IN AMERICA, EVERY normal child has the opportunity to watch television. It provides news, instructs, entertains. Often, it babysits.
In the 1970s, however — that decade of lame sitcoms, atrocious hairstyles and puke green everything — TV was forbidden for the Denlinger children. It was a tool of The Devil. Our Amish-Mennonite church had forbidden its use, and my parents took church rules very seriously.
No Brady Bunch or Mork & Mindy to make us laugh during long winter evenings. My parents didn’t imagine that Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood would educate us — we had books for that. Playtimes were simpler, cut off from the World and its dangers. We washed dishes, played Monopoly or Rook, sang a cappella gospel hymns, and read aloud to each other from All Creatures Great and Small.
Television was verboten.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I, the eldest son of Earl Denlinger … never … watched television. Truth is, I did watch television, a lot of it. My best friend, whose parents attended a liberal Mennonite church across town, was happy to let me watch his favorite shows whenever I visited. We started with cartoons as children … and then moved toward darker shows.
Little House on the Prairie … Columbo … Starsky & Hutch.
Thankfully, my best friend lived next door.
Okay, almost next door. His family lived just down the road—with only one house and lawn between us.
Best of all, his parents had just purchased a brand-new color television, which was proudly ensconced in the living room. Every evening, his family collapsed in front of it, watching whatever appeared.
The worlds I saw on the screen fascinated me. Even the commercials were fascinating. I wished my family had a TV.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen. Everyone in the neighborhood knew about our church’s rules. My father was happy to witness about his faith to anyone.
Perhaps my buddy’s family felt sorry for me, or maybe they didn’t notice anything unusual about a sweaty boy who never took his eyes off the TV screen, even during commercials. Whenever I happened to be visiting my friend—because I suddenly had a lot of reasons to visit after that TV appeared—and someone turned on the television, I casually dropped to the floor.
And so I stayed, permitted to watch episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Bionic Woman. It felt naughty, delicious, fun. I stayed late into the evening, until my best friend’s dad, mom, sisters … and even my friend drifted off to sleep.
Still awake, I stayed on the floor, mesmerized by charming policemen on dazzling motorcycles in California. I especially admired the short shorts Daisy Duke sported in The Dukes of Hazzard.
BUT THE OPPORTUNITY to watch those shows was a challenge—ethically, emotionally, physically.
First, I had to convince Mom and Dad that under no circumstances, ever, would I watch television (No, Siree!) when I visited my friend or slept over. Therein lay the ethical dilemma. I don’t remember how I managed to lie as artfully as I must have, but there’s clearly no other way to explain it.
Once I vaulted the ethical fence, I confronted the physical and emotional challenges.
Oh, yes. Did I mention the massive row of pine trees skirting our property? And beyond them, the wide lawn? And beyond the wide lawn, the line of smaller pine trees?
It was an epic challenge every bit as fierce to my boyhood soul as the monsters Scylla and Charybdis were to Odysseus.
Let me lay out the challenge.
He was a large and fearsome creature, a bulldog who snuffled his way around his owner’s property each night, guarding it against trespassers. Drool dripped from his cruel mouth.
He lived in the bushes. And clearly, he hated small boys who streaked across the wide lawn he protected.
He still lives in my nightmares.
IN ORDER TO get to my neighbor’s house, to sit in front of his television, to feast on The Dukes of Hazzard … I had to negotiate a long and dangerous passageway.
Maybe an adult wouldn’t describe it as epic. But to a very small boy with short, stubby legs and an instinctive fear of canines, every evening trip across that lawn felt like the Night of the Walking Dead.
But I braved it anyway. The chance to watch such exciting television shows (and perhaps glimpse those Daisy Dukes) … that chance was worth the challenge.
LET ME BE clear: I was terrified of my neighbor’s bulldog. He was an extension of my neighbor’s personality: scary, determined, and chasing.
Ever have one of those dreams where you’re trying to run away, but can’t really move your legs … and sheer terror takes over … you’re unable to breathe … until you wake up?
That was my real-life experience every night.
But since the brightness of television lived beyond the lawn, I had no choice but to cross this danger zone.
Today, I know dogs can smell fear. My Enemy no doubt enjoyed the scent that wafted toward the bushes. He must have drooled with pleasure every night as I crouched on the edge of the lawn, hoping things would be different, hoping the Monster would lose interest in a very small boy who just wanted to watch television.
I REMEMBER ONE night in particular. The next episode of Charlie’s Angels was about to air, and I was determined to arrive before the credits rolled. I had done all my chores, and my parents had given their approval. The only obstacle lying between the television and me was … The Dog.
By then, my daily ritual had transformed Him into an enthusiastic adversary. His attack radar was ultraprecise and unerring. He always knew exactly when I would begin my launch.
And so, like a missile defense system of one, He lay silent in the bushes, waiting for me to cross … waiting to attack.
THAT CLIMACTIC NIGHT was no different. By the time I arrived at the pine trees—tormented by the prospect of another agonizing dash across that wide, wide lawn—he was ready.
No doubt, his delectable meal of doggie bones was done, his protracted guzzle of freshwater complete. Alone, guarding the darkened home of a master who worked at night, my Archenemy must have finished his nightly constitutional around the house, securing its safety. Now he was ready for his nightly joust.
He suffered no doubts about who would win.
From his watching post, the Monster must have crouched, haunches no longer wriggling, his nose on silent and full alert. In the stillness of our rural neighborhood, the overgrown bushes cradled his humped form.
He must have peered out at me that night as I crept to the edge of the pine trees, looking in vain to find my enemy. But the twilight left me blind to him.
From his hiding spot, the Creature must have measured me. He knew I wouldn’t disappoint. He knew I would appear for my nightly crossing.
He knew the scent of fear.
FOR THE LAST time, I gazed longingly at the road, at the bottom of the two adjacent lawns, a forbidden passage. It was too dangerous. One never knew when cars would appear, and accidents were numerous. My parents’ rule on this was hard and clear.
Which left me to face the trip across The Lawn alone—or suffer certain, humiliating failure.
I stood in the trees, my pulse galloping. I considered returning home, curling up on the bed with a favorite book.
But then I would miss Charlie’s Angels.
If he found out I’d turned back, my buddy Junior would laugh at me, perhaps even expose my cowardice.
Steve, it’s only a dog, my younger brother Dave would laugh.
Has that dog ever bitten you? my older sister Elaine would tease. He’s just playing with you. Listen to the name. My stars.
Playing indeed. Has he ever chased you? I wanted to ask. I knew the heat of excruciating fear, the gurgling breath of his soupy jowls, the near escapes I had undergone. The Beast aimed to launch at my body’s core, open up my femoral vein, and drain me of life and blood.
I SCANNED THE lawn. I had to get to the row of dwarf pine trees.
In the twilight, all was silent. Perhaps my enemy had called in sick, had taken the night off.
I drew in a desperate breath. I broke across the lawn like a sprinter sucking down the boom of a starter pistol.
Like magic, The Behemoth appeared at my heels.
His juicy lungs grumbled and roared. Barely ahead of him, I fought for air, my churning feet digging into the sod. The trip never-ending, an eternity of hot fear sloshing through my veins, my lungs on fire as I tore across the lawn, a Demon of the night nipping at my heels.
And then I reached the other side, my bumbling frame crashing through the row of conifers, tripping and tumbling to the ground.
I PUT UP my arms, protecting my torso from imminent attack. I lay on the ground, quivering. But I felt nothing. No fierce teeth ripping into my stomach, my face. All I could hear was the distant, sloppy breathing of a bulldog.
Who was clearly not attacking me.
I opened my eyes.
Not far away, my Archenemy gazed at me, a placid look on his face. He dropped to the ground, his body stretching out before me. He was panting, tired out by his little run. He looked almost happy.
We sat in silence, viewing each other quizzically. His tongue lolled.
Below me, the wet ground soaked through my pants. I sat up, brushing off my jeans and flannel shirt, looking for fatal wounds.
I was safe.
I had escaped.
Up at my buddy’s house, living-room lights blazed into the growing darkness.
A flush of joy crept up my neck. No one had witnessed my humiliation. In a few minutes, I would be ensconced in front of a television set, watching the hottest girls take on the evilest criminals.
I CLIMBED TO my feet. The creature before me rose as well, his eyes bright and shiny. No doubt, he’d be waiting for me later that night when I made my return run.
I breathed deeply, my heart slowing. To my surprise, I realized the bubbling pit of fear within my stomach had drained away.
The bulldog before me whined gently. He gave a short bark.
Suddenly, the door on the house behind him slammed open, and light spilled across the lawn. I heard a woman’s light voice call.
“Snuggles. Where are you, boy?”
He cocked his head. Then his mouth opened, and he panted.
Was that a grin on his face?
Finally, he turned and trotted off towards the open door.