Christ is supposed to be your savior. But TV really is. When your bare knees grow cold on the walk to school, when Fat Donna says she doesn’t want to be your friend anymore, when you get only 95 on your spelling test, and when you’re chosen last again for kickball, you tell yourself it doesn’t matter. Tonight the TV will take you to Mayberry R.F.D. and Green Acres. The train will stop for half an hour at Petticoat Junction. You’ll join McHale’s Navy and be one of Hogan’s Heroes. Gomer Pyle–shouting “Surprise, surprise, suprise!”–waits for you on the other side.
Later when you’re older–nine or ten–you’ll dream about which of the My Three Sons you’ll marry: Robbie, Chip, or Ernie. But for now, you’re in love with Lassie. You can’t wait for Sunday night, when you’ll sit on the nubby green carpet so close to the Zenith TV that Ma will holler at you to move back or you’ll go blind.
First the commercials ask you “Iron poor blood?” and accuse you of “Ring around the collar, ring around the collar!” Then the living room fills with whistling, and out trots a majestic collie, eyes bright, ears pinned back as she stands proud chested on a rocky ledge, like a mountain goat or elk.
You want to dive into the TV and throw your arms around Lassie and bury your face in her rough fur. Lassie keeps little girls from harm. She only has to bark and her master asks, “What’s that you say, Lassie? The little girl has fallen down the well? The little girl has been bitten by a poisonous snake? The little girl is running through the forest where the bad man is going to–?”
Arf arf! Lassie leads the way. The little girl is rescued, and Lassie doesn’t even demand a biscuit or a bone. She’s just content to do the same thing every Sunday evening.
* * *
In real life, you’re scaredy-cats of dogs. The few mangy, scraggly dogs in your neighborhood are not majestic, but menacing. Spot on the corner of First Street always lunges at the chain link fence. King bares his yellow teeth and growls when you walk by. Brownie wanders into your backyard on a summer day, snarling and barking, and when you and your sisters shriek, Ma marches out of the house, grabs the garden hose, and sprays him until he runs away.
* * *
Later Lassie goes off the air. By then you don’t care. You have greasy hair and flame-red pimples and kids don’t want to sit next to you in homeroom because you only take a shower once a week. Every twenty-four days, excruciating cramps bend you over so bad you take six aspirin at a time, then faint. You get straight As, but what does that matter? You’re ugly.
You still spend every day thinking about what you’ll watch on TV that night. All the girls at school swoon over Greg on The Brady Bunch and Keith on The Partridge Family, but you’re addicted to hour-long dramas about bad men–drug pushers, serial killers, rapists–and the good-looking guys who lock them up, like Pete on The Mod Squad and McGarrett on Hawaii Five-0.
Bad men are just as scary as dogs–they can come out of nowhere and lunge at you. For this reason Ma tells you never to walk through the abandoned airport behind your junior high school. You’ve never seen it. But you’ve heard it’s overgrown with weeds and bushes and that it’s where boys take girls to get them pregnant.
One dark November afternoon you stay late at school for glee club. Your cramps are so sharp you can’t imagine making the half-hour walk home. But cutting through the airport would dump you in front of the funeral home on First Street and cut your time in half.
Your heart beats fast as you take the first steps onto the field and still faster as you keep going down the trampled path. Inside your head, you whistle the theme song of Lassie. If you keep whistling it to yourself, nothing wrong will happen, nothing wrong will. . .
What’s that you say, Lassie? The little girl has cut through the old airport where the bad man is waiting and when she comes out on the other side, she won’t be a little girl any more?
Photo used under CC.