1) 1958. I first learned television’s power to wound when I was eight.
Aside from hosting frequent tornadoes that blew away houses and people and barnyard animals, the town I lived in — Wichita Falls, Texas — also had a kids’ show called Pet Parade on the local TV channel.
Since I was a budding narcissist, naturally I wanted to be on TV more than anything in the world. All you had to do was send your name in to the station, saying you had a pet and were available any time of night or day for your chance at stardom. I did all that and waited. Finally, the big call came in. They wanted me and my pet on Pet Parade.
This raised a bit of a problem. I was confident that I was camera-ready — but a pet? Our family had two pets (after our third, an Easter chick, had grown up and moved to a farm). Both of our current pets were not only lacking in glamour, I felt, but also totally deficient in star quality.
Our fox terrier, Bouncer, had a problem that would nowadays probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. He sometimes liked to play with my sister and me, but would usually end up biting us. (My mother said this was because Bouncer was overly sensitive, just like her.) I had the feeling a pet who bit the show host might ruin my career as a TV star before it even took off.
That left our parakeet, Baby. Baby had no discernible personality, so, in our house, everybody left Baby in a corner. She spent her days squawking and eating. Once every six months, she screeched something my mother insisted was “Baby bird!” Like every other communication in our family, though, this was subject to interpretation.
Anyway, since I wasn’t willing to have Bouncer bite me all the way to the TV studio, I was stuck with Baby. I showed up at the TV station all dressed up and hauling a bird cage with me. When I was introduced on camera, I walked on and plopped the bird cage down on the emcee’s desk.
I’d hoped the emcee would want to focus on me after he quickly realized I was the one with bigtime potential to be another Shirley Temple — and not the parakeet with the dazed look on her face. But he kept pestering me with questions about Baby. Could she talk? No. Could she do tricks? No. Could she do anything? Well, no, not really.
After a couple of minutes of this, the emcee gave me and Baby the hook. They started playing the Pet Parade music and marched us off camera. The prize went to some other kid with a dog that could sit down on command and didn’t bite anyone. On the way home in the car, Baby started talking a lot.
For months afterward, other kids would come up to me and say they had seen me on Pet Parade. But no one ever suggested Baby and I should have won.
2) 1981. Mount St. Helen’s volcano has blown its top. My husband has become an expert on the psychological effects of living close to hot lava and ash. Nightline calls him. Is he available? Well, of course, he is.
We jump in our car and head from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Washington, D.C. Before we leave, we notify every person on earth we know or would like to know. National TV! En route, we chortle. Wait till that 11th grade English teacher (the one who always hinted he would amount to nothing) sees him! And all those snotty people who never gave him the time of day! Ha! We are emotionally intoxicated, we are grandiose, we are insufferable — the way you can be only when you’re still quite young and life hasn’t yet taken a dump all over you and your dreams.
At the last minute, Nightline cuts him. The next day, we slink back to Charlottesville. This time, it’s a quieter drive. We are chastened, we are a little bitter, we seem to have aged a lot in 24 hours. We are also extremely hung over.
3) 2008. Since this is still too painful to recount, please check out my almost-stardom as a cancer survivor in this tragic post entitled, Local Woman Refuses to Come Out of Fetal Position. Read it and weep; God knows, I do.
4) 2011. You think a bad 24 hours can age you? Well, try 30 years — even a good 30 years. Over the years, we have both been on TV a few times, mostly local TV, but don’t quibble. We are mature, we are a bit jaded, we are grounded. Our heads are no longer turned so easily. We won’t be Linda Blair to TV’s exorcist.
So, we are only mildly agitated when Brian Williams’ new show, Rock Center, got in touch with my husband about his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. A producer from New York flew in and filmed him in his office and in class. The segment was supposed to air on Monday, December 5th. Being mature and wise beyond our years, we didn’t tell many people about it. Well, just a few, anyway.
You know the rest of the story. It didn’t air then. It may air soon. Or, you know, it may not.
The only thing I know for sure is this: No matter how mature and centered you may think you are, when TV comes calling, you might as well be eight years old again, clutching a bird cage with a mute parakeet and waiting to be the next Shirley Temple. Some things you just never can learn.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)