Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Moments That Linger in Our Hearts

The memory came back to me when I was reading Fiftyodd's blog post yesterday about television not coming to South Africa until 1976 and what a sensation "Dallas" was there -- to the extent that restaurants would close early on Tuesdays because everyone was home watching "Dallas."

And it made me think about the early days of television here in the U.S. and the impact this had on our generation.

Baby Boomers were the first children in this country to grow up with television. Our collective memories of early children's shows, coming of age comedies and history unfolding before our eyes have unified us in a unique way. And, at the same time, there are television moments burned into our individual memories that go way beyond the t.v. screen and into our own emotional history.

My first memorable television moment came a little over 63 years ago.

It was April, 1949 and I was about to celebrate my fourth birthday. My father had built a rudimentary television set from a kit and it was the talk of the neighborhood. Neighbors would come over to admire it and watch the limited programming with wonder.

But one early Friday evening, the whole neighborhood was camped in our living room. Curious, I wandered in and, on the tiny screen, saw a news reporter named Stan Chambers standing in front of some drilling equipment, crews of workers and dozens of spectators held back by ropes. Lights lent by movie studios illuminated the scene.

We were watching the first ever around-the-clock live news telecast, covering the 52 hour rescue effort to extract three year old Kathy Fiscus from an old, rusty, incredibly narrow well.  The uncapped well's opening was covered with tall grass. She fell in while scampering across an open field in San Marino, CA with her older sister Barbara and cousin Gus. The other children heard her crying and screaming at the bottom of the well and ran for help. Ironically, Kathy's father worked for the Department of Water and Power and had recently testified in public hearings about the danger of old, uncapped wells.

Crews set to work immediately, digging a parallel shaft to lower rescuers down to the point that they could get access to the old well. The entire event was covered by a local Los Angeles station KTLA, with Stan Chambers, a young reporter at the time, providing much of the commentary and news on the rescue's progress.

The coverage lasted all night, all the next day and night and into Sunday. Through it all, neighbors brought potluck meals and bedding. We slept in shifts. We ate all our meals in front of the television. The crowd in our living room grew as time went on. We squeezed in together, riveted by the drama unfolding and united in hope.

Often during this time, I could feel my mother's arms around me, holding me tight and safe. "Kathy Fiscus is just about your age," she whispered to me. "She will be four in August. She's a little girl who is as precious to her mother as you are to me. And she is bringing us all together to pray and hope."

And so we all watched and prayed and hoped. But it was not enough. On Sunday, rescuers brought Kathy's body to the surface. She had died from a lack of oxygen shortly after her fall into the well on a Friday evening. On-screen, Stan Chambers, the exhausted young reporter who was destined to become a television icon during his six decade news career at KTLA, fought tears. Sobs were audible on-screen and off as workers and spectators alike mourned the tragic death of this precious child.

And Kathy went on to become a legend -- the subject of a song that topped the charts in 1949. The news coverage of the frantic attempts to rescue her is still a milestone in television news, predating the news coverage that brought us together again in 1963 with the assassination of President Kennedy, the 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the triumph of the 1969 moon landings and, of course, the coverage of the horror of 9/11.

But the tragedy of Kathy Fiscus is burned into my memory.

It was the first time I realized that not all stories have happy endings.

It was my first inkling that hard work and good intentions don't always have the desired results.

It taught me that some prayers seem to go unanswered.

It was the first time I knew that terrible things could happen to much-loved little girls.

And it was the first time I had ever seen adults -- both on the television screen and sitting beside me -- break down and cry.


  1. What a powerful story. I am struck by how your neighborhood was literally drawn together by this tragedy, not just in unified spirit, but physically, as well. That made me think of how differently we might react to things like 9/11 without the extensive and up to the minute news coverage. That we can so emotionally invest ourselves in the lives of others because of the proximity television affords us makes me hopeful that there are more good hearts out there than not.

  2. So sorry that story had such a sad ending. That reminded me so much of the "baby Jessica in the well" coverage in 1987. The rescue really held the nation captive but fortunately had a happier ending.
    TV really has become such an important part of our lives, yet I almost envy those few who voluntarily do not own a TV. My mother would not let us get one as long as she was alive. She said we would no longer talk to one another. She was pretty much right. She would have hated texting.

  3. So sad to hear stories like this.Just utterly heart breaking.
    There are so many stories today. So many tears.
    Sometimes you sit and think... Why?
    Senseless death.

  4. This is quite a powerful memory. I don't remember anything about this story. What a sad, sad story it is. It truly made an impact on your life.

  5. Oh, Kathy, what an experience with television. You know, when I started reading this post, I immediately tried to think of my first viewing of television. I can't remember. I know I watched Ding Dong School and Howdy Doody and the Mouseketeers but I don't remember a first.

    Yes, sad endings. I never thought of the impact of a sad ending on a young child and seeing your parents cry. It's such a sad, sad story. It reminds me of something that someone said to Rick and me after the funeral of our friend's son who took his life -- "Every one of us," she said, "was thinking what if that was our child?" I'm sure your parents had the same feeling at that moment.

  6. Ah---the early memories of television... Since we lived in a small town in the mountains of Virginia, we didn't get television signals until I was in high school (late 50's)... I remember the first TV set we had.... BUT--since there were no signals much, all we could get on it was SNOW.... When we finally did get a signal, it was quite exciting for all.

    When I went to college, I remember staying up all night to watch the election returns (1960--Kennedy/Nixon).. I couldn't believe it when they predicted who would win long before the votes were counted... SO---I stayed up all night watching that, thinking that Nixon would win.... He didn't !!!!!

    Great post.

  7. That gave me chills. What a gifted writer you are, Kathy.

    I envy the generation that saw the "birth" of television. It was once a beautiful, almost mystical thing, and now it's a monster...


  8. You were very young to learn such sombre lessons.

  9. Dear Kathy, we didn't have television then, but I'm nine years older than you and started each day by reading the newspaper at breakfast with Mom and my younger brother. And so I remember those headlines and the photographs on the front page. I was in the seventh grade and understood what was happening. We had a well in the back yard from which we pumped all our water. I can't remember if I associated that well with what happened to Kathy Fiscus, nor do I remember--as you do--what I learned from the incident, what I do remember if that all of us at school were talking about it and praying for that little girl. This was a powerful posting. Peace.

  10. I remember television in the 50s. There was an innocence about it. I have a television now but rarely, rarely watch. We use the screen for Netflix.

    I do feel a bit out of touch, but I don't feel like I'm wasting my life watching.