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.
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 Goonies. Cookie Crisp cold cereal. The Challenger explosion. The A-Team. Pee-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.
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.