When Chester Died on Combat — Growing up with Television in the 1960s and 1970s

Another excerpt from my collection of essays about life in the 1960s/1970s I plan to release on Smashwords, Amazon, and Lulu later this week.

This excerpt is still a work in progress and is part of a two-part essay. Portions of this essay appeared as a flash fiction story in Orion headless.

One of my earliest recollections of some life-defining moment, which really put the zap into me, occurred on October 12, 1965 and had nothing to do with my family or elementary school, though in three months they would. Instead, it was the night when Chester died on Combat.

“Not Chester,” I sobbed when my mother tried to comfort me later that night. “I like him a lot.”

Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver), one of my favorite characters on Gunsmoke had been killed in this week’s episode of Combat. On the playground outside Cherry Grade School in Cherry, Illinois my grade school friends, Larry Corpus, Bill Waite and I used to pretend to be characters from TV shows to amuse some of the girls in our class, especially Valerie Schalhorn and Kim Moss. One week, I was pretending to be Chester, walking with the same limp his character had on Gunsmoke; the next week I was hamming it up pretending to be Corporal Randolph Agarn from F-Troop, a new show, which had debuted the month before.

Chester’s death shook me up a lot because when I went to bed that night, I couldn’t fall asleep. Although my mother tried to assure me it was all make believe and that Chester hadn’t really died, I wasn’t buying any of it.

“The army men shot him and he died,” I said, still pleading my case. “I saw it.”

I must have had some idea of war and death; perhaps hearing on the news about fighting in Southeast Asia (though it would be one more month before the devastating Battle of Ia Drang, the first major battle between US forces and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) that led me to believe that Chester had gone off to war and died. I might have even heard about Vietnam from that avuncular and trusted veteran journalist Walter Conkrite who was beamed into our living room right after supper every night.

“It’s just acting son,” she said, leaning over and pulling up the blanket around my chest. “He didn’t really die. Get some sleep, okay?”

My mother kissed me on the forehead and turned off the light. She was right. Chester didn’t really die on Combat (though Weaver wasn’t faring too well on his new series Kentucky Jones, the show he starred in after leaving Gunsmoke, but he would be back again in two years with the more successful Gentle Ben and later McCloud). Still, it was enough to put the zap into me that I still remember it vividly, forty-six years later.

Whether or not I might have confused fiction with reality when Weaver’s character Noah was killed on that episode of Combat, what I hadn’t confused, albeit indirectly, was the power that television has in shaping one’s cognizance of the world through its programming. Just as Marshal McLuhan reasoned with “the medium is the message,” television in the 1960s and 1970s would impact us in many different ways taking in account cultural issues and historical happenings. A seven-year-old child’s confusion of war and death might seem innocuous, but as a microcosm of the influence television would have on a generation, it wasn’t.

I admit that I am a child of the television generation and not embarrassed that most of my formative years were spent in front of a television. There would be a steady diet of television programming that filled my life in the 1960s and 1970s, television shows that were just as much a part of the cultural landscape of America which ultimately defined the era against a historical backdrop fraught with war, assassination, revolution, and space exploration.

Although some may think of the 1950s as the Golden Age of Television with classic programs like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, the 1960s had their golden moments as well. After all, the 1960s would give us everything from Star Trek and Lost in Space to The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. These and other shows, like Batman, Dark Shadows, Gomer Pyle USMC, Julia, I Dream of Jeannie, Mission Impossible, The Monkees, Night Gallery, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, were the shows that I remember most, and shows that in some ways mirrored how radical, revolutionary, and culturally charged the 1960s would become.

To be sure, just how much television mirrored the decade manifested itself in many ways, from some of the expressions, which entered our vernacular like “groovy” or “sock it to me” (it is still strikes me as bizarre and surreal to this day, remembering the time Richard Nixon uttered this expression on Laugh-in) to groundbreaking shows like 1968’s Julia—the sitcom of a single, African-American woman (in a non-stereotypical role) who had to raise a child on her own after her husband was shot down over Vietnam.

When we were not being entertained, we were being informed. The Vietnam War invaded our homes and tore a nation apart. Funerals for John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy filled us with sorrow while rioting in Watts, Detroit, and Chicago made us cringe. We got to listen to Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Jim Anders read from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve 1968 and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Television came of age in the 1960s and those of us who were growing up at this time would be deeply impacted by it.

Apart from the war in Vietnam and the cultural and political revolution taking place in America, one television show was as far away as you could get from all the turbulence of the decade. However, for many of us growing up in America’s Midwest served by cable, the show, which would begin many of our days, would impact our lives just as much as any other television show would.

Cue the Merrie Melodies music now.

Copyright © 2011 Jeffrey Miller

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