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Days of yesteryear


Now listen to this!

This guy is telling this story. He’s 36 and saying goodbye to his mother in Brooklyn because he’s going to drive to California. She warns him to be careful, but he can take care of himself.

Driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, an odd-looking hitchhiker -- dark suit with raindrops on his coat (though it’s not raining) -- almost steps in front of his car. Then he sees the same guy on the Pulaski Skyway, and again in Pennsylvania. And the stranger calls out to him, “Helllllooooooo,” like he wants a ride. And he shows up in Ohio, and the driver thinks he’s losing his mind. Always those rain drops -- but no rain! Then he sees him walking out of a field of cattle and at a railroad crossing where the driver gets stuck on the tracks with a train coming. Weird! He picks up a girl for companionship, to make sure he’s not cracking up; then he sees the stranger again and tries to run him down. The girl thinks he’s nuts and jumps out.

Finally in New Mexico he figures he’s got to call his mother. The operator takes forever. Deposit $3.50, puleeasse. Clunk, clunk. Ring. Ring. A strange woman answers. His mother’s in the hospital. She had a nervous breakdown when her son died in a car accident on the Brooklyn Bridge. The end.

Wow! The whole time he’s been talking to us, he’s been dead! Who would have thought of that? So the hitchhiker is probably the Angel of Death coming to collect him. Right?

That was “The Mercury Summer Theater,” starring Orson Welles, 1946. When you could fill your gas tank for $1.29 but a long distance three minutes cost $3.50. And the sponsors, Piels Beer, politely declined to interrupt the show lest they break the suspense. Today on TV they’d break in with four commercials every eight to 10 minutes.

“The Hitchhiker” was written by Lucille Fletcher, who died in September 2000 at 88. Fletcher was known as the author of “Sorry Wrong Number” (1943), a 22-minute monologue drama with Agnes Moorehead, as an invalid who overhears a murder plot on the phone and struggles with uncomprehending operators, police captains and others to get help for some unknown person she believes is in danger -- only to discover the intended victim when the killers, hired by her husband, arrive at her door.

If you liked that story, try this one.

All the top admirals of the world are gathered at a top-secret meeting in Washington because all their ships are mysteriously disappearing in the Pacific. A mysterious laughter interrupts. Who is it? It’s the Shadow. He has clouded their minds so they cannot see him. He agrees to fly with the lovely Margo Lane, his faithful friend and companion, to the Pacific to investigate. Their plane is grasped by a mysterious force and crashes in the ocean. They swim to shore on a mysterious island and find that an American mad scientist has transformed a volcano into a huge magnet that sucks in ships and planes. The superstitious natives think he’s a “white god.” How can the Shadow get out of this one?

Or how about this?

Three of us are in the lighthouse on an island off the coast of French Guyana where a ghost ship has been blown into the port and thousands of flesh-eating rats pour off the boat and go after the lighthouse. They know we’re in here. We barricade the doors. They climb the walls and so completely cover the windows of the tower with their hideous, swarming bodies that you can’t see the sky. The only sound is that incessant squealing chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp that flesh-eating rats always make, and the noise is driving us mad, mad, mad, I tell you. How long can we hold out?

Or, along the same lines, you’re in a remote plantation in the Amazon jungle and an army of man-eating ants has surrounded you and is moving in for their meal. They make a sound somewhat like the rats.

Last summer I drove on pilgrimage from Jersey City to Sedgwick, Maine, on the coast near Deer Isle, to see my cousin Tom and his wife, Pat. A trip of about 16 hours on the road seemed to pass in a few minutes because I had brought along my tapes, “The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century,” selected by Walter Cronkite.

Then I headed south to see Jack and Mary Deedy on Cape Ann, Mass., with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with Dorothy Lamour, Nelson Eddy, Don Ameche, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and back to Jersey with Walter Winchell, Edward G. Robinson as Steve Wilson of “Big Town,” and the Great Gildersleeve all in the car.

I had spent three days in Hollywood, where all the big stars are friends with one another and drop in unexpectedly on one another’s shows.

“Danny Kaye! What are you doing here?” cries the astonished Benny. “Don’t worry, Jack,” says Danny, “I’m not going to charge you [laughter]. I just brought Groucho, Frank Sinatra and George Burns by so we could sing the song you wrote, ‘When You Say I Beg Your Pardon, Then I’ll Come Back to You.’ ” That’s the one with the line, “When the swallows of Serano/Come back to Capistrano.”

The Politically Correct Police had not yet cleaned house and Italians, Jews, fat people (Don Wilson) and Southerners (Phil Harris and Senator Claghorn) had human characteristics that we were allowed to laugh at, and a black man, Jack Benny’s Rochester, was the wily servant who was smarter than his master.

These were the World War II years, when the entertainment industry, particularly Norman Corwin of CBS, could create stirring pageant-dramas to commemorate historic moments like “On A Note of Triumph,” for the end of the war in Europe, and “Fourteen August” on the dropping of the atomic bomb. God was a powerful reality in his scripts, and his texts were laced with patriotic prayers: “Lord God of test-tube and blueprint/Who joined molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,/Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,/Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes … Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream.”

I was pleasantly shocked to hear Arch Obler’s 1940 dramatization of Dalton Trumbo’s bitter, pacifist novel, Johnny Got His Gun, with James Cagney as the permanently hospitalized World War I soldier who had lost his arms, legs and sight in battle and had nothing but scorn for words like patriotism and duty. A year later Cagney would make “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and wrap himself in the American flag. Trumbo was blacklisted and the novel disappeared -- to be reprinted during the Vietnam War.

I was almost sorry to be home. On the road my mind was alive. I saw the planet Krypton explode just minutes after Superman’s parents put their infant child in a homemade rocket and sent it to Earth. In Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” on “X-Minus One,” I saw the six suns of a faraway planet burn out as its inhabitants went crazy in fear of the dark, and religious fanatics who had predicted the end fought the scientists who sought to explain what was not meant to be understood.

On “Lights Out,” I saw Boris Karloff’s wife turn into a huge cat.

I saw Jack Benny borrow Ronald Coleman’s Oscar statue so he could show it off in his house, when this robber comes up behind and says, “OK, buddy. Your money or your life!” Everybody remembers Jack’s response; few remember the context -- the thief steals the Oscar, and Jack has to invent a story that will keep Coleman from skinning him alive.

Late that night on TV I flicked through the dial, lingering for four-second glimpses: Letterman and Leno babbling trivia with stars and starlets plugging their nightclub acts and films; Bill Maher on “Politically Incorrect” scraping the barrel for one more way to sound cool by denigrating religion; the same tired old flicks on American Movie Classics; teenagers on MTV taking off their clothes for either dorm sex or beach party contests (four girls licking whipped cream off some guy’s chest); or -- surely the most disgusting thing on TV -- “Celebrity Death Match,” where claymation puppets of celebrities fight in a ring, tearing off one another’s heads, arms and legs, as blood gushes into the air and organs hang out and the crowd cheers.

I wanted to get into my car and drive into the night, through the “squeaking door” of “Inner Sanctum,” where Richard Widmark has a problem. Whenever he dreams about someone, that person dies. In fact, he or she always dies shortly after Richard has come to call.

But above all, I wanted to hear, “Out of the paths of yesteryear come the fiery hoof beats of the great horse Silver … ”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His email is raymondschroth @aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001