A few years ago I wrote about my unsupervised television viewing as a kid. I watched quite a few PG programs where “the content is geared toward a mature audience and parental discretion is advised.” That disclaimer only made the presentation more enticing, and somehow I thought if I started talking loudly when the words came on the screen that no one could hear the announcer’s dire warning.
I doubt my feeble attempts at subterfuge had anything to do with my getting to watch whatever I wanted. Network censors heavily edited the adapted films, and all the bad words were bleeped out. By today’s standards, Prime Time was tame, but I was the only one in my class to see Maude, Soap, and other so-called scandalous programs airing at the time. Those two shows were considered especially racy, as were Cher’s outrageous, revealing costumes.
Produced by Norman Lear, Maude covered social topics that whipped the “Clean Up TV Campaign” people into a frenzy. All in the Family wasn’t as high on their hit list, but that show’s themes were just as controversial. I don’t know if the TV cleanup people were a real group, but someone had printed and handed out all those bumper stickers I’d been seeing on cars around town.
A little over a decade ago, the organization I worked for was preparing to honor Norman Lear at an event I was organizing. As I assisted in writing event speeches and prepared to meet Mr. Lear, I decided to binge-watch the first two seasons of Maude. There were rarely any reruns of the show at the time, and I was curious as to why the lead character had been so demonized during its first run. Within five minutes I had the answer. Maude was an unabashed liberal who expressed herself loudly. Archie Bunker was an arch-conservative who was also loud, but the skirt-gathering brigade who clutched their faux pearls and derided feminism roared at the punch-lines when the longsuffering Edith Bunker occasionally bested her husband’s provincial attitudes. Lear often made the same point on two separate shows, but in different ways. It has been noted that many of Archie’s fans never realized that he was the butt of the joke, but it seems clear to me that a bigoted blowhard from Queens was more acceptable to certain viewers than a “loud-mouthed broad” from Westchester County.
I was allowed to watch all of these episodes because no one thought I could possibly understand the topics at my age. I was an expert at feigning naïveté, so was never asked to leave the room. I kept hearing sermons about all the smut on television, but I never saw any. I had an old TV in my room at age nine. It had no remote control and only picked up three channels. I wore down the cogs on the dial by constantly searching for some of this illusive smut, but a tobacco commercial from that era was the only thing we’d find scandalous today.
I realize now that I was fortunate to have grown up when we only had three channels and Pong by Atari to encroach upon adolescence. My brain wasn’t completely compromised, and the family had hope when they discovered I liked to read. My sister was an English teacher by then, and she recommended a few appropriate books. I enjoyed most of them, but I was soon more interested in what my peers were reading.
A transfer student named Darlene had a lightly worn, first edition paperback copy of something called Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice. On the penultimate day before spring break, our first period teacher didn’t show up, and the counselor came to announce a study hall. I had nothing to do, and Darlene was seated next to me completing some assignment. The book sat between us, and the cover captivated me. On the backside, there were two gaunt looking gentlemen with a child in a Victorian dress. I asked if I could take a look; Darlene nodded her assent. I was tempted to thumb through, but started reading from the beginning. The following morning our teacher didn’t show up again, and with another study hall, Darlene worked while I read more of this captivating novel. When the bell rang, she told me to go ahead and take the book over spring break. She’d be traveling with no time to read, and she noticed that I rather liked it. I had a study hall for fifth period where I read even further. I don’t think I’d ever read a book so quickly. I’d certainly never read a book over spring break! I finished the book by Monday, but it turns out that I could’ve taken more time because Darlene never returned. Her name is still written in cursive on the inside cover, but after more than 40 years, she’s never found me to claim it.
The following spring break I borrowed The Amityville Horror from a girl I had lunch with every day. My mother soon began to notice my questionable taste in books, which had spread to Stephen King. She might not have given three hoots about what I watched on TV, but she was quick to voice her opinions on my choice of supernatural thrillers containing cursed characters headed for damnation. “You’re going to ruin your mind if you don’t stop reading all that crap!”
I suggested that she should be happy that I liked to read, but inwardly feared she might be right. What if I started having seditious thoughts because Lestat was a hedonist? What if I insisted that we have our house blessed against demonic possession by a priest even though we were Baptist? As far as I could tell, The Amityville Horror’s greatest impact on me was an aversion to Dutch Colonial architecture. I still can’t look at half-moon windows without thinking that glowing eyes are going to stare back at me.
I decided to seek out some weightier literature. I headed to the school library where I was drawn to a copy of The Scarlet Letter. We’d discussed it in eighth grade, and I got it into my head that a novel about adultery would present a nice change from those sexy vampires who never got beyond a few good necking sessions. The student library assistant had already stamped my card when Mrs. Sharp jerked the book away, shook her bouffant furiously, and snapped “You’re too young for this!” If she’d only seen that ruby embedded in Cher’s navel the previous week, she would’ve realized the futility in fussing over a big red A.
Now that the censorious librarian was keeping an eye on me, I’d never get the Hawthorne even if it made it back to the shelf. As I sat on the bus wondering why the school had purchased the book in the first place, I noticed that my friend Robert was reading Louis Lamour. I’d satisfied my curiosity after two westerns even though my friend swore by Louis. I wanted more vampires and hauntings, but spaceships and slimy creatures grunting unearthly languages didn’t interest me.
A girl in my English class, who had never been known as much of a reader, had lately started keeping one paperback after another on her desk. With Interview With the Vampire, I’d had great beginning gambler’s luck with snatching my neighbors’ books off their desks to see if they were any good. I’d been disappointed a few times, but S.B. had somehow latched onto a genre that old Mrs. Sharp would never have stocked. Where had S.B. gotten this wonderful book that seemed relatively harmless (and void of any meaningful plot) until you reached the last two pages of every third chapter?
The prudes were spending all their time on television censorship when they would’ve snapped their garters to have a good old-fashioned book burning had they only known about the books S.B. was bringing to school. It seems the girl pilfered R-rated romance novels from her aunt without the woman finding out. “Don’t tell on me,” she pleaded. “They sent a note home about my grades. I’ve been challenged to get the certificate for reading twenty-five or more books this school year. I’ve only got seven to go!”
© 2020 by Patrick Brown
To learn more about my books, including the three featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1