Well, I know, today marks the anniversary of Ozzie and Harriet, whose on-the-air adventures were first heard on this day in 1944. Since a transcription of that broadcast is not known to be extant—and since I am not particularly partial to the exploits of the Nelson clan—I paid a visit to Walter and Harriet instead. High school sweethearts Walter Denton and Harriet Conklin, that is, and their peerless teacher, Our Miss Brooks. On this day, 8 October 1950, Miss Brooks got into quite a “tizzy”—”And I don’t tizz easily,” she assures us.
Being temporarily left in charge of Madison High School after its principal, the irascible Mr. Conklin, is delayed at home awaiting a furniture delivery, Miss Brooks finds herself dealing with a potentially serious crisis: a hurricane with winds up to 150 MPH is fast approaching. At least, that is the news according to the weather bulletin she has picked up with the radio receiver Walter built for his Electrical Shop class.
The bad weather has been on everyone’s mind that morning. “Our climatic conditions are undergoing a slow but steady change,” heartthrob biology teacher Mr. Boynton informed her earlier. “It’s something of a meteorological phenomenon, but do you realize that at this very moment the equatorial belt is slipping slowly southward?” “Well, I’ll turn my back. You tighten it up,” she permitted herself to quip. “It’s entirely possible that in the future our area may be engulfed in icy arctic weather,” Mr. Boynton continued his lecture. Of course, that would take about 10,000 years. “Good, I should be finished knitting my mittens by then,” Miss Brooks sighed in relief.
And now the weather report! “Mr. Boynton said our climate was changing, but this is ridiculous.” Or is it? As acting principal, Miss Brooks decides to follow the advisory and closes the school. Together with Walter, Harriet, and Mr. Boynton, she rushes to the principal’s home to make her report. In the fever of excitement, it escaped all who listened that the bulletin came from “downtown Bombay, India.”
A no-nonsense academic, Mr. Conklin is none too pleased about Miss Brooks’s rash actions, dismissing the reports about the advancing storm as “unmitigated jabberwocky.” After all, he reasons, “How could a hurricane possibly get this far into the United States?” “Smugglers?” Miss Brooks dares to suggest. Yet when Walter turns on the receiver he has brought along, the advisory hits home. Listeners are being told to “board up all windows,” preferably by “using bamboo shoots.” Convinced by the urgency of the newsflash, Mr. Conklin agrees to take the precautions deemed necessary and the storm watchers are heard cheerfully and noisily chopping up his brand-new garden furniture.
It is only after the damage has been done that the advisories are beginning to sound rather peculiar: “lash down your ox carts,” the radio voice cautions. “Disperse all natives to the hills” and “Be sure to tether your elephants carefully.” The mistake becomes painfully obvious to all. Now it is no longer the hurricane that poses a threat to Our Miss Brooks. It is the frightful wrath of Osgood Conklin. She’d better watch after her priceless porcelain (pictured above)!
I doubt whether such a light-hearted approach to deadly weather phenomena would go over well these days. Now, as I confessed previously, I had a similar experience misreading a radio report about a natural disaster when I came across a fake bulletin on the Jeremy Vine Show. And, as is often the case, the prospect of such horrors heading one’s own way was taken in differently than reports about far-off disasters. Miss Brooks expressed no concern either for the “natives” in India who hovered in their wind-whipped huts. The weather was really not perceived as that much of a national or global threat back then. In 1950, that threat, Westerners were made to believe, was communism.
Now, Miss Brooks had something to say about communism, or about the dangers faced by those who interpreted their granted freedoms too freely. When subjected to a particularly dull meteorological observation by Mr. Boynton, the hunk oblivious to her charms, she sneers: “You’ll never be investigated for that remark.”
In this one innocuous line, Our Miss Brooks writer Al Lewis communicates the fears of radio artists who found themselves subject to persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Yet as soon as she had hung up her schoolteacher costume, actress Eve Arden was asked to step before the microphone once more to address all those “concerned about the threat of communism.” As if in fear of being “investigated for that [aforementioned] remark,” she urged listeners to join the “crusade for freedom” headed by General Lucius Clay and to support . . . Radio Free Europe.
What if Walter Denton had picked up Radio Free Europe on his receiver that rainy October morning? What if Mr. Conklin had dared to make his president responsibility for hurricane emergency mismanagement? What if . . . Well, no such controversy on Our Miss Brooks—but don’t call those dated radio sitcoms apolitical. Tune in some time, won’t you, for some unexpected lessons in American history.