Monday, June 14, 2010

TV Front Room

Television. Front room, ground zero.

I was sitting on the gray chesterfield and the house was tidy, probably because we were getting a babysitter. I was about four years old and was I watching our black and white TV while my mom and dad were getting ready to go out. I can always remember the smell of my mom when she was going out. It was a mixture of hairspray and perfume, but even her clothes had a special aroma, because in those days, stuff had to be dry-cleaned, so dresses were worn quite a few times. I could smell the last time she went out dancing with my dad.

I was clean and cozy. I had had my bath and was in my clean pajamas nestled into the corner of the chesterfield. The new gas furnace was running and the air was blowing up behind the front-room drapes, billowing them so they reminded me of the bustle of an old-fashioned dress. There was a show on about a family whose dad was a scientist and all he wanted was to be a tree. It would be the highlight of his career and he would make his family proud. And finally he figured it out! Despite his family’s pleading with him to stop the experiment, he planted himself and the bark started growing up his legs. But when it reached his chest, he changed his mind. I can remember the close-up facial expressions of his wife, then his own, and his wife’s again: full screen shots, tighter and tighter. It was too late. Then it cut right to his family having a picnic under him. It was Ovidian and creepy.

Another memory has haunted me even more. I was about the same age, and the situation felt the same. This time it was a movie, The Lost Horizon, that was on TV. The picture was really snowy. The man loved his woman from Shangri-La and wanted to bring her home to his land. She was reluctant and her family kept saying, “No! Don’t go!” He had to bundle her up and carry her through the vicious wintery mountains. But she loved him and she agreed, finally, to go with him. She was just like the man who turned himself into a tree. She didn’t listen to her family either. As he carried her across some sort of threshold in the mountains, she aged a hundred years in a hundred paces. She was no longer the young beautiful woman. They showed a close-up of her face, and he dropped her into a giant crevice or canyon. It was too snowy, I couldn’t tell. I figured that he dropped her because she was no longer beautiful. As my brother would have said, “She turned into an ugly scrag, just like you!”

After that I never was a big fan of night time TV. I’d go to bed in the middle of Perry Mason, before he ended up in the wheel chair, while everyone else in the family remained glued to the TV. My dreams had simply more to offer me.

One of the most useful functions of television hooked me in the early years. That was its daycare capacity. I must have been one of the first generation of TV lunch-and-after-school kids. We’d sprint home for Popeye at lunchtime. Some of the biggest battles in our house were when trying to get us out the door before a Popeye cartoon had ended. I lived a solid 35 seconds from school, but the cartoons went to the top of the hour and if it was one that I hadn’t seen for a few weeks, I couldn’t be pulled away. First came the reminder to get to school, then the yelling would begin. Then came the yank of the plug and the open door. I had succumbed to the lure of the small screen. The after-school routine was less stressful. We just laid on our asses and watched Razzle Dazzle and The Forest Rangers. I still whistle the theme song for The Forest Rangers.

Late one Sunday evening my mom came home with a cool curling prize: the fiberglass TV tables with the embedded butterflies. Dinner around the kitchen table just disappeared. We even tried those disgusting TV dinners a couple of times, but everyone agreed that the potatoes felt like slime, the beans smelled like shoe polish, the vegetables all tasted the same, and the meat was usually still cold when the rest of the dinner was ready to eat. It was a bad invention. We went back to home cooking.

As history has documented, television became the culture, even in Shaughnessy Heights.

Everyone, even farm folk, could get CBC, with its moony belted test pattern face. When we went to visit Granny and Grandpa in Russell, that’s all they could get, but the broadcast there was from Yorkton. And that doubled the disaster. We were stuck with Mr. Fixit and Don Messer’s Jubilee and had to miss our favourite weekend rituals on CJAY, our new sexy channel. We were cool in Shaughnessy Heights, much cooler than the Mr. Fixit sufferers. Their laughable pitiable useless plight.

For my top 20 radio hits, I was a big fan of CKRC. I was a pre-teen with a funky pink plug-in AM radio. My most treasured gift. I loved that colour of pink and that radio. It was on the dresser beside my bed until my dad smashed it because I was being a teenage asshole one day, years later. He replaced it with a beige one, not as cute.
But some kids liked CKY better. And our parents listened to Red Alix on CJOB. I’d never even heard of CBC radio until years later when I moved north of fifty-three, where CBC was the only choice. But CJAY and CKY were somehow connected. They were both located over by Polo Park, our very first shopping mall. They cross-promoted each other and became all the buzz, the new cool. They introduced a craze with Old Dutch Points. If you collected enough empty chip bags, you could get on TV and bid for cool prizes. The show was called Kids’ Bids. And sometimes there were kids you knew on the show, but most were from across the river, because over there, they had more spending money. Back in Shaughnessy Heights, we’d scrounge through mucky puddles, if we thought we saw an empty chip bag. Eventually we figured out that you could never get on the show unless you had fifty thousand Old Dutch Points, so we’d give whatever we had to anyone we knew who collected. I don’t think I ever knew a winner. I think all of those kids’ parents owned grocery stores.

These contestants would sit on bleachers and there would be an auctioneer pointing at a bike or a baseball glove or tickets for a movie. Those kids were probably raised on junk food, but in our wartime house the best we ever got was one 16-ounce Pepsi to share among three of us. Usually there was a fight over which glass was fullest and one would get pushed and spilled. Snacks were only on babysitter days anyway. Maybe our parents were trying to prove to the sitter that we had discretionary income, which we most certainly did not. Their laughable pitiable useless plight.

Snacks for us depended on the time of year. The winter standby was a saucer of corn syrup with strips of toast to dip in it. We’d have lots of choices in the fall, carrots and tomatoes from the garden to our hearts’ desire. Fruit was not a plentiful commodity in our house, and when we had it, it didn’t last long. Crab apple fights were popular in the fall, and I would eat any crabs I could get, but there were no trees producing fruit on our block, not then. The ammunition must have come from across the tracks or from someone’s grandma’s farm. Simply put, our cupboards had the basics. There were no run-and-grab kinds of foods. Peanut butter didn’t last long in our house because my brother ate it with a spoon in the middle of the night. For breakfast, we got hot porridge with rivers of milk and brown sugar, or shredded wheat that had been heated under the kitchen hot water tap and further sogged up with milk and a sprinkling of white sugar.
This menu was the best thing that could have happened to me in my Shaughnessy Heights childhood, because undoubtedly, unlike all of the River Heights kids, I still have all of my teeth and they are sparkling and white. I have no implants, no caps, and no fillings! So there! Actually, I feel lucky that I never earned enough Old Dutch Points to go on the show.

And after Kids Bids came Teen Dance Party, Winnipeg’s version of American Bandstand, and for us, it was the real thing. We would watch all the first wave of boomers, who were the big cool teenagers, dance on TV. Hairstyles and clothing were dictated by that show. It was all very important. You would watch a fat Jack Skelly dance the bird or the mashed potato. That was when we started to learn what was cool. All of that long blond flipped hair and those wide hair bands and the pleated plaid skirts. The eyeliner. It was right there, every Saturday, in our own front room. We’d run home for supper because we were famished and lock onto Kids’ Bids while eating either porridge-thick pea soup or Irish spaghetti, twice as thick, ninety-nine percent pasta with hints of tomato sauce and a bit of onion, no parmesan. The timing of that show was perfect. CKY was every Winnipeg kid’s first glimpse of the demanding consumer world we were about to enter.

The closest I ever got to Teen Dance Party, which was off the air by the time I became a teen-ager, was tobogganing a the dump. It was only a few blocks from CKY, but it was too far away from Shaughnessy Heights to walk, so we never went more than a handful of times. It drew kids from Weston or Brooklands or the West End, or maybe St. James, unless they had parents who would drive them. And there were hundreds of kids, screaming willy-nilly down the north side of that hill. It was pretty dangerous, for sure, but flat city folk don’t have much opportunity for thrills. Once we went to a bit of hill at Bruce Park, over in St. James near my cousins’ house. I guess it was okay. All of the kids had matching snow pants and their toboggans all had fresh paint and varnish, no chips or scratches. I just felt so out of place when I wasn’t in Shaughnessy Heights. I thought these cool rich kids could smell me or read my mind. I didn’t laugh at things they thought were funny and they beat me up when I laughed at the things I thought were funny. Gawd, St. James was a strange place. But in its defence, none of us realized that we were flatlanders, not even our parents. It had to have been grown-ups who built the toboggan slides at Lockport and Kildonan Park. You’d drag your sled up these stairs to an open chute, as high as anything I’d ever known, other than Eaton’s or The Bay. There were just two-by-fours for edges to keep your toboggan on the slide, and there were no curves so you would go faster and faster, and if you forgot your mitts, you would get slivers from trying to hold on, and at the end you were dumped onto a snow bank and would slide a little further before hearing the screams of the next kids heading for you from behind. Talk about death traps. The wooden toboggan runs were only temporary, so they weren’t even as well built as the wooden roller coasters that thrill-seekers would crave in the summer at Lockport and Winnipeg Beach. It was lucky we weren’t dragged around to be entertained like the kids whose parents had station wagons. I’m sure if I lived up in North Kildonan and my parents had weekends off, I probably would have died on one of those toboggan runs.

Next Week: Episode 6 - Crossing the Tracks

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