Monday, February 4, 2008

It's Why We Watch

By Mitchell

There is a method to the madness, the need that a cultural archaeologist has to collect old television shows and peruse vintage TV Guides. As with any other archaeologist, it is the desire to find the hidden treasure. It may be a story, a show, an offhand remark that attracts no attention at the time, that gives no indication that it will have any value in the future; in fact, it is likely forgotten as soon as it is uttered, digested and discarded immediately after it is read. They are the seemingly innocuous items that only attain their significance at a later date.

We found one of those moments the other day, watching one of the I’ve Got a Secret reruns that GSN shows in the middle of the night. The broadcast was from September 17, 1962. An older couple comes on, looking a little uncomfortable. They identify themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Armstrong of Wapakoneta, Ohio. Their secret flashes on the screen for the audience to see: “Our son became an ASTRONAUT today.” That's right – they were the parents of Neil Armstrong. And you have to ask yourself, what are the odds of that?

There were nine astronauts chosen in that class of September 1962, known as the “Next Nine” (having followed the more famous “Original Seven”). They could have had the parents of, say, Elliott See, who was killed in a plane crash before ever flying in space. But no – it just happened to be the parents of the first man to walk on the Moon. Who could possibly have imagined that this unknown astronaut, just one among nine, will wind up as one of the most famous men in history?

Now, you have to figure that this alone makes the broadcast a cultural archaeologist’s dream. But wait – it gets better. In the polite chit-chat just before the Armstrongs leave (Betsy Palmer figured it out, by the way), Garry Moore says, “Now, how would you feel, Mrs. Armstrong, if it turned out – and of course, nobody knows, but it turns out – that your son is the first man to land on the Moon? How would you feel?”

Can you believe it? It was a jaw-dropping moment for anyone watching in retrospect who wasn’t prepared for it – at least your jaw would have been dropping if you hadn’t covered it in shock. While you’re already marveling about the coincidence that this astronaut in question happens to be Neil Armstrong, and you’re thinking that nobody watching the show has any idea what the future has in store, you hear Garry ask, quite off-handedly – oh, by the way, what if your son is the first man on the Moon?

It reminds me of John Glenn’s appearance on Name that Tune back in 1957, when he was a Marine Corps pilot known only for having set the record for the fastest transcontinental flight from California to New York. Often enough you see a star plugging a movie or show you wind up never having heard of, or seeing an appearance from someone who’s being touted as “the next big thing,” only to fade into anonymity. It’s rare that you find a moment that fulfills the hopes, let alone one that throws a double-shock they way this one does. It’s a wonderful moment, one that reminds you why you watch.

Afterward, Judie asked me if Garry Moore was still alive at the time of the Moon landing. He was; he died in 1993. I wonder if he remembered that show of September 17, 1962, and what he said to the parents of the first man to walk on the Moon?


As if that wasn’t enough, right after that the very next show (we record them nightly and then watch them in a batch) had a moment almost as good. It’s from September 24, 1962, and the first guest is an elderly looking Indian chief dressed in ceremonial garb, right to the headdress. He identifies himself as Chief John Big Tree, of Syracuse, New York. His secret: “I posed for the Indian Head nickel.” Again, living history. He stumps the panel, and as he turns to Garry Moore to revel his secret, the panel sees him in profile and Betsy exclaims, “You’re on the nickel!” Garry explains that federal law prohibits one man from serving as the model for currency, so the Chief was one of three who served as the model; his profile can be seen from the forehead to the top of the mouth. I mean, how often do you actually see, live in front of you, the person on a coin? (And, as it turns out, the famed sculptor James Earle Fraser, who designed the nickel, also used John Big Tree for his renowned sculpture “End of the Trail.”) John Big Tree was born in 1865, two months after Abraham Lincoln’s death. He lived until 1967, long enough to have appeared on television, and two years shy of being able to see Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon.

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