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Black Lamb

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I was a teenage killer

March 1st, 2006

funicelloannettedisney.jpgBY TOBY TOMPKINS

Television was not welcomed by my mother and stepfather in the mid-Fifties. They were radio people, used to the old dramas and comedies of the late Thirties and the war years. They believed that a family should sit down together each evening at the table for supper, no matter what demonic moths were nibbling on the family fabric, and as members of the “Greatest Generation,” they trusted lashings of booze during the cocktail hour before dinner, wine during it, and the soothing rhythms and harmonies of the big bands, playing quietly on my stepfather’s new and expensive hi-fi system, to establish a modicum of tranquility and permit what my mother, always half-sarcastically, referred to as “Gracious Living.”

But the Joseph McCarthy-U.S. Army hearings, the first lengthy political wrangle broadcast live by the new medium, persuaded them reluctantly that TV was something they had to deal with. They’d heard the radio coverage of the hearings, but they watched the climactic moments of Tail-Gunner Joe’s confrontation with Congress on a friend’s TV set, and they were riveted. When they bought their first TV they found that Edgar R. Murrow’s truthful and uncompromising analyses of the news of the day were lightened by comedy shows, dramas, and variety programs, many of which had originated on radio, and which were actually enhanced when they could see what was going on instead of inferring it from disembodied voices. But they worried about the effect the hypnotic tube might have on the minds of the two growing boys under their care.

We were living in a strange little house in Massachusetts. It was the smallest of the houses on a private estate atop a hill, owned by an old-money, Boston Brahmin family. It was called Topland Farm (not its real name: the family still owns it, and they are particular about their privacy) because of the dairy cow operation that occupied the fields around the base of the hill. The “Golden Guernseys” were locally famous: their milking parlor was octagonal, immaculate, equipped with the latest milking machines, and glassed-in like a greenhouse to display the patient animals locked in a circle of stanchions with their teats coupled to an intricate complex of hoses, as they let down their milk twice a day, seemingly without human intervention. The Farm was a minor tourist attraction, but it was a losing proposition, for even in the Fifties New England dairy farms were losing ground to the vast industrialized milk factories in New York State and the Midwest. And the showcase milking parlor had been built before World War II, by the patriarch of the family, as a sort of gentleman farmer’s folly.

He’d lost interest in cows by the time my family arrived on his estate, and he’d gone into equestrianism. At the top of the hill there was a stable for his Thoroughbred horses, an exercise paddock, and vast fields of pasturage. He was the Master of the local fox hunt, still thriving at the time since the area remained mostly rural, and he dressed the part, in hacking tweeds and riding boots. He even had a Guardsman’s moustache and a slight British accent, both acquired during the war, when he had served, in some capacity he never discussed, as an American officer attached to British intelligence.

The estate had a tennis court and a swimming pool, and the houses of the extended family, though plain by today’s McMansion standards, were large, well-built, and commodious. The house we lived in was never intended for permanent occupancy, and it was a mark of Topland’s slipping finances that it had been rented to outsiders. It had been built in the 1920s as a party house. The entire ground floor was one long room, originally a dance floor cum banquet room. There was a tiny kitchen off it, never meant for anything but heating up elaborate dishes which had been cooked in the larger kitchens of the main houses (fully staffed, when the house was built, by cooks and servants). On the second floor there were three small bedrooms off a central corridor, for house party guests invited for no longer than a weekend. There was a tiny room with a toilet and a sink on the main floor; the only full bathroom, with tub and shower, was upstairs.

But a heavy little door in one wall of the kitchen opened onto a squash court, and on the second floor, at one end of the corridor, there was a spectators’ gallery with a large window protected by steel mesh giving onto the court. The court had seen better days: the skylight which provided its only natural light was leaky, and there was a semi-permanent puddle on the warping floor under it, in the exact center of the court. The Topland family seldom used the court, although the terms of our lease stipulated that we had to let them and their friends walk through the house whenever they wanted to bat the ball around. My mother and stepfather weren’t much interested in squash, either, although they loved the tennis court. So I used to slam the hard little ball around by myself, avoiding the puddle, although basic squash strategy demands domination of the center. My game developed weirdly, as a result, but in time I managed to learn another basic rule: the game generally goes to the player who makes his opponent run around more than he does.

It was wonderful for me to have what amounted to a private squash court, even a decrepit one. The Topland family had two kids my age, but they were godawful snobs who resented us for the fact that their family had had to rent us what they called the Dump. But after one of them and I wound in the same pre-prep-school together, he began showing up for a game. He was a lazy, tubby kid, and after he beat me all hollow four or five times, because I didn’t really know how to play, I picked up enough clues to start beating him, staying away from the puddle. He’d had lessons, so he always served hard and moved to the center, where he used to slip and fall down a lot. Eventually he stopped coming, so I was back to playing against myself.

My stepfather was a good athlete, but tennis was his game. He’d married my mother only a year before, after both their previous marriages had ended in vicious divorces, and he’d already put a bun in her oven. He was a decorated WWII vet, a middle-management guy for a big chemical company with Defense Department contracts, on Route 128, where business was booming for what Eisenhower hadn’t yet called the “military-industrial complex.” He thought I was a spoiled brat, although he was too much in love with my mother to say so openly, and I returned his contempt. But I finally persuaded him into the shabby old squash court. He was in the prime of his life, strong and agile, and he wanted to dispose of me quickly. But the game ran long. He beat me, eventually, but only after he slipped twice in the puddle. He limped out of the court, highly pissed. I stuck around, and began whapping the black ball deliberately into the tin tell-tale under the service line on the front wall, until he opened the heavy door and told me to knock it off.

He never played squash with me again, and I got bored playing against myself. The court was abandoned and because nobody ever caulked the skylight, the puddle continued to spread until the floorboards of the court began to rot and a game was impossible.

But the spectators’ gallery proved useful. My stepfather put the TV in it. The Idiot Box was still prohibited from the vast space downstairs, which mother had tried to make at least reasonably comfortable. Exiling the TV to the drafty little gallery with the prison-like mesh on the big window meant that watching TV required a certain determination, at least the minor effort of turning off Benny Goodman on the stereo, abandoning the sofas and easy chairs, climbing a flight of stairs, and sitting on the assortment of uncomfortable hand-me-down chairs.

My stepfather and my mother ascended to the squash gallery only when there was something they thought was important on the Box — mostly dire news reports, although they did become fans of I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, and The Jackie Gleason Show. And my brother Mike’s and my viewing was severely restricted. Mike was six and I was twelve, and we both were under a strict daily regimen. We were expected to show up at the family dinner table promptly at seven, at least initially, but my mother’s little drinking habit began to creep up on her, despite her pregnancy, so dinnertime became a little vague, to my steady stepfather’s gathering dismay. Still, as soon as Mother had managed to cook something, Mike and I were expected to present ourselves and eat it, quickly, silently, and politely, ignoring our mother’s disarray and the cold fury of our stepfather. At first neither of us was permitted to watch TV before supper, but that proved unfair to Mike, because he had to go to bed right after he ate.

But The Mickey Mouse Club aired at five. It had been a raging success with little kids from its inception a year or so before, and after squinting at it critically, as if he were vetting an experimental chemical run at his company, our stepfather decided it was harmless. So Mike was given a little treat. After he’d had his bath and was clean and neat (he was allowed to wear his PJs and bathrobe at supper, whenever it came, because of his early bedtime), he was given a glass of milk and exactly one cookie, and permitted to sit, raptured, in front of the Box and watch the scrubbed professional Disney children run through their routines. No other program was allowed.

I was furious. There were cowboy shows on at five, and I’d sneaked peeks at them and adored them. I’d learned to ride during the year it took my mother and father to savage one another through divorce court, when Mike and I had been sent to live with our paternal grandparents in North Carolina’s horse country. I loved cowboy shows not for the shoot-’em-ups, but to evaluate the relative riding skills of the stars (I decided that Roy Rogers was a better rider than Hopalong Cassidy). But the only program we were officially allowed before dinner had been given to Mike. The Mickey Mouse Club was a kiddie show, and I detested its cutesy style and its blatantly wholesome moral message.

But then Annette Funicello began to grow breasts. The boys and girls in the cast wore uniform costumes: tight white sweaters (I think they had turtle-necks), black pants for the boys and flirty little cheerleader black skirts for the girls, and of course the Mousketeer black yarmulkes with the big round Mickey ears. Annette was the only girl with promising bumps on her chest, and her skirt also revealed the beginnings of womanly hips. She threw herself around as innocently as the rest of the Mouseketeers, but she showed shapely thighs, and of course she fascinated me. I stopped griping to my mother and stepfather about having to watch a kiddie show.

But Annette also fascinated my little brother, and for twisted reasons I certainly didn’t understand at the time, I thought that was offensive. I was twelve, so of course I’d developed an interest in nubile girls my own age (I think Annette was maybe thirteen or fourteen at the time), but Mike was only six. Why was he fascinated by her? I finally twigged: despite her shapeliness, she was essentially asexual. She was Big Sister to the younger Mousketeers, and even a mother to them, in the sense that Wendy, in J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan, gets stolen by the flying imp of the perverse to serve as Mother to the Lost Boys. Mike and I had a stepsister, my stepfather’s daughter by his first marriage, younger than I was but older than Mike. But we seldom saw her because of the harsh terms of our stepfather’s divorce.

And Mike needed a Big Sister, because his Big Brother wasn’t a comfort to him. He also needed a mother, and ours wasn’t much use to him, being pretty much overcome by the dawning realization that her rebound marriage to the guy who had actually been her boyfriend before my father showed up came with rules she didn’t care for.

With no one else to worship, Mike worshipped me, but I didn’t want his devotion, or anyone’s. I wanted to hurt people, and I didn’t know why. I did know, however, having learned rather a lot for an eleven-year-old about sexual politics during my parents’ divorce and their quick new marriages, that sex was a secret, and a dirty one. But the fact that Annette aroused me was my dirty secret, and perhaps I feared that my innocent brother might notice my arousal during the TV show and tell on me.

Our mother and stepfather had entrusted me with control of the TV at five o’clock, so they could enjoy their cocktail hour downstairs. Mike would appear with his glass of milk and cookie, at ten minutes before five, and with the devotion of a mystic would sit down carefully on the threadbare rug, about two feet from the little black-and-white TV screen, awaiting the electronic embodiment of his goddess. I’d arrive at five minutes to five, tease him a little, and finally activate his altar.

But there came an evening when the sound of raised voices downstairs and my brother’s cowlike, devoted attitude in front of the blank screen let my inner troll loose. I arrived at five of five, stood in front of the TV set, and looked down at my brother with his milk and cookie, sitting humbly in his acolyte’s pose in front of the blank screen and waiting for me to turn on the magic.

And I gave him a sad look. “Mike,” I said, “I’m really sorry, but The Mickey Mouse Club will not be shown today.” He didn’t ask me why, because I’d already demonstrated to him, through punishment which sometimes got physical, that I didn’t like “why” questions from him. He just waited.

“Annette Funicello,” I said gravely, “was run over by a bus.”

Mike said nothing. He stared at me for a moment, dry-eyed, picked up his milk and the plate with the cookie on it, rose, and padded down the bleak little hallway to his room. He didn’t appear for dinner, and mother eventually went to check on him. “I think he’s coming down with something,” was all she said. She gave me a hard look — she knew, if blurrily, something about my bullying. But I was perfectly blank. We ate supper, and I went upstairs, did my homework, and went to bed. Mike stayed in his room for the next two days, and mother decided he had flu. He was excused from school, and she brought him nourishing soups and coddled him. (Mother was actually not bad at her job until she let Old Granddad and Johnnie Walker out.) Her attention cured him, possibly because it was so rare. He was his old, eager, interested, energetic self when he got up on the third morning. And he never said a word to me or anyone else about my lie.

I stopped watching The Mickey Mouse Club with Mike and told my stepfather that Mike knew the rules and could certainly turn the TV on and off by himself. He continued to watch the show, with his milk and cookie, until we all left the Dump and moved on to other houses, more comfortable but never as interesting.

Mike eventually became a real monk, who now spends most of his days in profound meditation, far from fleshly concerns. But the unrelenting troll in me wonders sometimes if he misses TV, and if he has to do an extra half hour of concentrating on Nothing and Everything to get the evening I killed Annette Funicello out of his head. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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