Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sesame Street Class of ‘69

I was four when “Sesame Street” debuted in November of 1969. My father was immediately suspicious about the show. The idea of a public-supported, government-subsidized television station encouraging the children of America to sit in front of the T.V. at the same time every day, and be fed repetitive information by smiling fluffy-haired “muppets” amounted to nothing less than “Commie brainwashing,” to coin his phrase.  My old man firmly believed that there were hidden messag­es contained in the constant repetition of the alphabet, and that Big Bird was a metaphor for Maoism (all that happy yellow marching around the screen).
There was also “Sesame Street’s” initials, SS, the meaning of which was not lost on him, especially since his brother fought the SS during WWII. So, he forbade me to watch “Sesame Street” because no child of a decorated WWII veteran would be innocuously indoctrinated by Commies in his house!  Let’s forget that the show’s lessons were taught from the stoop of a New York City brownstone on a street peopled with residents who spoke fractured English. His feelings about that still hover like a storm cloud above our white-shingled house on Fifth Street.
All his protestations made me want to watch “Sesame Street” more, but I understood how he felt. I was just as suspicious about my impending attendance of Kindergarten. Taught by my old man to think like a WWII infantry soldier, I knew the Germans invented Kindergarten, and who was better at mind manipulation than them? Most importantly, how could I go from mixing cocktails for WWI veterans at the VFW and the neighborhood bars (that my mother made me go to with my father so he wouldn’t “get lost”) to mixing paints in a classroom?
“Sesame Street” seemed harmless enough to me. It was so different from every other kid’s show on television. I watched it whenever I could; sitting close to the television set, poised to change the channel should my old man walk in on me. You see, my father was a mailman in town, often coming home for a coffee break in the middle of the morning. Whenever I heard the stressed screech of the screen door, I would immediately grab the television’s cold silver knob and turn the channel as far as my little wrist could rotate. Somehow, I always landed on the “Jack LaLanne Show” and thought, “What’s worse for my brain development? Watching fluffy-haired muppets recite the alphabet, or watching a post-middle-aged man wearing a uni-tard and ballet slippers bend and crouch before my eyes in black-and-white close-ups?”
One day while surreptitiously watching “Sesame Street,” I was so absorbed in a segment where a bearded long-haired man wearing a beige “peeping-Tom-like” trench coat walked uninvited into an office and painted a number on the glass door, that I didn’t hear my father walk in. Without warning, I heard, “What the hell are you watching? I told your mother I didn’t want you watching this commie crap. Look at that hop-head with the paint can! He’s probably on welfare!”
I didn’t blame my old man for being upset. 1969 was a tough year for him and his generation of John Wayne’s. They had to deal with Vietnam War protests; draft dodgers; and racial unrest. For goodness sakes, he was still freaked-out from inadvertently driving through Woodstock the day after the festival and wading his Ford Falcon through the hippie generation as it made its barefoot, muddy retreat back to civilization. So, he controlled what he could. And “Sesame Street” was something he thought he could control, at least in his own house.
I wanted to obey my father, but the whole world was giving in to the changes that were taking place, and, refusing to be left behind, I succumbed to the new world order.  In defiance, I continued to watch “Sesame Street.” I learned Spanish words, and for the first time I was introduced to African-American children, Hispanic children, and Asian children who were just like me. And I felt connected to them all. They were just like me except my street looked just a little different from theirs.  

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