An Essay by Cindy Bradley
SURE, I LOOKED. I sneaked a peek.
I wasn’t quite fifteen and couldn’t resist, not with all the hype and with the magazine lying right there on the kitchen table, stacked nonchalantly underneath a pile of my mother’s latest movie magazines. The poorly concealed attempt to make the issue inconspicuous only served to emphasize it further, so I carefully picked the thick copy up and opened the pages.
From the other periodicals my mother purchased monthly, I knew she wasn’t a regular reader of Cosmopolitan. But she was a huge fan of Burt Reynolds, and his posing for their April 1972 issue as their first ever male nude model sent her to the store to buy the magazine the day it came out. Burt’s career was in its early stages, poised to explode with the release of Deliverance three months later.
Here in the center pages of Cosmo, was my mother’s celebrity crush, lying on a bear skin rug, in the raw, a slender cigar dangling from his mouth, bad boy smile in full effect. In 1972 Burt was in his mid-thirties, and held a reputation for being a ladies’ man. At the time of the centerfold, Burt had been in a two-year relationship with singer/actress Dinah Shore, twenty years his senior, something unheard of in those days. Dinah’s wholesome image was the only thing that saved their relationship from becoming a scandal, and my mother no doubt flirted with the fantasy that if Burt could fall for someone twenty years older, he could certainly fall for someone ten, if only in her dreams.
* * *
Another middle-aged man causing waves was Bill Ballance. Ballance became well known as the radio host of the racy Feminine Forum radio show in 1971. The forerunner to shock jocks, Bill was an original talk radio pioneer whose controversial show involved a wide variety of topics with callers phoning in to chat about their experiences with in-studio guests such as counselors, doctors and psychologists. Ballance’s penned monologues were lively and scintillating. With his deep and suggestive voice, he teasingly coaxed women to tell more, tell all, he’s there to listen. In any dispute between his female callers and their boyfriends, husbands, significant others, he always took the women’s side.
Feminine Forum was a breakthrough nationally syndicated hit, hugely popular with its mostly 18-35 women demographic. No one was doing anything like this. The time was ripe for a show catering to women. The Women’s Liberation Movement, which had started quietly in the late fifties and early sixties was gaining momentum, and about to erupt. Ms. magazine published its first standalone issue in January 1972, going monthly in July that year. Helen Reddy released “I Am Woman” in May 1972, and it climbed the charts steadily through the summer and fall, reaching #1 in December. Women were finding their voices in unprecedented numbers and they were using them. You’d think a show like Feminine Forum and giving women a platform where they could be heard would be a welcome – if long overdue – change.
And for many women it was. Ballance adhered to a strict “must be 18 to call in” rule, and while most of his callers fell in the 20 to 35-year-old range, women of all ages flocked around their radios to listen from 10-3, when the show ran on Los Angeles’s KGBS-AM. They’d tune in to hear about scandalous topics, such as Are You a Red-Hot Mama?, Where Did His Love Go and How Did You Know it was Gone? and Have You Ever Thrown Yourself at a Hunk Who Wasn’t Catching? They would marvel at the coquettish, cat-and-mouse exchange Ballance often engaged in with his callers. They’d imagine him perched close to his microphone, his brown hair thick and wavy, wearing one of his trademark turtlenecks, oversized tinted glasses, and smiling under his thick mustache.
Others weren’t fans. Feminist groups accused the show and radio host of exploitation, and of insulting the intelligence of its callers. Ballance replied by calling the women’s rights activists “professional blind dates.” Former LA Times radio columnist James Brown described Ballance as “the lascivious uncle, chiding his ‘doll babies’ to rid themselves of their ‘grunthead’ oppressors.” The controversy increased ratings and attracted more listeners as Ballance found his niche in clever, corny phrases such as “many a charming little armful becomes a dreadful little bed-full” and “a perpetual indifference means an eventful goodbye”.
When Cosmopolitan’s Burt Reynolds centerfold issue hit the stands in the spring of 1972, Feminine Forum was at its peak. Ballance monopolized on the issue’s hype and devoted a day to taking calls on the topic of the notorious centerfold. Callers took to the phones in unprecedented numbers, wanting to talk to someone other than their closest friends and confidants about what this innovative issue meant to them, to voice out loud what they had murmured in hushed tones. Ballance, always the patient listener, laughed and joked and flirted with each caller as they claimed it’s about time, men have had nude women in centerfolds for years and now it’s their turn. From the enthusiastic response the topic received, most callers loved it.
This is when my mother went from an occasional to regular listener, never missing a show. If she was at home, doing housework, Ballance’s sultry voice provided background noise. If she was in the car, driving us kids around and running errands, she ignored my requests to listen to music in favor of listening to The Feminine Forum. Ballance was ubiquitous, giving my teenage self an ideal I shied away from. While I found much of the show entertaining, I didn’t always understand the subtleties of what I was hearing, didn’t grasp the innuendo and suggestion. I couldn’t get the image of the “doll babies” who called into the show out of my mind. What I was more than uneasy with was that not only was my mother listening to this provocative talk, but with her outbursts of laughter and chants of “that’s right, Bill, tell it like it is!”, she seemed to be enjoying it.
My mother vowed that one day soon she’d call in to the show.
I was mortified.
What was my mother becoming, some sort of sex-obsessed, liberated woman? A red-hot mama? The kind of woman who read Cosmo, ogled at naked Burt, and listened to sex stories on the radio? A woman with a cause, ready to stand up and fight?
* * *
By 1972, the women’s liberation movement that simmered during the late 1960s was reaching its boiling point. For me, at fourteen and fifteen, “I Am Woman” was a pop song garnering lots of attention with its catchy chorus, but the magnitude of the message eluded me, and I felt uncomfortable watching women rise into a frenzy every time the song played on TV. Lyrics like, “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore / And I know too much to go back and pretend” and the iconic “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman” chorus, quickly captivated the masses. In my world, I observed women as equal to men, and I was too young to understand the differences between the sexes as reported in the news.
In my freshman year of high school, girls were permitted to wear pants on Fridays only; it would be another year before we could wear them every day, but I considered that ordinary. My mother had worked since I was in junior high, a decision made not out of necessity, but of choice, as she craved an outlet outside the home, and one that brought in extra income proved ideal. My mother loved “I Am Woman” and sang along every time it came on the radio. I preferred Reddy’s melancholy “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from the previous year’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Or Roberta Flack’s romantic “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” with lyrics that filled my head with starry-eyed romantic fantasies. Through my teenaged eyes, the women chanting along Reddy seemed angry and bitter, while those humming Flack appeared happy and satisfied. My friends and I were raised to grow up, marry and have a family, and that’s what we aspired to do. The feminist movement with its emphasis on putting women in the workplace, right alongside men, came across more than a little daunting when I was young and swooning along with Flack’s love songs.
That women’s emancipation could come in all shapes and sizes, far away or close at home, was something I had yet to find out.
* * *
Lake Tahoe is cold. What I mean is, the water in Lake Tahoe is cold, even during the hottest peak of summer. Growing up, we’d make the eight-hour drive from southern California – my brother and sister with friends in tow, me with my books – once every few years, my mother choosing . This year it was a cabin tucked in the woods in Incline Village, on Nevada’s north side of the lake.
The large A-frame cabin in Incline Village was beautiful; it was in a much denser part of the forest than we’d ever stayed in before, and offered striking views of the deep blue lake from the large wooden deck. The mountain air here was crisper and sharper. The pines grew greener and taller, and if you stood next to the reddish-brown trunk you’d detect a subtle vanilla aroma.
The Village Market was the place we’d find anything from groceries to suntan lotion, books to souvenirs and even held a small deli that served sandwiches with fresh salads or chips and ice-cold sodas. It was on the way to The Village Market that my sister first ran into trouble.
Kathy and Marie walked to the market daily. Local kids as well as those visiting on vacation congregated outside the market, or in and around the wide parking lot. While I shied away from situations involving meeting people I’d never see again, Kathy sought out new experiences and people with unrivaled exuberance. She collected new friends and stray animals the same way I collected favorite books and authors.
On our second night in Lake Tahoe, as we gathered around the deck for barbecued hamburgers, my sister talked about her day. Kathy and Marie had already attracted a group of kids their age who flocked around them during their daily walks to the market. They walked along the dirt path with a few of their new friends, wearing tank tops and denim cutoffs, their long blonde hair dazzling in the sunlight, bouncing loose against their shoulders. They had just entered a clearing, the market within view, when a group of four or five kids on bikes rode up next to them.
One of them, a girl who Kathy figured two or three years older than her twelve, spun furious circles around Kathy and her group, shouting and yelling in my sister’s direction. The girl rode with a bunch of boys, who appeared content to stay in the background while she assumed the lead. She was sturdily built and tomboyish, with short brown hair and a profuse sprinkling of freckles. My sister was a self-proclaimed tomboy, loved playing with boys and roughing it, and this girl had met her match. Perhaps the girl sensed my sister’s encroaching on her turf, but whatever her reason, she had it out for my sister, spewing obscenities as Kathy and Marie continued walking to the market, not stopping until they neared the parking lot, when she turned around and disappeared into the woods.
We listened with interest, assumed the encounter was a one-time event.
The next day was worse. Kathy and Marie headed to the market the same time as the day before. The girl on the bike and her posse were waiting for Kathy and Marie. As soon as my sister and her group of friends came into their view, they sped out from behind huge pine trees, rode up alongside and in front of them.
“Go back home you whore!”
“You go back home!”
“You don’t belong here, you piece of shit!”
Kathy and Marie looked at each other. Kathy attended junior high school with a family full of kids famous for their ability to provoke fights – – and she wasn’t afraid to fight if it came down to it, but she wasn’t going to aggravate a clearly unstable situation, either.
On those first couple days, the girl rode close while maintaining a bit of distance. The third day, her anger brewing, she rode close enough to Kathy and Marie that they thought she’d start a fight. The obscenities escalated, and while her gang of boys still mostly remained in the background, a couple of them had begun to chime in, adding their insults to the ruckus. The girl – we didn’t know her name, or whether she was a local or visitor – showed up earlier in the route to torment my sister longer.
Kathy may have indulged this daily dose of trouble with a combination of humor and surprise, but. She intended to find out who this girl was and confront her parents, clinching an apology and disciplinary actions to follow. She planned on joining Kathy and Marie on their walk the next day and as I didn’t want to miss out on any of the action, I decided to tag along, too.
At first the sight of my mother seemed to intimidate the girl, as she hung back among the pines as we passed her by. I inhaled the , and listened as Kathy and Marie talked about going horseback riding later in the day. The girl rode behind them silently. It wasn’t until my mother and sister reached the clearing and made their way across the parking lot that all restraint disappeared.
The girl rode fast and furious past my sister, flinging dirty looks instead of insults. She rode into the parking lot, venturing closer to the market than she had any time before. It wasn’t until my mother and I entered the store, with Kathy trailing behind, that she heard “what a pansy ass, brings her mother cause she’s too afraid to fight!” echoing behind her.
Kathy stopped and turned around. The girl sat looming on her bike, flanked on either side by two boys, staring at her through the window. With one exasperated look at Marie, Kathy marched back outside, not afraid of anyone or anything. My mother, having turned around to look for Kathy, immediately followed her out.
We walked single file through the parking lot, the mountain sun high in the sky and thunderclouds forming overhead. The girl eyed my sister, but my mother posing as bodyguard worked as deterrence, causing her to alternate
My mother assessed the situation and formulated a plan. I could tell she wanted to put an end to these shenanigans.
“Look Kathy, she’s not going to try to get close to you with me here. We need to distract her. You and Marie walk ahead of me. She’ll pay attention to you and forget about me.”
Kathy and Marie picked up their pace. The girl complied by increasing her speed on her bike, passed my mom, and with more venom than ever unleashed a torrent of expletives that tumbled together in a way to make them mostly unintelligible, but the one thing Kathy understood was the girl’s exclamation mark. She rode in closer to my sister and hurled a spit wad as hard as she could, aiming for her face.
Kathy stopped mid-step, ready to pounce, but before she had a chance, my mother grabbed the girl from behind, clenched a fistful of her white t-shirt in her hands, yanking her off her bike in one swift motion. Frantic, panicked, catching sight of my sister and Marie in front of her, not knowing who had caught her unaware, the girl squealed and squirmed, desperate to break free. Her attempts to get loose only caused my mother to hold on tighter. The girl was strong, but she was My mother had inherited her Austrian father’s solid frame and innate strength, and coupled with her conjuring major “I am woman, hear me roar” energy, the girl on the bike was about to become acquainted with someone even I had yet to meet.
“Let go of me!” she screamed. “Get your filthy hands off me, you bitch!”
She twisted left and right, trying to break my mother’s hold. The girl’s face was beet red, anger and embarrassment competing for top billing. My mother yanked harder, pulling the girl towards her, before pushing her away.
“You’ve got a filthy mouth, do you know that! Do your parents know you talk like this?” My mother inched closer to where the girl stood, panting and out of breath. “What’s your name?”
The girl was crying, tears and snot running down her face. “I don’t have to tell you anything!”
“You owe my daughter an apology and your parents need to know how you’ve been acting. You should be ashamed of yourself.” My mother stepped closer. “Where do you live?”
The girl looked at her friends, and then quickly reached down to pick up her fallen bike.
“Come on Debbie, just tell her” one of them said.
“Oh Debbie, is it?” Kathy sneered.
Debbie looked at my mother, then at my sister, back to my mother again before hopping on her bike, yelling “Bitch!” and flipping her middle finger in the air as she sped off into the woods, disappearing into the dust, swallowed up by giant trees.
She was nowhere to be found the rest of our trip.
* * *
We returned from Lake Tahoe with just a couple of weeks left of summer vacation. In between school shopping for clothes and supplies, my mother was found in the kitchen, tethered to the telephone, its avocado green cord wrapped around her waist as she traveled back and forth from the kitchen table to the counter, cleaning, pacing, never one to sit still. She relayed details of the Debbie incident to her friends, and from my mother’s end of the call, I could tell her friends were in equal turns astonished and proud, familiar with the mother bear instinct that, once stirred, roars to life with a ferocity not easily doused. I’d find her there in the morning, making her calls after making breakfast, morning sunlight streaming through the blinds, bathing everything in a light buttery glow. Or later in the afternoon, before dinner, before my father arrived home from work, the kitchen warm from the heat of the day and constant conversation.
She couldn’t let it go.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, one late-summer afternoon, my mother announced she was going to make the phone call I had almost forgotten about. I had gone into the kitchen for a glass of water, and found her sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio. It was “Anything Goes” day on the Bill Ballance show, anything and everything callers wanted to talk about. My mother had her story to tell, and was eager to share it with Greater Los Angeles.
“No. You can’t call in. He’s not going to care what happened.”
“Yes I can. And he’ll care. Everyone cares.”
“Your friends maybe, but why would he? This isn’t the kind of thing he talks about. No one calls to talk about this.” Visions of the radio host’s baby dolls came to mind. My mother may be a lot of things, but baby doll isn’t one of them. What if my friends were listening. What if my friend’s mothers were listening, the kind of women I imagined not liking Bill Balance and his show, and they heard my mother make a fool of herself. I glanced at the clock. 2:20. Only forty minutes left in the show. “You probably won’t get on anyway, the show’s almost over.”
My mother placed her finger in the phone’s rotary pad and dialed. She looked at me and smiled.
I walked out of the kitchen, towards the back of the house. I poked my head into the den where my brother and sister were watching TV, and told them what Mom was doing. They ran after me, plopped on the bed while I turned on my mother’s stereo, found the radio station I was looking for, and waited.
My mother was right. She got on the show, the last caller of the day.
I had thought – hoped – as the minutes rolled by and other callers came on the line, with my mother alternately patiently and impatiently waiting her turn, that time would run out and she’d abandon her notion of calling into the show, give up once and for all. I perceived Ballance’s callers as young, sexual, liberated, everything that in my eyes my mother was not. Every caller that day had been in her twenties, phoning in about a wayward boyfriend or husband who wasn’t performing in bed, and I couldn’t imagine my nearing fifty-year old mother’s voice joining theirs on the airwaves.
“And now we have Mary on the line. Mary is calling from Thousand Oaks. Welcome to The Feminine Forum, Mary,” Ballance intoned, his voice burly as ever.
I heard my mother’s voice respond, breathy and nervous. My stomach knotted so tight I couldn’t breathe. My first thought was that he’d never stay on the line long with her, as his tendency in the last minutes of the show was to keep the calls short, get as many of the callers waiting in line in as possible. This should be quick.
I hadn’t expected Bill Ballance to be entranced by my mother or her story. I didn’t count on him filling the last minutes of the show with her retelling the story I had been listening to for weeks. And I certainly didn’t think my mother would rise to the live radio occasion, and turn out to be such an enthralling, entertaining caller.
My mother launched into her Lake Tahoe tale, the words so familiar by now, I knew them by heart. I sat and listened to my mother’s voice, tentative at first, then slowly gaining confidence as Ballance gently nudged her along, showing genuine interest in what she had to say, as she laid the groundwork of the first few days of Debbie’s verbal assault, leading up to the pivotal moment.
“And then what happened?” “What a little bitch!” “And all you wanted was a nice, relaxing vacation and she had to go and ruin it.”
When my mother reached the point in her story where Debbie spit on my sister and my mother yanked her off her bike, Ballance couldn’t contain himself.
“Oh Mary, you didn’t!” His admiration was growing with each sentence. “Tell me, what happened next?”
My mother continued talking, buoyed by Ballance’s enthusiasm and encouragement.
“Well, I grabbed her. I wanted to slap her too, but I didn’t …but I sure wanted to.”
“Oh, you little vixen you! That troublemaker learned not to mess with you.” I imagined the radio host beaming through his microphone. “And then what did you do?”
As I listened to my mother, her voice wafting through the stereo, familiar yet in that moment completely unfamiliar, I felt a shift. It was as though I was hearing her through new ears, through Bill Ballance’s ears, through the public’s ears. My mother, middle-aged and no vixen in my book, fluttered under Ballance’s chirpy banter. She didn’t belong to his usual demographic, and I was sure he knew it, but it didn’t seem to matter. Ballance, holding a reputation for all things edgy and provocative, treated my mother with total respect. I questioned everything I thought I knew about my mother. I felt a little unhinged, but proud. My mother may not have demonstrated the women’s liberation movement the way I had seen so many women demonstrate on TV, or in the newspapers, but in her own way, she had stood up for her daughter, and for herself. What Bill Ballance easily discerned, I was just figuring out. The one-dimensional mother I knew was so much more. She wasn’t just a mother, she was a woman – a multi-faceted, multi-layered and complex woman, capable of surprising her teenage daughter, a wayward teen at the lake, and a radio host used to conversing with a bevy of charming women. My mother held her own. She found her voice.
Later that afternoon, as my mother made her rounds of phone calls to her girlfriends, laughing over her call in to The Feminine Forum, I noticed a small stack of magazines piled next to the phone, the April issue of Cosmopolitan sitting open on top.
Cindy Bradley obtained her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, Minerva Rising, and Under the Sun, among others. She has an essay recognized as notable in Best American Essays 2017. Cindy is currently working on her memoir, a collection of essays titled Death, Driveways, and California Dreams. Her work can be found at her website, cindybradley.weebly.com.