Of Winters Court, Milhous, And Me

by James Knauer

Overture

For everything, there is a first time, Mr. Saavik.”  Captain Spock.

Nixon ResignsThese matters concern my real life experiences as a television addict during the years 1973 to 1977. The location of these events took place at the end of a small dead-end street known as Winters Court in Jackson, Michigan. It was a full two-story farm house, unlike any of the smaller craftsman style homes around it. Nor did it begin life at the end of the street; it was deliberately moved there to make way for a new road, and in this some of its original sturdiness was lost.

By the time of my arrival in the Summer of 1973, its front porch was sloped downward away from the front door, and faded white foam drop ceilings cut the original twelve feet down to about seven, replete with lurid buzzy fluorescent lighting. In that hidden world above the tiles, between the wires which held it fast, the true roof of the world was revealed in small glimpses of some forgotten crown molding, extreme filth, and perhaps spiders of Tolkienian appetite. When it came crashing through the false ceiling at various times, the plaster work was revealed to be hand-carved reliefs of vines, leaves, and florets, painted a faded green, and other colors below that. But mostly that art laid perilously hidden.

There were three T. V. stations at the time, two on cloudy days, and in the Summer of 1973, if one was going to nurse a television addiction, one watched the only thing these channels had to offer. And that meant Watergate, mother of all -Gates, the real one, and this is what I saw.

1973 – The President Gets Cancer

Friday, June 23, 1972 -10:04am- 11:39am, White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman reveals to the President FBI Watergate investigations are “turning to productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources—the banker himself. And it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.”

Wednesday, March 21, 1973 -10:12am – 11:55am, Counsel to the President John Dean III confronts the President over the widening Watergate scandal, described as “we have a cancer within-close to the presidency, that’s growing. ”

Monday, July 16, 1973, in front of a live, televised audience, chief minority counsel Fred Thompson asked then FAA Administrator Alexander Butterfield whether he was “aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President”.

Monday, July 2, 1973, U.S. game show Match Game debuts its 1970s version; it soon becomes the #1-rated daytime television program for 1973, 1974, and 1975, as well as #1 game show from 1973–77.

When I first heard the President had the cancer, I was sad. He always seemed like such a nice man, like an extended relative. He had my Granny’s nose, and so did I, so I thought she knew him personally. She sure did talk about him enough. Maybe it was the way he behaved around people, like he didn’t want to be there but his Granny or Julie or someone said he had to be there and sit still. There was this cool and funny new word-matching game show that Summer that began to be ever more rudely interrupted by Watergate Hearings. And Granny didn’t like it, either, as it cut into her soap operas. “Poor Dick,” she’d say. “The elites don’t like there’s a decent man in charge.” I never met the Elites. I don’t think they lived in our neighborhood.

The hearings were awful boring affairs. This witness, that testimony, all names of people I did not know, and didn’t care about. But then came a man who said he knew about microphones in the Oval Office, and things got interesting. It was like a switch went on in my head. All the names and places began to connect themselves, and I realized the cancer wasn’t a real one, but going to be deadly for the Presidency just the same. It became like watching a slow-motion five-car collision. Addiction simply would not permit the head to turn away by even a single degree of rotation.

What killed me, though, was Richard Dawson.

Gene: “When it dips below freezing, you put antifreeze into the (blank).”

Richard: “The brass monkey.”

1974 – Resignation

July 25, 1974, Rep Barbara Jordan delivers her statement regarding impeachment of President Nixon to the House Judiciary Committee.

July 27, 1974, Congress moves to impeach President Nixon (Part 26 of 28)

August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigns as President of the United States of America.

September, 1974, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the popular British sketch comedy which aired its final episode this year, is first shown in the U.S. on Dallas KERA

Granny said she didn’t know many black people, but she loved Barbara Jordan, and any woman who would “tell it like it is.” She didn’t like the President anymore, calling him a crook and tricky Dicky and so on. By now, the newspapers and magazines stacked along the north wall of our living room had risen above the level of the television, completely encasing it, and eliminating the last of the window glare on the screen. I always wondered what Granny would have to say about that. Her house was always clean.

The President could not catch a break. Every time he brought something up, they’d knock him down. But when he started firing people left and right, I didn’t think he had long to last. I remember vividly the hearings where impeachment was voted on. It looked to me like none of those people voting wanted to be there, as if they’d prefer it just the same if a crack in the Earth opened beneath them so they could escape. Granny was glad when it was over with. But then came the pardon of Nixon by the new President Ford. They had him red-handed, and they were just going to let him go? Granny thought it was for the best. She’d seen enough and didn’t want to see any more.

PardonMeI never thought it was a good idea. No one ever let me get off the hook, not even when I had the chickenpox and hit Ellen in the head with a Tonka truck. There was something fishy about a former Vice President pardoning his former boss. Granny said the country couldn’t take it, not after Viet Nam. But impeachment wasn’t about that war. It just seemed like it was all “break the law, no jail for you, wink wink, nudge nudge, know what I mean?”

1975 – Unpardonable Appointments

November 3, 1975, Richard B. Cheney becomes Staff Assistant in Donald H. Rumsfeld”s Office.

August, 1974 – October, 1975, Donald H. Rumsfeld serves as the White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford.

November 21, 1974, George W Bush honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserve.

March 18, 1975, McLean Stevenson’s character dies in the M*A*S*H episodeAbyssinia, Henry“, its third season finale.

Winters Court was surrounded on three sides by Mercy Catholic Hospital. We’d hear sirens at all times of the day and night as ambulances would arrive. After a while, it was hard to “look grave” about it. Sometimes, late at night, when it was just me and Ellen alone in the house, and my mouth hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep, I thought about going over to the hospital. But they weren’t mouth doctors. We had to wait a long time to see him and that always hurt worse. But we did get to go to Granny’s afterwards, and that always meant a nice dinner, maybe even at a restaurant. And the television was no help. All it had late at night were test patterns. Who was awake doing all that testing?

Right after Christmas, Julie got married and moved out of the house. That made me very sad because I knew she couldn’t take me with her. I still saw her on and off but seemed like forever between visits. That Summer, she began to get a bit round in the tummy, and I was given new kinds of books to read, having to deal with sex and stuff. In September, Emily was born, and I felt like I had found an old friend. And I was an Uncle!

Watergate was a dim memory that Summer, and the details of Gerald Ford’s administration were too boring for much of the world to care. A peanut farmer would soon see to him. For me, it was Lost in Space and a never ending menagerie of monster movies. It was the Golden Age of television. I had never cried at the T. V. before they killed Henry. Maybe things would get back to normal.

1976 – Bicentennial Minutes

The Shell Oil Company Presents: Bicentennial Minutes.

The Grim American History of the Bicentennial Minuteby Sarah Marshall.

1976Richard B. Cheney becomes campaign manager for President Gerald Ford.

Tim Conway’s Siamese Elephant Bit, The Carol Burnett Show.

From the very first one, I thought Bicentennial Minutes were a fantastic idea, like Schoolhouse Rock, but for grown-ups. After Watergate, they were a breath of fresh air, because all they did was say what happened today, and you just had to wind the clock back. No listening devices. No hearings. Just use your imagination. And they lasted a minute, not all damned day. I even collected 7-Up cans, each one a different state. It was as close to an impeachment trial the country was going to get. There was next to no skepticism of the show’s sponsors, or their motives. In fact, there was little criticism of anything. T. V. still had all the answers to life’s problems. Carol Burnett did, at least.

That Summer, I went sailing for the first time. My grandfather co-owned a thirty foot sloop with my Uncle Richard named The Misty, and we plied the waters of Muskegon Lake, eventually taking on Lake Michigan herself. We would sail out to the shipping lanes, often departing at dusk, where the shores retreated, and the full glory of the night sky was revealed. Grandpa insisted I learn to sail at night, and only by the stars. So they all slept around me as I minded the tiller, two hours on Polaris, two hours on Antares, and then wake someone the hell up!

You were allowed to swear at sea. Television wasn’t about to compete with that.

1977 – A New Hope

January 20, 1977, Inauguration of Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States of America (speech at 18:55).

1977 – 1981,  The Presidency of Jimmy Carter.

January 23, 1977, Roots debuts on ABC, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

Star Wars Origins, How George Lucas came up with the story.

President Carter was a real person, made possible only by Watergate and the pardon which followed. He was given an honest chance, and even when some thought he ultimately failed, it was always followed by, “but he was a decent man.” And that sentiment held for some time after. In 1980, I recall watching live Senator Edward Kennedy’s snub of the new nominee, and was floored. This was a Kennedy? It just didn’t square. Granny shook her head. She knew things she wasn’t about to tell me, and probably not ever, about the comings and goings of the Kennedys. “Poor Jackie” was all she was going to say.

It remains difficult to describe the universe-shattering effect the 1977 film Star Wars continues to have on the young minds it touches. There had been nothing quite like it, and yet it was familiar. When you left the theater, you were convinced it was not just real, but recorded now for the ages. You were drawn into the archetypes, you got try them on for size, because each was approachable and knowable. I saw The Empire Strikes Back in the theater 21 times, including the last day it ran at the Westwood Mall Cinema. It would be many years before I realized I was drawn to a conflict I had never had, and could never directly experience, but was needed for the living of a whole life.

That Summer, the sailing took on a higher purpose. We also went much farther up the coast of Lake Michigan, berthing in Frankfort, where the ferry once crossed to Kewanee, WI. Grandpa also seemed a lot more loose. I think he enjoyed being a passenger for a change, and I took that tiller every time it was offered. One night, as we were making for Antares, and generally toward the center of the Milky Way, I realized that from this point forward, I could not get lost.

Grandpa died that November. I figured it was up to me now.

Intermezzo

Sinfonia from the oratorio Saul, by George Frederick Handel:

The harsh Winter of 1977-78, complete with the record-setting blizzard in early February, had pushed our electric bill to $750 for just December. It was an education in both home finances and the insulation efficiency of walls lined with stacks of newspapers and magazines. By March of 1978, we had moved across town, officially leaving my childhood behind. You see, I turned 13 that year.

Nixon knew how to write a score. His political sinfonia came with such titles as The Checkers Speech, his concession speech hurled at Pat Brown, his Presidential resignation speech, and his defiance with David Frost. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and so forth. But Nixon’s turmoil speaks to a cynical ambition that is also opportunistic, and he came roaring back, again and again. The last line of his taped chat with Haldeman hints at why:

Nixon: “You call him. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we’re going to play it. “

The true and lasting legacy of Watergate is that the pardon pen of Gerald Ford taught young Cheneys and Rummies, and later young Georgies and Condis, that the penalty for subversion of government, torture, and lies into wars resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people would be nothing, nothing at all.

It remains at once fanciful and true that the remedy – the seating of grand juries to probe matters of war crimes no matter where they lead – is but the assembled courage of some U.S. Attorney away. For you, my advice is to start in Vermont,  still a United State by all accounts. Today’s and all future Presidencies are doomed to commit the same crimes until you do. A case has been made here that even a child can see this.

Or do you really believe, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal?”

An intermezzo, Dear Reader, not finale, as I suspect we’re going to be with one another a while longer.

References Not Linked Above

Map: Winters Court, Jackson, MI, seems to have entered its Blue Period.

Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech,” September 23, 1952.

Richard Nixon’s concession speech in California’s race for governor, November 7, 1962

The Complete Set Of Interviews of Richard Nixon by David Frost, 1977

Sir David Frost’s Comments Regarding Interviews With Richard Nixon, October, 2009

Cast:

Granny: Maternal Grandmother
Grandpa: Maternal Grandfather
Uncle Richard: Maternal Uncle
Julie: Eldest Sister
Ellen: Youngest Sister
Emily: Julie’s Daughter

Granny and Grandpa divorced in 1954.

About James Knauer

Artist - Scientist - Muscian
This entry was posted in American History, Constitutional Law, Government, History, Jurisprudence, Politics, Presidents, Richard Nixon, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Of Winters Court, Milhous, And Me

  1. James,
    Great first diary. This truly is a “diary” instead of just a story. Your memories parallel many of mine. You captured those times and people beautifully.

    As for the Tim Conway bit on the Siamese Elephants, that has always been my favorite Tim Conway skit. He could be funny reading the phone book, but that was brilliant. Improvised and ad libbed. True comedy genius.

  2. Excellent first at bat, James.

    Welcome to the FFS Family! Normally I try to get ahead of the curve and post a blurb welcoming new persons, but between me being swamped and you working like a dervish behind the scenes as one of our new Admins and to get to post as one of our author/editors, you beat me to the punch. You are boon to this project and to quote one of the coolest characters in cinema history, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

    As for Tim Conway? Personally, my tastes run more to his partner in crime, one of the funniest guys ever on TV, Harvey Korman. But much like some blogs, he was at his best synergy when working with Tim Conway.

    A good team is good to find.

    I think we’ve got an excellent team going here.

  3. RTC says:

    Ah yes, TV certainly puts the events in a man’s life in perspective. Those were the days, which reminds me…you didn’t mention All In the Family, did you?

    I remember seeing the House vote on TV, it seemed like it was the only thing on at the time – all five stations. At the time I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Years later when I saw the Cavett interview, I began crying when Nixon said he had nothing to be sorry for. The nation may have been well-screwed before Nixon took office, the game rigged, the deck stacked, but I didn’t realize it until that moment.

    In an example of Jung’s collective conscience, a couple of years ago it hit me that Ford had made the crimes of Reagan, and Bush possible with his pardon of Nixon. A few days later, I heard radio host Thom Hartmann say the same thing. I think I may have taken my inspiration from a PBS biography of Gerald Ford, who supposedly had no ambitions beyond Speaker of the House and had remained loyal to Nixon. One only need to hear the unctuous tone in Ford’s responses to Nixon as the president tells him he’s the only friend he has left. “Oh nooooo, Mr. President.

    That pardon was s’posed to end our national nightmare, but the excesses of succeeding presidents has only gotten worse and they keep costing us more and more money and lives.

    When will the nightmare end.

  4. Elaine M. says:

    Well done, James! So happy that you have joined the FFS crew of writers. You are a most welcome addition.

  5. Sunny Peneka says:

    Thank you James! I truly enjoyed reading this. The juxtaposition of your personal comments/history with the “news” of the times is really effective. Love the dates…

  6. blouise says:

    Bringing Tim Conway into the conversation forced me to stay up watching old Conway clips which, in turn, gave me Conway dreams. Awake or asleep, I laughed all night. It was great!

  7. Mike Spindell says:

    James,

    We at FFS are so fortunate you’ve come aboard. This first blog blew me away with its imagery, story telling and interweaving with history in a manner reserved for a true artist. Not only did your personal story, interwoven with that of our country move me, but it also accomplished what great art does which is to evoke in the reader, their own experiences.

    Older than you by far I was 29 in 1973, embarking on a two month cross country trip in a brand new AMC Gremlin. As my companion and I drove those long miles, during 10 hour days, the Watergate Hearings were on the radio and we listened rapt with fascination and righteous anger. Mostly we camped, but on the occasion when the choice was a KOA, or motel, (Grand Island, Nebraska for example) we’d spend the extra money and watch the TV recap of what we had heard during the day.

    Those hearings and the years that followed shaped us all, despite our ages. When I hear pundits discussing why so many Americans don’t bother to vote, I eschew their various theories and link it back to those times when the innocence of all Americans, despite their ages, was destroyed as we began to see our country as it really was and not how we pretended it to be.

    I’m thrilled to be sharing this platform with you because you bring so much talent and artistry to our enterprise.

  8. James Knauer says:

    Mike, thank you for your kind comments, really. If I may be direct about it, your writing in another venue gave me the permission slip I needed to write in the intimate, and that supplied the formula for the piece. I loved how you often use your own thinking as the narrative, so we got to see the human side of exploration and discovery, and it’s not always neat and packaged with a bow. Your realism is the draw. You not are not afraid to go deep.

    Isn’t it interesting how we were all huddled around our various boxes of information, tuning and tweaking, hoping to get a word? We knew what we needed to see, and we didn’t get it.

    One of my challenges was is letting you hear my voice change as it did over the course of those years without losing the essence of the narrative. I have always been a bit of Nixonophile, so it was a treat to be able to write about him. Given the high crimes that continue through the present moment, the hilarity invited itself. Even the picture is a sham, quite different from what was seen on TV, appearing as the stage prop it was, with the nice soldier in the foreground whose only job was to escort Mr. Nixon off the premises.

    I felt like I needed to get it out of my system so I could move on and focus on more salient topics.

    The next piece will be about life.

    • Mike Spindell says:

      James,

      Thank you. My creative talents, such as they are, remain pedestrian from a literary perspective. I know this about myself because I’ve been a reader all my life and understand what talent in writing is about. Knowing this, my method has always been honesty in expression and a willingness to expose my intimate thoughts and feelings. This openness has done well by me in life and in some strange, mystical way I feel it protects me from harm.

      Your first of many pieces for us deals with an essential to human society that often gets short shrift, but seems essential to maintain society’s comity and that is hypocrisy. From the Nixon hearings we can remember Senator Baker, Republican stalwart and Nixon ally coming up with the catchphrase regarding the so-called “smoking gun”: “What did he [Nixon] know and when did he know it?” Playing the role of the “even handed” inquisitor, Howard Baker was actually feeding inside information to the White House Staff. The hypocrisy of that whole “crisis” became real when as you point out Gerald Ford, our first unelected President, pardoned Nixon shutting the door on possibly the worst revelations out there. As you have shown the revelations of that hypocrisy have resonated with many of us throughout our lives.

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