The Watch Incident
“Hurray for Captain Santa Claus and his Reindeer Space Patrol.
His sleigh broke down on Christmas Eve as he started from the pole.
He said, ‘Those children’s hearts will break if I don’t make this trip.’
But Santa’s helpers saved the day when they built a rocket ship.”
Captain Santa Claus and his Reindeer Space Patrol, Bobby Helms
My earliest television memories include watching a show called Space Patrol. The show was only produced from 1950 to 1955. By the time I turned five, it was in syndication. For the ABC network, the show instantly became a major success becoming the first show broadcasted nationwide. It also led to the creation of a wildly popular ABC Radio show as well. When production ended, the show had produced almost 800 episodes just for television. Quite a feat for a science fiction show in the pioneer days of television.
Three things really stuck in my mind from Space Patrol. The first was Cadet Happy, played by an obscure actor named Lyn Osborn. He was relatively young and of small stature – ok, he was short. And, because I was young and short, I related to Cadet Happy as he held his own, battling against space evil, alongside the “bigger” members of his crew. He was my hero.
The second thing that grabbed my attention was there were girls in space. Two very attractive women were a part of the crew, one with the exotic name of Tonga. To me that just wasn’t right. I planned to grow up and be a spaceman. There would be no girls on my spaceship.
The third, and possibly most important, take away from that show was what I learned about merchandizing. One of the main sponsors for Space Patrol was Ralston-Purina, the company that gave us Wheat Chex, Chicken of the Sea, and Purina Dog Chow. A Space Patrol motif was featured on the front of Wheat Chex boxes. On the back of each box were pictures of Space Patrol “stuff” you could order. Alien and Space Patrol masks, periscopes, goggles, ray guns, and hats just like Commander Buzz Corey wore could be purchased. By sending a quarter and a box top from your favorite Ralston-Purina cereal to One Checkerboard Square in St. Louis, any of these treasures could be yours.
Even back in those days, I had a problem with settling for less than the best. I didn’t want any stinking put-it-together-yourself Space Patrol spaceship. I wanted something much more distinctive and classy despite not yet knowing the word classy even existed. I wanted a Space Cadet watch. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell time. I knew I would someday.
So, somehow that year, Santa Claus found out what I really, really wanted for Christmas. Sure enough, a Space Cadet watch AND compass kit showed up under the tree for me.
I was in an out-of-this-world state of happiness until “the rules” for wearing the watch were stated, which brought me right back down to earth.
The compass had a small dome attached to a piece of cardboard. The four directions were printed over a star-like background. The gold colored needle was precariously perched on a short metal stud. It was always slightly tilted and I was never sure whether it was truly telling me where north was. Whatever “north” actually was. I was allowed to play with the compass to my heart’s content, a period that turned out to be of very short duration when my toddler brother stepped on it and broke the dome.
The odious watch rules, however, went into effect immediately. I couldn’t wear the watch whenever I wanted – which was all the time. I couldn’t wear it to school in case somebody took it or I lost it. Besides, why did I need a watch for school? There were already a ton of clocks in school that I couldn’t read. I couldn’t wear it outside to play spacemen because it might get broken. I could wear it when I got dressed up. Dressed up? When did I get dressed up? We never got dressed up! We didn’t go to church, so the every Sunday thing was out. I saw my one grandmother almost every day, so I didn’t get dressed up to go to her house. My other grandmother lived in New York and I only saw her at Christmas and Easter. Were those holidays the only time I would get to wear my best Christmas gift ever? It just wasn’t fair!
Well, I decided I wasn’t going to be permanently restricted from wearing my watch except when Commander Mom said so. I was going to wear it when I wanted even if it meant using stealth and planning.
When I wasn’t in school, the afternoon routine was for me to spend an hour or two playing in my room if the weather was bad. I had to play quietly because the imp – um, I mean my brother – shared the bedroom. As I was quietly playing one day, I decided it was finally time to sneak into my mother’s bedroom and claim my most prized possession. I knew where the watch was kept.
On top of her bureau was a box containing Mom’s purple Evening in Paris perfume bottles. The watch was in the drawer right below that smelly cardboard contraption. Slowly, very slowly, I opened the drawer and took out the holy grail of coolness. Carefully grasping the watch in my hand, I quietly closed the drawer and crept into the bathroom. There it was in all its glory. With its silver case and black leather band. Its face showing a picture of the Space Patrol spaceship. The greatest treasure ever – now temporarily unburied.
But the watch wasn’t running. None of the hands were moving. I remember seeing my parents winding watches and alarm clocks. So I thought there must be some way to do that with this watch as well. Maybe it was this little thing on the side which my small fingers could barely manage to grip. Then something happened. The little thing on the side came out a little bit and, as I turned it, I noticed the hands starting to move. Fascinated, I kept turning the little metal stub, enthralled by the watch hands moving around the face, twisting my hands to watch the watch as I maneuvered it through time. It had me completely enraptured.
Just at that moment, my brother woke up and started crying. Almost instantly, my mother hollered up the stairs, “Stevie. What are you doing? Did you wake your brother up?”
In reaction to my mother’s sudden question, I panicked, tried to get out of the bathroom quickly, almost tripped, and dropped the watch. Directly into the toilet.
I was stunned.
“Stevie. What are you doing?”
I hurriedly stepped out of the bathroom and went to the top of the steps.
“Nothing. Just playing. Kenny is going back to sleep,” I semi-whispered.
“All right. But keep it down up there. I’m watching my stories.”
Lying in the bottom of the toilet, like the Titanic resting on the bottom of the Atlantic, was my greatest Christmas gift ever. What was I going to do now? I reached in and pulled my sunken treasure out of the bowl. I could see water under the glass face. The second hand had come loose and was stuck to the glass. The band was soaking wet and dripping. There was a sloshing sound from the watch as I shook it. I knew right away that no matter how dressed up I got in the future, I would never get to wear my Space Patrol watch again. I was very sad. But at the same time I knew I literally had a problem on my hands and had to do something about it immediately.
I grabbed a towel and tried to wipe the watch dry. I shook it to try to get the water out, but that really didn’t help. After doing the best I could to dry the watch, I slipped back into Mom’s bedroom, soundlessly opened the drawer again, and laid the watch inside. I closed the drawer and dejectedly went back into my bedroom to play with my Lincoln logs.
The subject of the Space Patrol watch never came up again. I’m sure my mother realized that something had happened to the watch and that something had to have been caused by me. But by not knowing the circumstances, she didn’t know what to punish me for. Then again, I’m sure she believed I was punished enough by knowing the watch was ruined and that I could never wear it again.
So my Space Patrol watch simply disappeared, as though it had fallen into a black hole, never to be mentioned or heard of again.
My attraction to Space Patrol was pretty much over at that point. I just didn’t have the heart to watch it very often after the watch incident. But one thing did change radically after my Space Patrol days. It would be a few more years, but eventually I came to the realization that having girls on my spaceship would actually be a really good thing.