My 23rd sobriety anniversary date is October 15 and, because I don’t have a suitable old postcard for the occasion, Old Postcard Wednesday will become Old Postcard Friday this week.
I didn’t go searching for clips of the Hamm’s Beer Commercial at You Tube. Instead one landed in my late-night world while I was glancing at dozens of clips under dozens of topics. With the first thumps on the tom-tom, this small home office off the kitchen illuminated by two blue handmade ceramic lamps I bought for my mother in the 80s at Portland Saturday Market, these days glowing with energy-conserving spiral CFL bulbs, was just a holding cell for the physical me in front of the computer monitor, that was no longer a computer monitor but, instead, morphed into the curved thick-glass, black-and-white television screen housed in a wood cabinet with the speaker section in front made of a thick burlap-type material that took on the smell of cigarette smoke and dust in the old house on Forest Street in Reno.
I was four, five, big six, and a night-owl even then. I loved the TV for the kid’s programs after school and on Saturday mornings, but most of all for the shows at night produced for grown-ups and not for me. My evenings began with The Huntley-Brinkley Report. I was often the sole viewer while my younger sister played in our bedroom or outside, and the woman who stayed with us while our mother worked in the casinos floated around in her dream world of finery and fame. She was with us for years — even after our mother married our step-father, who also worked in the casinos, initially going by Auntie Lorraine and then later requesting that we address her as Mrs. Olson, in spite of there being no Mr. Olson — until one day she wandered up the block to visit a neighbor and they locked us out of the house, telling us to wait on the porch. I led my sister back home and called our step-father at work to tattle on the babysitter. His instructions were to stay inside and lock the doors. I do not remember if he specified that Mrs. Olson should be locked out should she decide to return to our house, which she did, but when her bony fingers furiously rattled the single-pane glass on the front door I kept it locked and yelled out to her, “You’re fired, Mrs. Olson.”
The ease with which I directed our little lives that afternoon must have been helped along by scenes from TV, quite likely even a comedy sketch that I adapted for my own needs in crisis. Plus, my fury had been brewing in a stew of confusion after my honey-colored teddy bear, the one with me in portraits at age three, disappeared and I later saw it one day when Auntie Lorraine took us by her tiny apartment for the first and only time. There on her bed was my bear, along with some of our other lost toys. My memory lapses at that point and I don’t know whether I told my mother about the discovery (surely, she would have believed me and demanded my bear be returned) or whether I was silent because of something Lorraine said. Nevertheless, my actions were supported when the folks came home and I recall three angry adults bellowing at the back gate, all smoking in the dark, and then disbursing after Mrs. Olson received her final pay.
There were other day sitters and some who came in the evenings when our parents were out on the town, which was too frequently in their early marriage when they drank heavily and argued — fought — bitterly. Against that backdrop I was buoyed by cats, books, records, and TV. I go back to this vision of myself watching alone, although I know we enjoyed programs, like The Lawrence Welk Show, as a family including one Emmy Awards show when the announcer was prolonging the suspense for the award for best news show and I blurted out Huntley-Brinkley! just before he called out their names and my mother’s head snapped to the side to look at me and she asked How did you know that? and I said they were my favorites. She’d never heard of them.
But everyone who saw TV in those days and for decades to follow knew the Hamm’s Beer Commercials for the jingle and mostly for the Hamm's bear. This was a special world opening to me. I loved the song. I loved the happy bear. I loved the sparkling scenery, the beauty of nature and wildlife made vivid — that it was in black-and-white was incidental — and I loved the feel-good nature of the entire production of each of the Hamm’s ads. They enchanted and excited me. They mesmerized and calmed me. Even now I feel their effect in a part of me where the darkness hides, where the darkness lightens under their spell. It’s the same place that the power of alcohol later sought out.