Way before the Internet. In fact, before computers, cellular phones, Trivial Pursuit, Cabbage Patch dolls, Ninja Turtles…, stop me when you’ve had enough. Basically, when I was a young whipper snapper, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins was my reason for living.
The show aired on Sunday. Perkins, clad in classic safari apparel, narrated in his familiar Midwestern voice, as he raced from one exotic place to another. Whether wrestling snakes or running from elephants, he introduced an entire generation to the complexities of the animal world, once only available in the pages of National Geographic. To many, he was bigger than life.
As for me? I had a crush on Marlin Perkins; even though he was old enough to be my grandfather.
Weird? Not really. Chalk it up to innocence. Or the times. Life wasn’t just simpler – it was simple. Period. When your world is only four square blocks and politics consist of who gets to play first base and who settles for right field, there’s no rhyme or reason to feelings.
But then again, back in the day, nobody really talked about feelings. Mom kissed away the bad stuff, Dad showed you how to “be a man” you never let your friends see you cry. We were all fine with the status quo because we didn’t know any better. If “better” existed, it hadn’t reached the heartland yet.
In the late sixties, my older brother graduated from college. A monumental event for our family, but one of almost biblical proportions for me. Marlin Perkins was the scheduled commencement speaker; so to say I was excited would have been an horrendous understatement. I was finally going to see my idol close-up and personal. An 8-year-old’s fantasy come true.
The car ride was excruciating. My little sister was a pain. Parking was almost non-existent and my father was using some seriously bad words by the time we arrived. But once my superhero took the podium, I was star-struck, even though he was barely a pinprick from where we sat.
Of course, today I can’t remember a single thing Perkins said, or what he wore (safari clothes or robes); how long the ceremony took or what we did the rest of the day. I do remember my brother’s outfit: sunglasses, shorts, sandals, and a paper version of his student number pinned to his robe so he looked more like a convict than a graduate. I also remember my mother commenting on that fact.
But none of that really mattered. For in the end, we returned home and settled back to the smallness of our world, just like everyone else. It was how things were done. I resumed my rock-paper-scissor settlements and jump-rope contests. My mother to wiry curlers and coffee cups, and dad to his two hi-balls after a long day.
And Sundays? Well, over time, my infatuation with the traveling man waned a bit as hormones gradually diverted my crushes, once reserved for Perkins to (more appropriately perhaps) David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman. And my family still gathered around the tube on the 7th day to experience the unknown worlds of Mutual of Omaha. I’m not sure why, but stepping outside of everything we knew for an hour was important for some reason. The only thing I can say for sure is I loved that man, when TV love was all I knew.
And to tell the truth, there are times today when I wouldn’t mind feeling that way again.