Mayfield is in mourning.
Wally Cleaver, Beaver’s gentle, big brother was reported to have died this past Tuesday. No prank of Eddie Haskell, the fact was Wally remained in hospice close to death.
Now with his confirmed passing on July 27th, a generation of baby boomers will have lost yet another cultural icon with the passing of Tony Dow who played Wally, in six seasons of Leave it to Beaver. Thanks to the endless loop of black and white reruns the likable teenager became an indelible character in our lives.
Although Tony Dow would forever be identified with Wally Cleaver, he was not the first Wally. In the pilot episode of the show, the character of Wally was portrayed by actor Paul Sullivan. However, after filming the first episode, Sullivan had a major growth spurt and was replaced by Tony Dow who remained in the part from the second episode on.
And remained in our hearts as well.
Wally was the gold standard when it came to big brothers.
Unfailingly polite, trustworthy, popular with his peers, and liked by his teachers, he was the perfect foil to the antics of his dim-witted friends Lumpy Rutherford and snarky Eddie Haskell that two-faced, smooth-talking suck-up.
The Cleavers, the quintessential post-war nuclear family portrayed in this often achingly saccharine show was the perfect balm for an age of nuclear anxiety distracting us from the chilly tensions of the cold war.
They were that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
In Mayfield, there was no cold war.
There were no fall-out shelters, no Communists to worry about, and never ever any racial strife.
As though in a cocoon, the outside world never seeped into the wholesome day-to-day life of that family. Politics and international issues that plagued the world were never brought up. The show that ran from 1957- 1963 at the height of the cold war was a placid escape. In the pages of Ward Cleaver’s newspaper that he read at breakfast with the family, there was no mention of Little Rock, no Berlin, no Cuban Missile Crises.
The wholesome show stood in sharp contrast to the nightly news which we watched that began to show a very different picture of the world around us.
On the same familiar RCA TV that brought us pleasant fictional towns like Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield, we began seeing real towns like Selma and Birmingham where real American teenagers were clubbed by police for sitting at a Birmingham Woolworths, and police attacked helpless schoolchildren with fire hoses.
For a show so removed from issues, it is not lost on me that this sitcom debuted on one of the most anxious days of the Cold War.
History changed on October 4, 1957. Along with the debut of Leave it to Beaver, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite named Sputnik into orbit around the earth.
The importance of that event can’t be overestimated. Americans were shaken to the core.
Though no larger than a beachball and sending meaningless signals back to earth it nonetheless sent shockwaves, having a profound effect on the mindset of people and governments around the globe. Russian engineers wanted to make sure that people around the globe could both see and hear it so the shiny steel sphere broadcast a “beep-beep” pattern of signals that could be picked up by amateur radio operators around the world.
Americans were astonished coupled with fear.
All of a sudden there was an enemy satellite streaking across the sky over the U.S. At the time no one knew what it was capable of doing. What our leaders did know was that if the Soviet Union had rockets powerful enough to launch a satellite that had rockets powerful enough to launch a nuclear bomb on the U.S. Military strategists worried that the success of the Sputnik program demonstrated the Soviet potential to launch intercontinental missiles.
To many Americans Sputnik I represented a dark future where the Soviets reigned as the world’s dominant superpower. The very thought of Soviet technological supremacy sent off a chain reaction of panic, rising fear levels, and soaring defense spending. We would pay any price, bear any burden to fill any Missile gap.
The space race was on.
So was the missile race.
Unlike Beaver Cleaver who we never once saw hiding under his school desk, the rest of the baby boomers began ducking and covering.
But if he had, his big brother Wally would likely have comforted him.