When I was a kid I ‘heard’ a lot of things. Have you ever seen those collections of Urban Legends that were popular a few years back? That was the stuff of my childhood. It seems like everyone that I came in contact with back then had a friend, aunt, uncle, boss, sister, third-cousin, army buddy, or driving school teacher who was good friends with the guy, girl, or whatever the legend was about. The closest I ever got to the source was Susan, a teenage friend of my sisters who lived next door to us on the South Side of Chicago. She claimed to personally know the girl who was so happy with her complicated hairstyle that she froze it solid with hair spray. Weeks passed without her washing it. Somehow a pregnant Black Widow spider found her way into the varnished hair-do and decided to make it a home to her new family. Susan swore to me that she was sitting there in class when the spiders decided to emerge from their cocoon and see the world.
I used to hear lots of stories about kids who died imitating their favorite superheroes. There was a kid who lived out on a farm and his favorite comic character was Superman. He liked Superman so much that he thought he had superpowers himself. One day he tied one of his mother’s clean bed sheets around his neck and jumped off the roof of the barn. (In one version of the kid fell like a rock and splattered on whatever type of ground they have around barns. In the other he did such a good job of tying the makeshift cape around his neck, that when it got caught on a nail at the edge of the deck it hung him until he was dead. He was still hanging there when his parents got home from church.)
Another Superman story featured a kid who saw bullets bouncing off of Superman’s chest and thought he’d try that with his daddy’s pistol. There were also a lot of variations on the story about the kid whose favorite comic character was the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. “Flame On” indeed.
I guess somewhere down deep I knew most of these stories were made up, but that part was squished beneath the much bigger part of me that wanted them to be true. I guess if I had really understood the whole concept of the Urban Legend, I would have started cooking up my own. Who knows? Maybe my friends and me were creating our own. At the very least we were giving continued life to existing stories and probably embellishing on them along the way.
I never ‘heard’ any stories about dumb kids killing themselves by imitating characters from television shows, but I’ve got one of my own. It happened when I was eight or nine.
I had plenty of television series that I enjoyed a lot back then. Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea was a big one, as was The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, It Takes A Thief, Gilligan’s Island, Speed Racer, Bozo’s Circus, The Banana Splits, and the family favorite in our house, The Fugitive. But the standout of the group, head and shoulders above all the rest, was Mission: IMPOSSIBLE. (Just typing the words sends a tingle racing up and down my spine.)
Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and I was eight-years-old, TV’s ‘prime time’ ran from seven to ten, instead of today’s eight to eleven (I used to know why they changed it, but have since forgotten). Mission: IMPOSSIBLE was on Sunday nights at nine. They probably moved it around in the schedule in the years that followed, but during my ‘honeymoon’ years with the show, it was Sunday at nine. I owe a cigar and a steak dinner to whomever made this decision. It was perfect for me. By the time it came on the only Sunday shows that we watched (The Wonderful World of Disney and maybe The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for me and my sisters—The Lawrence Welk show for my parents) were over. My sisters were upstairs finishing their homework or doing whatever it is that older sisters do. My dad had headed upstairs to bed, and my mom was probably in the kitchen smoking Salem cigarettes and drinking coffee.
This meant that for all intents and purposes, the television was mine! My bedtime was ten, so the timing was perfect. One hour of television dynamite and then off to dreamland.
I could go on for hours about how much I loved Mission: IMPOSSIBLE, and why, but that’s not my goal for today. (Perhaps another time. Oh yes, another time.) Today I wanted to tell you about how my love for Mission: IMPOSSIBLE almost got me killed.
The core members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) included:
Jim Phelps: Master tactician and leader of the team, who always managed to find a way to stay one step ahead of the enemy.
Cinnamon Carter: Fashion cover girl and society ingénue. (And yes, I know it’s not necessarily logical to pick a top model, whose face has been on the cover of every major magazine, as a member of your secret squad of agents. Perhaps team leader Jim Phelps reasoned that the target of most of his missions, be it the Russian mob, third-world drug cartel henchmen, or defecting nuclear scientists, weren’t big magazine readers. And besides, Cinnamon was a skilled actress who could blend into any role she played, from socialite to scrubwoman.)
Rollin Hand: Stage magician without peer, master of misdirection, and man of countless faces, Rollin could impersonate anyone from drug lords to heads of state.
Willy Armitage: Definitely the muscle of the group; in addition to the heavy lifting, Willy was an expert martial artist, adept with weapons, and as dependable as the day was long.
Barney Collier: The undisputed renaissance man of the group, Barney was a master electrician, mechanical engineer, pilot, architect, deep sea diver, and no matter how hot the action got, he remained cool as a cucumber.
Of course Jim Phelps wasn’t the original team leader. That was Dan Briggs, who was a talented strategist, but lacked some of the social graces needed to be a truly effective leader. We never learned what happened to Dan Briggs. Perhaps he was killed during the course of a mission. Or maybe he was captured and he’s rotting in a jungle cell somewhere, refusing to give his torturers a single scrap of information. I missed him for a while but I was quickly won over by the way Phelps took care of business.
My favorite of the group, though, was Barney. He usually had the most to do during the missions, so he always seemed to be the most important member of the team to me. Let’s say for example that the mission involved a deposed military leader who was sitting on a stockpile of nuclear warheads that he was planning to make for sale to the highest bidder. Well, Barney might have to crawl through the heating vents of the foreign embassy where the kook was holed up, defeat a sophisticated security system, dodge and duck the armed guards roaming the halls, tap into the telephone system to reroute all communications, pick the locks on at least five or six doors, and then break into the vault where the warheads were being stored. He would have to hide his efforts by first secretly dropping down a flexible movie screen in front of the vault door, and then setting up a movie projector that would project the image of the undisturbed door onto the screen. Only then could he open his really good bag of tricks to crack the locks on the door, neutralize the nuclear warheads, and then use a sonic disruptor to disintegrate the floor of the vault so the warheads would drop down into the subterranean caves beneath the embassy. While all this was going on the other team members would be doing their magic to cause distractions and delay the warhead auction.
In the end the deposed leader will have sold off the warheads to a particularly nasty lot of blokes. He’ll have their cash in hand when he opens the vault door to reveal…nothing. Cut to a shot of the IMF team driving away as gunshots echo throughout the halls of the embassy.
I think part of the reason Barney was my favorite was because of my dad. My father was a television repairman, so I grew up tinkering around with radios and televisions in his basement workshop. One of my favorite treats was junking old televisions that owners had dropped off for repair. Either the set was deemed unfixable, or the owner didn’t like the sound of the estimate and told my dad to keep it. Either way it was junk, and my dad would let me take it apart and strip it down for spare tubes, usable parts, and the precious copper yokes that used to be wrapped around the neck of the picture tube.
Of course I would pretend that I was doing something altogether different. I would either be defusing a bomb, trying to repair an encryption device before enemy bombers flew overhead, or some such fun. Back then televisions and radios had lots of big bulky parts that were ripe for goofing around with.
Then I would get bored. A bored Fred with a screwdriver in hand is inviting trouble. I started wandering around the basement, pretending to pick locks, pry open hidden compartments in things, and of course, tightening any loose screws I happened across.
And then I saw the fuse box.
I’d seen Barney tinkering with fuse boxes on Mission: IMPOSSIBLE. I had to climb up the outside railing of the stairs to reach it, but I was clever that way. I popped open the cover with the screwdriver and saw maybe a dozen fuses screwed into the panel. (I guess this was back before circuit breakers. The fuses I’m talking about were metal and about the diameter of a quarter. There was a tiny window in the face of the fuse and looking in you could see a tiny metal bar. If the bar was melted though it meant that the fuse was blown. I goofed around with twisting the fuses. Then I loosened the screws that held the fuse panel in place. Inside I could see some big fat copper wires. Some were thick as my finger. Copper was worth a lot of money, I knew, from scavenging the yokes from the castaway television sets. I was rich, I reasoned.
The plate wouldn’t come all the way off, so I jammed the screwdriver inside to try and loosen the copper wires.
I woke a long time later. I was on the basement floor, ten feet from the stairs. I had a horrible taste in my mouth. Blood. I had bitten the inside of my mouth. The screwdriver was nowhere to be seen. I tried to get to my feet but my legs were made of rubber. I felt really strange. It took me a long time to get upstairs.
My sisters must have been watching me, because I don’t remember seeing my mom as I climbed up to my bedroom. My body was tingling from head to toe and it wouldn’t stop. My hands seemed to be made of rubber too. I couldn’t turn the doorknob to the bathroom. I decided to hold it and lay down on my bed. I woke when I was called for dinner. I ate in silence. I was usually the quiet one, with my mom and sisters carrying the conversation. I went upstairs and went back to bed.
I woke in the middle of the night and this time I was able to open the bathroom door. I remember how much it hurt when I peed. It had never hurt before. I guess it was starting to dawn on me what had happened. I padded down the stairs and returned to the scene of the crime. The paint on the fuse box near where I’d jammed the screwdriver in was scorched black. The screws that I had loosened were gone, but the panel was only drooping open an inch or so. I bunched my pajama sleeve around my hand for protection and swung the fuse door shut. It mostly looked like it had before.
The tingling stayed for a few days, especially in the hand I was holding the screwdriver with. It took a few days more for the inside of my mouth to heal. As I type this I’m running my tongue around trying to feel a scar. Nothing.
If I had been a little smarter I would have probably been scared enough to tell my dad what I’d done. If I’d been a lot smarter I guess I would have never done it in the first place. Today, thirty-seven years later I recognize a miracle when I hear one.
That was the first time (that I know of) that I should have died.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about my opinion, I thought the Tom Cruise Mission: IMPOSSIBLE movies were silly little diversions. Neither movie captured the heart of what I loved about the original television series. But people like them, so live and let live. I always say.