The Lone Ranger
By Mark Schwimmer
We knew very little about each others’ innards. I didn’t know what I required of him and was too young to ask even if I had. Anyway, it just wasn’t done. Parents and their children revolved in separate orbits. Interactions between the two camps were created by a sense of duty rather than an attempt to understand feelings and emotive concerns. You just cleaned your plate and kept your mouth shut. He was The Grand Master: too physically drained and emotionally unavailable to play with me or instruct me in the secrets of manhood. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for us kids. He just existed in his own world of anxiety, guilt, shame and failure.
My mother would not allow him to forget it either. Nor me. She constantly reminded me of the deficits of “your father,” as if I had taken ownership of his shortcomings. My parents were married for over seventy years, and as far as I can tell they had as little to do with each other as he had to do with me. We did little together as a family except watch TV.
Our first “big” television was a used console model Stromberg-Carlson, equipped with a pair of vise grips as a replacement for the missing channel selector. The cabinet was roughly the size of the Bismark and housed a whopping 17” screen. The old man spent most of his spare time fiddling with it. On its best days, viewing it was like tripping on LSD-not that I have ever had first-hand knowledge of that experience itself. I am relying on my research efforts in this regard.
He outfitted it with a set of rabbit ears that had the mandatory balls of aluminum foil on each antenna, and he would direct me to different locations in the living room with antennae in hand. I suffered a severe neck trauma from holding it over my head for an entire episode of “Playhouse 90”. The 90 meant minutes. When the picture started rolling wildly, or when watching became like looking into a fun house mirror, he got down to real business. Charlie was a cautious man and most of his moves were measured. Risk was avoided at all cost. He didn’t like to take chances. This did not keep him from ripping off the back of the console which carried the admonition DO NOT REMOVE WITHOUT RISK OF SEVERE ELECTRICAL SHOCK AND POSSIBLE DEATH.
“Dad, isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yeah, the warning.”
“Oh, they just put that on there to scare you.” Duh. He would have his head inside the TV and start fiddling away. My job was to sit in front of the screen and tell him what the picture was doing while he fiddled.
The truth was that the intricate meanderings of the picture were always in such a state of flux that verbal reports were unreliable and usually inaccurate by the time the old man made the required adjustment. It was at this point that I’d be excused and he would rig up a mirror in front of the tube held in place with a wire coat hanger and some duct tape. The only drawback to this technique was that everything was reversed.
I learned to curse “like a sailor” at my father’s knee: or should I say “like a used car salesman” which was how he managed to feed us. Invariably, any improvement in performance would be of a temporary nature, which called for the pulling of the suspected offending tubes and a trip to the local drug store, where he would plug them into their tube tester. Replacements for the defective ones would be purchased at the local TV dealer and everything would be okay for a few days until something else broke.
Everyone experiences events the outcomes of which seem to hold their very life in the balance. The arrival of Dr. Video was one of these times for me, for if the TV had to go into the shop for a rehab, my existence as I understood it would end. While the “doctor” performed his examination, I would pace the sidewalk while ravenously chewing on my fingernails as I waited for the dreaded diagnosis. The only other events that rivaled this sort of tension of my ten year old life was watching my beloved Dodgers teeter between heroic victory and utter debasement.
On a snowy January morning in 1958, the year the “beloved bums” would move to L.A. and desert us forever, my father and I were driving to the small gift shop in Westwood, N.J. that he then owned in partnership with my uncle Jack. The roads were slippery and he was driving even more cautiously than usual.
Although I couldn’t have known it then, I now realize that this car ride was not about picking up a book, but was a way for him to break the news to me that my grandfather had died.
He was pretty matter of fact about it. “Oh, by the way.” I never knew his authentic feelings. Up until the day of his own death, Charlie and I had never managed to conduct a conversation more than thirty seconds long: about as long as it takes to relate the difference between horizontal and vertical. As my dad was dying at the age of ninety-four, after not knowing him for almost sixty years, we could have had that conversation: Dad, how did you feel when grandpa died? How should I feel now?