Monday, July 03, 2006
My Fellow Americans
Flash Gordon could always whip Ming the Merciless, but around my house he was no match for LBJ.
I was a kid in grade school when President Lyndon Baines Johnson came to Bay Ridge.
We don't get too many U.S. presidents around this way, so it was a pretty big deal, I suppose, but back then all I wanted to do was watch Flash Gordon on the afternoon kid's show.
Flash Gordon was an old movie serial, made in the 30's, so they were ancient even back when I was a kid. My parents watched Flash in the theater when they were kids.
I guess the local TV stations got the rights to these creaky old chestnuts for a song and threw them on the air for adventure hungry kids like me to enjoy.
Looking back, I realize Flash Gordon had pathetic scripts, abysmal acting, and the crappiest special effects on this or any other planet. But back then none of that matter to me. I loved every minute of those silly things.
So this one day I came home from school, sat down in front of the old black and white Motorola and started watching my boy Flash kick ass all over cosmos.
Ah, the old Motorola. What memories I have that battered, unreliable pile of junk. I don't know why my parents, probably my father, bought that thing, but it must have been hexed by a one-eye gypsy with cataracts.
It was always breaking down or hacking up miserable, barely distinguishable images. And if there was an electrical storm anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard, the thing turned into a fuzzy-screened radio.
There was a science fiction show called The Outer Limits that began with this blank screen and a deep, serious voice intoning, "There is nothing wrong with your television." And all us smart-assed kids would say, "that's what you think!"
I was watching The Hound of the Baskervilles once and just at the first victim saw...something coming toward him, as his eyes bulged with terror, and his mouth pulled back for a horrfying scream, the tube blew and I was looking at a blank screen. God, was I pissed.
The TV had this huge bulge on the back, perennially covered in dust, and I always thought it would make a cool army helmet. I thought about prying it off many times but I figured that makeshift helmet would not prevent my father from ripping me limb from limb.
Once, only once, did I see a commercial for a Motorola TV. It starred an actor who played one Phil Silvers' cohorts on "Sgt. Bilko." In the ad, this guy and his buddy go one about the wonders of the Motorola television and all I could do was sit there and shake my head in disbelief. Clearly, they were getting paid to spout this crap.
Tune in Next Week
On this day, though, I was feeling confident the Motorola would stay alive as Flash took off for the stars. Flash Gordon was broadcast in serial form, just like in the movies, and each episode would end with a cliffhanger.
My father would always point out that the actors' hats would never come off during the fight scenes, no matter how hard these guys hit each other. They could throw each other through windows and the hats would still stay on.
All the cliffhangers had the same set-up. Each week it would look like the hero was going to die, with his car going off a cliff or a bomb going off. But in the next chapter, you'd see the same scene from a different angle, showing the hero jumping to safety, or diving behind a brick wall in the last second.
It was a total rip-off and it bothered me even when I was a kid. But I always tuned in for more.
In this particular episode, Flash was about to be cut in half by some half-man, half-lobster creature. Since Buster Crabbe portrayed Flash, I wonder if this was some kind of visual pun--you know, crab...lobster? Get it? Yeah, it is pretty lame, isn't it?
Anyway, old Flash was struggling fierecly in this thing's claws, but it looked like he was going to buy the farm. And that was the exact moment, the very second, when my mother stormed into the livingroom and angrily switched off the TV.
"The President of the United States is coming," she declared, "and you're watching television?"
I watched in shock as the image on the television rapidly shrink into a small dot in the center of the screen. I could not believe her timing; it was like she in league with Emperor Ming.
What the hell did I care about the president? LBJ just ruled America; Flash Gordon conquered the universe, for God's sake. And right now he was in some heavy duty trouble.
Didn't matter to my mother. My parents got us all together, hustled us up half a block to Fifth Avenue and waited across the street from the funeral parlor on the corner of Senator Street.
We had plenty of company as people had lined up along the avenue, all forsaking Flash Gordon for LBJ. What the hell was wrong with these people, I thought.
My memories of LBJ are mostly based on parodies of the man. Every time he went on TV, his face would fill the entire screen. Years later, I come to find out he was something of a ladies man--yeah, I don't believe it either.
This was in the pre-Lewinsky days and reporters just didn't purse stories like that. Supposedly, at some point in his career, LBJ told a bunch of reporters that "just because I go to some places at night doesn't mean you boys have to write about it." Maybe he was charming in person.
I remember Johnson saying "My fellow Americans, I come to you tonight with a heavy heart," and then every comedian in the country picked it up.
The comedian Pat Paulsen, who was running for president himself as he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Show, did a variation on that theme, saying "I come to you tonight with a heavy liver."
There was a impressionist named David Frye, who used to do a dead-on impersonation of LBJ. Frye had a line that always made my father laugh.
"My fellow Americans," he'd say in his LBJ accent, "I never lied to you...I may have kidded you a little, but I never lied to you."
I remember Johnson used to refer to his wife as Lady Bird and he had some name for his daughter, but I can't recall what it was. When he was running for election, his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, ended all his TV commercials with the line, "in your heart, you know he's right."
To which my old Italian grandmother would fiercely reply, "In your shit, you know he's right!" Grandma was not one to mince words.
So there we were on Fifth Avenue waiting for the president to drive through our neighborhood. There used to be rathole bar on the avenue and a bunch of losers were standing outside half in the bag.
The bar is gone now, but it didn't die easily. Sometime after the LBJ appearance, one of the boozehounds got thrown through the bar's big picture window.
The owner used his head and replaced the huge piece of glass with a much smaller window, which could only accommodate a low flying pygmy, should one happen to be in Bay Ridge and be in need of a drink.
Years later, I was hanging out on Senator Street with a group of friends on a Saturday night when a young man came running down the block and begged us to let him join our circle of friends. He had crashed his car into a vehicle parked outside the rathole bar and its denizens charged out looking to skin him alive.
"Oh, God, I can't believe this," the young fellow said. "Do any of you guys have a gun I could borrow?"
Hmm...let me see. Ah, nothing in pockets, no ankle holster, no, harpoon's in the shop, and the buffalo lance needs to be waxed. I guess I left all my weaponry in my other suit. Maybe I still have that mace in the cellar.
If Flash Gordon were here I'm sure he'd loan you his ray gun, big guy, but he's probably in some other part of the galaxy.
The young man took off a few minutes later, the rathole bar eventually gave way to a heating oil company, and LBJ died.
But that night on Fifth Avenue he was very much alive and keeping us waiting. Waiting equals torture for kids and I was going crazy, just standing there with my family and half of the neighborhood. Where was this clown? I was a seven-year-old kid. Didn't he know I had things to do?
Finally, we heard the motorcade coming and we all looked as this limo flew by us--and I mean flew--and someone waved at us. I reasonably sure it was LBJ, but it could have been Howdy Doody, the car was going so fast.
While most everyone cheered, the drunks outside the rathole bar all booed and my mother turned to my dad and said indignantly, "booing the president?"
Hey, I felt like booing him, too. The big-eared bastard took me away from my program, made us wait half the night, and now he's disappearing down Fifth Avenue like a bat out of hell. In your heart, you know that sucks.
"It was like Mario Andretti was driving that car," I would later tell friends.
It was dark when we walked back home. We thought the evening's excitement was over, but it turned out we locked out of our home. This was a tough situation and I'm not sure even Flash Gordon could help us out of this one.
Now here's where the Motorola of my memory gets a little fuzzy. We got out of this mess somehow, but I can't recall exactly how we did it. One of us--maybe even me--might have gone into my grandmother's first floor apartment through a window, went down into the basement, and then came up through the steps in the cellar.
Whatever happened, we got into our house. As we walked up the stairs, my two brothers started arguing over who had the great idea that got us back in the house. My father finally settled the matter by telling them both to shut up.
I went to bed, feeling disappointed and cheated, having been promised a big event and getting very little in return. That was hardly the first time this had happened and it won't be the last. But I'll always tune in for more.