The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

A Child of Television

I am a child of television. Mine was the first generation to grow up knowing television their entire life.

Television was literally my first memory and we’re talking a crib memory. I was lying in my crib inside a house a block or two from the Indiana border on the East Side of Chicago. I remember an arch over the doorway. My crib was situated in the living room just beyond the arch, so that I could be seen from different parts of the house. I was looking at the arch and some objects that were hanging over the crib to keep me entertained — I think I found the arch more fascinating. Not far away was a large black and white television set. It was an afternoon, I know because that was when the Mickey Mouse Club aired.

I don’t remember watching the television. I was on my back looking at the arch and mobile over the crib but I heard the closing theme song being sung. I remember only a bit of the song, but I remembered it clearly my entire life.

I think the next clear “television event” I have some memory of was the debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. By this time we had moved to the suburbs of Chicago and it was September 26, 1960. I was not entirely clear what was at stake or even what the president did. I just remember liking Kennedy a lot more than Nixon — and the older I get the less I like Nixon.

Sometime in the early 60s my grandmother bought a color television and I remember going to her home, not far from the first house where I lived, and watching the “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” It emphasized how the show was entirely in color with this big display of splashes of color on the screen like fireworks. Every Sunday night we’d watch it and Bonanza.

Of course, I remember bits of TV shows but I don’t remember them distinctly from the others, as I do for certain special incidents.

I think the next clear memory of watching television is a series of days beginning on a Friday at lunch time, it was November 22, 1963. I had walked home from grade school to have lunch and had just gotten back to the school. This was before panicky parents invented bogeymen and monsters and actually allowed children to walk to school.

I was walking down the driveway of the grade school when a classmate, Mark Victor, came back from lunch as well. His parents picked him up in a car and they owned the local pharmacy. They had something I had never seen before — a small TV in the back of the car attached with an aerial that came out the the right rear window for reception. It was around 12:30 and Mark had the television on. He got out of the car and loudly told us that the news was on the TV, President Kennedy had just been shot. Most the kids didn’t believe him but when we got into school for the resumption of classes they announced it over the intercom.

My parents took myself and two brothers to my maternal grandmother’s home just off Lake Michigan in Windsor Park. My grandmother and aunt lived in a three storey house (four if you count the basement) and next door was the home that belonged to my great-grandparents. Just down the road is where my other aunt, uncle and their four boys lived. On the corner was church were I was christened.

Much of the family was there and as usual they gathered in the dining room around a large old wooden dinner table. It was a monster of a piece of furniture and big enough for everyone to sit and talk. I was in the living room sitting on the floor in front of the television that Sunday watching the news reports.

it live. Suddenly Jack Ruby pushes through the throng of reporters, shoots and kills Oswald in front of the entire news audience. I screamed to the adults, “They killed Oswald,” and I heard all the chairs moving as the adults scurried into the living to see the television.

On Monday we were still gathered in Windsor Park and I continued to watch television for the funeral procession of Kennedy. I remember the coffin being pulled by the horses. I remember the riderless horse and I remember John-John and Caroline holding their mother’s hand watching their father’s coffin going past and I felt terribly sad for them.

The next TV event that I clearly remember was the hullabaloo when the Beatles first appeared on America television, to throngs of horny, screaming females—and a few males. A family my parents knew came over to watch it. The grandmother in the family used to babysit for us and we called her “Old Grandma,” she was an immigrant from Italy. They brought their daughter who enamored with the Beatles. What I remember was being surprised so many people found this interesting. Yet, I still remember it.

In April 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was murdered. It wasn’t quite captured on television however. It was a Thursday evening. The timing was such that all the boys on campus were in the dinning hall having dinner. So, none of us saw the initial reports. And given all staff and dorm parents were in there eating as well I suspect the first we heard of this was we got back to the dorms. Typically in the evening we’d have an hour put aside for study and then a couple of hours of television was allowed — and we all had to watch the same show — whatever the housemother wanted.

In the days that followed riots broke out across the country and we boys sat in the living room watching it on the news. It was the first time I remember seeing news reports on riots and the violence horrified me.

My next clear television memory was on June 6th that year as well. I, along with a couple friends, Matt Lazaro and Billy Springfield were eager but young fans of Robert Kennedy. His anti-war message was one I liked. We had bumper stickers and brochures on campus. I’m not sure we could say a lot about RFK’s policies, but lack of knowledge doesn’t stop youth.

This was an unusual part of the year for me because it was one of two times during the year that I went home to be with my mother — my father had died in 1965 at the age of 37. For two weeks in June and two weeks in December the campus was largely deserted as most the boys went home.

It was the day of the California primary and I was anxious to watch the results. I stayed up very late that night watching the news to see Robert Kennedy give his victory speech. I think it was just around 2 a.m. my time when Kennedy spoke to the audience at the Ambassador Hotel and then left the stage. Cameras followed him through the corridor behind the scenes when suddenly a gunman shot him several times. I saw him on the floor bleeding.

It was a chaotic year in 1968 and summer didn’t make it better. After seeing the killing of RFK in June, I spent most of July at the school’s camp in northern Wisconsin. Half the boys went in July and half in August. I was back on campus when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. What I most remember was the headline on the Chicago Tribune one morning as we had breakfast at the dinning hall. I do remember watching the news reports and being very distressed by it all. Images of the Czechs resisting the Russian invaders brought tear s to my eye and still do. Years later I gave a lecture in Prague and made sure I visited the sites to honor those who died.

After the killings of King and Kennedy, the riots that followed and then this I was a terrified young boy who felt the world was falling apart. And it only got worse. The Democrats were gathering in downtown Chicago to nominate a presidential candidate and thousands of protestors showed up, angry at Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam. Chicago’s mayor was the odious and corrupt Richard J. Daley, a left-authoritarian who unleashed the Chicago police on the demonstrators.

All the networks aired the protests live and I remember sitting on the floor in the living room at the dorm watching the reports. I was terrified because it was so close. This was the city where I was born. Both sides of my family lived there. My mother’s family was only a few miles south of the riots. I can truly say 1968 was the most traumatic year I can remember.

The last major event that was a television event came in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, July 20th. I had graduated grade school in 1968 and with that I was free of boarding school. We were now living in a small Indiana town near the Illinois border. I sat in front of out television set and watched the moon landing as the scenes were beamed back to earth.

There are other things I remember about television, but these are the big events that made a real impression on me.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.

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