed my soul; it was the smell of home.

A Boy Should Have A Wood

I came naturally to this affection for the needled citizens of my life from rambles, aimless and free, in the “woods” as we called it. Every child should have his woods, though a “hundred acre wood” is a more immense space than most neighborhoods can afford. Some must do with a mere thicket like my son’s “Bamboo Forest,” fifty feet on a side. The important thing is that you can lose yourself in it and set free your imagination to swing abound without breaking out into the sight of everyday. But I had my woods that stretched from a few yards from behind our lot to the edge of the world, I supposed, since I never reached its far border.

There were other trees about to be sure: oak, and chinquapin, hickory, black walnut, sweet gum, wild cheery, and sassafras, of course, but mostly there were pine trees. They were of all sizes from infant bushes to a giant mama tree that challenged this boy to reach around her trunk with a complete hug. Many others challenged him, too, to climb. The wind would make each one sing, and the lyrics sounded like, “Come up, boy. Come up and brush your hair against a cloud.” So I accepted one invitation after another; often it was an easy climb with branches near the ground, better than Jack’s bean stalk ladder to the sky, but sometimes the only way up was to shinny: to grasp the body of the tree with its rough red-brown bark in a two-handed hug and place a dirty bare foot on each side pincering the trunk. Then push up and hang on with your arms until you can get another toehold. Up and up, each minute higher and more perilous. It can cost to climb a tree; I recall intense maternal scoldings for torn shirt pockets and rosin soiled shorts. I never fell like my brother once did, though I do bear scars on my chest and abdomen from breathless slips and bark-burn descents. Mostly, I ascended without fear or incident.

The View From Above Is Worth The Climb

You knew you had gone high enough, though, that you had reached the zenith, when she began to give way to your grasp, when your perch swayed with every breath of air and when the earth beneath seemed far away. When you are high in the crown of a piney wood, people, viewed from high above, become tiny and curious circles of flesh, and their cares shrink in significance, as well. On days when my cares press in, I sometimes go again to the needle nest and see me down below in a true out-of-trouble experience. All seems different when viewed from far above, even if only in the imagination.

I am partial to pine trees. Not just because they were kind to me and gave me a fragrant gymnastic diversion but also for what they still can teach us if we pay attention. Perhaps their patient steadfastness grows out of a difference of perspective. Life looks different when viewed from above. Often we can see no way out while we stumble about in the understory of brush and bramble. But from above a reason for hope is easier to see.

Sammy Gene's boyhood home in rare snow fall. Photo credit: family photo.

Sammy Gene’s boyhood home in rare snow fall ca. 1964. Photo credit: family photo.

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