When I was a kid, Saturday morning meant waking up before my parents, and going downstairs to turn on the television quiet-like and watch cartoons. Five years old and up before dawn, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the colored splotches of adventure. There was Ghostbusters, which I absorbed like a sponge a good decade before I ever saw the actual movie it was based on. GI Joe occasionally, Transformers constantly. And of course He-Man. I loved He-Man. I organized neighborhood kids into armies playing He-Man, armored in breastplates and armed with swords cut out of oversized empty laundry detergent boxes.
And there was another one, something about huge reptilian monsters that lived underground. Magma played a big role in that one, and I remember nothing else about it other than the fact that it was the earliest cartoon on in the morning. Earlier than that and you got weird local news. Saturday morning cartoons were the opposite of evenings in that the earlier shows were the more mature ones, the later tapering off into meaningless toddlers’ dreck that I had little time for even as a kid. And it was a very dark show, or at least dark for a five year old, one of those first experiences I had of sadness and tragedy wrapped up in a good story. I remember not a thing about the plot, but just the echoes of memories, of the way it made me feel then mapped onto an adult understanding of what those feelings were.
Saturday morning cartoons were an institution for a couple of generations of American children, our first introductions to stories and characters that we cared about as things made real instead of just the noisy blur of younger entertainment.
The last Saturday morning cartoons aired last Saturday, passed into the ether like everything else from childhood eventually does. They’d been dying for years, networks gradually shifting programming to weekend miscellany, while the specialized cable networks took up the mantle of children’s entertainment. It’s not the same though, not these channels that broadcast the junk that passes for cartoons today 24x7.
And it is junk. Because it’s not ours, and it never can be. Everything was better when we were children, not because it really was, but because those halcyon years were the ones of perfect wonder. When everything is new and golden. Neuroscience once found with its scans and probes that humor and discovery are the same thing to our neurons. That we laugh when a connection is made for the first time, whether it’s a punchline or a brilliant induction. Learning, on a biological level, is indistinguishable from joy. And childhood is the distillation of that, every act new, every moment a discovery.
Innocence doesn’t really mean what we think it does, this notion of a lack of experience of bad things. Children experience bad things all the time, terrifying things, incomprehensible things. But they’re experiencing them for the first time, which makes even the bad experiences to a certain degree experiences of sheer wonder. Innocence isn’t the lack of experience, it’s the joy of experience.
We could never go back to it, never go back to watch those stories again in the same light or with the same wonder. Never feel for the first time the agony of a beloved character dying, or of the triumph of good or evil in that moment before we know that’s what’s supposed to happen. But as long as that institution was still there, as long as children somewhere shared our generations of sneaking down the stairs to turn on the television, it felt like our childhoods still lived on. That fiction is gone.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.