Averyell A. Kessler
A morning news broadcast featured a Japanese basketball robot shooting hoops during a halftime break at the Tokyo Olympics. He was terrifying. Male of course, with huge bulging shoulders, long, spiderlike fingers, and a single flashing eye. Accordingly, he made every basket with deadly accuracy. The NY Post reported that a scant, widely spaced crowd was impressed. I’m sure one of my childhood heroes Flash Gordon would have run for cover. I would have also.
My friend Martha and I were entranced with Flash the moment we saw him. Our new hero was a handsome swashbuckler in a jewel-studded space suit parading across the screen of our flickering black and white TV, a hero extraordinaire, leader of a space patrol crew, and battler of a variety of wicked space villains. For each episode, Martha and I waited cross-legged on her living room floor as a foggy revolving globe appeared on screen, trumpets blared and deep kettle drums rumbled. We were hooked. Flash was a welcome change from the hard charging cowboys we watched every Saturday morning. One can only take so much ridin’, ropin’, and malevolent rustlers. He was completely different, a world away from Howdy Doody and silly Pinky Lee. Plus he had better music. We didn’t know he’d been resurrected from the 1930’s.
That summer, we created our own spaceships, an easy task requiring a cardboard box, a radio flyer, and rolls of Reynolds Wrap. Voila, a shiny silver space wagon. Beware Ming, we’re on the way! My mother complained about not having enough foil to wrap up leftovers; Martha’s mom retaliated by only buying saran wrap. Soon we knew all the show’s characters, and never missed an episode.
Flash’s beautiful girlfriend was Dale Arden. His archenemy, Ming the Merciless, was our vision of Satan. We were never afraid until another terrifying character appeared who scared our socks off and forced us to hide behind the sofa. His name was I Tobor (that’s Robot 1 backward. How inventive!). I laugh when I think about it because the robot looked like a strung-together pile of garbage cans. He moved with slow and lethal deliberation as he shambled across the screen, his eyes flashing like the traffic light at the corner of Pinehurst and North State Street. Since we’d never heard the word robot, we opened the World Book Encyclopedia. To our astonishment, robots were not merely fanciful characters on tv. They were real! A comic book from the display rack at Parkin’s Pharmacy revealed that Tobor was dark gray and had piercing red eyes. We were in the know!
I was spending the night in Martha’s big double bed when I sat up abruptly. Her small bedroom was ink black dark. Her windows wide open. I elbowed Martha awake.
“I heard something,” I whispered. “What if he’s right outside.”
“Who?” she said, wiping sleep from her eyes.
“The robot.” I answered. I was always fearful of things that prowled around at night.
Martha sat up too. We slipped out of bed and pressed our foreheads against the window screen.
“I don’t see anything,” Martha whispered.
“Maybe he’s hiding.”
“We better be on the lookout,” Martha said.
“Red eyes,” I reminded her. “Don’t forget robots have red eyes.”
That night, we saw nothing but bright stars and her quiet backyard. Nevertheless, we spent weeks on high alert, searching dark corners in Martha’s garage storage room, our pantry, or anywhere else a monster might be hiding. We found nothing, except a dead mouse and a few smelly fishing poles. Neither of us knew that Belhaven’s peaceful summer was about to explode.
Without warning, Flash Gordon was captured by Merciless Ming and tossed in a tiny, windowless cell in a space dungeon somewhere on the planet Mongo. We were distressed as Ming gleefully rubbed his hands together and cackled. “Prepare to meet thy doom, Flash Gordon!”
The next episode revealed a new horror; the cell walls were moving forward, inch by inch, slow foot by slow foot. Oh no! Our space hero might be squashed flatter than a leftover pancake and Dale would be left heartbroken and sobbing. So would we. The story line continued for several episodes building heart stopping suspense in the under ten crowd. Laurel Street kids were in a dither, same on St. Mary. Was this the first TV hero who’d suffer an ignominious demise? Would our spaceship dreams vanish overnight? Then a startling event occurred.
Flash was only a few scant inches from destruction when an unlikely ally appeared. We saw his red eyes first, flashing in the darkness. My mouth dropped open. Tobor, the mechanical monster, was coming to help Flash.
“It’s Tobor!” Martha yelled. “Tobor’s gonna save Flash.”
We watched, mesmerized, as Tobor rolled forward, flexing his massive metal arms. He was unstoppable, a clanking bulldozer roaring to the rescue. After a dramatic organ credenza, the moving walls came to a grinding halt and Flash was free. Martha and I clapped and danced around the room. Martha’s mother dashed into the living room to make sure we were alright and that her good lamps hadn’t been smashed into oblivion.
“Flash is ok,” we shouted. “Tobor saved him.”
“I thought you were afraid of Tobor,” she said. “Wasn’t he one of the bad guys?”
“Yes,” Martha answered, “but he did good today.”
“I guess there’s some good in everybody,” Martha’s mother replied. “Even if you can’t see it.”
Yes ma’am. I think there is.
. That summer, we developed our own style spaceships, an easy task requiring only a cardboard box and rolls of aluminum foil. Voila, a shiny silver space wagon. Beware Ming, we’re on the way! My mother complained about not having enough foil to wrap up leftovers, Martha’s mom retaliated by only buying saran wrap.