I couldn’t remember, so I asked my mother how old I was when I first watched The Munsters. She said I was four. She said that it was part of our routine during the day while my father was at work. She was pregnant with my sister at the time. My father was serving a year-long internship at a mental health center in a tiny town in Arkansas. We were living a mile outside of this tiny town, in a rented house on a dirt road.
“It was pretty lonely,” my mom said. “We didn’t know anybody. There wasn’t much for you and me to do out there by ourselves. You loved to watch it and I Love Lucy. And you loved Polly, the horse in the field next door. She’d caught her lip on a nail at some point and destroyed a bunch of nerves in her face. She was an ugly thing, but you didn’t care.”
When the internship ended, we moved back to Texas and family. Until I started kindergarten, I continued to watch I Love Lucy, plus Batman and Speed Racer, but not The Munsters because it wasn’t part of the daytime schedule of any of Dallas’s six television stations during those final years before cable. By the time I got an opportunity to watch it again, I was too old to waste my time with such a silly show.
As I grew into my later teens, however, I would occasionally stop my channel-surfing (when, that is, the television wasn’t rooted to MTV) to watch for a few minutes whenever it flashed by in its nostalgic black and white. By this point, I was hoping only to catch one episode in particular. To be more precise, I was actually interested in only one scene, one that had stayed with me—unpleasantly so—ever since those days on that Arkansas dirt road. Over subsequent years, I watched portions of dozens of episodes, but I never caught the one I wanted. I even began to wonder if maybe the one I remembered didn’t exist. Maybe it had only been a nightmare.
Whenever I picture this scene in my head, I get the willies. If I were the sort of person who could pull it off, I might say that it gives me the fantods, which makes me wonder: how is it that no more than five seconds from a harmless sixties sitcom episode that I haven’t seen in forty-seven years could continue to disturb me?
Here is what I see when I call it to mind: Herman, the friendly Frankensteinian monster and patriarch of the Munster family, seems to have become a professional wrestler for this episode. More importantly, there’s a robot. I feel as if Herman had to wrestle it, but I’m not sure about this, which makes me also question whether Herman even becomes a wrestler at all. Regardless of Herman’s involvement, here’s what’s most important, because this is what I’ve carried around like a splinter in my brain all of this time: I see surgery of some sort being performed on the robot. I see a square of its metal skin framed by surgical drapes. A section of its silver flesh is peeled back and then . . . thick, clear oil oozes out. This is what has nagged at me. And that’s all.
I know—it’s hardly scarring. And yet. Just as there’s no accounting for taste (de gustibus non est disputandum), there’s also no accounting for how it is that what’s immediately forgotten by thousands can permanently haunt one.
“Haunt” is a pretty melodramatic word, and it doesn’t quite seem appropriate, frankly, especially considering how I’ve sometimes gone for long stretches of time—years, even—without thinking about it, but there’s really not a more fitting word. It’s plagued me in a way that’s similar to how only one other strange thing has plagued me since childhood, and that’s the thought (or feeling, actually) of having to pick up, with nothing but my fingers, a grain of sand that somehow weighs several tons. While there’s nothing I can do to confront that grain of sand in any way that could ever lessen its effect on me, I don’t think, I should be able to finally do something about that indelible moment of robot surgery.
It’s been a couple of decades now since I first could have made an effort to track this scene down, but I never did, and I think this is because I’ve enjoyed, or at least been impressed by, the unsettled mysteriousness of it, as well as its persistence and strength, so why mess with it? But now it’s time to make an effort, I think. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’ve had this sudden impulse, but I’m not going to ignore it. I’ll go where it takes me.
I go to IMDb.com, the Internet Movie Database, to read descriptions of the series’ seventy episodes that ran from 1964 to 1966, feeling slightly shocked at how easily I’ve been able to prevent myself from doing this before. Within seconds, I see an episode called “Tin Can Man,” which first aired on November 5th, 1964. Its one-sentence summary goes as follows: “The school supervisor wants to expel Eddie from school. So, Eddie and Grandpa make a robot for the school science fair.” This could be it, but before I allow myself to go looking for a way to watch this episode, I continue reading synopses because this is only the seventh episode of seventy. The eighth episode could be it, too, I quickly see. In “Herman the Great,” Herman becomes a wrestler in order to make extra money. I wonder if these two episodes were somehow related, but I don’t think they were making two-part episodes like that back then. Maybe my memory combined them. I keep reading. By the time I reach the final episode, “A Visit from the Teacher,” it’s clear that I’ve identified the only candidates, so it’s time to watch “Tin Can Man.” I can buy it on Amazon for $1.99 and watch it immediately.
In the first minute, Herman stomps upstairs to tell Lily, his vampiric wife, that he’s discovered that Eddie, their pointy-eared werewolf son, has hidden from them that he flunked science. They determine that they need to pay a visit to his school to see what’s going on. The laugh track chortles because, of course, the show’s central shtick concerns the Munsters’ obliviousness to their monstrousness, which is then followed by their confusion at the frightened reactions they always receive. As I watch the credits begin and listen to the show’s fabulous theme song, I realize how long it’s been since I last saw even a glimpse of it. Ten years? Twenty?
In the credits, in an apparent homage to the opening of Leave It to Beaver, which ran from 1957 to 1963, Lily (Yvonne de Carlo) stands at the base of the spooky house’s stairs, ready to send everyone on their way for the day. First, there’s Grandpa (Al Lewis), her father, who’s a vampire, of course. Next, there’s Marilyn (played in the first thirteen episodes by Beverley Owen and then by the eerily similar Pat Priest), her gorgeous and normal (read: boring) niece, whom the family persistently considers an unattractive freak (cue laugh track). Third, there’s Eddie (Butch Patrick), whose Chaneyesque werewolf doll, Woof, I always coveted (still do), and then, bringing up the rear is Herman (Fred Gwynne), who takes his briefcase from Lily’s hand, kisses her on the cheek, and then makes a characteristically goofy face on his way out of the frame, headed for his job at a funeral home.
I watch the next five minutes without pausing, unsure whether this will be the right episode. But then Herman commands Eddie to get to work on his science-fair project, so Grandpa takes him down to his basement laboratory to build a robot. When I first see their contraption, I get a frisson of excitement; this could be it. Its chest is a barrel marked “OIL,” and its legs and arms are made from connected tin cans; its head appears to be a paint bucket with lightbulbs for eyes. Later, when the juvenile investigator for the Board of Education shows up at the house to inspect Eddie’s home life, Grandpa proudly gives him a tour of the house and the lab, but the inspector, sees things differently, of course, especially the shadows and the cobwebs. He reports back to the principal that Eddie “has got to be a delinquent” coming from such a household and should be expelled. Furthermore, he says that the boy’s science project, which Grandpa sicced on him, chasing him out of the house, is a menace to society, but the principal doesn’t think any of this is true, and that’s because Marilyn came to meet with him instead of Herman. Charmed by her and her lie that Eddie’s poor performance in class has been due to his focus on robot-building, the principal informs the inspector that he’ll be fired if he’s wrong about the robot, which will be present for all to see at the science fair that night. The inspector, in order to save his job, vows to himself that he’ll make sure that the robot won’t work, thus making Eddie undeserving of the second chance the principal now wants to give the boy.
God, so much unnecessary and obtrusive plotting, I swear! Will this be the episode or not? Only twelve minutes remain.
At school that night, the investigator surreptitiously slips a literal wrench into the robot to make sure that it will malfunction, which it does. When sparks fly from its head, Eddie says, “I think it’s the carburetor,” and the laugh track obeys dutifully. Grandpa replies, “The only answer is an emergency carburetorectomy.” This line predictably prods the laugh track again, but I don’t care that it’s yet another unsuccessful stab at whimsical humor; I realize now that, except for the absence of wrestling, I clearly didn’t misremember what was most important. I’m pretty sure that I’m about to see the scene for the first time in forty-seven years.
Throughout all of this, we’ve been shown occasional glimpses of the science fair/talent show, which is well on its way. The Munsters are running out of time. Tension is building. What will they do? In front of an auditorium full of parents, the principal brings out a second grader to read her essay, “What Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Means to Me,” and then a fourth-grader to demonstrate his invention, electric chopsticks. These are likely the cleverest moments of the episode, but I don’t care. I’m impatient. Get to the carburetorectomy, already!
The scene now cuts to a shot of Grandpa with a stethoscope in his ears. He’s shaking his head in disappointment. The camera pulls back to show the robot lying on a table in front of him. He raises his surgery mask above his nose and asks for a can opener. The laugh track guffaws because, don’t you get it? he asked for a can opener, not a scalpel, but suddenly I’m four years old again and slightly sick to my stomach at what I know is coming. Ceremoniously, a masked and gloved Marilyn picks up a can opener, which is, naturally, one of those with a sharp point used to pierce can lids. She hands it to a masked and gloved Eddie, who hands it to an impatient Grandpa. Apprehensively, I expect the shot to cut to a close-up of the incision taking place, but instead the camera remains where it is. When Grandpa opens up the side of the robot, the cutting is obscured from view, which I’m surprised to find an odd relief, especially considering the reason I’m watching. The ragged sound it makes, however, is unpleasant. I begin to wonder if maybe I only imagined seeing the surgery. But then Grandpa asks for pliers, and it’s at this point that I know that it’s finally actually about to happen. The camera now cuts to a close-up the robot’s gray side. There’s no surgical drapery as I remembered. Pliers in a gloved hand peel open a patch of metal skin and then it happens: white (not clear), viscous fluid seeps out and runs down the robot’s side. Despite being prepared for it, I wince.
The oozy shot had been included for only one reason: it’s nothing but the set-up for a gag. Herman faints at the sight of the streaming incision and falls to the ground. To Grandpa, Lily says, “You know how squeamish Herman is. He always faints at the sight of oil.” The laugh track roars, and we’re supposed to roar, too, but the joke isn’t even logical, much less funny, which makes me annoyed in addition to being disappointed at the scene’s lightheartedness, which seems entirely inappropriate, though I realize only to me. Herman fainting at the sight of oil would only be amusing if he were a machine, too, not reanimated flesh.
When Grandpa can’t fix the robot in time, the family sends Herman out on stage to distract the audience with the corny jokes he’s been reading from a book intermittently all episode. Because of his freakish appearance, they think that he’s the robot, of course, and consequently laugh uproariously at everything he says, thoroughly impressed as they are by Eddie’s apparent technological brilliance. More plotting follows, and Eddie’s good name is eventually restored. Everyone ends up happy and smiling—everyone but the investigator (fired), the cut-open robot (probably thrown in the trash), and me.
Why did this innocuous scene affect me so? Why has it stayed with me for so long? Had I, recoiling at the audience’s heartless laughter at the robot’s condition, been struck by a profound feeling of empathy, possibly for the first time? Such a reason would reflect well on me, I suppose, but I don’t know if it’s true. Maybe I merely modeled my reaction after Herman’s, which, before he tumbles to the ground, we see exhibited on his face as woozy queasiness, and then took it as my own.
If I’d had a life-long fear of seeing blood (hemophobia), my preoccupation with this scene would at least make sense, but I haven’t. In fact, I’ve had the opposite issue, if that’s possible. For instance, when, at the age of eight or nine, I was having my blood drawn at the doctor’s office and was told by the nurse that I’d probably want to look away (as I was always told—and am still always told), not only did I not look away (I never did—and still never do), I watched with pleasure as vial after vial filled with my shockingly dark blood, and then I asked her if she would draw an extra one. She asked me why in the world would I want her to do that, and I told her I wanted to have one for myself to take home. She asked me what I wanted to do with it, and the look she gave me as she said this filled me with shame. I told her that I didn’t know, which was the truth. I just wanted it. After all, wasn’t it mine? What I would do with it would come to me. Needless to say, the nurse denied my request, and I never asked again, though I never really stopped wanting one.
So, what, really, had I hoped to accomplish by looking for this scene again? Had I hoped not to find it? Possibly. Regardless, I did find it, and seeing it again brought me no answers, not really, and now the magical aura surrounding it has disappeared forever—as I knew it would, but I’d been willing to trade that in for . . . what? I’d gained nothing more than some certainty where uncertainty had once held sway, but at what price? Rather than bringing me closer to a better understanding of the earliest enigmatic days of my younger self, it somehow pushed me even farther away than I’m already getting with each and every passing day. Who exactly was that boy watching The Munsters forty-seven years ago, the one who saw a robot peeled open for laughs and didn’t laugh? He was me as a sprout, but how much am I still him? All of me? Some of me? None of me? If still alive, forty-seven years from now I’ll be ninety-eight. Will I remember being a little boy who blanched at the sight of a robot’s oozing incision? Will I remember writing about it, wondering about it? Will my children wonder similar things about their past selves when they’re older? If so, what will stay with them, irritating their brains, which will coat brief moments in time with nacre to produce a pearl, a memory, to be taken up decades later, held to the eye, and examined for clues to its origin?
Kevin Grauke is the author of a collection of stories, Shadows of Men (Queen’s Ferry Press), which won the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Originally from Texas, he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia.