Memories of My Father Watching TV
Dalkey Archive Press
Web posted on: Monday, May 25, 1998 3:37:48 PM EDT
(CNN) -- "Memories of my Father Watching TV" is Curtis White's comic and sad lament of a father-son relationship that is painful and tortured, displayed against a background of what they most shared: the watching of television, the universal American experience.
My father's involvement in a pair of famous scandals, both associated with the early traumas of television, needs one more rehearsal. I am not interested in excusing my father for his part in these national humiliations. I mean only to say that the accepted, conventional version of his participation in our mass media calamities is wrong. Stupid. Completely to the side, even if a parallel side, of the truth. The irritation is that countless popular histories have made the American public so familiar with one version of his guilt that those histories have achieved the status of common sense. Was my father a cheat and traitor? Did we like Ike? Was Dick tricky?
What needs pointing out, even if his son must do it, is that there is a deeper (and inevitably "psychological") way of understanding his decisions. Doesn't anyone think it relevant to point out that during the Great Depression (aptly named) my father was abandoned by his own father? We shouldn't need a psychoanalyst to see the consequences of that on the immature self-esteem of a five-year-old boy. Deprived of the soothing presence of a loving father, and deprived of the food and physical comfort (the Kleinian "good breast") a responsible father might be expected to provide, my father was placed at the top of a psychic chute, the fall from which leads to humiliation, shame and powerlessness. No hope.
For me, it all comes down to this: why aren't these problems and questions, imponderable as they may be, at least relevant to my father's notorious case? Why are we allowed only the idiotically naked presentation of "the facts": my father as the moral metaphysician of all postwar cynicism and national self-defeat? I don't think it's fair, but then I am his son. And obviously my father himself might object, but, unhappily, his attention has not been distracted from our television set since the early 1960s, so it's difficult to know exactly what he might think. Nonetheless, I feel some sympathy for the guy. Or, perhaps you will say, I feel pity for myself. For I, too, like my father, am one of those for whom the most distant jagged star is something I've caught my sleeve on.
All I ask is that we open again the question of whether my father is the failed self, the worthless self, the tragic "modern man" he is so often depicted as being.
In the 1950s, in the years following the famous McCarthy investigations (which a spellbound America watched unravel in their very own living rooms during the live broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings), my father was thrown, like the rest of America, into a contradictory and futile effort to be something other than insidious. Americans didn't wish to think of themselves as cruel and malicious; they wanted to be generous (not that one could always tell the difference). So life-on-TV came up with "microscope-on-misery" programming like Queen for a Day. There, an impoverished mother of legions, married to a landscaper paid in grass clippings, competed with another mother, each of whose children had been born without important body parts. The contestant who received the loudest and most sustained audience applause won the day's prizes. LET'S HEAR IT FOR MRS. X! (Grass clippings shower down around her, piling at her feet. The applause meter leaps, quivers, sags, rebounds.) AND NOW MRS. Y. (She holds up her twelfth child, who wriggles two stumps for arms. The applause is not so grand.) The winner takes all the goodies. The loser, Mrs. Y, goes home, doubly lost, to a world of broken children.
Neither did Americans wish any longer to seem to hate intellectuals, or "eggheads" as Adlai Stevenson's supporters had been dubbed. These were the Sputnik years, after all. There was national need for someone to be smart. Americans simply wished intelligence to be more common. As Charles Revson, president of Revlon cosmetics and corporate sponsor of The $64,000 Question, put it, "We're trying to show the country that the little people are really very intelligent and knowledgeable. That's why the quiz shows have caught on -- because of the little people." Yes, the little people -- and big money.
Unhappily, like all entertainment programs, what the quiz shows really dealt in was illusion, the illusion, in this case, of imagining that the "common person" was smart.
The shows -- Twenty-One, Tic-Tac-Dough, Dotto, and The $64,000 Question, as well as more implausible quizzes like Break the $250,000 Bank, Hold That Note, Name That Tune, Do You Trust Your Wife?, Treasure Hunts, Twenty Steps to a Million, Two for the Money, Top Dollar, Take It or Leave It, Double or Nothing, Strike It Rich, You're on Your Own, Winky Dinky and You, Your Blood Our Cash, Sing It, What's My Line?, Hi-Lo, What You Won't Do for Money, I've Got a Secret, High Finance, Number Please, 100 Grand, Lucky Partners, Get Out of Debt, Giant Step, Dough Re Mi, Go Back to Oklahoma, Big Moment, Big Payoff, Big Board, Big Squeeze, Big Knockers, Big Surprise, Big Deal, Anybody Can Win, and Everybody Loses -- these shows were all vaguely sleazy. The sets were compounded of beaverboard and sequins, liberally decorated with the name of the sponsor. There was the usual pretty girl (The $64,000 Question's girl was actually named Lynn Dollar) whose function was to escort contestants onto the stage and to confuse sexual and commodity lust. The host was always a kindergarten egomaniac whose presence made it impossible to imagine not being "thrilled to be on the show." He combined enthusiasm and depravity.
Of course, as we all know, these quiz shows suffered a terrible scandal when it was discovered that game producers were feeding contestants answers in "warm up sessions" in order to control the drama of the contests and to make sure a "boring" contestant didn't dominate the program for weeks. Thus, the apparently good-hearted effort of television to display and applaud the intelligence of America's ordinary people turned into just the opposite. Americans were left with the feeling that they'd been conned by shysters and hucksters. TV was, as usual, just selling soap and "Love that Pink" lipstick. But what the conning showed was not the other's (corporate) evil but their own (American) stupidity. It was a self-image problem, no? Poor-little-rich-kid America, embarked on a Cold War mission for the hearts of the world, worried: "The world will not love me if I am not smart. If the world does not love me, I will always be alone. I may be smart and I may not be. But I can only be certain to appear smart if I cheat. But only stupid people cheat, and stupid people cannot cheat successfully precisely because stupid people are too stupid to pull off the difficulties of cheating. If a person could cheat successfully, he would be smart. But smart people would never cheat because smart people know that if they cheat and are caught, they will be known as frauds. The stupid/fraud is not loved by the world twice. The world's contempt is doubled. It is a game of Nothing and Double Nothing. Therefore I have no choice but to cheat." More than anything else, the fatal non-sequitur at the end of this syllogism indicates collective doom.
My father's participation in The Quiz Show scandals is one of the most humiliating memories of my youth. Mom said my sisters and I could watch Dad play a show called Dotto if we brushed our teeth, put on our pj's and got ready for bed. We did, eagerly, and flopped down before the tube. The ominous flickering began, and there displayed by the grey dots (which I could actually see if I put my eye right on the screen) was Dad. (Even years later I was pursued by the nonsensical question: how many dots make a dad?)
TRANSCRIBED KINESCOPE OF DOTTO, MAY 20, 1958
RALPH PAUL. In just a few moments, the first phone call. Stand by. You may be phoned. This may be the lucky day on which you join life-on-TV. If it is, you will win a fabulous prize. All you have to do is watch-watch those dots. Dotto! Dotto, the exciting new quiz game, brought to you by Colgate Dental Cream. Fight tooth decay with Colgate while you stop bad breath all day. And here's your host for Dotto, Jack Narz. (fanfare)
NARZ. Hi everybody. Thank you very much. Tonight, on behalf of Colgate, may I welcome you to Dotto. What we do is, we have a series of dots back here which, when they are connected, form a picture, and those pictures turn into dollars for our studio contestants. And right now let's meet our first two guests. Ralph, please.
PAUL. Well, Jack, getting us off on a solid note -- returning for the second day, Colgate Dental Cream welcomes back our new champion from New York, Dr. Mark Ransom, a professor of English at Columbia University and one of the most widely read and erudite men in the world.
NARZ. Terrific. Welcome back, Mr. Ransom.
RANSOM. Thank you.
NARZ. You really moiderized your last challenger. (laughter)
RANSOM. Pardon me?
NARZ. (mugging into the camera) No, pardon me. Pardon me my shoddy diction. You gave your last challenger a sound thumping. (general hilarity)
RANSOM. Well, the series of questions asking for the basis of Kant's distinction between Understanding and Reason in his metaphysical, moral and aesthetic philosophies was perhaps unfair to him.
NARZ. Not a bit unfair! America's common people are smart! Highly intelligent! Good adversaries for anyone. Your opponent may have been a janitor in a junior high school, but he knows philosophy too. Try him on Aristotle's hylomorphic theory of composition. Try him on Aquinas's use of the regressus ad infinitum. It was just his bad luck not to know Kant. But today, for you, a new challenger. Ralph.
PAUL. Won't you please welcome our new challenger, from San Lorenzo, California, Levittown West, Mr. Carl White. (applause)
NARZ. Welcome to Dotto, Mr. White. I understand that you are a claims adjustor. That that is your profession. You adjust claims for the Tiny Nibbles Cat Food Company in Oakland, California.
CARL. Yes, that's right.
NARZ. What exactly does a claim adjustor for cat food do?
CARL. (embarrassed) That has always been a fuzzy issue for me.
NARZ. Really? Well, what do you do when you're at work?
CARL. (shyly) I've never understood my duties very well.
NARZ. Don't people, your company's customers perhaps, come to you with claims?
CARL. What kind of claims?
NARZ. Isn't it possible that they might say the cat food was not fresh, or there were bugs, or the boxes were opened, ripped or otherwise defective?
CARL. Perhaps that's it. That sounds plausible.
NARZ. (laughing good naturedly) Just plausible? You go to work daily, correct? You must be paid regularly for something.
CARL. (a little indignant) Of course I'm paid. How else could I provide for my family? I have a wife and three children who depend on me.
NARZ. Well, it must be a very complex job and difficult to describe to non-professionals. Let's turn to one more fact about your personal life before starting our game. I'm told that -- oh my -- you describe yourself as a turd with a hat on? Is that right? (laughter)
RANSOM. Dear me.
CARL. (cowering) That's correct. (mumbling inaudibly, looking under his podium for his feet, gesturing) I didn't think they would actually use that information. I was just being honest with their question. They asked me how I would describe myself to someone who didn't know me. So I told them. What's so wrong about that? Now they use it against me. They use my honesty to hurt me.
NARZ. A very unusual self-description, Carl. Why do you feel this way about yourself?
CARL. There's nothing very complicated about it. I am a turd with a hat on.
NARZ. Do you think that other people see you like this?
CARL. That's why I don't let people get too close to me. Not even my own children. They only see the hat. I don't let people see that I'm all shit underneath. (audience laughs, heads shake with amazement at eccentricity of the average American)
NARZ. Very well, Carl. We'll start our first match in just a moment. Right now, a word to you folks. Do you know who was the first to put toothpaste in a tube? Colgate, that's right. And now, who was the first with an aerosol toothpaste? Colgate! Watch.
NARZ. Mark and Carl, for each of you we have some Colgate Dental Cream with Gardol and Power-packed Colgate. Okay, all set now to go with our first match. Good luck, gentlemen, and would you take your positions in the Dotto isolation booths, please. We can hear you but you won't be able to hear each other. Remember, the sooner you identify the picture, the more money you'll make. Carl, our first category for today is mood disorders. You have your choice of 5, 8, or 10 dots. Mood disorders --
CARL. What's a mood disorder?
NARZ. (amazed) I'm sorry, Carl, I can't go into that right now. You'll just have to do your best.
CARL. Okay. Five points, then.
NARZ. Fine. And here is your question, in self-object theory, narcissistic rage occurs when . . .
CARL. Narcissistic rage occurs when that 'gleam in the other's eye' known as mirroring fails to approve, confirm and reward the self.
NARZ. For five dots that's correct! Tremendous, Carl. (applause)
CARL. Everybody knows that one.
NARZ. Now let's connect some of the dots on our board. It may be the face of a famous person or it may be a common or familiar object. Any guesses, Carl?
CARL. It looks like just a mess so far.
NARZ. Is that a guess? Is that an official guess?
CARL. No. I'll try another question for five points. I can't go any lower than five?
NARZ. No. Let me remind you again that our category is mood disorders. Specifically, hopelessness. Hopelessness. Ready?
CARL. Not really. I mean, do I have a choice? I don't see how I can get this question. This game is way too hard for me. Mr. Ransom is a college professor and a real champion. I just don't see how I can win.
NARZ. Well, audience, he really seems to know a lot about this category. (Good natured laughing. Shouts of encouragement. "Come on, idiot. At least try." "Yeah, see can you do a man's job, buddy.")
NARZ. Okay, for five points, the most distal cause in the pathway of processes that produce hopelessness depression is what, Carl?
CARL. The distal cause in hopelessness depression is negative life events exacerbated by personal inferential styles.
NARZ. Right again! (amazed applause) You're quite expert on this stuff.
CARL. Thank you.
NARZ. Well, let's see those new dots. Huh. Interesting. Any ideas, Carl?
CARL. Well, that's definitely a hat there on top or maybe a kind of sombrero. Say, is that a turd with a hat on?
NARZ. That's it! (Flashing lights, bells, sirens, horns, applause) Carl, you're incredibly quick, and you are our new champion. Sorry, Mark, you're done before you've even had a chance.
RANSOM. That's okay. I know how the game works. I could never have answered those question anyway. A turd with a hat on! Who'd have guessed?
NARZ. Well, our new champion Carl White could guess! What do you think of your prospects and abilities now, Carl?
CARL. I guess I'm doing okay, Mr. Narz. But I feel like I don't deserve this success. I feel fraudulent. I think I may even have cheated. (audience in sympathy: "Nooooo.") The picture was of something we'd just talked about. Is that fair? Was that fair to Mr. Ransom?
NARZ. Don't you worry about Mr. Ransom, Carl. His total earnings on the show will exceed his professor's pay for the next ten years. Did you hear him complain? Actually, we tried to trick you! We were unfair. Think about it. After talking about turds with hats on, what's the last thing you would expect to find on our game board?
CARL. A turd with a hat on.
NARZ. Exactly. Kudos to the toughness of your insight.
CARL. (rises in booth) No. I am being inappropriately praised. You don't really admire me. You are lying to me. I should feel shame for cheating, but you praise me. This makes me very angry (tries to open door to isolation booth but it is locked). I feel a primitive atavistic rage. Images are coming to me. I am striking you with my fist. I am hitting you in the face with objects. I hit you with the stupid dental cream product. (shaking isolation booth door)
NARZ. Well, well. Our isolation booths have a new purpose this evening, don't they audience? (audience laughs and applauds) Carl, if you are very bad, we will have to leave you locked in your booth. How would that make you feel?
CARL. (Moans. Face goes through a series of inhuman distortions each of which the audience finds funny.)
NARZ. Carl, I believe that tonight we have put you in touch with a deep underlying sense of disappointment, hurt and vulnerability that has been defended against by this show of anger.
CARL. (despondent) You're right. I've disgraced myself again. No one can love an angry person. I will be alone in this game show isolation booth forever. That is what I deserve.
The public horror over quiz shows and the fraudulent participation of otherwise honorable people like my father was best expressed by poet John Ciardi when he said, "Bah! You asked for it. This is your life. The price is right enough. You've got no secrets. People are . . . well, never mind. But tell me, boys and girls and Federal gentlemen, has anyone had time to think of Khrushchev lately?"
Khrushchev? In 1959 my father had only Khrushchev on his mind.
Of course, by 1959 Khrushchev already had a prominent role in life-on-TV. He'd become a character in American consciousness, as real as Dave Garroway. He was someone who explained the world with charm at hours when the world made no sense by itself. He was funny, quick-witted, open and avuncular. He was ridiculous and yet heroic and principled; he would stand knee-deep in the middle of a muddy field in order to explain to skeptical peasants the proper way to plant potatoes. On the other hand, American politicians like McCarthy and Richard Nixon seemed made all of shadows. They had no control of their beards, and, unfortunately, facial hair meant 'villain' in TV's visual argot. So TV had gotten the great international drama backwards. The Russians wore comical hats and wanted to go to Disneyland. The Americans sent spy planes over other countries, like Gary Powers's U2, then denied it, then blustered about their rights and interests when the captured pilot was brought forward clutching girlie magazines and cyanide needles.
Something had to be done to put the white hats back on the real good guys. This project began in 1958 when the American and Soviet governments approved a cultural exchange program. The United States was to stage an exhibit in Moscow depicting the "typical" American home. This average domicile included color television, videotape, and other marvels of Western consumer technology. American strategists imagined that such an exhibit would leave the "typical" Muscovite with his borscht dripping from his beard in concentrated awe. Vice President Nixon himself would open the exhibit and meet with Khrushchev. Nixon hoped to create an event for a watchful television world. As with his Checkers speech, he was conscious of the need for an artful reality.
Nixon guided Khrushchev to a room equipped with an RCA closed-circuit color television and Ampex videotape machine. As they entered the room, they could see themselves on a monitor. They were being taped, so they would immediately be able to see a replay of their live performance. This was the high-water mark in the history of international diplomatic narcissism. Nixon and Khrushchev stared into the monitor, waved and grinned as if they thought themselves very pretty, as if they were two little boys regarding themselves in the shiny chrome of the family toaster.
Recalling himself and the weeks of preparation for this moment, Nixon began an explanation of the technological marvels around them. Khrushchev, for his part, did not relish the role in which he was cast -- a mute country bumpkin listening to explanations from the advanced West. So he interrupted.
"My friend, Mr. Nixon, why is the United States so reluctant to sign a mutual disarmament agreement?"
Nixon, understandably, found it difficult to shift from a description of the minor miracle of the clothes dryer to a defense of American imperialism. Nixon was leaning against a rail in front of a kitchen exhibit. A box of SOS soap pads sat atop a clothes dryer. Leonid Brezhnev glowered over Nixon's shoulder. Nixon stumbled desperately forward, "Have I thoroughly explained the Maytag principle of product guarantee to you, Premier Khrushchev? Are you sure you have no questions?"
"Yes, I comprehend it in all of its multiform glories and details. But why, tell me, if the United States is a peaceful power, why must you have military bases around the world? And you may not tell me they are defensive. No. That answer I will not accept. I do not believe that Manilla is a suburb of New York City."
In that case, Nixon did not know how to respond. He wanted desperately to talk about appliances. That is what he was prepared to do. He was also utterly aware of being trapped on videotape. The video camera reported everything just as it happened. This knowledge of course made Nixon self-conscious. How should a diplomat behave while in a kitchen discussing atom bombs? He had no idea. So, in a mild panic, he retreated to American cowboy politics, which had a short but potent stack of visual strategies available. He saw himself projected as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or the Lone Ranger. He jabbed a finger into Khrushchev's chest. Nikita's eyebrows lifted in amazed amusement as Nixon's digit sunk to the first knuckle in his peasant chubbiness. This diplomacy was more than real.
"Premier Khrushchev, the United States does not need a lecture from you on the importance of world peace. If you were really concerned, you would allow the enslaved nations of the Eastern bloc to create their own futures democratically. We have our own ideas about freedom, you know. You must not be afraid of ideas. You don't know everything. So I would ask you to desist from insulting the United States of America."
In return, Khrushchev waved an aggressive finger of his own at Nixon. But it was his pinkie, not a finger that a cowboy would wave. Khrushchev was thus marked as alien. He lacked access to the authentic cowboy diplomatic vernacular.
"America may by all means continue to live under capitalism," he rejoined. "But don't inflict it upon us.
"As for your claim that I insult the good USA," he now turned directly toward the camera and grinned, "you remind me of an old Russian story." He strummed his fingers on his chest with a vaudevillian flourish. Apparently, Khrushchev was more familiar with the clownish politics of Uncle Milty. "Two passengers were travelling in a train after the 1905 revolution. The passengers were engaged in a conversation. Other people were sitting opposite listening to the conversation. One said to the other:
" 'The tsar is a fool!'
"A gendarme heard this and asked, 'How dare you call the tsar a fool!'
"'Excuse me,' the passenger replied, 'I meant that the German tsar is a fool.'
"But the gendarme was not so easily fooled. 'I know my tsar,' he shouted, 'if anyone is a fool, it is our tsar!' "
Khrushchev added nothing to this enigmatic tale but his dollar-fifty smile.
This encounter became know as the "kitchen debate," and was the basis for Nixon's lifelong claim of "standing up" to the Russians. But when my father saw this famous scene in international diplomacy, he was not impressed. He was in his angry mode. He felt that Nixon had been humiliated by the Communists. Nixon's humiliation and his strong sense of his own humiliation became one and the same. My father wanted vengeance. If only he could debate Khrushchev.
Then, marvelously, as if my father's psychotic notion that his thoughts influenced the external world were nothing more than the case, this debate seemed possible. Khrushchev was coming to the United States! My father began sending challenges to the Soviet delegation of the United Nations. New York and the General Assembly of the U.N. would be a good format, he suggested. Or the Grand Canyon. He mailed daily sets of instructions to the U.S. State Department. Now, you may well say that he never did really meet Khrushchev. I don't know. You may say that the purpose of the visit to our home by the FBI and Soviet security was not to finalize debate protocol, but to make sure Dad was not stalking the Premier. But the story my father told me of his encounter with the famous Nikita K. was so particular in its details that I have always been tempted to find it credible.
(Note: As I've mentioned, my father has been in a cataleptic trance before the TV since November of 1963. I think there was something hypnotic in the Kennedy funeral procession. The clip-clop of the horses in the streets of Washington D.C. The lonely despairing echo of those hooves in our little suburban home. You must realize that in spite of appearances this story was not told as stories are ordinarily told. On the porch. Over some beers. Rather, my father's coma would occasionally crack and fall open like an egg. Then he could jabber for a few moments.)
"When Khrushchev came to the U.S., Son, it was inevitable that we meet. He knew all about my life on TV. He'd even seen my game show appearances. That's the kind of thorough students of the American scene the Russians were. Not narrow idiots like our Nixon. But God knows I'd watched my share of TV. I was prepared for any encounter."
Of course, what Khrushchev had seen in my father's forlorn performances was an entire American tragedy. Consumer yearning, sexual bafflement, autocratic cruelty, and crushed pride. But Khrushchev was perhaps wrong to assume that merely experiencing the country's hypocrisy could turn people like my father against it. As he often said to me, "Butch, remember this, you only really need patriotism when your country is dead wrong!"
He continued. "Mr. K. was in the West Coast phase of his trip when I got the call. The premier would meet me in L.A. They sent a Russian military plane up to the Alameda airfield to fetch me. We arrived in Anaheim around midnight. We got in a diplomatic car and drove through that prefabricated tropical paradise straight toward Disneyland.
"But I knew, as everyone in the country knew, that Khrushchev had been told he couldn't go to Disneyland. Why should he get to go to Disneyland? That's a treat for good boys. 'Have gangsters taken over the place?' Mr. K. asked. 'What do they have there -- rocket launching pads?'
"Scheming, devious Commies! He knew very well that we had rocket launching pads there and more. Why, we had Tomorrowland itself. Your future, boy!"
According to Dad, he was let out of the KGB car in an obscure corner of the park, back where the stables are. Agents had built a ladder in the dead of night and flopped it over the barbed wire fence. Over this fence Dad was popped like bundled contraband. Understand this astonishing fact: the Soviet KGB was smuggling my yankee-doodle father into Disneyland. It was a scene no whit different from what one saw at the East German border, only refracted by a new order. His face was blackened and he was given camouflaged overalls. The only difference between my father and the KGB guys was that they wore conspicuous name tags. "Hi, my name is Jimmie." "Hi, my name is Roy." They were his hosts.
They walked up the broad, desolate boulevard of Main Street USA past the Shooting Gallery and the Silhouette Studio. They came to the hub, Disneyland's crossroads. Signs pointed to the worlds available. Adventureland. Fantasyland. Frontierland. Tomorrowland.
Jimmie turned to my father, light reflecting in his dark eastern eyes, as if the famed Disney fireworks sparkled overhead. "Well, comrade," he said, "which will it be?"
Comrade! My father felt an awful sensation. Who was he, finally? Comrade or American patriot? Was he there to assassinate Krushchev? Debate him? Or share valuable national secrets? His own identity and the fate of the entire American experiment seemed to ride on his choice.
"Tomorrowland, of course."
My father's choice was decisive, firm, in spite of the fact that he couldn't possibly understand two things about his decision. First, whichever path he chose the Premier waited for him at its end. Khrushchev reclined coquettishly in Sleeping Beauty's bed in Fantasyland; he shot hippos and grunted "DA" from the stern of the jungle cruiser in Adventureland; he was the fat kid diving into the dirty Mississippi just beneath Tom Sawyer's Teetertotter Rock in Frontierland. Second, Dad couldn't possibly understand the puzzle locked in the fact that Tomorrowland would remain as it was for decade after decade. It was thus an always already dusty tomorrow he sought.
Once in Tomorrowland, they proceeded straight to the enormous Rocket to the Moon. A figure greeted them at the door dressed in a space suit and helmet with CCCP in decal over the visor. He held an American hot dog in his right hand. Was it K.? "Greetings to you from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." He waved the hot dog, which his helmet prevented him from eating. They entered the rocket.
Inside it was completely dark. The cosmonaut who had greeted Dad now took him by the hand as if he were a child needing guidance through a difficult and frightening place. Finally, they came to a table on which sat what appeared to be a human head, glowing. Its eyes were closed and it was motionless. My father's guide dropped his hand and went to the head. He pushed a button at the head's side and it came immediately to life. It could talk. It was fully human, and it was clearly the head of Nikita Khrushchev. There was the corpulent face, the laughing angry eyes, the fat, acerbic tongue of the most entertaining, resourceful and loved Soviet leader. The eyes in the head burned very deep into the truths of childhood. This was a Great Moment.
The head spoke, a vague whirring and clicking floating behind his words, as if he were a clock, or as if he were a latex mask stretched taut around a solenoid core. "Skin and blood. Passion and sleep. This is our empire. We work in the shadow of a travesty. Overhead the sky changes. See? Steelwork encloses me, the incandescent imp. Burning, I would light the way for the Party."
Uncomprehending, Dad looked for assistance to his cosmonautical guide. Deep within the visor of his space helmet a pale smile radiated. It was without question the disembodied Cheshire cat grin of foreign treachery.
"I have some questions for you, Mr. Premier," Dad said, keeping boldly to his purpose.
"Sadness is no chimera, my friend. Let me help till help is all gone and it is time to go." While the head spoke, it hopped minutely, as if pistons deep inside threatened to throw a rod straight up through his skull.
Now was my father's chance. What he'd been waiting for: his moment on the world stage. He was seized by the intensity of his wish to communicate. He felt sincere. He wanted to save the world with his thoughts. "Let me say first, Mr. Premier, that the American people truly love the Russian people." Expressing love, even in this abstract way, was too much for my father. Tears welled. He was crying! But he hated his own sentimentality and so, angrily seeking revenge for the humiliation of his own human emotions, he thundered back, "But that don't mean we don't have the know-how to nuke you all back to the stone age if we want!"
The cosmonautical figure at Dad's side inquired, "Is that your question?" The irritating, ironic, more-self-aware-than-thou grin still floated behind the visor, glowing.
Dad knew he hadn't asked a question. Those were declaratives. He was no idiot. He knew the difference. But what if he couldn't think of a question now? He began to panic. His mind got confused. He suddenly regretted this whole mad effort. He was not John Foster Dulles and never was meant to be. He was just Joe-the-meddling-schmo. He would run away. But the threat of yet another shame brought anger back to rescue him. Yeah, buddy, he had a whole passel of questions for this Russian.
"You claim to represent the dictatorship of the workers. Aren't you just the dictator of the workers?" That was Dad's question.
The cosmonaut again interrupted. His voice was tinny, as if it emerged from within a can of tuna. "Forgive me. I am to act as your translator. Please to call me Joe. That will make simple for you."
"But the Premier seems to understand me well enough," Dad argued.
"Pretty formalities. The Premier utters only the ritual phrases of our people. But now you have asked a most weighty and intricate question. It needs translation."
"If you say so."
Joe then turned to the gyrating head-of-K. "Comrade Nikita Sergeyevich, our American friend asks a deep question of you. Please to set his mind at rest on this issue. Show the world the proper socialist course. He asks, in so many words, is it not true that you are his father? Are you not the man who abandoned his family when he was a small boy in Kansas, in the collosal capitalist collapse and horror called the Great Depression? Please to provide our young American friend a clear lineage."
Before my stunned father could object to the form his question had taken, Khrushchev had begun his reply.
"It is said. It is something that can only be said with eyes. The reckless flight of eyes high over the potato fields of Minsk. We amateurs of the dream arrive overnight on the cusp of day. Crepuscular you call it in Dayton, Ohio, USA. We have smuggled an orange in our blood. It contains a weighty secret. The secret is this: our common ground trembles with moving parts. They are in human pain." Appropriate tears came to the automaton's eyes, then spun off under some strange centrifugal force. One of Nikita's tears landed on the back of my father's hand. It burned.
"Comrade," said Joe, "would you like me to translate the Premier's remarks?"
"But he spoke in English!" Dad objected, wiping at the acid spot on his hand.
"If you think so."
"If I think so? Damn it, he spoke in English."
"Forgive me. I merely considered that American fathers and sons never communicate well. They always speak from mutually exclusive positions, one always wholly out of the view of the other. This is not true of you and your father, comrade?"
"Don't call me comrade. And he is not my father. He is the Premier of the Soviet Union. Or at least the head."
"Teehee. Yes, he is indeed the head of the Soviet Union. It is as you wish."
"It is not as I wish. I wish it to be as it is."
"I will do my best. Would you like to ask another question? Your time is running out. Others wish to speak to the Premier. You know what the lines are like here at Disneyland."
Dad did not dare to ponder all of the implications in this statement and so hurried to his next question. "Mr. Premier, why do you continue falsely to assert that there is any difference between the will of the American people and the voice of its government? You say that the people are good, loving and seek peace, but the government is imperialistic and war mongering. This is not true."
"Comrade," said Joe, "you do not know the purposes of your own government very well or you would not say this thing. Is it the will of the American people that the CIA be involved in the internal affairs of Iran, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam and even our own Soviet homeland?"
"I did not address this question to you, Mr. Translator."
"Joe. Call me Joe. And pardon me. I will translate. Mr. Premier, our youthful if not callow guest begs to know your opinion on the following matter. His fragile sense of manly self-worth would be much helped, even at this late date, by the loving testimony and attention of his father. Do you have any intentions of returning to the family circle? He begs and craves your participation in games of cowboys and Indians to be played in the front yard of the family home, crouched in the immature suburban bushes with plastic six-shooters."
"Wait a minute," my father exploded, "that is not my question. What sort of translation is this? You change not the language but the substance of my question."
"I see. My apologies. I am wrong then to think that the issue of your relationship to your father is of interest to you?"
"That is not the point!" Dad was losing control of his emotions. This was either break down or break through. "That is not the goddamned point!"
Dad continued. "The point is to emphasize the love of our people for the Russian people and for world peace or else we're going to blow the whole thing up and leave it poisoned for a thousand thousand years." My father now sobbed openly. He was sad, humiliated, angry, humiliated, sad, and angry again. Quickly each then the other. "You're so stupid! You don't care about me! You don't understand me at all! You're just one of them! Stupid Russians!"
Dad put his head in his hands and cried. Joe walked stiffly to his side in his constricting space suit. He put a long aluminum arm around Dad's shoulder. "Look," he said, "Nikita speaks. He wants to talk to you. Won't you give him one more chance? Won't you listen?"
Indeed, Mr. K.'s head spun now like a top. A high whine emitted garbled elf speech as on a tape recorder being fast forwarded. Perhaps his code had been cracked. Perhaps now Dad would get the truth. The spinning stopped and the latex face was all clarity and compassion. Mr. K. said, "Pinocchio! My own little boy. At last I find you. We have grown lost in the fall and rise of day. We are confused by the dilemma our ruins present. The outside has disappeared. See there, nothing in the distance but a flat buzzing. That is not life you hear, that's just heavy breathing. So, let us gather where the TV broke down. Shards of our family assemble there. Your burnt legs. My heart. We arrange the pieces in a way that makes us happy. Our merit badges are restored. At last we may bid farewell to the dead. Bid. Bid. Bid farewell."
On the evening Dad told of this last scene, in the dead winter of summer reruns 1972, his dozing eyes were swollen with tears. I couldn't stand to see this or stand my own exploitation of his dreaming. So I woke him. He gazed at me hard as if he didn't recognize me. Then with great feeling, the tears and snot still flowing freely, he hugged me.
"He wasn't Mr. Khrushchev, Son. I was deceived yet again. He was a toy, an electronic pixie made by Walt Disney. Who can you trust? And yet Mr. K. was my father! I know it in my heart. How else could he have spoken to me in that way? But if this is so, what are we to each other, boy?"
Dad grew suddenly clearer, more daylit and awake, his telling self now done. He looked to the TV set. It was near midnight and public service broadcasting was on. Was on. Was on. He looked back at me suspiciously. "What's this garbage? Have you changed the channel? I was watching my program. Don't ever change my program, Son. Now go to bed. This show's way too grown up for you."
© Curtis White, 1998. All rights reserved
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