Sunday, January 22, 2012

Resurrecting The Past: January 21, 1983 (Part 1: The Past)

JANUARY 21, 2012

This might seem like a daunting task. In the past we've seen little bits of the past resurrected--like a drive-in speaker, an old rotary telephone and a ColecoVision video game console. But to try to resurrect or recreate an entire day? Well, it's actually only a small part of that day that I'm interested in bringing back. And to make matters a bit easier, I've already done much of the research necessary to accomplish this. Due to the amount of information I need to cover with the topic this will have to be a two-part entry. Part one will explain the significance of the seemingly random date of January 21, 1983 and my reasons for wanting to resurrect it. Part two will cover the actual resurrection process itself.

On the date of January 21, 1983 something occurred that I had never told anyone about for nearly thirty years. For all that time it had been an experience that only I knew about. It might have stayed that way and the memory might have died with me, but last year I decided to share the story with my parents. The funny thing about it was that, for all those years the story sat in my memory, the people I would have least wanted to know about it were my parents. Last year my father was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. I was trying to spend as much quality time with him and my mother as possible before it was too late. I suddenly realized that my "secret" memory which had seemed like something that should remain a secret was actually pretty silly--and in fact even pretty funny.

Growing up I was (obviously) very interested in watching old horror and science fiction movies on TV. But another type of movie I was interested in was war movies--or more specifically, movies about World War II. The 1960s were a time of many, many movies about WWII. Roughly twenty years had passed since the war ended. It must have been that just the right amount of time had passed that there was a lot of interest in films about the war. I suppose that people who were around during WWII (either in the service or on the home front) were interested in the subject, and younger people wanted to learn more about something they were too young to really remember or comprehend. Whatever the reason there were indeed a lot of great (or at least entertaining and watchable) World War II movies that came out during the decade. I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While the 1980s (and the ensuing decades for that matter) were a time when very few war movies were produced (at least in comparison with the 1960s), it was also a time when a LOT of those great older movies were being aired on local TV. The independent Boston-area stations that I watched (WXNE Channel 25, WSBK TV Channel 38 and WLVI Channel 56) frequently featured war films as their 8:00 movies. I saw many of them during this time.

Back to the topic at hand. The memory that this whole topic is about centers around one of these movies--and the identity of that movie was key in figuring out the date in question (January 21, 1983). It was around this time that I remember first being old enough that my parents felt comfortable with going out and leaving me alone at home. The memory that is at the heart of this blog was from one of the first times they did this.

I remember being excited to know that my parents would be leaving me alone for a few hours on a Friday night. I wasn't excited because I'd be throwing a wild teenage party or doing anything illicit. No, I was psyched because I knew that the movie "Hell is for Heroes" (1962) was going to be on WLVI 56 that night. Yes, my parents were going to leave me alone at home on a Friday night and I was going to...sit around and watch a movie on TV. Wild times! Well, "Hell os for Heroes" was not only a World War II movie, it also just happened to star one of my favorite actors, Steve McQueen. McQueen was one of the stars of my (still) all-time favorite war movie, "The Great Escape" (1963).

Not only was I going to have the house to myself to watch a Steve McQueen war movie, I was also going to make myself some microwave popcorn. While that admittedly sounds pretty mundane, it was rather exciting to me. Up until a short time before this, if we had popcorn in my house it was popped by my father on our stove in one of these old-school popcorn poppers:

But at this time we had just recently gotten our very first microwave oven. That allowed us to experience the uber-moden wonder that was Microwave Popcorn! Here is that very same microwave as it appears now, nearly thirty years later:

Of course a microwave is a pretty standard and unexciting thing to own nowadays, but in the early 1980s they were still a somewhat new and interesting technology. I remember being a little intimidated by our new unit as I slowly learned how to use it and to deal with its strange habit of not heating something evenly all the way through. Well, on this particular night I was going to do something very new and exciting; I was going to make my very first bag of microwave popcorn all by myself!

Put all of these factors together (a Friday night, being left home alone for one of the first times, making my own popcorn in the microwave for the very first time ever and a Steve McQueen movie on TV) and you can start to see why this night was pretty special for me (as lame as it might sound today). Remember, this was a couple years before we got our first VCR. That means it was during that ancient era when you actually had to be around and sitting in front of the TV when something you were interested in seeing was on. You couldn't videotape, TiVo or DVR it. You couldn't pop a tape or DVD of the show or movie in to watch at your leisure. You couldn't go online to watch it. If it was scheduled to be on at a certain time, that was when you were going to have to see it--or risk having to wait a long time until it was broadcast again by one of the handful of VHF and UHF stations that you could pick up with your antenna.

All these little factors were enough to make for a memorable night for me. But one unexpected thing happened (the thing which I kept secret for decades afterward) that made the night truly unforgettable. Like I said, I had never made microwave popcorn before. In fact, we had only had our microwave for a short time, so I hadn't made (or even simply reheated) very much in it at all. It was pretty neat to be able to take a flat paper bag, throw it in the micro for a few minutes and have a generous helping of hot popcorn already seasoned with a butter-like substance and ready to eat.

I read the directions, set the microwave for five minutes at full power and returned to the living room to watch a few more minutes of my movie while the micro-magic happened. Not having ever made microwave popcorn before I didn't realize that five minutes was the maximum time and that it might actually take much less time. At this point my wonderful night took a strange turn. Before the microwave finished its cooking cycle I started to notice a burning odor that didn't smell like popcorn. I went out to the kitchen and saw smoke coming out of the oven. Opening the door I was shocked to see the paper bag that contained the popcorn singed and smoking. Not only had the popcorn burned, but the bag itself was burning! Knowing that my parents were going to be home at any time I started to panic. How could I conceal this mini-disaster? I quickly but gingerly grabbed the scorched bag and ran down the back stairs and outside the house. I threw it under our back porch in the snow. then I raced back upstairs to try to deal with the smell of burnt popcorn. Opening windows (and letting cold New England winter air into the house) I tried to coax the smell outside. Naturally I saw my parents' car drive up the street and park in front of the house at that moment. With not much hope of avoiding getting in big trouble I proceeded to attempt to act normal while trying desperately to think of some explanation for my irresponsible actions. Mom and Dad came in the house. I did my best to act like nothing was going on (and feeling like I was failing miserably in my effort), and...they didn't seem to notice anything was amiss! That was pretty much the end of the affair. My fun solo night was tainted, but I got away with my accidental destruction of a bag of popcorn.

It's funny how we can sometimes think something is much worse than it is. I could have simply said something like "Hi Mom and Dad. Guess what, I tried making some microwave popcorn tonight and left it in too long and burned it--and the bag it was in too". It most likely wouldn't have been a big deal, but instead it became one of my deepest and darkest secrets. It kind of festered in my mind and took on a life of its own. It wasn't until last year while sharing memories with my parents that I realized how truly minor of a thing it really was. When I told them the story it ceased to be a dark secret and simply became a funny story about a youthful mistake blown way out of proportion by that youth's over thinking mind.

While I always remembered the details of that fateful night (suppose you could say the memory was seared into my brain), I didn't know until just recently exactly when it happened. I knew it was a Friday and that Channel 56 had "Hell is for Heroes" on that night. I also knew that our microwave was pretty new. That's not really a lot of information to go on.

I had a tape recorder at the time that I used a lot to tape all kinds of stuff from TV and radio. Like I said, this was before we had our first VCR, so this was the best method for me to preserve stuff on TV that I wanted to hear (if not see) again later. Many of those cassette tapes from the time managed to survive the ensuing decades and I was able to recover most of them from my parents' house in the last couple of years. One of these tapes had a lot of interesting things on it (interesting to me at least). In addition to some early 80s pop music there was also the theme from "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century", bits and pieces of an episode of "CHiPs", a TV broadcast of "Young Frankenstein" (1974), Parts of the movie "Westworld" (1973), audio from "Force Five"--one of my favorite after-school cartoon shows, and many other things. One of those things was a bunch of battle sounds from an old World War II movie. After listening to it a couple times I was pretty sure the movie was "Hell is for Heroes". Unfortunately I had never written any dates or anything else on the tape, so I had no idea when it was from. It was time for some detective work.

The 1983 cassette tape in question
Three of the songs I had taped were from Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" radio countdown show. I knew that these songs were number 4, 3 and 1 that week. Looking up "American Top 40" lists for the early 80s online I was able to determine that there was only one week that those three songs were in that exact order on the countdown. It was the middle of January of 1983. Taking that bit of information I was able to use my TV Guides from that time to figure out the dates and times of nearly everything on the 90-minute tape. This included the fact that the airing of "Hell is for Heroes" that I taped audio from was on Channel 56 on Friday, January 21, 1983. I knew that I had seen the movie at least two or three times as a kid, so that date didn't really mean a whole lot to me until I realized a few other things.

  • First, at the beginning of the tape I had recorded the theme to "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century". I must have been very annoyed at the time because the recording was interrupted by a couple of things: our kitchen phone ringing at the end of the theme, and a high-pitched beeping noise that I didn't recognize at first. Then I realized it was our microwave oven finishing a cooking cycle out in the kitchen. I was pretty sure that we had gotten our microwave at the very end of 1982 or the very beginning of 1983. This would mean it was still very new at the time of this recording in January of 1983.
  • Second, I remembered that when I went outside to throw the scorched bag of popcorn under the back porch there was snow on the ground.
  • Third, it would make sense that early 1983 would have been around the time my parents would have felt I was old enough to leave home alone (a trust I felt I would have forever broken if they ever found out about the popcorn incident).
  • Fourth, I remembered that "Hell is for Heroes" was on Channel 56. I believe that it was on Channel 56 every time I saw it on TV.
If "Hell is for Heroes" was on Channel 56 on January 21, 1983 (which TV Guide attests to), how many other times would it have been on around the time that our microwave was new? It's not like WLVI 56 put it on once a month. It also had to be around the time when I was just old enough to be left home alone and it had to be at a time when there'd be snow on the ground. The cassette tape also had audio from a network's Sunday Night Movie presentation of "Young Frankenstein" the previous Sunday (January 16). I had already thought that this airing of "Young Frankenstein" was from a night before school was cancelled because of snow. Sure enough, right after taping bits from the movie I also taped part of the no-school announcements on the 11:00 news on WCVB Channel 5 in Boston. There was enough snow on the ground to cancel school on Monday, January 17, so it's a safe bet that there was still snow on the ground that Friday (when "Hell is for Heroes" was on).

All of this information and evidence led me to be nearly positive that the night of the scorched and smoking popcorn incident had to have taken place on Friday, January 21, 1983. There was overwhelming evidence indicating this fact. Armed with this new knowledge I knew that I had a mission that I just had to accept. That mission was to resurrect the night of January 21, 1983. Stay tuned for part two to see whether that mission was accomplished, and how I went about trying to make it all happen...


Part Two is now up.  Find out whether the experiment succeeded or not!

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