Sunday, January 3, 2021

Television Night in America, circa 1965

I was a small boy, not more than seven or eight years old, walking through the front room of our house when I heard a voice from the television say:

     ”Yes, but back then, there was probably a Jesus on every street corner in Jerusalem!”

     Cable broadcasting, with its hundreds of channels, had not made its way to our 10 year old suburb yet, but we were perfectly content with the 6 channels we were offered: 4, 5, and 7 which carried NBC, CBS, and ABC respectively, along with three local stations that broadcast from Oakland, San Jose, and a PBS station from San Francisco. I’m sure that my father must have been watching the PBS station when I heard the commentary debating the probability of a historical Jesus. No other station would have had any reason to broadcast such a program, and my father would have been the only one in our small family of four that would have been interested in such a topic.

     It would seem that was the night the seed of my religious doubt was sown. I do not remember my exact reaction after I heard that comment, but it made quite an impact on me and probably figured into my decision some years later to take the good sisters of our local Catholic school up on their offer and repeated insistence during our 7th grade confirmation classes that “If you don’t want to be here, you should just go home now.” I remember looking at my best friend, quickly nodding our heads in the affirmative, and leaving post haste. It was an easy decision when we made it, but it made for a long, slow walk home. As I imagined, Mom was less than pleased, Dad was apathetic, and I could hear the wrath my best friend was experiencing from across the street with all the doors and windows closed. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had not heard the commentator offer the ‘Jesus on every street corner’ argument, which, even to a small boy, seemed reasonably valid and worthy of consideration. It would make a lifelong imprint on me and play a foundational part in developing my practice for questioning any knowledge held as sacrosanct. 

     Our house was small, approximately 1,000 square feet, and when you entered and closed the front door behind you, you were in the front room; no grand entry way, no place to hang your coat or muddy shoes. Shut the door and take a seat anywhere except my father’s chair that faced the television set. The house was a collection of seven small box-like rooms connected to each other: 3 bedrooms,  one bathroom, a kitchen, a garage, and of course, the front room with its display of bowling trophies during the year and a fake Christmas tree with tinfoil branches illuminated by a rotating four-color wheel with a whining motor every December. This room would be where, like most American families, we would watch pivotal moments in our nation’s history such as news coverage of elections, assassinations, riots, moon landings, and British rock and roll invading New York City, as well as weekly serials of war (Combat), westerns (The Rifleman, Bonanza), and most importantly to me, crime fighting super heroes (Batman). This room would get a makeover in the early 1970s with fake wood paneling and modular shelves to hold my father’s prized new component stereo equipment. It was the talk of our block.


    Sometimes my grandmother and great-aunt would pick me up on a Friday night and take me for the weekend. We’d go to their house which was, it seemed to me at the time, at the top of the largest hill in all of San Francisco. I would be in the back seat of my grandmother’s huge black car, no seat belt, trying not to slide across the smooth back seat when we went around corners. I was frightened while we drove through all the dense fog up such a steep hill, but once we got to their house, I remember being very excited to be there.

     Compared to our small home in the suburbs, their house was like a grand castle: a stair case leading up to the second floor living room, kitchen, bedrooms and bath, with a fascinating walk-in closet under the stair case where my grandmother kept her collection of every shopping bag, gift box, ribbon, bow, and piece of string she ever brought home from shopping excursions, with all of these things neatly filed away in their respective sections. It's a safe guess that this closet was where my ‘everything in its place’ organizational neurosis was born.

     Upon arriving at my grandmother’s house, we’d turn on the television to watch Friday Night All-Star Wrestling which was broadcast from the Oakland station’s studios. I knew the names of all the wrestlers, heroes and villains, and I remember the three of us cheering and booing heartily. Thinking back, I wasn’t just placed in front of the television set, they watched this program with me. I remember feeling the joy of sharing one of my favorite programs with two adults who loved it as much as I did.

    On Saturday they would dress me up in my finest clothes, and we’d go to dinner at The House of Prime Rib - probably around 4:30pm - so they could show me off as their little prince of visiting royalty. Two elderly ladies of San Francisco in white gloves, head scarves, heavy coats, clunky black shoes, hand bags, with me on their arm. When we’d get home, it was my bath time (Saturday night!), and then television, but not just any program; it was the bullfights from Mexico being re-broadcast on the television station from San Jose. It was an incredible spectacle to watch, though I can’t imagine they would ever admit to my parents what we watched on Saturday nights. 

     During the bull fights, the bull handlers would watch from behind an inner-circle fence between the bull ring and the grand stands, ready to assist the matador if needed. The high point of the evening for us was when the bulls, frustrated and very angry, would jump the inner-circle fence, and all the bull handlers would jump over the fence into the ring to escape the angry bull. The bull would eventually make his way back over the fence and into the ring again, and the handlers would all jump back over the fence to safety. I remember us giving loud cheers when the bulls made their great leaps that sent men running for their lives. I imagine at that moment those Mexican bull handlers would have made very strong arguments in favor of the historical Jesus of Jerusalem, and who knows; if I had ever become a bullfighter, I might have taken the whole Jesus proposition much more seriously. 


     When my grandmother and great-aunt brought me home late Sunday afternoon, they would stay for Sunday dinner. We had no formal dining room, so we would all eat at the kitchen table with its formica top and hollow aluminum tube legs. It was during these meals that I realized the table made for a fantastic sounding drum. There were many a time when my mother would bring a plate of dishes to the table with one hand and smack me on the back of the head with her free hand and yell, “Enough!”

    After dinner my older sister would play the local rock and roll radio station and try to teach my grandmother the latest dance crazes while they did the dinner dishes, and my great-aunt would go straight to the front room to have an after dinner cigarette. The high point for our Sunday night, as it was for all of America back then, was to be ready for ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’ at 6:00pm. When it was over, my grandmother and great-aunt would leave for their trip back home, and though I was never tired, it was my bedtime. I remember being told to say my prayers and go to bed, but no matter how hard I prayed to Jesus on those Sunday nights, school was always waiting for me on Monday morning. Wrong Jesus, wrong street corner, I guess.

Ken Owen   January 2021
Van Niddy Press