by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 7, 2020
This post is going to be way longer than I ever imagined. My first title was “Do You Use Old TV Shows as Anchors for Old Memories?” I wanted to write about using memories of watching television as a mnemonic device to trigger connecting memories of real life. Well, this worked too well – it opened a floodgate of images from the past. That in turn, made me ask myself the following questions:
- Can I remember what it felt like to be me at different ages?
- Why were certain shows my favorites each year?
- Can I remember when, where, and who I watched those shows with?
- Can I remember the house, room, and TV set?
- What else was going on in my life?
- What was my psychological state-of-mind at the time?
- Would life be better without TV?
Before I started this project, I had assumptions about my past that on reflection I no longer believe are true. Before this essay, I would have told people that when I grew up, I watched television every night for all three hours of prime time. I remember loving the Fall Preview issue of TV Guide so much that I studied it like a textbook before a test. That I gave all the new shows at least one try. That I watched so much TV that I knew what every show was about even if I wasn’t a fan. That as a kid I was a walking TV Guide.
Then I watched a series of YouTube videos about the new shows that premiered every year from 1957-1968. Those assumptions are a delusion. I was astounded by the number of shows that were complete blanks in my memory. I was also amazed by the memories triggered by clips of shows I had seen. That tidal wave of memories brought back details that when I pieced together made me realize I hadn’t watched nearly as much television as I believed. My past was far fuller with other interests and loves. What had happened, I realized, I was remembering television shows, books, movies, and music better than my actual life. Why is that?
I have a tremendous nostalgia for the television I watched growing up, but that nostalgia distorted my sense of who I was. It’s kind of disturbing how much we depend on TV to fill up our evenings, and for some people, their days too. Was it worth it? Is it worth it? Television is a lot of make-believe for children, make-believe that influenced our psyches. Yet, haven’t we as adults logged even more hours in TV Fantasyland? Even today, television is seemingly important to me and my friends, and often television watching is the subject of our conversations and the shared interest that binds us.
Television and I grew up together in the 1950s. All this navel-gazing on my past showed how television shows were weaved into my formative years, and how recalling specific TV shows help date events in my past. It’s kind of weird when you think about it, that we have such an intimate relationship with an electronic box. They say your life will flash in front of your eyes when you die – if that is true, I will see huge swaths of my life in front of a television (or computer screen).
The result of unearthing all these TV memories is it pulls up related memories too. As long-forgotten memories bubble up into consciousness, some of which I don’t ever recall remembering before and others I haven’t thought about in years, it’s making me reevaluate who I was. Remembering TV shows triggered memories about my past habits, traits, interests, friendships, relationships, and even sexual desires. Other memories allowed me to make logical deductions about dates and places. But I can’t be sure if these are real memories or false memories because some memories also created logical conflicts too.
My family moved a lot when I was growing up because my father was in the Air Force, but I think we moved even more frequently than normal service people. I’ve always had the feeling my father was restless and put in for transfers. Living at different houses and dating specific TV shows gives me a grid to plot my memories. By researching TV seasons online and connecting them with the houses I lived at during those seasons, I was able to anchor past events on a crude timeline. From this, I was able to deduce facts, some of which conflicted with other memories, revealing some of my memories can’t possibly be true.
One of the biggest revelations I made was I stopped watching television in the 1967/68 season. That’s because I got an after-school job where I worked 25-33 hours a week. I didn’t start back watching TV until Susan and I got married in 1978. Thus, I missed the 1967/68 through 1977/78 seasons. Oh, there were a couple shows I tried to watch if I had a moment, but I usually didn’t. It why friends are baffled that I’ve never seen The Brady Bunch or The Waltons. This was starkly revealed when I was watching YouTube videos about the shows from those 1968-1978 years. I drew complete blanks from most of the clips I saw. The only time I can remember watching TV during those years was when I was hanging out with friends, and we were usually getting high and talking over the shows.
My memory of television during my childhood mainly runs from the 1957/58 season to the 1966/67 season. This is my Classic TV Era, and it roughly coincides from when I was from six to sixteen. It sure would have been convenient if my birthday, school grade, and TV season all started on January 1st or September 1st. Luckily, school and Fall TV started around the same time in September, unfortunately, my birthday was three months later. I’m going to give my age that I was for three-fourths of the year. For example, I started first grade at age 5, but I’m going to list it as 6, even though I was 5 for a third of the school year.
|6||1st||1957/58||Miami, Hollywood (FL) – 3 houses and 3 schools|
|7||2nd||1958/59||Miami, Hollywood (FL)|
|8||3rd||1959/60||Browns Mills, New Egypt (NJ)|
|9||4th||1960/61||Marks (MS), Hollywood (FL)|
|10||5th||1961/62||Hollywood (FL), Homestead (FL)|
|12||7th||1963/64||Homestead, Hollywood (FL), New Ellenton (SC)|
|13||8th||1964/65||New Ellenton (SC), Homestead (FL)|
|14||9th||1965/66||Cutler Ridge (FL)|
|15||10th||1966/67||Charleston (MS), Coconut Grove (FL)|
Before Starting School (11/25/1951-1955)
I can remember living in three places before starting school although I know I lived in at least three others. I have no memories of a TV set or watching TV. I can’t say we didn’t have a TV either. Both my parents loved television. I have vague memories of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (1947), Howdy Doody (1947), Romper Room (1953), The Mickey Mouse Club (1955), Captain Kangaroo (1955), and other children’s TV shows, but I can’t connect any with a house, which means I can’t date them. And those vague earlier memories are confused by later memories of seeing those shows while flipping channels when I was too old to be watching kiddie shows.
Kindergarten and 1st Grade (TV seasons 1956/57, 1957/58)
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly my earliest memories of television because the house we lived in was the one where I attended Kindergarten and the first of the three first grades schools I attended. Actually, I was 4 and 5 at this house and didn’t turn 6 until after we moved. I can’t say if my earliest TV memories are from when I was 4 or 5, but I’m going to assume 5.
I’ve been trying very hard to imagine what it feels like to be a 5-year-old person. I don’t think its a highly sentient state. I’m not sure if it’s not closer to a smart dog than to an adult person. I had an extremely limited vocabulary and practically no concepts about how the world work. I was full of wants and desires. Frustration would make me cry, excitement would make me laugh and shout. I don’t think I understood TV but was mesmerized by it.
The illusion of our conscious mind is we have always been the same person. That every day we wake up the same being we were the day before. But really, am I the same person I was at 5, 10, or 15 years old? I cannot comprehend being enthralled with Captain Kangaroo, but I probably was back then. At age 5 I possessed only a tiny fraction of the vocabulary, experience, and knowledge that I have now. At what point do we become fully conscious of a fixed identity? It has occurred to me that my memories of watching television reveal clues about who I was psychologically at different ages.
It was during this year I have my earliest memories of watching television, although I have no memories of Sputnik or other news events. I did not know the president was Dwight Eisenhower. Until I started first grade, I did not know the alphabet and couldn’t count. I don’t think I could tell time, or even recite our phone number or address. I was a dumb little guy who liked to play with toy cars and trucks, pretend with plastic army men, cowboys, Indians, horses, and eat my baloney sandwiches. That was about the extent of my personality. I could watch Topper but I don’t think I knew what being a ghost meant.
I remember in my forties going back to the house I lived during this period and standing on the sidewalk in front of that house. I was with my high school friend Connell and told him it felt like I was standing on the Big Bang of my universe.
I can recall quite a few things from that year, but they as just brief flashes. I remember climbing several trees and falling out of one, going to kindergarten on a bus, my first friend who lived down the street named Petey, the day Petey’s father came home from California, and brought toys from Disneyland, including an arrow through the head trick. I remember my sister and I playing with an old wooden box and painting it with a watercolor set.
And I remember watching Topper (1953) and Gunsmoke (1955). In fact, it was while watching Gunsmoke that the idea of death came to me. I realized the actors were pretending to die, but it was implied they would never get up again. That insight was quite profound for my little mind. For all I know, it might be my first abstract concept.
Looking at the schedule for the 1957-58 television season I see several shows I remember from childhood, but I don’t have memories of them from when I was five. Topper wasn’t even on the schedule. It was probably a rerun during the day for kids. I have vague memories of shows that began in earlier seasons like I Love Lucy, Make Room for Daddy, and Ozzie and Harriet.
The TV we watched is pictured at the top of this essay. I believe that photo is from the house I lived in when I was five. Do I look five and my sister three? The clips in these YouTube videos look much worse than how I remember seeing TV. TV images back then were bad, but they were more snowy than blurry. They were black and white, and if you looked close, you could see the scan lines. I assume many of the clips in the YouTube videos below were from kinescopes. TV in the past looked better, but not much better.
From watching this video I recall seeing many of these shows that premiered in the 1957/58 season, but I can’t pin them to a certain house and date. Wow, there were a lot of westerns.
These are the new shows I remember watching. Either by myself, with my sister, or with the whole family. This will be true from now on when I list the shows after the film clip(s).
- Have Gun-Will Travel
- Wagon Train
- The Real McCoys
- Leave it to Beaver
- Bachelor Father
- Perry Mason
- American Bandstand
Now I have lots of memories of these shows, of watching them with my family and watching them for years, but I just don’t have a specific memory of where I lived when I first saw them. But this was a great season to start watching TV! I loved these shows enough to watch them in reruns over the years, and I’ve bought DVD sets of Have Gun-Will Travel, Maverick, and Perry Mason. What’s hilarious is I was bored to death by Perry Mason as a kid, but get a big nostalgic kick out of it now.
2nd Grade (TV season 1958/59)
One of my earliest memories, and one I’ve cherished my whole life, is waking up in the middle of the night when I was six or seven and going out into the living room where my dad was watching a movie. I have damn few memories of spending time with my dad. I’ve always felt it was in the middle of the night, but it could have been just ten o’clock. He was alone and let me stay up with him. The film was High Barbaree with Van Johnson and June Allyson, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’m not sure I even knew what a movie was at this age. But one early scene had a little boy and girl being separated because her family moved away. That I knew about. I had already moved several times and left my little friends.
I remember living in South Carolina when I was very little, but I’ve never been able to date when. Even before my mother died, she couldn’t remember. I have the above memory about High Barbaree, and I believe my dad took us to see a movie called Snowfire that came out in May of 1958. Using the chart below I developed for this project, I’m now going to guess we only lived in South Carolina the first time during the summer of 1958, after the first grade, and that I started the second grade late by a few weeks.
Here’s me about a year later I in Hollywood, Florida. My sister Becky is the redhead, with her friend Patty, and a little girl whose name I’ve forgotten.
My parents bought this house, located in a subdivision called Lake Forest. We lived there for second grade, fourth grade, and a couple months during seventh grade. Some of my best memories of childhood are from this house, and I’m very nostalgic about this era of my life. For decades I would have reoccurring dreams of trying to find my way back to this home.
However, I have very few specific memories of watching television at this house. One of my fondest memories was about how we watched our favorite shows on Saturdays from early morning until noon. Becky and I liked to build a tent over the TV with army blankets and lie on the floor inside the dark tent to watch our cartoons. Florida has a bright sun and the TV was next to the sliding glass door to the back yard. We watched Mighty Mouse, Sky King, My Friend Flicka, and so many other shows. I’ve always assumed we did this every Saturday but I now wonder if it was just a few times.
That’s the thing about these memories. Often recalled memories are about one time or two times, but in my mind, I assumed it was for many times or all times. A TV show back then often ran for 36 episodes in a season. Before writing this if I remembered watching a show I assumed I watched every episode. After spending a lot of time with these memories I now doubt that. There’s a good chance I only saw a handful of episodes, even for my very favorite shows. But then we forget so much, so I can’t be sure.
I also loved playing outside. Becky and I made our first best friends here, Michael Kevin Ralph and Patty Paquette. The neighborhood were full of Baby Boomer kids — it was childhood Nirvana. Another factor, which just occurred to me, was Becky and I had bedtimes. In Florida, prime-time ran from 8 till 11, and I think we had to get to be by 9pm. If I work at it, I can recall more memories of us playing inside and outside of the house rather than watching TV.
I also remember discovering Tarzan and Jungle Jim movies at this house, and old science fiction movies from the 1950s. This was probably my first exposure to science fiction.
Watching this clip reminded me of that I had seen many of these shows, meaning I probably watched a lot more TV, but only a few were family favorites.
- The Donna Reed Show (with my Mom and Becky)
- The Rifleman
- Wanted Dead or Alive
- 77 Sunset Strip (with Dad)
- The Jackie Gleason Show (with parents)
3rd Grade (TV season 1959/60)
While I was in the second grade my mother got TB and was sent to stay in a sanatorium in Valley Forge, PA. My father was stationed in Canada. My father’s mother, whom we called Ma, took care of me at Becky and lived with us at the Lake Forest house. During the summer by dad came home and drove us up north to pick up my mother. We lived in Philadelphia for a while, before school started.
I can’t remember the TV there, but I do remember seeing one TV show that was science-fictional and made with an odd kind of animation. I’ve never been able to find out what it was.
Then we moved to Browns Mills, New Jersey, where I started the third grade, but then to New Egypt, New Jersey in the town, and then out in the country. I have no memory whatsoever of watching TV during the third grade. In Browns Mills, there was a big forest to play in just across the street. And when we lived out and the country we played in the forest, across cattle fields, farms, on hills covered with gopher holes, and in streams with snakes and turtles. I believe we had our first dog there, Mike, named after Michael Kevin Ralph.
I built a soapbox racer out of an army trunk and baby buggy wheels and made it a hardtop with old cabinet doors. And I did this all by myself, other than my mother buying me the old baby buggy to tear apart. So TV just wasn’t that interesting that year. I can’t even remember a TV being in any of the three houses we lived in while we lived in New Jersey. Nor do I remember most of these shows in the clips below. My family started watching some of them like The Untouchables, Laramie, Bonanza when we move to Mississippi or back to Florida, and even then I don’t remember any kid-friendly shows at all. What’s funny, I have practically no memories of the insides of our houses in New Jersey, but I have lots of memory of being outside.
However, here’s what premiered in 1959:
But after seeing the second clip I do remember seeing Denise the Menace, and I thought from the first episode. And I loved Dobie Gillis. So maybe I did watch TV in New Jersey and just don’t remember it. It’s funny how unreliable our memories can be. And of course, who could forget The Twilight Zone? But my first memories of it are from Mississippi, where we moved next. Maybe we didn’t even have a TV in New Jersey.
4th Grade (TV season 1960/61)
We moved to Marks, Mississippi in 1960. My mother’s family is from Mississippi and her oldest sister Belle lived there. I think my father got stationed elsewhere because I don’t remember him being there, maybe in Texas. Years later I found a letter about his training as a mechanic on F-106s. Marks was a very small town, and we had lots of kids to play with. We only lived in Marks part of the summer of 1960, and for the first two six-week periods of school, then we moved back to Hollywood for the rest of the school year.
This was when I first remember having a president, and the presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. I remember getting in a fight at school because I was for Kennedy and another boy was for Nixon. I doubt either of us knew anything about politics.
I remember watching TV in Marks, specifically The Twilight Zone which I thought was very scary and the very last episode of Howdy Doody.
New shows that I remember watching with my family, but maybe not specifically in this year were:
- Route 66
- The Andy Griffith Show
- My Three Sons
- Candid Camera
- The Bugs Bunny Show
- The Flintstones
- Surfside 6
5th Grade (TV season 1961/62)
I began the 5th grade living in Hollywood, Florida but we moved to Homestead Air Force Base in Homestead, Florida. This was one of the longest stretches of living in one place of my childhood. It covered the second part of 5th grade, all of the 6th grade, and the first six-weeks of 7th grade. That was a special time for me in other ways too. I got my first radio there and began to follow Top 40 music. And I became a bookworm while living on Maine Avenue. So TV had some competition. We still played outside all the time it was light, and sometimes in the dark. Becky and I had best friends Alice and Arthur Mitchell that kept us busy.
During the summers Becky and I would stay up late watching the all-night movies. That’s where I learned to love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s also where I saw High Barbaree again and remembered seeing it before. Becky and I also loved game shows.
- Mister Ed
- Car 54 Where Are You?
- The Dick Van Dyke Show
- Ben Casey
- Saturday Night at the Movies
6th Grade (TV season 1962/63)
6th grade was special to me. My teacher Mrs. Saunders would read books to us after lunch, and that greatly influenced my evolution as a bookworm. Christmas 1962 was my favorite Christmas ever, and my family was at its happiest. I can remember us watching more TV together than at any other time. My father was seldom at home when I was growing up. He often worked one or two part-time jobs after his Air Force duties. I never questioned it then, but I assume now that he didn’t really like being a father. Becky and I drove both our parents crazy. Neither were really suited to handle children. My mother would work 2 to 10 at Sears as a telephone operator. So Becky and I often had the run of the house. Because our parents worked so much I don’t have a lot of memories watching TV with them, but some. Usually on the weekends.
Mainly I remember Becky and I playing with our best friends Alice and Arthur. And we had our black and white collie named Tippy, and our cats Blacky and Mitsy.
Both my parents loved television and I believe they had a life watching TV when Becky and I went to bed. Us kids totally hogged the TV set and my father and mother would fight us to see their favorite shows. Sometimes they won and we’d watch the adult shows with them. Often we won, but I’m not sure they always stayed around to watch our shows. In the summertime, our parents would let Becky and I stay up all night watching television and playing board and card games. Later on, I figure out they did this because they could retreat to the bedroom to escape us and we’d sleep late, and that gave my mother time to herself the next day.
- Combat (Me and Dad)
- McHale’s Navy (Dad’s favorite)
- The Beverly Hillbillies (Me and Becky, but sometimes the folks)
- The Lucy Show
- The Jetsons
- The Virginian (Mom’s favorite)
7th Grade (TV season 1963/64)
I lived in three houses in two states and attended three different junior high schools for 7th grade. This year was significant for TV in another way, first for the coverage of John Kennedy’s assassination in November, and the arrival of The Beatles in America in February.
We lived out in the country, in a small subdivision of five houses on a dirt road that had six kids who hung out together. Our best friends were Jerry and Chucky Johnson. It was a great year. We had a thirty-five-mile commute to school. The school bus driver was a beautiful 18-year-old high school girl named Frankie. We were a wild bunch of kids on that bus, often playing games and talking about the TV shows we watched the night before. We spent a lot of time playing outdoors, so I remember watching TV less. And I was slowly becoming a science fiction bookworm. I spent a lot of time reading and listening to AM radio. This was the beginning of the time when my parents started fighting and our family fell apart.
- The Outer Limits (me)
- The Fugitive (Dad’s favorite)
- My Favorite Martian
- Petticoat Junction
- The Patty Duke Show
- The Farmer’s Daughter
8th Grade (TV season 1964/65)
I started the 8th grade in South Carolina. My dad had a heart attack at 42 and received a medical discharge from the Air Force, retiring with 20+ years of service. We moved back to Miami, in a place called Leisure City and I attended Homestead Jr. High. This was a bad year for my parents. They tried opening a restaurant that failed, they fought and separated a couple of times, and they were both becoming bad alcoholics. I used science fiction and television to escape their battles. This was the year I separated from my family by spending more time alone reading and listening to music. I think this was the year I became who I am. I remember struggling with so many ideas. I became an atheist, and I started watching the news. It’s probably when I became a liberal too, and I really embraced rock music. I became a big fan of The Byrds which led to Bob Dylan.
- The Addams Family
- The Munsters
- My Living Doll
- Gilligan’s Island
- Gomer Pyle-USMC
- Daniel Boone
- 12 O’clock High
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
- The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
9th Grade (TV season 1965/66)
The 9th grade was one of the few school years that I only went to one school for the entire year. We lived in Cutler Ridge, Florida. It was a better year for my parents, until the end when they split up. It was the year my dad bought us a color television set. This was also the year I started going to used bookstores on my own. I had a paper route, babysat, and mowed lawns. I started buying records. I went everywhere on my bike. And we had Chief the dog. Becky was going her own way too.
- Hogan’s Heroes
- Get Smart
- Green Acres
- My Mother the Car
- I Dream of Jeannie
- The Dean Martin Show (Dad’s favorite)
- The Wild Wild West
- The Big Valley
- Lost in Space
- I Spy (My favorite)
10th Grade (TV season 1966/67)
At the end of the summer of 1966 my parents split up, and my sister and I moved with my mother to Charleston, Mississippi where I started the 10th grade. I remember watching a lot of TV in Charleston. I also remember the TV set its location in the room. It was the first time we had cable TV. The 1966/67 season was my all-time favorite TV season, mostly because of Star Trek. That summer I had spent time in Key West with my father. He was mostly gone from our motel room, either at work or the motel bar. During the days I’d walk around Key West or sit in the motel watching TV. I kept seeing previews for this show called Star Trek and I couldn’t wait. Strangely, I would see the first episode in Mississippi. I made friends in Charleston, had a paper route, and was even in the Science Club at school. But I don’t remember seeing my mother or sister much. I think it’s because I was watching a lot of television they didn’t like, such as Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Tarzan, and many more. I now wish I hadn’t watched all that TV and had gotten more involved with the local townspeople back then.
In March, my parents decided to get back together, and we moved back to Miami and lived in Coconut Grove, Florida, where I finished the 10th grade. I loved Coconut Grove. I met my lifelong friend Jim Connell there. I attended Coral Gables High School, where the rich kids went to school, but we were poor. It would embarrass me when dad would drive me to school in his beat-up old car, so I started walking miles to school. I’d ride the city bus all over Miami, and loved the freedom of being on my own. I also started taking astronomy classes at the Science Museum with Mr. Sullivan.
I can’t remember the TV set we had at the house on W. Trade Street in Coconut Grove, which implies I didn’t watch it much, or at all. I do remember my sister fighting with my dad to watch The Monkees.
- That Girl
- The Monkees
- Family Affair
- Stage 67
- Star Trek
- The Time Tunnel
- The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
- Mission Impossible
11th Grade (1967/68 season but I stopped watching television)
My mother told me when I started the eleventh grade that I had to have a job by the time I turned 16 on November 25th. But I don’t remember even trying to watch TV at the beginning of the Fall season. My parents were fighting, my sister was fighting with my parents, and I just stayed out on the back screened-in porch where I made my bedroom. I did get a job and worked every day after school and on Saturday.
We then moved to South Miami Heights in March 1968, and I had to change schools to Miami-Killian Senior High. It was hard getting back to the Kwik-Chek in the Grove, which was about a thirty-minute drive. My father wasn’t working, and then not living with us, but he let me use his car. All I did was go to school and work. I just don’t remember TV at all.
Even though I loved Star Trek I never watched season two and three. My life changed quite a lot in 1968 and 1969. Besides working, I started dating. That began the era when I began going to rock concerts, live theater, restaurants, movies, and driving around town by myself. I stayed away from home as much as possible. I loved the Coconut Grove Library and the main Miami library downtown. I start junior college in the fall of 1969, the weekend after Woodstock.
In May 1970, my dad died, and things changed again. I moved to Memphis, and my mother and sister decided to too. I developed a whole new life, new friends, and I just don’t remember television being part of it. Oh, I tried to watch Then Came Bronson or Kung Fu when I could, but I can’t even remember the TV sets I watched them on.
When I got married in 1978 I did go back to TV and Susan and I found a lot of shows to watch together. We loved TV and still do. But that’s another story.
But to answer the title question, I think I love TV because it offers an escape from real life, and quite often we’re more entertained by pretend-life. I now watch TV when I’m too tired to do anything else. But growing up, I found a great deal of happiness watching TV. First, because it was delightful and entertaining, and second, when life got stressful, it was a great tranquilizer and anti-depressant. More than that, I loved TV when I could watch it with other people, either my family or friends. I loved to go to school and find friends who had watched the same shows the night before. So TV was a social outlet for me. I watched it with my family. Often I would have friends over to watch TV with me or go to their house to watch TV. Even today I love TV shows that I share with friends.
For most of the 20th century, I didn’t think much about how TV was made. Since the turn of the century, I’ve thought of TV as an art form. Current TV shows I watch are light-years beyond the shows I loved in the 1950s and 1960s in artistic quality and technical production.
However, even though TV has constantly gotten better, and thus more seductive, I wonder why we spend so much time watching. Why do we spend hours on end staring at a screen? Isn’t that odd? Now that I’m old and more inactive, it makes more sense, so why did I waste so much of my youth being so inactive?
Yes, isn’t it weird we get so caught up in flickering colored light on a big rectangle?