Let me paint a picture for you. It’s around 10:20 p.m., any given weeknight in Central Illinois, circa say…1988, just to pick a year. You’re finishing up the local news with that last second look at the weather forecast before Jerry Slabe and his immaculately sculpted helmet of hair would wish everyone a good evening before saying the immortal words, “M*A*S*H* is next...” followed by a fade to black on the news desk and a fade in on the back of Radar O’Reilly’s head and a wide shot of choppers coming in over the California hills standing in for Korea, and with that gentle acoustic guitar refrain you knew it was time for M*A*S*H*. Which, in the case of this kid of the ‘80s, meant two things: one, that my father allowed me a little extra bonding time watching one his favorite shows even though it meant I was going to be a nightmare for Mom to try to wake up for school the next morning, or, two: it was summer and I could watch M*A*S*H* every night of the week with no fear of parental scolding the next morning, usually as a prelude to “Late Night with David Letterman” if I could make it to 11:30 p.m., and c’mon…night owl that I was/am, you know that I always made it.
And speaking of Letterman, if there’s any proof for just how popular M*A*S*H*, and by that I mean “reruns of M*A*S*H*”, were at that time, I distinctly remember the viewer outrage that flared up when it was announced that Letterman was moving to 10:30 p.m. on CBS. So worried were folks about their nightly reruns that WCIA actually held a write-in vote to see what would air first…Letterman or 10-year-old (at the least) reruns of M*A*S*H. Letterman won of course, but, a former TV news guy at heart, he recorded a local spot for WCIA where he graciously accepted the win and took a second to crack wise about sportscaster Chris Widlic.
It’s a father’s job to teach his young son and/or daughter what’s cool. In my case, along with The Who, and Star Trek, M*A*S*H* was a cornerstone of such bonding sessions, and I learned quickly. Looking back I wonder if it was weird that I was that obsessed with the show given my age, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Look, I may not have known much if anything about the Korean War, but I knew that these were people trying to do anything to keep themselves from going crazy in a situation they couldn’t get out of, and that part of me who secretly read Mad Magazine while waiting for school to be over each agonizing day got that part perfectly, and frankly, there’s no character in the history of anything I wish I could model myself after more than Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce; kinda shlubby, with zero tolerance for anything in terms of regular military, he broke regulations at will and got away with it because he was the best at what he did, all the while being that rare kind of “sensitive jerk” who has a tendency to do well with the ladies. Sure the “real” Hawkeye Pierce was actually a conservative who enlisted when the war came around, but why ruin a good thing with the truth, right? And I’ve still never read “Last of the Mohicans”.
Doesn’t everyone have their favorite M*A*S*H* moments? Henry Blake, playing detective searching for a stolen ring and having soot fall in his face after shaking the pipe in “The Swamp,” while Hawkeye and Trapper John erupt into laughter, is up there. Although I’ve always had a soft spot for the episode where Henry gets obsessed over his giant desk, and I’d be remiss if, on my father’s behalf, I also didn’t mention the moment where Winchester’s French horn gets run over by a jeep and Col. Potter politely tells him, “Bring it along...we’d love to hear it.”
Any show that was on for that blasted long is bound to generate its own wealth of arcane trivia, the kind of stuff I used to spout off to my compatriots in the EIU Writing Center when things got slow; like how, for instance, you can tell you’re watching a first season episode if the windows in Henry Blake’s office were opaque. They didn’t go to the trouble of building an actual set outside those windows until season two. If you’re shaking your head in embarrassment at that level of obsessiveness, don’t worry, they did too.
And hey, that’s not to say that you can’t always learn more. Just a quick trip to the internet revealed to me that the P.A. announcer did actually have a name (sort of) and the oft talked about (in the early episodes, anyway) Nurse “Dish” was only in one episode but yet somehow in every episode: She’s one of the nurses running toward the camera during the opening credits for all 11 seasons.
There I was once, in my early 20s, in my car and having the kind of overly dramatic long dark nights of the soul reserved for folks of that age. Needing to find some way to take my mind off of my dire state, I pulled into Wal-Mart at nearly midnight, bought a Star Wars board game with the lone 20 dollar bill I had in my pocket, took it home, and I was geeking out over all the nifty pieces as I spread them out on a coffee table, suddenly, you guessed it, just like an old friend, there appeared on WTHI out of Terre Haute, a totally unannounced one-hour block of M*A*S*H* nestled between an infomercial for hand-hammered woks and Community Digest. All at once, things didn’t seem so bad, because they really weren’t.
As the years have gone by, M*A*S*H* has gotten harder and harder to find. Old T.V. shows are like that…one second you’re hip enough for Netflix or Hulu to pay millions to keep you fresh, and then next thing you know you’re cast off into the cheap “retro” bin for folks of a certain age. As of this writing, I don’t know what corner of the T.V. landscape the folks of the 4077th currently make their home, but I get it. As Col. Potter once said, the “M” does stand for “Mobile” after all, which means wherever they set their tent posts down, it’ll be 10:30 p.m., every night, unless of course it was Sunday…in which case Jerry Slabe would sign off with “Good night…Star Trek is next,” but that’s a different story entirely.