The Bionic Woman
One of my earliest memories of my parents was when my Dad got a big part on “The Bionic Woman.” My sisters and I loved that show – it was much better than “The Six Million Dollar Man,” because the Bionic woman was tall, blonde and kicked ass. The 70’s era futuristic “Boing!” sound she made when she flew into the air sent chills up my spine, and even though I was only three years old, I knew she was the good guy. I planned on being her sidekick when I got older.
When Mom gave us the news that my dad had landed a gig on the show, we were speechless with joy. Our father. He had made good. Not only was he going to be on a show we could watch, he was acting with the woman (besides our mother) that we worshipped. My three sisters and I beamed with pride.
The episode was going to be filmed at Vasquez Rocks, near our mountaintop ranch by the Angeles Crest Highway.
“We can even visit the set and meet the Bionic Woman,” Mom added, laughing when she saw our faces.
When the day finally arrived, my sisters and I piled into Pegasus, our old red Volkswagen station wagon.
Our father had named Pegasus with Meagan, who was the oldest of the four girls and usually got first pick of everything- but she was also the smartest. We all agreed that it was the most beautiful possible name for our family car.
The day came when we could visit the set, and Mom shepherded us into the car. As we bounced around in the backseat; she turned on the AM radio and Willie Nelson came on, crackling through the airwaves. We drove down the dusty mountain driveway towards Agua Dulce, the searing sun beating down on that little red wagon, a bright ladybug in a sea of beige.
Pegasus hurtled down the winding mountain road, overlooking the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert. The Three Sisters Mountains were in the distance, shimmering under the heat, blending into tones of caramel and rose under a faded denim sky.
We loved to stand up in the back – it was easier to see everything – and as Mom drove towards the set, we tumbled between the flat back of the wagon, where we would nap on soft blankets, and landed on the hot black vinyl backseat with reckless abandon, burning our asses beneath the calico prairie dresses she bought for us at Gunne Sax.
When we got to Vasquez Rocks, the ochre colored monoliths jutted into the sky- casting a shamanistic spell as they loomed over the set. I stared out the window at the purple Mexican sage bushes rippling in the dry breeze. My father had told me this was a sacred place where cowboys and Indians had lived. But today, the area was covered in trailers, lights, and action; and we started jumping up and down in the back seat as we drove over to set parking.
“We’re here! We’re here!” Erin shouted as we jumped up to the windows and started to brush our hair. Mom turned around after she pulled over and stopped the car.
“Okay, I want you guys to be on your best behavior,” she said, serious as shit. “I know you’re excited, but remember your manners.” She smiled as she spoke to us.
“We will, Mama! We will!” We crossed our hearts and meant it. Nobody wanted to get sent back to sulk in the car, not on Bionic Woman Day.
We scampered out of the car and over to the set, looking around for my Dad. A bellbottomed PA with long hair came up to us and led my mother to some of the other actors and director. She started chatting and laughing with them. We knew to be good, keep quiet, and stay by her until we got the okay to start wandering around and exploring. But I didn’t mind, the truth is; I loved hearing my mother have conversations. When she started speaking, she would tuck her hair behind one ear and come alive. People would start to gather around her, leaning in to hear her stories.
I looked around, and peeked out from behind her dress. People were wearing open necked shirts with huge seventies collars.
Oscar – the Bionic Woman’s boss – came up to us and scooped me up. He carried me around, and introduced me to everyone. He had on huge aviator sunglasses and smelled like spicy man’s cologne, comforting smells, because they reminded me of my Dad.
I wanted to stay and live with the Superheroes, in this world, surrounded by the magic Vasquez rocks forever.
Then, SHE arrived: The Bionic Woman. She came out of nowhere and moved in slow motion, with a serene smile, coming toward us. Before me was the woman who could fly. She and my father stood together and were smiling at the four little girls looking up at them in awe.
Golden sunlight dappled on their blonde hair, making them gleam in the sun. My father smiled at me, his bright blue eyes twinkling, in his Astronaut suit, and I knew he was a God as well.
He was so handsome. He looked like a cross between Robert Redford and Harry Hamlin, and had been Paul Newman’s stand-in on the “Hustler”. He was hired to do all the pool shots for that movie. He was the Stage manager at Lincoln Center in the early sixties, working with the greats of the stage: Elia Kazan, Jason Robards and Harold Clurman. He loved pool halls, women, nice suits and drinking. He taught me about truth and beauty in the Arts and to always strive for it.
When I got older, he told me how he supported his acting career in New York by working part time and doing odd jobs for a crime family in New York, and that he and my mother ran a nightclub in the meat market district for a big mob guy.
One night, he got stabbed 12 times for getting into a boozy argument with his friend, a “made” man, but survived after a bum walked into the bathroom during the stabbing, saving his life. Later on, the big bosses had a sit down to discuss the incident, and decided that Dad was wrong for being disrespectful to a superior, but his murderous friend was equally wrong for stabbing an employee without any upper management approval, so both were admonished they moved on.
He also couldn’t live without an audience of adoring women, or, at least one adoring woman. So when my mom started having children, it took attention away from him, and things started to change between them.
He had famous actor friends; one of them was Dennis Hopper, who gave him role in Easy Rider, before I was born. Mom said Dad sang and performed with Warren Beatty playing the piano back east, hustling women, but I think most actors are born to hustle, one way or another.
If you ever see a Jack Nicholson movie in the 70’s, like the “Last Detail”, the bartender is usually my dad. It was a big deal when he came home from a Theatre tour. We would get dressed up and go out to an elegant restaurant, ordering elaborate meals and later dance with our feet on his shoes.
I think he finally realized he had four children and a wife to support, so he broke down got a good job using his Theatre building skills to supervise set construction at Fox Television-and brought home a regular paycheck.
He told me, when he was in his seventies, “Morgain, I was working up in the rafters on Oscar night, when I saw myself up on the screen with Jack Nicholson. He was up for an Academy Award in ‘74 for “The Last Detail”, and they used my scene as the best clip. But, we needed the money, and I had to work that night. I didn’t go to the show and I’ll never forget it.”
I tried to imagine how he felt, high up there, overlooking the luminous crowd of famous actors, directors and writers-watching his scene- then going back to work rigging or fixing something up there, back to the drudgery of his job.
After Bionic Woman Day, life slowly returned to normal, but my sisters and I couldn’t wait for the episode to air. We bugged our mother constantly.
“Is Daddy’s show going to be on tonight?” we asked her every morning.
“No, not for a few more weeks. It takes awhile for a show to air,” she said.
At night, I stalked the magic box in the living room. I turned the heavy knob on the TV, thunking through the channels, trying to find my father. The static electricity from the screen made the blonde fuzz on my arms rise up, but I never found him flickering through the screen.
My mother came into our room one morning and finally announced:
“Tonight’s the night!”
We jumped with joy. History was about to be made; our dad was going to fight crime with the Bionic Woman.
We had a huge dinner in our dining room, which had the best view in the house, overlooking the vastness of the Mojave Desert. Our house was perched high above the basin, and everything far down in the town lights below looked so tiny. The fading evening looked like melted rainbow sherbet to my three-year old mind.
Nightfall was coming and soon the stars would be thick in the sky, almost as if we lived in space.
We all camped out on blankets in the living room, while my father and mother snuggled on the sofa. The clinking of the ice in his glass of scotch was the sound of a party and happiness.
The Bionic Woman episode was called “The Canyon of Death”; and as we sprawled around the TV on a blanket. Meagan (eight) and Katie (six) would tell me what was going on when things got confusing. My little sister Erin was only one, but she knew something was happening; jumping excitedly and shrieking whenever we shouted, “There’s Daddy!” when he showed up in a scene.
We sat there, hypnotized by the flickering television. But wait, something wasn’t right. My father looked angry and mean, throughout the show. We quieted down and stopped cheering. He was doing something bad and the Bionic Woman was looking for him. Then we began to get it; he wasn’t her crime-fighting friend, he was trying to hurt her.
He had stolen a NASA space suit from the government, and then violently fought off the Bionic Woman before flying into the air with the help of the rocket propellers strapped to his back.
We watched in horror as the Bionic Woman flew up to meet him, tackling him and wrestling him to the ground. We looked at each other, stunned.
Our father was the bad guy.
I was torn. I was angry. How could turn on us and hurt our beloved heroine? Was he really that evil and wicked? We started shouting at the television.
“Kill him.” I heard Katie say beneath her breath.
“Kill him! ” Meagan said, a little louder.
“Yeah! Kill him,” I shouted. “Don’t let him get away!
Our parents thought our reaction was hysterical, but we were really upset; our father was Judas.
Right now all our friends had their televisions tuned into the episode and everyone was watching our Dad trying to kill the Bionic Woman
They tried to warn us before the show that he was the bad guy, but I had kept hoping that Daddy would change his mind while he was in the episode and turn good. But it never happened.
The episode ended.
We eyed our parents on the sofa, laughing.