1966: A Friendly Umbrella In a Stormy Life

I turned off the TV and reluctantly admitted to defeat.

 Batman was terrible.

I had been a “bat-fan” since the summer of 1964 when Julie Schwartz had Sch-rewdly rescued the comic from cancellation by making just three changes:

  • The chest emblem changed from a generic bat figure to a bat superimposed on a yellow disc which could be trademarked.
  • The current team of artists was replaced by comics’ superstar Carmine Infantino.
  • Tales of aliens and costumed supervillain antics were replaced by more realistic detective stories.

This fundamental change was dubbed “The New Look”, and when I first learned about it I assumed it would be like Peter Gunn with capes and Batarangs. Unfortunately, producer William Dozier had been introduced to the Caped Crusader via the goofy 1950’s incarnation and the 1940’s Columbia serials Batman and Batman & Robin, both bearing little resemblance to any of the more serious eras in the books. It didn’t help that the Anchorage station carrying the Bat-series aired the first two episodes out of order, making it difficult to understand what was going on.

I tuned into that first episode shivering with anticipation. Events of the yet-to-be seen first episode were recapped with a voice-over narration over a series of still photographs, which led me to conclude that I’d be watching a puppet-show like Fireball XL5 or Supercar. Then the animated opening credits ran, and I readjusted to the idea of an animated cartoon like Jonny Quest, but when the credits cut to an opening scene of a less-than-buff middle-aged man in a costume that only faintly resembled my hero, I knew that I was screwed. I suffered through the rest of the episode, tuned into the second/first/? Episode broadcast aired two nights later and forced myself to continue to watch the show, fervently hoping for a change in quality, but by Easter I’d given up hope.

…which was why I was less than excited about the announcement in March of a new show called The Avengers. The story was buried in the middle of the weekend edition of the Anchorage Daily News and held little real information about the upcoming show other than it would star Diana Rigg1 and Patrick McGee. This Rigg lady could be either the Wasp or the Scarlet Witch, and if Mr. McNee would be playing Captain America I hoped he’d been hitting the gym a bit more often that Adam West did. With my luck, Iron Man would be portrayed by a now elderly Jack Haley wearing his Tin Man outfit from The Wizard of Oz.

It was all so depressing.

Not that I had much to be happy about at the time. I was heading into the Summer of No Bedroom, and I was feeling like a refugee in my own home. The previous winter my mom had decided I was too old to be sharing a bedroom with my little sisters, and that Dad needed to make a bedroom for me. Space was at a premium, so by the process of elimination the attic became the site of my new digs, and we got a good start in late February, but by late spring construction had come to a halt. Unfortunately, this happened after I’d already been moved out of that room I was sharing with my three little sisters.

The move had been inexplicably caused by Mom and older sister Robin securing summer jobs just as school was ending. They’d be working at a fish cannery in Clam Gulch about 30 miles south of Sterling. The original idea was that we’d spend the work week with them, and then return home to Dad for the weekend. Unfortunately this proved to be unworkable, so the new plan was that the younger sisters and I would stay in Sterling while Mom and Robin would shuttle between the ranch and the cannery. The situation seemed a winning proposition when A) Mom promised to pay me for babysitting, and B) Robin uncharacteristically allowed me to crash in her room. Unfortunately my fortunes just as quickly reversed when A) Dad halved the baby-sitting rate2 and B) Robin revoked crashing rights in her room. I also lost use of the living room couch because each trip would include two to three fellow cannery workers tagging along for showers and laundry, and they would be crashing at the house overnight.

After trying (and discarding) the living room floor, the top of the clothes dryer and the cargo space in the station wagon as sleeping quarters I began to panic. But then a Classics Illustrated adaptation of Robinson Crusoe gave me an idea: I’d make my own home. We were having a relatively dry summer, so I made myself a room at the back of one of the outbuildings by stacking military surplus pallets together. Modest insulation and cushioning was provided by four-foot square pads stuffed with what we suspected to be horse-hair, and a garden hose stretching from the back kitchen door provided a modicum of communication with the rest of the family during the night.

…which seemed to last forever. Granted there was enough sun at 10:00 PM for reading comics, but sleep didn’t come easy knowing that both bears and moose could be wandering around the ranch just out of sight in the brush. Even worse than the big critters were the little ones – mosquitoes, and an even tinier and more voracious flying pest we knew only as the “no-see-um,” made a bug-buffet out of the smallest bit of skin left uncovered, and I’d invariably wake up looking like pin cushion.

Oddly enough, my sole window of respite came on Saturday nights when the younger kids were down for the evening and the teenagers & adults were either doing laundry or out on the town giving me a chance to sprawl on the couch and watch TV. This worked out kind of nice as it also give me a chance to see the aforementioned Avengers television series that I had lost interest in when it became clear no superheroes were included in the cast.

Equally confusing as the first Batman episode aired the previous January, the inaugural episode of the Avengers opened with a man fleeing across a giant chessboard neatly bulls-eyed in the back by a throwing knife, while a voiceover with an upper-class British accent announced:

“Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state have to be avenged by agents extraordinary.”

“Two such people are John Steed – top professional and his partner, Emma Peel – talented amateur”

“Otherwise known as The Avengers.”

Then the  camera cut to the two coolest-looking characters I’d ever seen in my thirteen years of life, specifically a fortyish man equipped & umbrella sipping champagne with a slim leather-clad brunette who moved like a cat1 The title card (THE AVENGERS) flashed then was followed by a flawlessly composed series of BW stills and the most totally bad-ass TV theme EVER!

The episode itself bore little resemblance to any other detective or spy show I’d seen and involved mechanical men attacking various characters with following episodes featuring similar fantastic story lines set against the background of a particular aspect of British life. I didn’t learn until decades later that this was a calculated move on the part of the producers – The Avengers was an existing show retooled to maximize sales to the United States by featuring stereotypical versions of English settings, characters, and life that appeal to “potato farmers from Idaho” as expressed in another British export years later3.

I wouldn’t have cared had I known at the time. I was just then beginning to understand that the British made up the bulk of my ancestors4 instead of just being people with odd accents playing the bad-guys every other week on The Wonderful World of Disney. I soaked up every nuance of British history and culture that The Avengers showcased each week while repeating the dialog to myself in hopes of acquiring the slight drawl and soft R’s of the British accent.

…and that theme music! I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but the music established the characters, their relationship, and the setting, every bit as much as the plot and dialog.

  • The music opens with brass fanfare that would easily fit into a military parade.
  • As the fanfare recedes a harpsichord starts a rhythmic repeating pattern, reflecting John Steed’s conservative Edwardian style.
  • At the third repetition of the harpsicord’s pattern, a string section joins in reflecting Emma Peel’s fluid manner and Carnaby Street style.

The harpsicord and strings smoothly blend, symbolizing how the two leads interact, while echoes of the brass introduction punch through occasionally at just the perfect moment, symbolizing the action that is interspersed just as stylishly in each episode.

…and just as I’d get totally caught up in the show it was over and time to shut the television off and head out to my fort and bedtime. But despite being located a hundred feet from the house it didn’t scare me so much anymore. With the “almost” midnight sun of June, July and August, the likelihood of critters sneaking around in the few small trees and underbrush around the house soon lost its terror for me, but it could have been lonely.

No one ever used the garden-hose intercom I’d so laboriously installed, nor did anyone even come out to the fort to inspect my sleeping arrangements, but I was OK. I’d just dust on a coat of OFF! Insect repellant, snuggle down in my blankets, and go to sleep to visions of bowler hats and jumpsuits while a harpsicord and a string section wove a musical backdrop as I was “avenging” with my friends in England instead of sleeping in a fort made of pallets and barrels in Sterling, Alaska.

—————————————————————————————————————–

Notes

  1. That same summer I came across a year-old issue of PLAYBOY featuring Belgian lass Hedy Scott as the centerfold/Playmate. Given her uncanny resemblance to Diana Rigg. my friend Jesse and I nearly came to blows over whether or not Scott and Rigg were the same person.
  2. Unfortunately, it was a pattern that would repeat itself for the next thirty-seven years. Dad couldn’t resist the temptation to take advantage of me in every business or financial agreement we ever made.  
  3. As Time Goes By – an excellent BBC rom-com that aired 1992-2005.
  4. I am well over 75% British. Those maps that come with the results that testing firms send you with the colored dots showing the location and number of DNA matches? Mine are clustered in western England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.

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