going to america

When I was six, my parents and I moved back to the U.S. after being stationed in Germany for three years. What followed was a sincere attempt on the part of our extended family to reassimilate us into American pop culture, where we rightfully belonged. My aunt actually used her brand-new camcorder to film my parents watching television in the living room of her suburban New Jersey home, as if they were the subjects of an anthropological study of people raised in cultural isolation. I saw the footage years later: “Here’s a car commercial,” my aunt narrates off-camera as a classically 1980s car commercial featuring a loud, obnoxious voice personality appears on the screen. “Huh,” my mother mutters, arms crossed on the couch. My dad looks on in bemusement. And six-year-old me is writhing around spastically on the carpet in front of them, pulling every amateur acrobatic trick in the book, because OMG, I have an audience and look at me look at me watch.

Bacharach, Germany, 1985. That truck behind the green car was ours.

It’s not like we didn’t have television in Germany, but it was different. Do you remember that old SNL skit where Mike Myers played Dieter, the host of Sprockets? Well, there was some kernel of truth to that broad characterization of German programming. Which was why we mainly stuck to watching the one English-speaking channel broadcast on our air base, which in my memory almost exclusively played reruns of Alf interspersed with, of all things, commercials for the United States Air Force — like hello, totally preaching to the choir here.

Oh, we weren’t wholly marooned on a pop culture-less island. My dad invested in giant, heavy, Panasonic VCR with more buttons, tuners, and LED lights than a command center, and we made good use of the base video center, through which I was able to watch He-Man and a handful of other American cartoons. I was very happy in my small, heavily-filtered bubble. I didn’t even know I was missing anything.

Meanwhile, so many things had happened in the U.S. while we were gone, some of which I didn’t experience or learn about until I was much, much older. Fraggle Rock. The GooniesCookie Crisp cold cereal. The Challenger explosion. The A-TeamPee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Cookie Crisp cereal. Small Wonder. Punky Brewster. Did I mention the Cookie Crisp cereal yet? Yes? Because my cousins proudly showed it off to me one morning just after we’d moved back, and I was rendered so insanely jealous I could have burst into tears right there at the table. What a revelation: cookies, for breakfast. No matter that they tasted more like puffed rice sprinkled with bits of sugar wax and that they turned milk a peculiar shade of grey. It was as if I’d discovered a wormhole in the space/time continuum: THEY LOOKED LIKE COOKIES AND YOU COULD EAT THEM FOR BREAKFAST.

And yet even this wonderful, mind-blowing breakfast cereal came in second to my new favorite slice of America: the television sitcom The Hogan Family.1 For some reason, I loved this show dearly from the first moment I laid eyes on it. Something about the cheerful family picnicking scene in the opening sequence, something about the father being a pilot (wordly! exotic!), something about a young Jason Bateman — so what if he was way out of my six-year-old league? I had to watch.

One night after our return to the States, I hunkered down cross-legged on the green shag carpet in front of my grandmother’s television to watch my favorite show. In this particular episode, a lamp in the Hogans’ attic short-circuited, sparking a fire that raged through the house. The police and firemen came, but it was too late. The rooms on the second floor were all but destroyed; the walls blackened. The Hogans were very, very sad.

As soon as the credits rolled across the screen, my grandmother came bustling in to shoo me up to bed. I lay stiff as a board in one of the tiny twin beds in the attic bedroom my mom and sisters used to share, staring wide-eyed into the blackness. Every creak of the house made my heart beat faster. Did I smell smoke? Was that the sound of a lamp downstairs bursting into flames? How would I get out? How would my grandma get out? I stayed awake for what felt like hours because I was certain — I was absolutely, positively convinced — that if I fell asleep a fire was going to break out, and the house was going to burn down just like the Hogans’ did.

Welcome to America! Here are your breakfast cookies. We are all going to die.

I spent the remainder of my childhood perpetually worried about the possibility of fire. I would creep out of my bedroom in the middle of the night — quietly, so as not to wake my parents — and check that the burners on the stove were off. I kept my favorite items inside a backpack at the front of my closet so I could take it with me if I had escape in a hurry. I unplugged appliances and practiced tying my sheets together in case I had to go out of a window.

You know what? It’s all because of that stupid Hogan family. Oh, and my mother? My mother never even let me eat that goddamn Cookie Crisp. Too much sugar, she said.

Sometimes I think we should have just stayed in Germany.

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1 Technically, the first time I saw it, it was still named Valerie’s Family, but then Valerie Harper left the show and it was eventually renamed The Hogan Family. And that’s the title that’s stuck with me.

23 Responses to “going to america”

  1. I’m just going to go ahead and leave myself a comment, because it’s not like it’s a Wednesday night and I’ve been drinking whiskey or anything.

    You know, Lyn, this was a pretty fair post. You did a pretty good job. I like the part where you mentioned Sprockets. I really liked that skit. He used to be all, “Touch my monkey!” Oh god, that was great. But I have to take issue with your claim about Cookie Crisp being one of the American things that “happened” when you were gone. According to Wikipedia, Cookie Crisp was released in 1977. That totally does not match up with your timeline. So my question is, are you high, or what?

    • Chill out, sisterfriend. I know the timeline doesn’t match up, but I didn’t know the damn cereal even existed until I came back from Germany. Hence, it was part of my American cultural awakening. Dig?

      • Whatever. I think the Fug girls are funnier than you anyway.

      • This post was a real treat.

        Welcome to America! Here are your breakfast cookies! We are all going to die.

        Childhood Lyn and Whiskey Lyn are my faves.

        And your whole thing with fire is very much like my thing with the environment circa 1992. I was convinced the tropical rain forests were going to be extinct before I got my first period and we would all live in Mad Max film having to ask Tina Turner for permission to wipe our own asses.

  2. Um, I also had an unnatural fear of fire as a child. My fear, however, was due to watching WAY too much Rescue 911. I was constantly going around the house with my hand to the floor, being all, “That feels hot, I’m SURE it feels hot.” Between that and Unsolved Mysteries (the REAL one with Robert Stack, not these crazy updated ones), it’s no wonder that I never slept through the night.

    Man, I loved those shows.

    • Rescue 911 was my jam. Did you ever see that one where the kid was reaching in the freezer for ice cream and his tongue got stuck? Yep, didn’t go in the freezer for at least three months after that. And when I did, I made sure that my mouth was SECURELY closed.

    • Rescue 911 was my downfall too! I was terrified of either getting stuck in a drainage pipe or of being held hostage by a deranged Hoosier gunman after an episode based on an event that was “practically” down the street from where I grew up (meaning that it had actually happened in the same state).

  3. Oh north american culture and my lack of knowledge of it – one of my favorite topics to rant about! I won’t fill your comment section with it (cause I could), but moving from Finland when relatively young means I’m kind of an invisible immigrant – I look and sound pretty freaken Canadian, so people are all “OMG, you HAVEN’T seen E.T.??? HOW CAN YOU LIVE??” And I get highly irritated, cause no, I didn’t do a thorough study and get caught up everything north americans saw and did during the first decade of my life when I arrived!

    P.S. love the commentary.

    • Feel free to fill my comment section, Nina, or Lord knows I will.

      I FEEL you. I still haven’t seen Goonies, which is apparently one of the defining films for people my age, kind of like Easy Rider for the juice box set or something, not to mention I haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies. Oh, god, the reactions I get. It’s like I just confessed to having leprosy. People twist their faces in disbelief and step back from me — like you said, “HOW CAN YOU LIVE?!?”

      I’ve been living just fine, thank you. Look! I am still alive, even!

      • “HOW CAN YOU LIVE?!?”

        Seriously, Goonies was one of my faves as a kid. And the original Star Wars. Love.

        My mom wouldn’t let us eat Cookie Crunch too.

      • Yeah I’m batting zero on all of the above. A friend made me watch a couple of Star Wars movies once, you know, so I could properly LIVE, but we were working on some sort of crafty stuff at the same time so I just totally tuned it out and couldn’t tell you what happened.

  4. Okay, I thought the Cookie Crisp thing was funny, but your comments to yourself were WAY WAY funny! Did you miss out on the language too? Did you miss out on ‘totally tubular’?

  5. PS: I think you are just as funny as the Fug Girls.

  6. you are f*cking hilarious.
    i never caught the hogan family…but i watched a ton of facts of life – which had its fair share of “maybe-your-parents-should-be-telling-you-this-stuff” dramas…unsolved mysteries and tales from the crypt were my jams…although i recently revisited tales from the crypt…not as scary.

    when i went to germany this summer, i talked with some folks about america and what not…they kept saying how weird it was that we watch other people living life on tv. i didn’t really have an answer except, “well..have you seen arrested development? it’s f*cking funny shit? [shrug]”

    keep the stories a-comin’.

  7. Go eat a huge, and I mean GIGANTIC, bowl of Cookie Crisp for dinner tonight.

    Then, while you are crisp, crunching away, call your mom.

    “oh, what’s this annoying crunching sound I’m making? Just spoonful after spoonful of the most delicious breakfast treat ever created by man.”

  8. When I was 9 my aunt moved to Tucson. This was HUGE for one main reason: my mom would let me spend the weekends at my aunt’s house, where I got to eat the breakfast cereal of my choice, which, it turns out, is Fruit Loops, although any cereal with stale pink marshmallows runs a very close second, watch movies my mom would never let me watch and learn how to sew, crochet, and do all sorts of crafty things while eating Fruit Loops and watching bad movies.

    I adore my aunt.

  9. I share an office suite with two germans and they shared with me the awesomeness of the Sprockets. Dying, I was with the laughter. It was even better when they both dressed in black turtlenecks and trousers one day and put on the music and proclaimed “and now we dance!”

  10. thankfully, it is not too late to watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure while eating cookie crisp. That is my favorite thing about being an adult: watching silly movies and making poor food choices.

    also, me and my husband were talking about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure the other night, so spooky you bring it up!

  11. Laughing ridiculously hard.

    All the Lyns are my fav! :)

    I grew up without a TV, in cultural isolation but for different reasons. When I discovered that other people had other things (my cereal awakening was the Reeses cereal) and TVs…let’s just say that I’d already had my rebellion before college. It wasn’t drinking and drugs and casual sexin, it was sugar and reality TV.

  12. My parents didn’t allow us to watch tv, because it rots young kiddie’s braigs. They were also selfish with access to the radio and tape player. We also didn’t have cable and owned exactly three VHS tapes: the BBC “The Lion the With and the Wardrobe,” and PBS “Anne of Green Gables” and ET (which was a gift from a generous soul.

    I grew up thinking show tunes and board games were normal. In high school, I used to rent Molly Ringwald movies so I could finally catch up on the childhood pop culture I missed.

    At least you got Germany?

  13. But did you know there was a smores cereal? way way better than cookie crisp (which, exciting as it always sounded, tasted like cardboard naste, and so i only ever ate a few bites to appall the adults before running off and abandoning the bowl for something more foodlike. like marshmellow fluff.

    But back to the smores cereal. It was magical, like, golden grams with chocolate smeared on one side. and there were marshmellows. of course. i got to eat it at my aunts, and i think it wrecked me for all other cereals, ever. except granola on greek yogurt.

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