We lived in a world in which the television mixed with our lives. Sometimes it was hard to tell the two apart. One was black and white and the other color. There was death around all over the television. People died in Columbo, but they were only acting and we would see them again later on another show. The same happened on Perry Mason. On westerns like Bonanza sometimes people died who deserved it. There was also death from the war going on that we would see on the news. But they always posted the number on the screen and it was always something around 360 Vietcong and only 6 Americans dead as if we were winning in baseball or football. Danny McDaniel told us his brother stepped on a land mine over there and he had a closed casket at the wake but it was for family only. We still thought of all his body pieces in the box. We would see Jackie Gleason with a cigarette and Dean Martin with a Scotch and then our parents would do the same right in front of the big tube. Our world was like that, things that really happened blending in with the black and white screen and our parents doing the same, while death was all around.
Death was such a big part of that world, the young boy in the parade saluting his father, the president, to the sound of the clip clop of the horses and the people holding flags. All in black and white while everyone in the country watched at the same time like we were there. Sometime later the boy himself drove a plane straight into the earth.
Not all the people who died got on television. We saw Roy Smith rolled out on a stretcher with blood over his head from a gunshot, and his mouth was open under the sheet and we knew he was dead before they closed the ambulance door. His sister said it was an accident and we wondered where he got a pistol and knew he shot himself on purpose. Mr. Bentley died in a fire in bed that someone said was because he fell asleep with a cigarette but we heard Mrs. Bentley screaming on drunken summer nights with the windows open when he beat her and imagined that she knew a different story that she wasn’t telling.
A young man from Mississippi died when his loud and fast car didn’t make the turn at the end of the road: first the sound of the engine waking us up and then the crash. When he hit the fence the pipe went right through his forehead and pushed his brains out the back. After they pulled the car away and cleaned up the blood, we found some empty bottles of Jack Daniels that had been thrown from the crash. Mrs. Taylor died when they put the wrong kind of blood in her at the hospital. Mr. Taylor got a lot of money from it and moved out to a place that looked like Gilligan’s Island somewhere in California.
There was always impending death. There would be a nuclear attack one day and we would leave our classrooms and hide in the basement with our heads against the wall while we knelt down imagining the real day when the sirens went off with the loud explosions. They even showed us a movie of a mushroom cloud on the TV in the classroom. Our world was like that, full of words that killed: murder, accidents, guns, landmines, hospitals, drunkenness, war, explosions, assassination. With these words, mixed with the pictures on the black and white screen, images were formed into frightful emotions that followed me around all my life.