Note to readers: for any who are wondering about my drivers license incident, the matter is still unresolved. Someone pointed out that it was possible to scan the medical information and send it in online, which I have now done though I have heard nothing so far. Let sleeping dogs lie, I say.
Since the “Former Guy” has departed leaving me with a greatly reduced trove of material, I have decided to resurrect some of my older stories published under the now defunct Civil Rights Journey website. This one is one of my favorites.
“What was live TV?” one of my grandchildren asked some years ago. It caused me to pause and think about what a tragedy it is that our grandchildren will never experience the joys of live TV.
When I was eleven years old, I was invited to become a member of the Black Balls Club. This was quite an opportunity for me because it was just after I returned to school following my year of recovery from polio and just before my back operation that put me out for another year. I desperately wanted to be part of a gang. I also was thrilled to be asked to join this exclusive club because the four or five other boys in the club were all cool, and I really wanted to be cool. It was unclear to me as to what exactly the name of the club referred to—it supposedly had something to do with initiation rites—but since I was never formally initiated, I never found out.
The ring leader was Frankie, a boy with a mop of brown curly hair and a devilish gleam in his eye. All the meetings were held in his dusty garage and were top secret. Frankie had an older brother, some ten years his senior, who somehow had been able to acquire a stack of French girlie magazines, which we spent hours pouring over with feverish intensity. By today’s standards they probably would not get the attention of a Playboy editor, but in those days when Nashville was a dry city and Puritan morays ruled, the magazines were an eleven-year-old boy’s dream.
The other thing we did was watch TV. Of course, it was all black and white, the images were often fuzzy, and shows would occasionally temporarily go off the air. But TV was new and seemed like a miracle. And because all the shows were live, you never knew what would happen. The occasional screw-ups were usually worth the wait. Our favorite show was Captain Beau Jim– Nashville’s most popular kiddie show and a local version of shows like Captain Kangaroo or Mister Rogers. Captain Beau Jim always dressed in a sailor’s outfit and was particularly noteworthy to us because he seemed bored and detached. You could tell he hated his job. I do not recall all the things he did to fill his half hour time slot, but much of the time it was obvious to us that he was winging it. The highlight was when he opened the mail. Children would send in letters or drawings. Captain Beau Jim would open the letter in front of the camera, and then read aloud the letter or show the picture. His response was almost always the same, said in a sing-song, patronizing, almost sarcastic tone.
“Here is a letter from little Jimmy Jones, and he says he loves the show. Isn’t that nice, thank you, Jimmy.” He would then read the letter verbatim and open the next letter.
He would take the same approach for art work. He would open the envelop, carefully take out the paper on camera and in his sing-song voice say something like, “Isn’t this cute, a tree from little Annie Johnson. Thank you, Annie.” Then he would move to the next envelope. What made the show interesting was that viewers got to see the art work at the same time that Captain Beau Jim did.
He seemed to take an inordinate amount of time in opening the various envelopes, and we figured it was mainly to kill time. After a while we began to lose interest in the show. But not Frankie. In fact as the days went on, Frankie became even more enraptured and insisted that we all watch every show for one full week. There were a few mishaps but not enough to warrant our having to watch the show every day for a whole week. We were ready to rebel.
But then came Friday, the last day of the week. When the time came to open the mail, Frankie perked up like a dog hearing some shrill whistle human ears can’t hear. He had spotted something on the set and suddenly a sly grin appeared on his face as he perched on the edge of his chair.
“What’s going on?” someone asked.
“Just watch,” he beamed.
The first letter was something about a dog from little Ronnie Wise. “You have a nice dog, Ronnie, thanks.” The second letter was about a favorite teacher from little Lucy Brown. “Nice teacher, Lucy, thanks.” Then there was a drawing of a bird by little Billy Barnes. “Nice bird…”
Each time Captain Beau Jim finished opening an envelope Frankie seemed to get more excited.
“Well,” he said in his sarcastic voice, “there is time for a couple of more. And here is a really big envelope.”
At this time Frankie could not contain himself and let out a big squeal. We all gave him a puzzled look.
As Captain Beau Jim began to open the large envelope, he noted that it was from little Frankie Freeloader. Freeloader was not Frankie’s last name, but that did not diminish his ecstasy. He jumped out of his chair and moved to within inches of the TV.
As was his custom, Captain Beau Jim carefully opened the envelope and in full view of the camera slowly opened the paper which contained the art work. The camera zoomed in as Captain Beau Jim displayed the art work from little Frankie Freeloader.
It was a large, anatomically correct, erect penis, obviously painstakingly drawn.
There was a pause, which seemed to us like an eternity. The camera continued to focus on the drawing. Captain Beau Jim was speechless. We were laughing so hard that we had trouble hearing what came next.
After getting his wits about him, Captain Beau Jim said in a somewhat different tone from his usual sing-song voice. “Well, this drawing is from little Frankie Freeloader and he says it’s a rocket ship.”
By this time we were all rolling on the floor. When we looked up again, the show was off the air. Maybe the time had expired. Also it was not unusual in those days for shows to go off the air temporarily for “technical difficulties.” This could have fallen into that category.
This was our last episode of Captain Beau Jim. I had seen enough of the program myself anyway. One of our members reported back that the following Monday the show had been taken off the air.
It is too bad our grandchildren will never get to experience live TV.