Peter and the Wolf
By Gene Wilburn
For those who grew up with television, it’s hard to fathom the grip that radio once had on the imagination. In the small blue-collar town of Rock Falls, Illinois, in 1951, I was six years old and radio captivated me; I listened each week to episodes of The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Red Ryder, and, my favorite, The Adventures of Superman.
Our radio was a floor-standing Zenith in a deep-brown wood cabinet. Behind its wheat-colored grill was a twelve-inch speaker that filled the living room with the deep, sonorous voice of authority. The Zenith logo was formed with an oversized Z made of lightning bolts that trailed under the enith with a flourish. It looked modern, futuristic. I imagined the round tuning dial with its little lamp that shone on the station markings as a cockpit instrument. Sometimes, when I was alone in the house, I would spin it around and listen to the stations click by. I never imagined that this wonderful instrument would lead to trouble.
Like much trouble, its beginnings were innocent. My mom and step-dad wanted to go out to dinner or a movie or something and asked if I was okay being on my own. I didn’t mind and they promised to be back as soon as possible. It was common to leave responsible youngsters on their own back then. They headed out in their gray 1951 Ford sedan, under an overcast, wintry sky that smelled of snow and I settled in for an evening of comic books and radio shows.
As it grew dark outside, I switched on the radio for the special children’s hour programming and was delighted to hear it was going to be a presentation of “Peter and the Wolf,” music by Prokofiev, narration by Boris Karloff. I owned the Disney book of Peter and the Wolf and knew the story well, though I always found it a little scary.
The show opened with Karloff’s rich, cultured voice introducing the instruments that represented the characters in the story: the bird, the duck, Peter, his grandfather, and the wolf. When the three horns representing the wolf played, the hair rose on the back of my neck and I began to feel uneasy.
As the story progressed, the music began to spook me. Never had “Peter and the Wolf” been this scary. I got up and closed all the doors leading into the living room. I couldn’t abide the darkness on the other side. Even that was not enough. My nerves were on edge. I closed all the drapes on the windows and, as an added measure, locked the front and side doors, something we rarely did back in the early 50s. Finally it got too tense for me and I switched off the radio and turned on all the lights and snuggled under the cover on the couch where I listened to the snow hitting the side of the house until I fell asleep.
The weather had turned into a nasty snowstorm with blizzardy winds. My mom and step-dad tried to drive home in it but could only get within two blocks of the house because the snow plow hadn’t yet been through. The drifts were three or four feet high and they abandoned the car on the side of the road and trudged their way through the wind and drifts to get to the house.
When they got there, the house was locked and they had no key. This too was typical of the 50s. Houses only got locked when the last person went to bed. Looking in the window through a crack in the drapes they could see me sleeping on the couch. They pounded on the door and the window and shouted at me, but it didn’t wake me. Getting colder and more desperate to get inside, my step-dad finally broke a window and entered that way, opening the door for my mom. That didn’t wake me either. My fright over “Peter and the Wolf” had carried me to a deep, safe place in my slumber.
When they shook me awake I was at first glad to see them, but was confused by the scowls on their faces. My step-dad was so livid with anger he could scarcely talk. I think he might have wanted to shake some sense into my head, but mom intervened more gently, though she was angry as well. I was scolded sternly about locking them out on the night of a blizzard.
I felt embarrassed and sorry that I had let them down, but I also felt a rebellious sense of injustice. All I did was keep out the wolves, and I knew that, if it came to it again, I’d do the same thing. My fear of wolves was stronger than my fear of being scolded and chastised.
They later told the story as a joke to their friends, always featuring me as the butt of the joke, but I noticed that, from that time onward, they carried a house key.