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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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