An interstellar Walter Cronkite haunted their childhood — until the TV was sold.
by Howard Waldrop
You know how it is:
There’s a bar on the corner, where hardly anybody knows your name, and you like it that way. Live bands play there two or three nights a week. Before they start up it’s nice, and on the nights they don’t play — there’s a good juke box, the big TV’s on low on ESPN all the time. At his prices, the owner should be a millionaire, but he’s given his friends so many free drinks they’ve forgotten they should pay for more than every third or fourth one. Not that you know the owner, but you’ve watched.
You go there when your life’s good, you go there when your life’s bad; mostly you go there instead of having a good or bad life.
And one night, fairly crowded, you’re on the stools so the couples and the happy people can have the booths and tables. Someone’s put $12 in the jukebox (and they have some taste), the TV’s on the Australian Thumb-Wrestling Finals, the neon beer signs are on, and the place looks like the inside of the Ferris Wheel on opening night at the state fair.
You start talking to the guy next to you, early fifties, your age, and you get off on TV (you can talk to any American, except a Pentecostal, about television) and you’re talking the classic stuff: the last Newhart episode; Northern Exposure; the episode where Lucy stomps the grapes; the coast-to-coast bigmouth Dick Van Dyke; Howdy-Doody (every 8-year-old boy in America had a Jones for Princess Summer-Fall Winter-Spring).
And the guy, whose name you know is Eldon (maybe he told you, maybe you were born knowing it) starts asking you about some sci-fi show from the early ’50s, maybe you didn’t get it, maybe it was only on local upstate New York, sort of, it sounds like, a travelog, like the old Seven League Boots, only about space, stars and such, planets …
“Well, no,” you say, “there was Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Space Patrol; Captain Video” — which you never got but knew about — “Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers; Captain Midnight (or Jet Jackson, Flying Commando, depending on whether you saw it before or after Ovaltine quit sponsoring it, and in reruns people’s lips flapped after saying ‘Captain Midnight’ but what came out was ‘Jet Jackson’ …); or maybe one of the anthology shows, Twilight Zone or Tales of —”
“No,” he says, “not them. See, there was this TV …”
“Oh,” you say, “a TV. Well, the only one I know of was this one where a guy at a grocery store (one season) invents this TV that contacts …”
“No,” he says, looking at you (Gee, this guy can be intense!). “I don’t mean Johnny Jupiter, which is what you were going to say. Jimmy Duckweather invents TV. Contacts Jupiter, which is inhabited by puppets when they’re inside the TV, and by guys in robot suits when they come down to Earth, and almost cause Duckweather to lose his job and not get a date with the boss’s daughter, episode after episode, two seasons.”
“Maybe you mean Red Planet Mars, a movie. Peter Graves — ”
“… Andrea King, guy invents hydrogen tube; Nazis; Commies; Eisenhower president. Jesus speaks from Mars.”
“Well, The Twonky. Horrible movie, about a TV from the future?”
“Hans Conreid. Nah, that’s not it.”
And so it goes. The conversation turns to other stuff (you’re not the one with The Answer) and mostly it’s conversation you forget because, if all the crap we carry around in our heads were real, and it was flushed, the continents would drown, and you forget it, and mostly get drunk and a little maudlin, slightly depressed and mildly horny, and eventually you go home.
But it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t your story, it’s Eldon’s.