O Captain! My Captain!
It's harsh enough that I'm nearing my 45th birthday, a birthday that has me bewildered by the fact that in a mere five years I'll be 50. Fifty! I'm too young to be this old! But nothing has stricken me deeper than the death of Captain Kangaroo, otherwise known as Bob Keeshan. I used to say that Richard Nixon and Watergate (my introduction to high-profile corruption) ruined my childhood. With the passing of the Captain, my childhood is now officially dead.
After Howdy Doody and before Mr. Rogers, the Captain invited youngsters into his Treasure House to gently cavort with Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, Mr. Green Jeans, Tom Terrific, and, my favorite of all, Grandfather Clock. A clock that could talk? I thought that was the most amazing thing.
It's probably not cool to admit that even now, I find myself teary-eyed about the Captain's passing. I can't help it. The Captain and his Treasure House of friends were more than charming, fun characters. They saved me.
"Mr. Keeshan never played to a studio audience," Richard Severo recounts in Keeshan's New York Times obituary. "[He] told his director he wanted to talk to the child at home, one on one. The children should never have the feeling of being part of an audience." The approach worked. While I knew that other children watched the show, I was convinced that the Captain was talking to me and that I mattered.
"He never did anything that would disappoint you. He was a constant in lives that were not always full of constants," says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television in an Associated Press article by Christopher Graff.
For me, the Captain provided a calming, stable voice in a world that was losing its equilibrium. A pall still lingered from the Kennedy assassination two years earlier. My parents were splitting up, and though they tried to keep it between themselves, I remember huddling under blankets during their nightmarish fights. I started kindergarten in 1964, a thrill marked by the memory of walking home from school with two older boys taunting me, flogging my head and shoulders with bags or socks or stocking caps filled with God knows what. I never found out who they were. I only knew that they didn't like "my kind" and took their blows, diligently counting each step home. As unexpectedly as the torment started, it ended. Would they come back? I didn't stop worrying until we moved to a new neighborhood.
Even at that young age, I knew the Captain couldn't rescue me. I knew he couldn't stop the bad boys from being bad, or my parents from fighting. The world (like the bullies) was something to pretend didn't scare you like the monsters that lurked under your bed. But Captain Kangaroo did help me cope. He assured me that there was still a place for kindness. A place where children who asked questions were not a nuisance, where no one made fun of men with goofy haircuts, or brown skin, or kids whose parents didn't live together anymore. And then, there was that way-cool talking clock.
To really show my age, I confess to being partial to the black-and-white version of Captain Kangaroo. In 1969, it was modernized and shot in color. They ruined it, I proclaimed! I suppose I'd really outgrown it but maybe not. If I'm this mournful over the Captain's death, maybe I'm not truly lost to a nihilistic view of the world. If so, there would be no tears or room for fond memories of any kind. Thank goodness I've lived long enough to figure out that small gestures and an open heart, even through the filter of TV, a medium that has become synonymous with all things jaded and crass, can also be a place where hope is restored. I see this when I catch Little Bill or Teacher's Pet, animated children's shows reminiscent of Captain Kangaroo's gentle spirit.
Eventually, I'll get myself together. The tears will erupt less frequently when I read another of the Captain's obits. But I'll never, ever forget how the man with mutton chops made my life matter when I thought it mattered the least. That's about the best birthday gift I could get this year.