The thing in the basement that you could watch things on, my mom called a “television”, and what she watched were “programs”. Her favorite programs were “soap operas”. I tried watching them with her a couple times but nothing happened except grownup women and men talking and mostly being sad or mad. She also watched the “news” which I liked sometimes, like that time when we watched a rocket take off.
Dad also called it a “television” but he called the things you watched “shows”. His favorite shows were “westerns” where grownup men with guns and cowboy hats were shooting bad guys who usually tried to shoot them first.
Molly called it a “TV” and watched “shows”. Her favorite was “Sky King” of course, which she liked to watch with her dad. It was like a western because they wore cowboy hats and where they were didn’t have any trees, but the good guys flew airplanes instead of shooting guns.
Molly’s mom called it “television”, but she did not like it so she also called it the “boob tube”. She thought watching it a lot “rotted your brain” and made you dumb. She did watch the news, but I don’t think she liked that either.
I called it “television” sometimes, but mostly “TV” because that was what Molly called it. I also called them “shows” like Molly and my dad, and my favorites were “cartoons”, which Molly watched too sometimes.
The show I liked the best was called “Captain Kangaroo”. He was a grownup with white hair on the top part and the bottom part of his head, but he talked more like a kid. He was always trying to figure things out and he would talk to other grownups but also puppets and a big clock with eyes. And best of all he would talk about a cartoon and then you would see it.
The best cartoon you would see was called “Tom Terrific”. He was like Tom Sawyer or Tom Swift, but he was a pretend kid who had a “thinking cap”. Steam would come out of it when he had a good idea. Tom could turn into all sorts of things, like trains, boats and trees and other stuff to help him figure things out and help people. There was a bad guy called “Crabby Appleton” that Tom had to defeat, but Tom never hurt or killed him, like in the westerns. His stories gave me ideas for my own pretending.
I could watch Captain Kangaroo in the morning after I woke up but sometimes it wasn’t on when I turned on the TV or there was just a little bit and not the beginning part with the music. Sometimes when it wasn’t on if I waited long enough it would start. But other times it would never start.
I kept asking my mom if Captain Kangaroo was on and she figured out that I needed to learn how to “tell time”. So she showed me how to do it. She left David on his blanket on the floor with his toys and pretend animals around him and took me into the kitchen.
“So Coop”, she said, “The clock here in the kitchen and on dad’s desk has a ‘little hand’ and a ‘big hand’. The ‘little hand’ is the most important, because it points to the hour.” She pointed at that part of the kitchen clock.
I nodded. But she could tell I had not figured it out yet.
“So see the small hand right now is between the seven and the eight. That means that it is past ‘seven o’clock’ but it isn’t ‘eight o’clock’ yet.”
She looked at me and thought of another part she hadn’t told me. “The hands of the clock always move around like this.” She moved her finger in a circle over each number in the circle of the clock. “Except you can’t see them move because they move so slowly.”
That was interesting. Something could be moving, but so slow that it looked like it wasn’t moving.
“So the clock counts the hours just like you or I count.” She counted each number from one to twelve and pointed at it on the clock. “And when it gets to twelve at the top, it starts all over again with the one.”
She stopped talking and looked out the window to help her do thinking.
“So if you know that the little hand is always moving this way and counting up to twelve, then if you see it here between the seven and the eight, you know that it is after seven o’clock but not yet eight o’clock, which is when Captain Kangaroo starts on the television. So when the little hand gets close to the eight then you want to go downstairs and turn the television on to watch. Does that make sense, Coolie?”
That was a new nickname mom was calling me now. She just kept making up new ones. I nodded. It did make sense!
“Of course”, she said, shaking her head, “It’s eight o’clock twice a day, and your program is only on at eight in the morning, not eight in the evening. The clock only counts up to twelve and there are twenty-four hours in a day.”
She could tell I didn’t get it.
She looked at me and her eyes got even bigger. “So when the little hand points at the eight it could be eight in the morning or eight in the evening.” She pointed a finger at me. “You just have to figure out which one it is, most clocks won’t tell you!”
She could see I was thinking about that and trying to get it.
“So when the little hand is on the eight and you just woke up, that’s eight o’clock in the morning. If it’s on the eight and you’ve been up all day, had dinner and are ready to go to bed, that’s eight o’clock in the evening.”
That sort of made sense. But now I wondered about the big hand. It was bigger, so why was the small hand more important. Usually I wouldn’t ask something like that but it felt like it would be okay right now, and I really really wanted to know.
“What about the big hand?” I asked.
She did that really big smile and her eyes opened up and twinkled as she nodded. She seemed happy I was asking a question.
“Coop”, she said, shaking her head again, “I won’t lie to you, the big hand is more complicated. It tells you exactly how far it is in minutes between the hour the little hand passed and the hour it hasn’t gotten to yet. And when it points at the one, that doesn’t mean one minute, it means five. You have to do multiplication.”
Grownups knew so much stuff. I wondered how I would ever learn it all. She saw me scrunch my nose. Then we heard David making noises from the living room.
“We’ll save multiplication for another lesson”, she said, squeezing my shoulder. “Excuse me dear, I need to tend to your brother!”
I watched her walk out of the kitchen into the living room. She knew so much more than I did and could do so much more than I could. It wasn’t fair.
I ran and jumped down the stairs into the basement and headed into my dad’s office part. The clock was on the back part of his desk by the wall. I looked at the little hand, which was between the seven and the eight like the clock in the kitchen. The big hand was just below the nine, also like the clock in the kitchen. I moved the clock to the front of dad’s desk, sat in his chair and stared at it really close. Just because my mom said you couldn’t see the hands move, didn’t mean I couldn’t somehow see them move. Grownups were different and didn’t know everything.
I stared at the hands for a long time. I thought I saw them move. But it was more like I realized that the big hand wasn’t where it had been before. It had been just below the nine, but now it was almost touching it. It got there somehow while I was staring at it, but did I actually see it move.
I wondered if there were other things that moved so slowly that we thought they were standing still, but they were not. I thought about my mom talking about plants. They moved, but only when the wind made them move. But they grew, got bigger, changed, but I could not see them grow. I remembered her showing me a “tulip” which grew from a “bulb”. In the morning the flower was closed, but after the sun shined on it, it opened. And thinking about the sun, it moved in the sky but you couldn’t see it move. But you weren’t supposed to look at it anyway.
I wondered if my toy soldiers maybe moved but I could not see it. When I looked at them closely with their tiny faces they seemed like real people to me. And when I came down to play with them in the morning, some of them seemed to be not exactly where I remembered them being before.
I turned the knob on the TV that made it start working. I heard the button click and then the crackling noise on the glass picture part that was called the “screen”. The sounds came first. Then that little dot on the screen that opened up into a picture. It was a grownup woman wiping a table and talking about how good it was. Then she held up a big bottle with pictures and words on it. Then the picture changed to a kid playing with tiny cars while a voice like a grownup was talking about it. I had seen Danny play with some cars like that when I had gone with my mom over to his house.
Then there was a boy eating cereal from a bowl while a pretend talking tiger with a grownup voice talked about how great the cereal was. I knew the tiger was pretend but I wondered about the boy, who looked real. I knew you could use a “camera” to take a picture of a real person because my mom and dad had one and had taken pictures with me in it. Molly’s dad said that there was a “TV camera” and a “movie camera” that could take pictures of you moving.
Both my mom and dad had told me that these things were called “commercials”, because they were telling you what to get at the store. They were different than the “programs”, that were what you wanted to watch, but you had to watch the commercials too. But I wanted to watch all of them, because there was so much stuff to find out about.
I went over again to the clock on dad’s desk. The little hand was getting close to the eight and the big hand was now above the nine. Mom had said when the little hand was pointing straight at the eight then Captain Kangaroo would start.
I looked back at the TV and it was now that show with the grownup called “Miss Ardis” in a white dress with kids sitting in chairs at tables. She would show and tell the kids about things, and read them stories. That was what my mom and dad and Molly’s mom and dad did too. But the strange part was that she would also tell them what they were supposed to do all the time. Not like just when it was time for lunch or dinner or bath and bedtime, or maybe when they got mad at you, but all the time. The kids never got to decide what to do. She also asked them questions, not because she didn’t know the answer, but because she wanted to see if they knew the same answer that she already knew. She would really like it when they knew the right answers.
She called it a “school”. Older kids like Danny or other kids i heard in the park talked about going to school. My dad was even going to school. My mom and Molly’s mom used to go to school. The older kids talked about it like it was something that everybody did once they were old enough. But I had never really seen what a school was.
Then there were more of those commercial things. One had a toy that looked like a potato and you stuck a pretend mouth, nose, eyes and ears on it. Or you could use a real potato. Another was a tube like thing with a bunch of circles that would go back and forth in your hands or go down stairs one at a time all by itself. One was for Cheerios, which was the cereal that we had and i usually ate for breakfast unless my mom made eggs.
Finally it was the beginning part of Captain Kangaroo with that same music but no words. I ran over to my dad’s desk and looked at the clock. My mom was right, the small hand was pointing right at the eight. Also I noticed that the big hand was pointing straight up between the one and the two numbers in the twelve.
I liked Captain Kangaroo. He was a grownup, but he didn’t talk or do things like the other grownups I knew. He was always asking about stuff a lot more than my mom or dad and the other grownups that I knew did. Miss Ardis asked things too, but she already knew the answers and was just seeing if the kids knew the answers too. But Captain Kangaroo asked things because he DIDN’T know the answers. And there was always stuff happening that he didn’t know about.
And when he was worrying about stuff he told you what he was worrying about with his words. My mom and dad didn’t talk about most of the stuff they were worried about most of the time, except maybe my mom sometimes when she got mad at my dad. But I could tell by watching their faces, and how their voices sounded to know when they were worried. But they didn’t talk about it with their words like Captain Kangaroo did.
And there were cartoons all the time when his show was on. There were pretend people and animals that would talk. They would get into trouble but would talk and figure out how to fix it. Some of the cartoons gave me ideas like drawing lines on the basement floor with chalk for roads and rivers.
The cartoon I liked the best was Tom Terrific. He was a pretend kid with a hat that steam came out of when he did his thinking. He could turn into whatever thing he needed to fix things. Into a plane or a bird to fly in the sky. Into a train to go fast. Into a tree to hide among other trees. He also had a dog called “mighty Manfred the wonder dog”, but most of the time all that Manfred wanted to do was rest upside down on his back and not do anything. It was kind of funny because Tom always was trying to do as much as he could and Manfred wat trying to do as little as he could.
I also liked that you could see through the pretend people and animals in the cartoon. It made them seem even more pretend and more interesting to watch. They looked more like the people I might draw than regular people who weren’t pretend.
Captain Kangaroo had the cartoon come on this morning. The first part was always the same. Tom sang the same song about who he was and all the things he could do and he told about Manfred too. After that, the story would get different. Manfred was on his back resting. He said to Tom that it was time for his favorite TV program. So Tom turned into a TV so Manfred could watch it. But it was the wrong program, the wrong “channel”. The screen showed a sort of animal like thing sitting in the sand and some triangle things next to it. A grownup voice was talking…
Announcer: And here in Egypt, hidden somewhere in the silent Sphinx is the Pill of Smartness. And whosoever finds it will become one of great wisdom.
Manfred: Duh… who wants to be smart!
But even though Manfred did not want to be smart, Tom of course wanted to be…
Tom: Did you hear that Manfred? The Pill of Smartness. Oh if I can find it I’ll be so smart I’ll get good grades in school without doing any homework!
So Tom turned into an “Egyptian chariot”. It was strange because it had wheels like a wagon but it flew in the sky and took Manfred through the sky to Egypt. When they came down they saw footprints and Tom said they were Crabby Appleton’s. Tom thought Crabby Appleton wanted to get the Pill of Smartness before he could get it.
The big animal looking thing that they called the “Sphinx” started talking with a grownup voice telling Tom and Manfred that it was the “Voice of Smartness” and that they should go home.
Tom: We better find that pill before Crabby Appleton does!
Voice from the Sphinx: Tom Terrific. Go home! Go home! Listen to the voice of smartness. Be smart. Go home! Go home!
Tom: What a puzzlement! Should we heed the voice of smartness or should we go resolutely on?
Manfred: Let’s go resolutely home!
Tom: But Manfred, the Sphinxes don’t talk! Besides, I don’t know him. I’ve never met him before. If I’m not mistaken, Crabby Appleton is at the bottom of all this. I’ll become a bird and investigate!
So Tom turned into a bird and and flew into the inside of the Sphinx. He saw a square thing with a round thing inside it that looked maybe like a radio.
Tom: Ah, just as i thought, a hi-fi set!
I remembered that Molly’s dad had a radio he called a “hi-fi”. Then a loud voice came out of the round part and lines came out of the round part too to show you that the voice was really loud. It was so loud that it made Tom the bird lose his thinking cap and get knocked over. The cap fell down to where Crabby Appleton was controlling the machines that made the voice…
Crabby Appleton: So that bird is Tom Terrific! I’ve got to get the Pill of Smartness before he does or he might become smarter than a grownup and that would be terrible!
Grownups were always trying to be smarter than kids, so they could keep telling kids what to do. But Tom always knew what to do without grownups telling him. It was pretty much the same for the other Toms too that dad read me stories about, Tom Sawyer and Tom Swift.
So the pill was in the hand of a giant “statue” of “Cleofatra”, whatever that was. Tom and Manfred ran up stairs to get it but Crabby Appleton ran too and got there first and swallowed the pill. But instead of making him smart it made him talk like a little kid who spoke his words not quite right…
Crabby Appleton: I’m a widdle boy, that’s what I am. A widdle diddle boy!
I didn’t remember real little kids talking that way. But I did remember that some grownups talked that way when they were trying to talk like kids to make other grownups laugh.
Tom got Crabby to help him by telling Crabby he would give him a lollipop. But Tom was still trying to figure it all out…
Tom: I still don’t understand why Crabby Appleton turned silly instead of smart when he swallowed the Pill of Smartness!
Manfred (looking at strange writing on the wall): What does it say?
Tom: An inscription! Maybe as an Egyptian mummy I could read it!
Tom turned into an “Egyptian mummy”, which was like a person but all wrapped up, so he could read the Egyptian writing on the wall about the pill.
Tom: No wonder he didn’t get smart! (Reading) Whosoever shall try to use the Pill of Smartness for evil purposes shall never succeed.
I had heard that word “evil” before. It was a word for bad guys who were really bad.
Tom: Gosh Manfred, I guess the only way to get really smart is to pay attention in school and work really hard!
That didn’t make sense to me because Tom was not evil. So if he swallowed the pill it should make him even more smart than he already was. Like Crabby had said, smarter than a grownup.
I wondered again about school. Tom said it was the only way to get really smart. Would I go to school? I figured I wasn’t old enough yet. I figured Molly wasn’t old enough either, though she was already really smart.
So in the end Tom and Manfred took Crabby Appleton, who was still acting like a silly little kid, back home…
Tom: Come on Crabby. I’ll take you home to your mom!
At the end Tom was back at his little house in the tree with Manfred…
Tom: Well, we’re back at our headquarters mighty Manfred the wonder dog. But watch for us kids, we’re on our way to another great adventure! Aren’t we Manfred? Manfred? Manfred!
But Manfred had gotten lazy and fallen asleep like he always did. I liked Tom, because he always figured out what to do and then did it. Nothing could ever stop him even though he was just a kid.
Dad was still reading me Tom Swift books at night. Right now we were reading the one about Tom’s giant robot. It was a machine that Tom had made in his laboratory that looked kind of like a person and could walk and do things with its machine hands and arms like a person. I really liked Tom Swift because he was always making things that could fly or go underwater or even into space. He was always helping people, and he knew more than any of the grownups.
I also remembered Tom Sawyer, who acted more like a real kid like Danny, or one that I might see in the park. He wasn’t super smart like Tom Swift was, but he did do what he wanted and figure things out.
But Tom Terrific seemed more like a kid like me, not an older kid like Tom Sawyer, or an almost grownup kid like Tom Swift. And Tom Terrific liked to pretend like I did, except he could make his pretending turn real!