The Day I Spent Halloween With The Addams Family
I grew up in a wheelchair during a period of time when handicapped people were, pretty much stereotyped. It was many years before the Americans with Disabilities Act came into being. In time, the Vietnam War made being handicapped more mainstream, as friends and family members returned home in less than perfect physical condition. But for those of us who never left home, it was a daily exercise in breaking the stereotype.
Simple things, like going shopping, turned into learning experiences. Unfortunately, the lessons learned weren’t always positive. Those were the days when parents would walk into a department store and drop their kids off in the toy section as if it was a daycare center. Parents were relieved that they didn’t have to deal with their children while shopping and the kids were happy. A short time later, they would retrieve their children before heading back to the parking lot. At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.
But I remember a day when one of those children noticed me in my wheelchair. Curiosity caused a little girl to walk over to me and ask, “What happened to you?” while her mother was still close enough to hear her daughter’s question. I was about to answer when, much like a cheetah protecting her young, her mother appeared by her side and took her hand. There was an uncomfortable smile but not much more as she led her away. By her actions, her mother had demonstrated that while it may have been alright to be seen, it was not alright to be heard. I guess she didn’t want me to be embarrassed or, perhaps, she believed my delicate ego would be crushed if I were to answer her daughter’s innocent question.
I left the wheelchair in my early 20s. For more of how that came about, please listen to the episode entitled the day I gambled with my future – part one. But even though I was now walking with crutches, it wasn’t uncommon for an inquisitive child to occasionally ask the same question. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t uncommon for their parents to replicate the same actions I had observed while sitting in the wheelchair. I began to wait a beat before answering, knowing that within seconds, an answer would become unnecessary.
I always wondered what the children were told by their parents. Whatever they were told, I was pretty sure that the next time the child encountered someone who was handicapped, they would avoid approaching them. Small children don’t really understand the concept of embarrassment. That changes as you grow into adulthood and learn to stop asking so many questions.
Shortly after I moved to Southern California, I made friends with someone who was revolutionizing mobile television production. Fred had left his job as a network sports cameraman to pursue his dream of creating mobile video post-production centers built inside of minivans. It was the forerunner of what we now take for granted whenever we see production trucks at sporting events. In the early days, he used his network contacts to get whatever jobs were available. I was just getting started as a writer when he asked me if I would like to accompany his video crew to a location being used for a special, he was shooting for NBC.
The job was a reunion of sorts for the cast of the 60s sitcom, The Addams Family. NBC had decided to try something new by shooting the two-hour special on videotape instead of film. Ironically, the location was on Adams St. in downtown Los Angeles. The interior of the house was a very good representation of the original Addams family house. I’m pretty sure it was the same exterior used for the original series.
I was fascinated by everything happening around me. There was the misfit cast of characters I had grown up with. I remember looking out the windows of the production van, as the actor who played the Frankenstein’s monster-like character Lurch walked by. Ted Cassidy was so tall that all I could see was a bouncing belt buckle. But the highlight moment of my Addam’s Family experience was yet to occur.
On the last day of the shoot, one of the cast members brought his kids to work. I was standing on the set when a little girl and her brother walked up to me and asked the question of the hour. It was the same question I’d heard so many times since that first time in the wheelchair. Still, it took me off guard. “What happened to you?” she asked. I looked past her in the direction of her father, who was standing several feet behind. I expected John Astin to walk over and tell her it was time to leave or something… anything that would distract her. Instead, he just nodded. It was his way of saying, it’s up to you.
At that moment, I didn’t think going into all the medical details would have answered her question. Most of the time, kids are looking for a child’s version of reality, not an adult version. So, I looked down at this little girl and said, “You know, it happened so long ago, I can’t remember. What do you think happened?” She thought for a second and answered, “I think you fell off an elephant.” I said, “Tell you what, that’s what I’m going to tell anyone who asks me from now on.” She smiled a big smile because she was satisfied with the answer. More importantly, she had also learned that it wasn’t wrong or scary to approach someone who was different from her. I looked over at John as he flashed me the famous Gomez Addams smile.
When I was in journalism school, I learned that the direction of a story could be influenced by what the reporter chose to include or exclude from the story. That rule also applies when it comes to influencing the direction of a child. Adults tend to shield children from things that embarrass them or that they disapprove of in their own lives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an adult’s job to protect children from situations that are dangerous. But it’s also their job to expose children to things that may fall outside of their own belief system.
Gomez Addams and I never met again. But in all the years since, I’ve never forgotten the nod and the smile. I sincerely hope his children never stopped asking questions about the “elephant” in the room.