Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Where have all the good men gone?

Two of my childhood heroes have died. First it was Mr. Rogers, who always wore comfortable clothes and never talked down to me, and Johnny Carson, who taught me what was funny.

They both had that soft-spoken nature to them, which is appealing to a four year old with a boisterous father and a grandfather who screamed at old episodes of M.A.S.H.

Mr. Rogers you could just spend the day with. The PBS tv schedule was stacked in his favor, Seseme Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Seseme Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, all the way until 4:30 when the gloom and doom of the Electric Company came on, which I hated because my grandmother made me watch it with my uncle, in the hopes that he'd learn something about phonix (I was, at that time, doing his remedial college reading homework for him--gotta love that public ejumikation).

I spent roughly four episodes a day with Mr. Rogers, learning that it was still OK to imagine and pretend, even though I was four, and had moved onto much higher things like reading and math (my grandparents thought that teaching me reading and math was "fun" time, I guess).

I remember he always had these guests that he called "friends," only we never saw them until the day they magically showed up at his house to talk about something thematically essential to what was going on in The Land of Makebelieve. And yes, I was suspicious of the difference between "stories" in books and on TV and real life, and how "stories" never included everything that must have happened that day. I mean, you never saw those guys on M.A.S.H. going to the bathroom, but they must have, right? They had bathrooms in warzones, right? And yes, I really worried abotu this stuff when I was 4.

Then there was Johnny. I heard Rush commenting the other day that in the last 30 years, Johnny Carson's been in more American bedrooms than Bill Clinton (snicker). Eleven-thirty was way too late for a precotious four year old to stay up. But damnit if I didn't try. I got my first taste of Carson one night during a thunder storm, when I woke up and went into my parents' room, and realized they watched this EVERY NIGHT!! Oh my God, the secret lives of grownups, after we went to bed! If only I could be so lucky. And I did try, but never made it past the nightly news.

I remember one time I was sick as a dawg, with a feaver and everything (the only thign that constitutes real illness to my mother). I'd been asleep all day, and woke up when the news was on. I thought it was the six pm news, but I was pleasently misguided. Mom rubbed some of that Vics rub all over my chest and throat, which to a four year old is probably more uncomfortable and disconcerting than the actual cold. I had this little green lawn chair that was in my bedroom for the winter. Mom let me sit in that, and watch The Tonight Show with her and dad. This was the first time I got to see the whole episode without falling asleep. The curtain fascinated me. I remember the mind-reader bit, and my cynical four year old self WANTING to believe he knew the questions to give funny answers, but I figured it was rigged. Santa Claus was just my mom and dad, after all. Still, I asked. And I think my dad said it was magic. I let it go. My parents believed they were Santa Claus, after all.

When I was in junior high, I usually got to catch the monolog before bed time. I was never much for going to bed at a reasonable hour in secondary school. One night, and I'm pretty sure this was the year we lived with my grandmother, I woke up and came into the living room. It was one of those special times, when you're half-asleep and the world's still kind of a dream. My grandmother had ordered a late-night pizza from Little Ceasers (remember those?), as was her very bad habit. It was half mushroom, half pepperoni, and I remember being told by my uncle (who still couldn't read) that it most certainly WASNT for me. And they were watching the Tonight Show.

I tried not to think about the smell of those fresh mushrooms (I was fascinated with them--they were so much more glamerous than those canned mushrooms the local joint used), and watched. It seemed kind of a sad episode, but I had missed most of it, and so I didn't try to analyse it too much. Until I saw Bette Midler in that weird dress (and damnit, didn't I want one just like it. Frigging 90's), singing a goodbye song. I was like WAIT A MINUTE!! What's going on here!! And someone told me that Johnny Carson was retiring.

That just shattered my fragile little world. "And you didn't even CALL ME?!!"

I got the usual 'you were sleeping,' stuff, but this was betrayal. Didn't they know me and Johnny had a thing going on? He'd make me laugh then he'd lull me to sleep, and all was right with the world when Johnny Carson was on the air. Oh my fricking God. I was going to have to find some way to put myself to sleep when I was having trouble, because for the first time in my life Johnny wouldn't be there to do it. Joan Rivers was ok as a fill-in, but I always knew Johnny would come back. And he wouldn't be back tomorrow. What if I had trouble sleeping tomorrow?

I think that's when I started reading late into the night. It started with the novelization of Hook (dude, I was 13, cut me a break. But it's still one of my favorite movies), and there was some Jules Vern, some weird book about a horse that could fly, my failed attempt at Moby Dick (chapter five, and the dude going on and on and on and on--did I mention on?--about being in bed with the other guy who chops people's heads off and shrinks 'em, and being worried that people would think he was gay (Hermin Mellville should be shot--Bartleby the Scrivinger, need I say more?)...then I discovered the horror of Young Adult fiction. I'm ashamed to say that by the end of seventh grade, I'd read every Sweet Valley High book in publication, Every book by that Duncan lady who wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, everything the school library had by Ray Bradberry, and Mummy Dearest (I was a "special" child). And I never got a full night's sleep ever again.

Now days I'm over-medicated, under-slept, and I have this perminant crick in my neck. I've also read all the Star Wars novels up until the point where they actually started being tied in together with the New Jedi Order series. Even the Barbara Hambly books... shudder. I'm also spending my evenings READING A FREAKING BOOK ABOUT WRITING. I should blame Johnny Carson for all my ills. He did leave me, after all. Not to mention leaving me with a quirky sense of humor.

He's earned his rest, he's made a lot of people happy, but gosh darn it, he left me. The good ones always do.


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