by James Knauer
“For everything, there is a first time, Mr. Saavik.” – Captain Spock.
These 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.
I 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 episode “Abyssinia, 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 Minute” by Sarah Marshall.
1976, Richard 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.
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
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.