"How little do we know of time...a one-syllable word, a noun. Yesterday's laughter, tomorrow's tears." -Batman (as played by Adam West)
*******************************************************'Childhood Amnesia' is Sigmund Freud's term to describe the tendency of humans to forget their earliest childhood memories. For most adults, memories of events which occur prior to the age of 3 are irretrievable, casualties of Childhood Amnesia.
This phenomenon applies to me. Beyond a few disconnected vignettes, my internal autobiography, by which I mean my life as a continuous narrative begins sometime during my third year, circa 1967.
Nineteen Sixty-seven happens to have been a year obsessed with superheroes & fantastic TV adventure shows. A year of Batman, Lost In Space, and The Wild Wild West, to name but a few.
I know that the narrative begins roughly at 1967 because I remember the birth of my little brother, which is a fixed date during April of 1968. And I remember the Summer & the Christmas before his birth, and so my adult mind uses logic to tell me those things must have occurred in 1967.
As we once again Journey in Space & Time, I will be skipping back & forth between events of which I have direct, personal memories and events of which I know only through records and oral history. It is something like following the serpentine path of these 50-year-old TV signals, recorded, recycled, & redistributed. I will do my best to keep it all straight.
This might prove challenging, since, in the realms of these early memories, TV & objective reality compete for my attention, with the boundaries between them often hazy.
But that was one of the defining features of American childhood during the 1960's. Unless you lived in a remote area or your parents were overprotective, your brains were bombarded with TV signals during your formative years.
Human Beings had possessed visual media for about 40,000 years. From an evolutionary perspective, TV was & is still a very new phenomenon.
Providing the electric, external visual/auditory stimulation of cinema, with the ubiquitous & intimate characteristics of print media & radio, the effects of this revolutionary technology are still only partially understood, even by academics. Every kid exposed to TV in those early days essentially a lab rat, with the networks and their commercial sponsors controlling the experiments. Just like modern people with the smartphone.
I wasn't the only one obsessed with TV of course. And in my neighborhood, in the world of kids, there was nothing and no one more important than Batman.
Heavily hyped from the late weeks of 1965 through its premier on January 12, 1966 via a barrage of billboards, print ads and TV spots, the show capitalized on both a fantasy fad which had infected the TV networks and an ironic pop-art sensibility which had infected the intelligentsia.
Batman operated simultaneously at several distinct levels. For the adults & hipsters, it was essentially a deadpan spoof of comic books and action heroes in general.
But for myself and every kid I knew, it was the greatest adventure ever, the quintessence of pretty much everything cool.
Perhaps even more. For my brother, who was 2 years older than I, it seemed to function as a primer on the appropriate behavior of adult men. At least as far as choreographed fight scenes go.
In an early example of inter-active TV, during the commercial breaks, he would practice punching at the nearest living target, which happened to have been me. Twenty-five years before MTV's Real World, this was the true beginning of the so-called Reality Television. At least for me.
Our mother tried to change the format of my brother's Reality Show by making us our own superhero capes out of old curtains, died blue & yellow. Perhaps this tactic worked, but if it did I don't remember.
I myself was not oblivious to the educational aspects of the show. The main lesson was that Good Guys Must Defeat Bad Guys,which required periodic displays of fisticuffs. I accepted this premise, even though, in real life, I was the one getting punched.
A major theme was Batman's amazing ability to escape from any seemingly deadly trap. If the villains had a machine gun, Batman pulled out a bullet proof shield, if Our Heroes were sinking in quicksand, they happened to be wearing experimental rocket boots, & if tossed from a high building, the fabulous Batmobile would catch them in a special safety net.
I would learn, years later, that the macabre & sadistic nature of the death traps caused some concerns among parents, inducing them to complain to network affiliates & local officials.
The adult version of myself is sympathetic to those concerns, seeing as the diabolical contrivances included electrocution, acid baths, and flaying. My adult-self also wonders if my kid-self actually understood the true gruesomeness of these things, but who knows?
It's almost impossible for me to overstate the impact of Batman. For more years than I care to admit, I believed that the ideal man should equip his home with a secret underground hideout, possess an arsenal of fantastical tools & weapons, and drive a souped-up car, not to mention having a secret identity and crime-fighting costume. (Many years later, the 20-year-old version of myself would undertake a sustained program of weight-training...I thought to have long past discarded any superheroic fantasies, but I found myself secretly visualizing the strong jaw & grim determination of the Caped Crusader while bench-pressing or curling a barbell.)
Batman was the most dramatic and enduring example of a wave of fantasy heroes hitting movies & TV in the mid-1960's. The world had been prepared for his arrival by such luminaries as James Bond and Tarzan, not to mention George Reeves' Superman, Guy Williams' Zorro, and the Lone Ranger, who were still running in syndication.
Indeed, Batman entered broadcast airspace already brimming with fantastic & heroic action: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost In Space, The Man From Uncle, The Wild Wild West, The Avengers, Johnny Quest and Stingray comprise an incomplete list.
The peculiar Fantasy TV movement of the mid-1960's happens to overlap with the Silver-Age of Comic Books & the Psychedelic Era of Rock & Roll, both of which were high points of their respective genres. Batman, owning to its comic book source material and rock & roll theme song, represents the epicenter of this nexus, thus making it a true cultural watershed.
Batman's premiere was soon followed by The Green Hornet, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, The Invaders, The Rat Patrol and a slew of cartoon superheroes including the likes of Space Ghost, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and a new animated Superman, to name but a few.
In all the history of television, there has been nothing quite like this period, before or since. The term 'fanboy' had not been coined yet, but for all purposes, we should consider the years 1964-68 to be the Fanboy's Woodstock. And this was the wonderful & bizarre world into which I had been dropped.
SUPPLEMENTAL READING: FANTASY TV OF THE MID-1960'S
Almost all of our favorite TV shows featured at least one knock-down, drag-out fight scene per episode, with some, such as The Wild Wild West, featuring 2-3 fights per episode. Gunplay was also a mainstay, especially on The Rat Patrol, set as it was in WW2, albeit a completely make-believe version thereof.
I learned some things from TV.
I learned that if you got shot with a gun, you probably died, but maybe someone might put bandages on you & you would get better. I also developed an expectation that Good Guys weren't supposed to get killed, but sometimes the Bad Guys did get killed.
I must have had some sort of concept of death, because I have an odd memory of my parents watching strange images of soldiers marching in the street with a large, flag-draped box.
I asked my parents what they were watching on TV, and they told me it was President Kennedy's funeral. And then they told me the film was from The Past, that President Kennedy had been dead for quite a while & was safely resting in heaven now. But even though JFK was in heaven,my parents seemed sad, and after a few minutes I left the room to find other diversions.
As an adult, conducting my scientific explorations of time & space, I've tried to figure out when & why JFK's funeral would have been rebroadcast 2 or 3 years after the fact, but I never found conclusive results. The only clue I could find was the fact that JFK's body was moved into its permanent resting place at Arlington National Cemetery on March 14, 1967, an event which surely would have been covered by TV news.
By sheer coincidence, March 14 the following year, 1968, would turn out to be a more significant date in my life.
Being 3 years old & watching the superheroic TV shows with my older brother, I don't remember having any real understanding of the plots of those shows, nor did I understand why Good Guys were Good & why Bad Guys were Bad. I had no idea what their objectives were, other than mutual combat.
But the fight scenes and gunplay made perfect sense & commanded complete attention. Despite being the person getting ritualistically punched out during the commercial breaks, the shows were compelling & entertaining. I could not look away.
As if the videophonic cornucopia of heroic action were not sufficient, the craze extended into the sphere of the tangible, 3-D world. Vast industrial resources were poured into the creation of merchandising tie-ins, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Plastic superheroic simulacra of all manner abounded, from Captain America hand-puppets to the exquisite Aurora model kits of Supes, Batman, and all the rest.
Not to mention the myriad replica Batmobiles, 007 cars, space ships, atomic submarines and all other manner of super-vehicles.
Perhaps the most ingenious tie-in was Captain Action, a male doll whose wardrobe could be supplemented with the costumes of Spider-Man, Flash Gordon, the Green Hornet, Aquaman and the Phantom, as well as Supes & Bats, so as that one singular figure could encompass the entire heroic pantheon.
GI Joe had a Jeep with a machine gun, just like the Rat Patrol TV show, and our GI Joes patrolled our house, shooting at imaginary Bad Guys. GI Joe was a Good Guy, and at some point I also learned that GI Joe was an American.
GI Joe wore a military uniform, like our Uncle Tom, standing in his Air Force togs in a picture on the wall, next to another picture showing his big, silver airplane. Uncle Tom was stationed in the Philippines, and flew a cargo plane over Vietnam.
Uncle Tom was my mom's younger brother, born in 1940. My grandmother later told me that as a boy he had been obsessed with guns, and my brother & I played with his collection of toy firearms when we visited our grandmother's house in a tiny town in Butler County, Pennsylvania.
Since he was stationed in the Philippines, we didn't see Uncle Tom much. But sometimes his wife, the beautiful Aunt Becky, and their 2 kids, Stacy & Robbie, visited Pennsylvania, and they stayed with my grandmother.
Stacy was one year younger than me, and even though she was a girl, she had the same blond bowl haircut and fat face as me. I remember playing together, eating Lucky Charms for breakfast together, & being put in the bathtub together when we were very little.
Back at own house in the Mahoning Valley, my brother Ted & I had plastic machine guns which made rat-a-tat sounds, & toy tanks, a collection of miniature iron soldiers collected by our father during his boyhood. The idea of soldiering, of wearing uniforms, of shooting guns, of commanding powerful machines, was considered to be a good thing.
In the evening, my parents would watch TV news, which usually included footage of other real-life GI Joes crouching in the jungle, firing their machine guns at unseen enemies, apparently hiding in the bushes. After the news, it might be time for Batman, The Man From UNCLE, Johnny Quest, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild, West or Tarzan.
I was three years old in this environment, forming and establishing a cognitive map of reality in an environment which, geographically & historically speaking, I now understand to be an anomaly of the rarest sort.
I was lucky enough to be in a location where day-to-day survival was not threatened by famine, war, plague, pollution or thugs, born to parents who had access to living wages and health insurance, at a moment when the technology, culture, and economics converged to create a comfortable & almost perfect illusion.
The illusion was comprised of not only toys, superheroes & fantastic adventures, but also of Kraft macaroni & cheese, PDQ instant chocolate milk, a 1964 Buick Skylark, Red Ball Jets sneakers, a 2-story house, a swing set in the back yard, a black Labrador Retriever, and 2 parents who most of the time managed to behave like responsible adults.
Similar illusions were shared by millions of other kids in North America, with millions of adults sharing slightly more sophisticated illusions.
The illusion was of course doomed, condemned by its own blissful perfection.
Sometime after a date I which would later forensically establish to be March 14, 1968, my older brother & I were informed that Batman would no longer be on TV, not now, and not ever again.
As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would have it, my first reaction was denial. For many nights afterwords, I asked my parents & brother to turn the channel to Batman, but of course to no avail.
I don't recall any explanation as to why Batman was now gone, and likely would not have understood one.
Batman was cancelled, completely, irrevocably. And this event was the first hint that, outside the narrow bandwidth of my own kid-awareness, events far beyond my knowledge or understanding were marching onward with merciless indifference.
It's well-known that the biggest single factor in the cancellation of Batman was ratings, which had quickly diminished. But it's also a fact that ABC TV had been receiving complaints from parents, teachers & other do-gooders regarding show's violence. Especially since academia and other social institutions were getting interested...in 1967 for instance, during Batman's 2nd season, the University of Pennsylvania formally began to monitor violence on TV.
Shortly after the cancellation of Batman, my mother bought my brother & I a record album by the studio-group the Marketts featuring their Top 40 cover of the Batman theme and a few other musical compositions based on the titular hero. My brother & I were disappointed in that it was just music, expecting to hear our heroes voices or something else along those lines, but the album proved to be the first step in a 25-year habit of fetishization.
Beginning at that point in time, any object connected with Batman became invested with fascination and obsession. There were no VCR's, or DVR's, and Batman's incredibly long life in syndication lay ahead, in the future, and it wouldn't be until years later when a TV station within our range would again carry the show.
So it was that after March 14, 1968, any item of Batman merchandise instantly became an artifact, a fossil, a holy relic, forensic evidence of a time now forever gone. A doorway to a past existence.
But just as the forces of time & history had remorselessly acted to cancel Batman, so did they continue their ceaseless stride. And just as the end of Batman would, in retrospect, mark the precise moment when things in the world of kids began to go to hell, Spring 1968 was also time when things would begin to go to hell for all the adults I knew. Completely outside my awareness, for the most part.
Such as the news two days after the final episode of Batman aired, on March 16, 1968, the US military released the following statement:
"In an action today, American Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day."
Since stock footage of American real-life GI Joes in action was a routine part of nightly TV news, and so the report was hardly noticed by anyone. But the March 16 event would later gain increased significance, of which we shall later speak.
Of more immediate concern, at least to Americans, were the events of April 4. The eloquent & youthful Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, with ensuing riots in Chicago, DC, Baltimore, etc. Already in the crosshairs of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover for the crime of advocating equal citizenship for African-Americans, MLK had made the fatal mistake of denouncing the war in Vietnam on April 4, 1967. Having gone against the advice of friends who had warned him not to anger the Military Industrial Complex, exactly one year later, he was dead.
More significantly from my perspective was the birth, roughly a week later, of my younger brother.
And then on a date after my younger brother's birth, which I now know to be June 5, 1968, the youthful and eloquent presidential candidate Bobbie Kennedy was also murdered, and pictures of him, the crime scene, his family, were everywhere on TV. RFK had made the fatal mistake of proposing, on March 2, 1967, to end the Vietnam war.
At that time I didn't know who MLK or RFK were & I don't have any memories of the specific news coverage of their respective assassinations.
But I remember the images of the soldiers in Vietnam, and the increasingly frequent protests and riots.
Some of the biggest riots would be in Chicago in the late summer, sparked by the Democratic National Convention. On August 28, protesters were beaten by the police and eventually tear gas was dispersed in sufficient quantities to infiltrate the duct works of Hilton Hotel. My parents, like millions of others, saw film of Chicago police beating unarmed young people with batons, and worse.
For me, the films of protesters clashing with cops, like soldiers in Vietnam, were simply part of the TV news, in the background while my brother & I played on the floor with GI Joes. The news was boring & made for grown-ups anyway, so we mostly ignored it or normalized it.
I know now that for the adults, 1968 must have been a nightmare, a Boschian Hellscape so frightening that from the Stygian depths of their own terror, they voted in the Red-Baiting Shyster Tricky Dick Nixon to be the National Savior.
As kids, we were insulated from the worst of the adult anxieties. But cancellation, the cruel fate which befell Batman, had by this time also taken The Man From UNCLE, The Green Hornet, Lost In Space and The Rat Patrol off the airwaves. Things were definitely going to hell.
At least The Wild Wild West and the Saturday Morning Cartoons were still on TV.
But change was in the air. The Assassinations & the Summer of Protest had pushed the depressed Presidential Lame Duck LBJ to create the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. One of the key questions was whether TV violence was a contributing factor in what many in the general public perceived to be an escalation of social & civil violence in the USA.
LBJ had been pressured by a grassroots parents' group, Action for Children's Television (ACT).
With Batman and most of the other cool shows off the air, the censors & do-gooders focused on The Wild Wild West. Singled out as a whipping boy by TV reporters, by the National Association for Better Broadcasting, and US Representative Hale Boggs, the show was frequently cited as a textbook example to excessive TV violence & sadism.
My older brother was by this time in first grade, and every day carried to school his genuine Wild Wild West lunch box, wondrously decorated with vibrant painted illustrations of the perils & excitement of the seminal cowboy/steampunk adventure. He was heart-broken to learn, some day after April 4, 1969, that The Wild Wild West was off the air.
As with Batman, the plots of TWWW were mostly incomprehensible to me, but the fights & explosions made perfect sense. Good Guys were fighting Bad Guys, that was the main thing.
The TV news was also still incomprehensible as well but around this time I had started to notice that besides showing soldiers in Vietnam & violent protests in other cities, there were also images of sad-looking children.
The children looked different than my brothers & our friends...they were brown-skinned, with big foreheads, sunken eyes, stick-thin arms, and strangely swollen bellies.
I didn't understand how something this terrible could happen to a kid. My mother explained that they were hungry, & lived in a place where war was being fought, that the war & hunger were not here in America.
My adult-self guesses the unfortunate children were residents of Nigeria or Biafra, victims of war & massive famine in 1968, but of course there was plenty of that going on all over the place.
The TV must have shown a lot of those kids because one night before bedtime, for some unknown reason, I was gripped by what must surely have been the first existential mystery to confront my awareness. This riddle, had I been able to express it in coherent language, went something like this:
Why had I been born into a time & place of comfort & safety, of a warm house, benevolent parents, TV & Toys, macaroni & cheese...while other children had been born to only suffer war & hunger?
To this day, I have never worked out a satisfying solution, morally or metaphysically, to this existential mystery.
Sometime after the end of Batman and before kindergarten started, I picked up the word 'hippy' and believed it applied to any man with long hair. Hippies were sometimes on the TV news, which I still tried to ignore, fighting with police & being arrested. The word was out amongst the kids in my neighborhood: hippies were dangerous, stay away from them.
My memory has some dim, blurry snippets of TV news footage about men with long hair, hippies obviously, killing people.
My adult self guesses those memories concern the Manson Family Murders of summer 1969, or maybe the Stones at Altamont (Dec. 1969), or both.
Or maybe the memories are a distortion of the infamous Kent State Massacre, which my adult self knows happened on May 4, 1970. I was 6 years old by the time of this incident, which involved the National Guard, men in uniforms similar to GI Joe, mowing down with bullets 4 unarmed college students.
But by this time, GI Joe himself was no longer wearing a military uniform. The Hasbro Company, had re-tooled him, not as a member of the Armed Force, but as a member of the Adventure Team, whose insignia looked suspiciously similar to the hippy 'peace' symbol. The Adventure Team went on scientific or exploration missions undersea, in the air, in the desert, even in volcanoes, and most of them wore beards.
The Vietnam War had become unpopular, and was getting more so every day. There were many good reasons for Americans to turn against the war, and one of them was an event known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre.
The massacre had actually occurred back on March 16, 1968, a few days after Batman's last episode as previously mentioned, but initial reports omitted the fact that it consisted of mass scale torture & mowing down civilians with bullets. The atrocities were committed by the US Military, wearing uniforms similar to GI Joe.
Some of the horrible facts of the Mỹ Lai Massacre first gained wide public exposure in November, 1969, with additional information & details coming out in dribs & drabs for many months & even years afterwards.
As the story of Mỹ Lai story and other atrocities had brief moments in the media spotlight, I was progressing through my requisite year of Kindergarten, and at the time of the Kent State Massacre, the Kindergarten year was fast approaching its natural conclusion.
One spring afternoon, on a date which I have forensically determined to be May 29, 1970, the guidance counselor pulled me from my classroom, and escorted me outside my parents' car.
I joined by brothers in the back seat. The words my parents spoke to us, to all 3 of us kids, are words of which I have no direct recollection, but whose meaning has not been forgotten:
There had been an 'auto accident.' Uncle Tom, Aunt Becky, Cousin Stacy, & Cousin Robby were all dead.
Years later, my mother told me that when I learned of Cousin Stacy's death, I responded by saying that didn't make any sense, that Stacy was 'just a little kid.'
But I don't remember saying those words. I remember very little of that day, and the days which immediately followed.
I just remember the car ride, heading down familiar to our grandparents' house in a tiny town in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and a house filled with people, many unknown to me.
Considering the magnitude of the whole event, it seems odd how few direct memories I have of the whole thing. But perhaps that was the point...the whole thing was beyond the capacity of my kid-brain.
I do have a memory of someone saying that my Uncle Tom was the last of them to die, causing my kid-brain, unbidden, to spontaneously form an image of a pristine white hospital room...the kind you saw on TV... with 4 beds, each member of the family quietly & peacefully drifting off to eternal slumber.
I would learn years later that their car had collided with a cement truck, and that any idea of their death as being quiet & peaceful was pure fantasy, that if Uncle Tom had survived, he would have likely been severely disabled, physically & otherwise, and likely tortured by the memories of his wife & children.
But a realistic mental image of their deaths, crushing, brutal, & horrible, was still years ahead in my future...
Back in late May, 1970, my primary problem was that I was in a house with a lot of the adults were crying.
My grandfather didn't seem to be crying so at some point I ended up sitting near him, and telling him I was glad he wasn't crying. That probably wasn't the right thing to say.
My adult-self would learn, years later, that my grandfather's own father, about 50 years or so before, had died of a brain tumor, leaving a widowed mother to re-marry another man and to turn over the child-version of my grandfather to the care of his spinster aunt. My grandfather, who'd had no siblings, had been effectively orphaned by the experience.
And Uncle Tom had been my grandfather's only son, his only other child being my mother, who had, according to custom of the times, had taken my father's name. My grandfather's only namesake, his proud legacy, was completely, irrevocably gone.
And of course my grandfather's apparent stoicism was not so strong as it appeared to my 6-year-old self.
Years later, my mother related this anecdote: A well-meaning friend tried to console my grandfather by reminding him that despite the huge loss, there was still had a daughter & three other grandchildren, all alive & healthy.
'But they don't matter,' was my grandfather's reply.
Perhaps he was oblivious that his daughter, his sole remaining child, had heard the remark. I certainly didn't hear it, and would only learn of it 45 years later.
But back in 1970, a house full of grieving adults was no place to be. My brothers & I took refuge were we could, outside, or with Uncle Tom's old toy guns in the attic, & in front of the small portable TV in the study, near the picture on the wall of Uncle Tom's airplane.
In those days TV was broadcast over the airwaves via the VHF & UHF spectra, with my grandparents' rooftop antenna picking up about 5 stations based in Pittsburgh. My big brother quickly found a station playing cartoons, thank heaven!
But then something even better came on:
It was the first time I'd seen the show in more than two years, a span almost half my life-time, and it seemed a miracle, a single bright star in a pitch black sky.
The villain was the Mad Hatter, and after a bit of back & forth & mucking about, he & his henchmen managed to get Batman & Robin locked into a couple super X-Ray cabinets. The episode ended as we watched Our Heroes immobilized, bombarded with scary, flashing super X-Rays.
We were happy that the concluding episode followed immediately. As the animated opening credit sequence concluded, we eagerly awaited the revelation of exactly how Our Heroes had escaped the Death Trap.
Shockingly, we saw instead the ghastly image of 2 skeletons, adorned with the trademark masks & capes, and funereal organ music playing in the background:
As the episode continued, Gotham City newscasters announced the death of the Caped Crusaders, and Gothamites everywhere were shown to be in collective mourning. Alfred the Butler wore a black arm band.
My brain had spent most of the past few days struggling between the instinct to understand just what the hell had happened and the need to protect itself from the true horrific realization of that very thing.
Escaping into the world of superheroic fantasy had seemed like just the ticket. Until those skeletons. Good Guys weren't supposed to die.
As the reader must have by now figured out, the horror would have been avoided had I only known about the concept of Comic Book Death.
Spoiler Alert: Batman didn't really die. A kindly scientist had intervened, off-camera, pulling the Caped Crusaders out of the lethal X-Ray cabinets and providing the prop skeletons so that Our Heroes could fake their own deaths. By the middle of the episode, Batman was confirmed alive, and horror receded safely into the background again.
Forty-five years later, my mother told me what another family friend said in order to comfort my grandfather:
The friend said that he wished that four more of those dirty hippies should have been killed at Kent State, rather than Uncle Tom and his family.
Would I have remembered that remark if I had heard it directly? The logic, that 4 dirty hippies could somehow be metaphysically traded for the lives of 4 Good People, might have made sense to my kid-brain. To my adult brain, not so much.
************************************Eventually the long strange Memorial Day Week of 1970 was over, and my mom & dad & brothers & I returned home, to resume the business of living.
I don't remember any talk about fact that an entire family, my mom's only sibling, and the two cousins closest to our ages, were all completely, irrevocably, gone, or that they all had suffered horrible, violent deaths.
I imagine a lot of those conversations occurred outside my earshot, or else I was oblivious. But perhaps I heard them & understood them & the repressed memories are simply lying in wait, like ghosts in the attic.
My brothers & I were largely protected from direct trauma by the limited bandwidth of our own kid-brains, and by the miraculous ability of children to normalize pretty much any event, no matter how horrible or strange. As long as there were fantasy worlds in which to take refuge, we would be fine.
But Action for Children's Television (ACT) continued their pioneering work of as the Official National Buzz-Kill. By September 1970, they had driven from the air the Fantastic Four, Space Ghost & even the relatively tame Superman cartoons. The Man of Steel had an unhealthy proclivity for solving problems throwing punches, it turns out.
My adult self later learned that Representative Hale Boggs articulated the main flaw in the superheroic ethic when he criticized "the Saturday morning theme of children's cartoon shows" that permit "the Good Guy to do anything in the name of justice."
Boggs' was more correct than anyone wanted to know. There was more than the famous individual murders of beautiful American leaders like JFK, MLK, & RFK.
The Culture War over children and violent TV was unfolding with Vietnam, a real war, as a backdrop.
And the American strategy in Vietnam, which once had a kind of superficial coherency -on paper, if not in fact- had unraveled to the point where pretty much nothing was left except pure, industrial scale mass murder:
Between 1965 – 1973, eight million tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam, more than three times the tonnage used in WWII.
Those bombs included 388,000 tons of Napalm. A single napalm shell was capable of destroying areas up to 2,500 square yards, burning at temperatures between 1500F & 2200F. Napalm on the human body is unbearably painful and almost always deadly.
And then there is the incident at Mỹ Lai, which you may recall had occurred on March, 16 1968, just a couple days after the cancellation of Batman...
Mỹ Lai is often characterized as an example of soldiers spontaneously running amok due to poor discipline & the horrific traumas the troops had previously experienced. And while those factors obviously contributed to the massacre, Mỹ Lai was in fact the perfectly logical result of policies created by the sober & respectable minds of America's Military Establishment.
The centerpiece of those policies was the Body Count. Because the Viet Cong were not waiving white flags & surrendering like Good Little Enemies, and because the war was dragging on longer than anyone predicted, American generals had fixed upon an idea formulated by Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, a Napoleonic military strategist. In crude terms, the idea was that any enemy will eventually be vanquished if sufficient numbers of them are killed.
As the idea was translated to troops in the field, the natural effect was to incentivise killing as many Vietnamese persons as possible, with these persons' status as civilians, as children, as women, as elderly, etc., being of secondary concern or even of no relevance whatsoever.
Another policy, related to Body Count, was the Free-Fire Zone. The official definition of Free-Fire Zone is as follows: 'A specific designated area into which any weapon system may fire without additional coordination with the establishing headquarters.'
In practice, a Free-Fire zone was actually a place or situation in which anyone unidentified is considered an enemy combatant, where the rule is in fact 'kill anything that moves.'
Journalist Nick Turse, along with many others, eventually expanded upon the work of Seymour Hersh regarding the mega-atrocity of the US war against the Vietnamese, which killed from between 1 and 3 million civilians & about 58,000 American troops.
America believed itself to be the Good Guy, like Batman, the Man From UNCLE, & GI Joe, and as such had given itself license to do literally anything to advance its goals.
But as far as we know, the war itself was Representative Hale Boggs' primary concern. He just wanted, like millions of other Americans, for the assassinations & riots to stop.
Boggs himself, it turns out, died 2 years later, in 1972. Like many politicians, he died in a small plane crash. No wreckage or remains were ever found.
Boggs, besides being the Majority Whip, had been a member of the Warren Commission who dissented against the infamous 'Magic Bullet' theory, and in 1971 publicly criticized the FBI in general & the dreaded J. Edgar Hoover in particular.
Here is a money quote from Boggs:
"Over the postwar years, we have granted to the elite and secret police within our system vast new powers over the lives and liberties of the people. At the request of the trusted and respected heads of those forces, and their appeal to the necessities of national security, we have exempted those grants of power from due accounting and strict surveillance."
When any high profile dissident dies, leaving no forensic evidence, it is of course suspicious. Also of course, in lieu of a first hand confession & requisite documentation, the world will never know if Boggs' death was simply an unhappy accident, like Uncle Tom's, or if he was murdered, like the people of Mỹ Lai.
But back in 1970, still alive & with no apparent inkling of his impending fate, Boggs, as well as his pals with ACT, won their round. The superheroes had been purged from TV.
My brothers & I carried on, supported by Scooby-Doo, Bugs Bunny, the Three Stooges, and their peers.
Time passed. Four members of my family tree had been completely eradicated, but my adaptable kid-mind effortlessly & silently filed the story away, consigning the whole horrible event to the mental equivalent of a sealed box in a dark corner of the attic. Just one of the many immutable, inevitable facts which comprised my history, like my birthdate, home town, and eye color.
As far as the trauma of a mass family death goes, whatever psychic injuries my parents endured, they seemed to have been more or less sustained by the demands of work & the needs of three growing boys.
Summer passed, then first grade began. At X-mas I received a Corgi miniature Batmobile & Batboat set, which I treasured beyond words.
Eventually the month of May returned and Memorial Day 1971 rolled around. My parents took my brothers & I to our grandparents' house, which now contained many elaborate brass decorations and other Far East tchotchkes, on the walls & shelves, interspersed with the pre-exisiting furnishings. These items had been shipped from Uncle Tom & Aunt Becky's apartment in the Philippines and the most prominent of them were 2 huge green candles in brass holders, standing about 3 feet high.
The candles were never lit, but they remained, stationed beside the fireplace, in our grandmother's home until she moved into a nursing home in 1996. Throughout my childhood, I could look at the candles, remembering my aunt, uncle, and dead cousins, and then look away and shortly forget again.
We all drove to the cemetery where Uncle Tom & the others were buried, and my mother & grandmother put fresh flowers on the graves. I remember very little, except being hot, bored, & psychically uncomfortable. My adult self hopes that I wasn't griping, but likely I was.
The ritual of putting flowers on the graves was one my grandmother would maintain, every year, until she lost the ability to walk in the early 1990's.
Afterwards, the annual Memorial Day parade conveniently passed by my grandparents' house.
His death as a military man, coinciding with Memorial Day the previous year, had somehow metaphysically connected Uncle Tom with all the other soldiers & sailors, dead & alive.
A militaristic nation like the USA must never let grief deter its chronic hard-on for war. And so it is that a national holiday, ostensibly reverent of the dead, in actuality promotes war as a brave & noble enterprise. And so it was that my brothers & I, & every other kid we knew, experienced Memorial Day as a vast Infomercial for War.
A few weeks after Memorial Day, summer in full swing at last, at a yard sale, I was delighted to find two Batman relics. One was vinyl wallet, which would, sadly, fall apart with a couple months of its purchase.
The other was a Signet Paperback collection of old Batman comic book stories. The book had been issued in 1966, to capitalize on the popularity of the TV show, but contained reprints of older Batman stories, mostly from the 1950's.
The first story in the book turned out to be the 1939 version of Batman's origin, wherein we learn that as a young boy, Bruce Wayne had witnessed his parents' brutal murder...
...And from the epicenter of trauma & devastation, he had vowed to make war on all criminals henceforth...
A deceptively simple mashup of the Revenge Tale & a few Jungian Archetypes, it was potent stuff for the 7-year-old version of myself. I don't recall the story awakening any memories of my dead aunt, uncle, or cousins, although I cannot rule out something subconscious.
But whatever, I was hooked, and it wouldn't be long before my obsession with Batman tchotchkes extended to include comics.
Despite the cancellation of the TV program in 1968, Batman comic book sales were strong in the 1970's. And with people like Denny O'Neill, Len Wein, Ernie Chan & Jim Aparo creating them, the stories were usually high-quality, at least by comic book standards.
Additionally, the publisher frequently issued reprint stories from the 1930's thru to the 1960's. The reprints, plus a seminal hard-bound Batman anthology I found at the library, fed my growing obsession with The Past. Within a year, I was an expert on Batman.
There is no point in trying to estimate how many hours of the 1970's were wasted reading & re-reading comic books, not just Batman, but of course Spider-Man, Superman, the Flash, and most of the others. I knew it was all fantasy, but I nonetheless took it all very seriously.
This is not to say that I forswore other literary sustenance. My grade school had mandatory library periods, during which we perused & borrowed respectable books.
In second grade, I took home an elementary school biography of MLK. After my mother saw the book, she told me how sad those days (presumably, the late 1960's & 1970, when everything for everybody was going to hell) had been, with JFK, MLK, RFK, Uncle Tom, Aunt Becky, Stacy & Robbie all dying.
In this way, Uncle Tom & the rest of the family became connected, metaphysically, with MLK & all the other martyrs of the 1960's.
By this time, circa 1972, my parents' politics had turned slightly leftward. Like most of America they now believed that the war was a lost cause, and my mom liked to watch the increasing proliferation of peace marches & protests on TV. Living in our tiny Mahoning Valley town, there was still no visible resistance to the war, despite being only an hour's drive from Kent State.
Perhaps through osmosis, or from conversations lost in the oceans of memory, I somehow learned that the war in Vietnam was bad.
And years later, in dribs & drabs, I would learn how the war had, for all intents & purposes, killed MLK & RFK. Even my Uncle Tom, whose body was crushed by a cement truck in the Philippines, was a causualty. And many years later still, I learned how the war had killed the people of Mỹ Lai.
As the 1970's wore on, the Forces of History continued their ceaseless ballet, increasingly within view, but still inscrutable.
Superheroes returned to TV in 1973, with the premiere of the Super-Friends cartoon on Saturday morning, a dumbed-down & essentially non-violent version of the Justice League of America. Superman & Batman were back, but without fisticuffs & with a couple dopey kids in tow, adding insult to injury.
In 1974, they were joined by a non-violent version of Capt. Marvel, on the confusingly-titled Shazam show, and by Col. Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man, the first superhero to wear a leisure suit.
Just as the military madmen of Washington were finally drawing down troops from Vietnam, the superheroes were also reduced drastically from their former days of glory.
As for GI Joe, he was also co-opted by the Superheroes-of-the-Seventies, with the cyborg doll “Mike Power Atomic Man” and the even sillier “Bullet Man” joining the Adventure Team.
Superheroes were back, in smaller numbers & with greater restraint, but they were faring better than the real-life GI Joes in Vietnam.
On April 30, 1975, the last US forces were finally forced out by the Vietnamese, much to the chagrin of the genocidal maniacs running the Pentagon.
Around Labor Day, 1975 or so, I learned that a regional UHF station was playing the Adam West Batman reruns every weekday. This knowledge thrilled me beyond words and so at 4:30 PM on a particular weekday I sat eagerly in front of the TV, anticipating, at long last, a return to the glory days of 1960's fantastic adventure.
I hadn't seen even an episode in about 5 years. Having what I thought were accurate memories of the original show, having believed it to be an earnest & sublime depiction of the superheroic lifestyle, it was soon apparent to my 10-year-old brain that the show was in fact an elaborate spoof.
And yet more than a spoof. From a concrete, literalistic perspective, it was more faithful to the original source material than pretty much any comic book movie or TV show before or since.
And ultimately, much more entertaining than Shazam, or the Super-Friends.
So even though my hero was not treated with his due reverence, it was still the best live-action superhero show available to me. I caught pretty much every S1 & S2 episode, no slight feat in those days before the VCR & DVR, loyally following it until about the middle of Season 3, when it became too obvious that the show had drifted from the original satiric vision into becoming just another dumb 1960's sitcom, ala Bewitched or Gilligan's Island.
The 3rd season, creatively running on fumes, with budgets slashed, deathtraps toned down (thanks to worry-wort parents & congressmen!), and the awkward addition of Batgirl, constituted irrefutable evidence as to exactly why my all-time favorite TV show had to be cancelled. It hadn't been an assassination, but rather a mercy-killing.
My obsession with Batman & the other super-heroes was not diminished, at least not immediately. I continued to read comic books, intermittently, into my 20's. But by the mid-1980's, as funny books relied more & more on pornographic violence and hyped-up multi-chapter multi-magazine crossover 'events' ala 'Secret Wars' & 'Crisis on Infinite Earths,' my interest waned.
The Batman comics were particularly hard hit by these exploitative trends, with the Caped Crusader re-imagined as a kind of Bernard 'Subway Vigilante' Goetz, in a mask & tights.
I wonder now if perhaps I just wanted to avoid the realization that in the real world, a hero is either an absurd victim of his own delusions, or else a violent maniac.
************************************In the years following the horrible May of 1970, our grandfather, a life-long tippler, gradually became more & more dependent upon alcohol. As his health was gradually ruined, he became bedbound and either unwilling or unable to eat (it was never exactly clear) and he died in December of 1983.
Our grandmother survived the hard years after the auto accident by applying furious energies in getting new clothes, new toys, and outings with my brothers & I. 'Spoiling' us, she called it. She took my brothers & I to our first professional baseball game, to see the Pittsburgh Pirates, at Three Rivers Stadium.
The legendary stadium was destroyed by controlled demolition on February 11, 2001, and when I heard about it, I called my grandmother up to reminisce about the stadium. She told me that when we went there in 1972, she had wanted me to see her favorite ball player, the great Roberto Clemente. But Clemente had dental surgery that night & didn't play. And then he died on December 31, 1972, in a plane crash, while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The MVP was 38 years old.
It was one of our last conversations. My grandmother later had a severe stroke, and died on May 20, 2001. My mother said that the one upside was that at least my grandmother would not have to live through another Memorial Day.
I was 37, seven years older than Uncle Tom had been at the moment of his own horrible death. And finally, it was time to think about some things.
***************************Like a wayward comet on an erratic & elliptical orbit, Batman seems to return to my TV every 5 or so years, re-syndicated on cable or nostalgia TV networks, and usually worthy of a few wasted hours.
Batman was the first celluloid adaptation to truly recreate the comic book visual/aesthetic sensibility. And it was done with only the tiniest fraction of the monetary resources and none of the now-ubiquitous CGI technology available to today's comic book movies.
The adult version of myself appreciates the show for its sheer craftsmanship & its original vision: the wit of the writers, the perfection of visual design (costumes, the Bat-Cave, & of course the various Bat-vehicles), the jazzy virtuosity of the soundtrack, and the exuberance of the actors.
First & foremost of these thespians is Adam West, whose precise delivery & understated emotionalism contained and reconciled the stark contradictions within this unique, multi-leveled opus.
For citizens of the 21st Century, accustomed as we are to the snarling, narcissistic grimdark heroes of the last 4 Batman movies, Adam West seems soft by comparison, both physically and emotionally.
His body & muscles are those of a natural human male, rather that a steroid-saturated Übermensch. He projects a kind of vulnerability, just beneath the mask. Physically, he is human, a type of man who could actually exist in our own world.
But of course, Batman does not exist in our world, but rather in a world where costumed super-criminals plot byzantine schemes & most of the time operate according to an irrational & unstated rule which prohibits them from simply mowing down our heroes with bullets.
A world where the hero's self-confidence is never daunted by the physical & mental limits of mortality, because he actually is in fact the smartest man, the most virtuous man, & the best hand-to-hand fighter.
A world of Good Guys & Bad Guys, where the Good Guys Always Win.
The brilliance of the show is to ridicule these concepts by delivering them exactly as we secretly want them to be delivered, completely faithful to our fondest fantasies.
I can never completely forget the electrifying sensation of being 3-years-old and watching Adam West bringing the reality of superheroic adventure into vivid 3-dimensional life. And in all my many post-1968 re-visitations of his show, there has always been a part of me who wants the world to be like Gotham City, a part which wants to be Batman, irony be damned.
Like all my childhood TV heroes, to see his image is like seeing an old friend. Prowling the streets of Gotham, holding forth at Police Headquarters or the Batcave, he is vigorous, vitalized.
And yet from time to time, West's halting, deliberate, Shatneresque delivery seems to suggest that Batman is almost in on the joke: that he is just at the edge of the ultimate truths of his existence...that his actions are constrained by arbitrary and absurd structures & rules...that his mind & his volition are truly not his own, but instead the whims of hack writers.
The durability of the series, which is still being broadcast in the USA more than 50 years after its creation, is indisputable, and strong evidence that Batman shall be long remembered & discussed in the annals of Western Culture.
An adult who watches Batman experiences many of the pleasures a child experiences, with the additional enjoyment from the knowledge that the characters are bumbling about in universe which is patently & obviously absurd. Perhaps this helps prepare us for the inevitable day when absurdities of our own supposedly real universe become so obvious that we no longer deny them.
Certainly the tragic absurdity of Good Guys Versus Bad Guys was becoming increasingly obvious in March 1968, when the ABC television network euthanized Batman, and when a group of American Good Guys mercilessly butchered an entire village.
Just as it seems absurd that in 1970 a man who wept for my aunt, uncle & two cousins would have no empathy for the family & friends of the four dead at Ohio, much less any of the Vietnamese citizens who lost between at least a million friends and family.
The vastness and gruesomeness of the war can hardly be overstated, & yet, like the child-version of myself, America tries to keep the memories contained in a dark, & obscure corner of the attic.
My Uncle Tom was my closest genetic connection to the Vietnam War, luckily spared from direct participation in the worst horrors, and yet, like pretty much every other American adult, he was forced to be an accomplice to the whole vast atrocity, a symphony of violence & death, inflicted upon a people who had in fact posed not the slightest threat to America.
But my uncle, my aunt & two cousins were also casualties of the war. The war placed them in the Philippines, directly in the path of a wayward cement truck. Accidentally, I suppose, but in my mind it all seems inevitable.
And when Adam West died last June, he became metaphysically connected to JFK, MLK, MLK, Uncle Tom, the students at Kent State, and even to the uncounted millions who died in Vietnam.
The actor's greatest role was to play an inheritor of tragedy, a witness to cruel & violent death, who becomes a relentless avenger.
A diurnal creature who adopts the vestments of a flying nocturnal mammal, Batman, although clearly mortal, appears to have mastered the ability to walk a kind of Jungian tightrope between life & death. Thus, he has come to represent a kind of hope for inheritors of all manner of tragedy, great & small. His image is a kind of talisman, keeping death at bay just a little longer.
When I needed it, Adam West brought a grim & heroic visage to living, breathing 3-D reality. And yet he also subtly subverted the character, gently steering me toward the inevitable day when I would have to face the truth about heroes.