The Magic Box

When I was a kid, TV was a miraculous thing. We weren’t allowed to watch much TV, and for the most part we didn’t miss it. Cartoons only came on Saturday morning; none of this “Cartoon Channel” and Nick specials that run 24/7 like today.  And we were only allowed to watch an hour or two of cartoons before we were shooed outside like so many annoying flies to go play in the woods or chase each other in ever tightening circles. “War” was one of our most favorite games; building forts another.  (More on that later, in some other post . . . for we were a warrior’s child, and raised and bred for war, it appears . . .)

“Johnny Quest” was one of my favorite cartoons, and “Gentle Ben”, “Danial Boone”, and “Flipper” were standard fare.  How I wanted to become like that boy with the dolphins! – and yes, I fell in love with him.  There were “The Monkeys”, and the wild psychedelic children’s show, “The Banana Splits”.  You can’t tell me those guys weren’t stoned!  I remember (faintly) episodes of “The Laugh-in” and how much I loved Cher.

But there is a HUGE hole in my TV viewing history, courtesy of being overseas for years. There was no “American” TV – only poorly dubbed American shows featuring “Hoss” from Bonanza riding up and yelling “Vas ist los heir?”. And there weren’t one-hundred and thirty two channels to choose from; there were only two, with a fuzzy UHF channel if you were lucky. And there was no color, only black and white. My parents didn’t buy a color TV until the mid-70’s.

When a black and white TV show comes on today, I tell any children watching that “this is from before we invented color.  It used to be the world was black, white, and gray.  Then we discovered color.  And that’s why the films are that way.”  The look of amazement is well worth it as they stretch their imaginations . . . and regard me with something like awe . . .

Watching the old movies, I’ve come to realize something. Back in the old days, it was the story that mattered.  Not the special effects – unless you count the clay-mation effects of “Jason and the Argonauts”, and stuff like that.  Many of today’s stories just rehash old stuff, albeit they may throw in a twist or two, courtesy of CGI. But it seems nowadays they rely too much on flashing lights and motion (“look at the pretty colors, children!” I often say – albeit with a hint of contempt – as my grandchildren cease to play and stare in bland fascination at the TV screen – no matter what may be on . . .)

I’m not saying great films aren’t still made; they are. But in the old days the directors relied on their own creative juices and their actor’s skills along with a heft sprinkle of a viewer’s imagination and their own artistic eye – not CGI and a computer programmer’s skill at manipulating pixels. (I’ve done that work before.)  They had to find or build REAL scenery to suit their story; not a green screen (which used to be a blue screen).  There were no computer renderings afterward, no ‘touch up’ and after-effects.  They had to rely on having a story which grabbed the audience, not a bunch of flashing lights and booming sound to grab their audiences’ eyes.

I never got to see “Red Skelton”, the comedy show – it came on at bedtime, and bedtime was strictly enforced by my parents. Having seen some of his shows since then, I can’t say that I really missed it – I don’t much care for his brand of humor – but I remember my brother and I lurking in the hallway, peeping around the corner, trying to see what was going on. It didn’t take but once or twice before we’d be shooed back to our bedroom permanently – you didn’t disobey my parents for long, or else you’d suffer the consequences, and those were never very pretty.

The night of the moonshot, when Armstrong first set foot on the moon – even that night was difficult. It happened long after our bedtime, but I KNEW something special was going on – something I didn’t want to miss – and fortunately I didn’t miss that one. By begging and wheedling, coming out of my bedroom every five or ten minutes (and getting a few spankings along the way) – I managed to watch that historic moment. It cost me in bruises, but it was well worth it.

I can barely remember when Kennedy got shot – I was such a young child at the time – but I remember well the grownups reactions – milling around, their confusion infecting me, since I didn’t know what they were so upset about – but well I remember sitting in front of the TV, watching it with them, and hearing the cries of upset all around.

One movie – or actually two – I remember REAL well, for they were to haunt my childhood nighttime, filling every corner with terror, every shadow with fear.

One was the classic everyone has heard of. “The Blob”. The other, a less heard of movie – “H-Man”. Both about the same sort of thing: a being that could slip under doors, through the narrowest cracks, and lurk, dripping down from the shadows.

For years my bedroom was a place of terror after the lights went out. My parents were firm – hard, actually – and they were determined to harden us. No night lights were allowed, no open door to let the hall light in. And in the darkness I would watch, the covers drawn up to my chin, waiting for the shadows to move. “H-Man” – so thin and oily that he could fit between two sheets of paper, and “The Blob”, thick and gelatinous, able to squeeze under the crack of my door. And sooner or later the shadows would start to move in my child’s imagination, terrifying me. And you didn’t cry out at night, not for anything. As young children my brother and I had both learned better. Cries in the night would only bring you pain; real pain when my parents came in, either my father bearing a belt, or my mom her wooden spoon. Those terrors were more real than any we could imagine; despite our imaginations, we’d rather the monsters eat us than have our parents come in.

Young minds are easily affected; I’ve seen that with my own kids, and now they have kids of their own. They believe so much of what they see on TV, taking it all in as “real”. I had to comfort my grandson when we watched the zombies attack, reassuring him that this was all ‘make believe’, and those were actors in suits getting eaten (or run over by buses) – and no more real than “Spongebob Squarepants”. My daughter believed that the world used to BE black and white before she was born; that what I had said about the TV was true. And TV emphasizes so much of what is bad, so little of what is good – and sometimes I think we adults fall into the same trap.

I don’t see kids running around in the woods anymore; no one playing in the street. Here it is, the middle of summer, and all those kids are inside – watching that TV, playing their video games, and imagining that they are socializing through the internet and its chat rooms. Social media has had a great impact on everyone and their attitudes, their outlooks, and judgment of the risks (however real or imagined). In some ways this has been beneficial, helping to reduce prejudice, right injustices, and spread knowledge. But in other ways it has made us more fearful – we believe too much of what we see. For every ‘missing child’ case there are ten thousand kids who never went missing, and if there were as many murders in ‘real life’ as they show on TV none of us would ever set foot outside (or at least not unarmed!). Media shapes society now; of all the influences, it is the greatest one, especially visual media. And media is getting increasingly visual, yielding faster, greater impact – not just here in the United States, but all over the world. It can be ‘the great equalizer’ – but it can also be a subtly persuasive tool in the hands of manipulative politicians – or movie directors. The media influences our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs, our morals, our decisions. I know it has influenced mine. But how many people, I wonder, actually question what they see with what is real; make accurate risk assessments versus assessments based upon TV reality shows – which often depict reality in a very different scale than what it really is. I’ve seen so much ‘false science’ on TV that I’ve had to laugh – while being sickened, knowing that too many people believe what they see – and how the perceptions of risk have change from ‘real risk’ to ‘imagined risk’ – the root of real risk analysis, and how people regard the world around them. It hasn’t always been for the good.

I know things in the future are going to be different; I have no problem with that. Media is going to get more ‘personal’, more immersive, blurring the distinction between perceived reality and reality itself. We are in the midst of one of the greatest social experiments of all time, using ourselves as the guinea pigs – and it is happening all over the world. There’s a lot of places it can take us. But sometimes I wonder where we are going.