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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Reese Kusza

How Jim-Bob Walton Saved My Life

I recently started re-watching The Walton’s on Amazon Prime and reflecting on how much the series helped me cope with a pretty lonely and uncomfortable childhood and early adolescence. Many Late Boomers and Gen Xers have fond memories of the series that started in 1972 (1971 if you count the Christmas movie The Homecoming) and ended when most of us were just hitting middle and high school. The series continued to be televised as reruns throughout the 1980s. A few reunion movies were made in the 1990s when we were finishing college, getting married and starting our own families.

The actors who played the children were our own age or 5 or 10 years older and could have been our own brothers and sisters, or the brothers and sisters we wished we had. Much has been said of the appeal of the nostalgic storylines and values portrayed on the show as commentary on the culture of the 1970s and early 80s. However, I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time.

I was a weird kid with a religious family whose values aligned far more with those of the 1930s and 40s than what was going on in the 70s and 80s. We didn’t really fit in with the kids in our neighborhood or at school. I had a tendency to “lead with the chin” and had a well-developed sense of justice and fairness, so I pretty much alienated everyone I stood up to. By 6th grade, I had learned to stuff my feelings and felt quietly angry all the time. I was shy, awkward. I studied hard and took honors classes, but would never be much more than a B+ student.

I was interested in vintage cars and airplanes and wanted to be a firefighter or a fighter pilot, but I was a girl, and nearsighted, and neither was likely in the cards for me. I was a halfway decent soccer player, so I was allowed to play on the boys’ travel soccer team with two other girls. The boys didn’t really want us there, but there weren’t enough girls for a team of our own and an exception was made. I also took ballet and singing lessons for a while, but was told by the ballet mistress I was too fat to dance, so I quit. That further sealed my social demise, at least among girls.

When a boy in 7th grade I barely knew grabbed me and tried to kiss me, I stopped wearing skirts and knee socks to school and started wearing dungarees and plaid shirts instead. It’s not that I didn’t like boys, I just wasn’t interested in him. Because of that, and because I was a nerd who read all the time and liked “boy stuff”, I was a freak. Today, we have all kinds of labels for whatever I was going through, but back then the kids just said I was a “lesbo” and stopped sitting with me at lunch.

In 8th grade, I started videotaping reruns of The Walton’s and watching them when I got home from school. I remembered some of the episodes from years before and immersed myself in them and others I had missed. This time around I understood the storylines. I particularly related to the character of James Robert “Jim-Bob” Walton. He’s an oddball, head in the clouds, never quite measuring up to expectations, but his family and neighbors love and accept him for who he is. He’s passionate about cars, motorcycles and airplanes, stumbles and falls quite frequently, has his dream of being a pilot derailed because he’s nearsighted. He’s a mediocre student, but by some miracle ends up being valedictorian of his high school class and, eventually, joins the Air Corps even though he’ll never fly for them.

While I identified with the character myself, I also had a huge crush on him. The kids at school could just shut up about me being a lesbian! I certainly wasn’t ready for boys or any of that at 13, but I knew then that I was not “that way” and, although I didn’t want to kiss that stupid boy at school, there was a boy somewhere that I did want to kiss, if only in my head.

Now, going home after school to watch reruns of a television show on the days I didn’t have soccer practice might seem a bit lame, but it just might be what kept me from doing something stupid at a time in my life when I felt very alone and very, very lousy about myself. The Walton’s and Jim-Bob, in particular, helped me be more comfortable with who I was at an age when a lot of young people are in danger of giving up on everything, not just what interests them. I realized I wasn’t a complete oddball and it was ok to be a bit different. It was ok to come from a religious family, to have different values, to live in a small house with too many people in it, to be interested in things no one else seemed to care about.

I’m glad it is a bit better now for kids who are “weird”. The gay kid, the fat kid, the kid with glasses, the autistic kid. I will give today’s parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and even celebrities and other public figures credit for acknowledging that kids can be cruel and there is some effort to include, or at least not ostracize, young people who are different. There is more awareness and education about self-harm and suicide prevention and we are no longer afraid to broach the subject for fear of putting the idea into someone’s head.

I’ve spent most of my career as a nurse working with adults and adolescents struggling with trauma, alcohol and other drug abuse, depression, anxiety and issues of self-esteem. Many chronic physical health problems also have a mental health component. Although no two people have the same experience, the pain and awkwardness of adolescence is universal.

At 13, you don’t know which end is up and everyone around you is trying to make you into someone you may or may not want to be. We are bombarded daily with images of perfection and what we are supposed to want, supposed to need and supposed to be. Anyone who is a little bit off, a little bit strange, who has different values from the mainstream culture may still feel left out or left behind. Those are the kids I still worry about, especially in the era of YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever new thing there is that anyone over 40 hasn’t heard about yet.

Somehow, like most kids, I managed to survive the awkward years without any permanent damage. I never really grew out of my tomboy stage, although I did start wearing skirts again in high school. It was a few more years before a boy kissed me for real. I let people talk me out of joining the Air Force, but I did manage to go to college. I graduated on time, married, had kids and a career and did everything a girl was supposed to do, I guess. I never learned to fly, but I did become a call firefighter in my 30s, so one out of two isn’t bad.

I’m still an oddball. It has been 35 years since I was in middle school thinking about a 1920s Ford and I still wonder what it would be like to own one. I might have to build it myself.

So, Jim-Bob, even though you are only a character in a television show, thank you for saving my life.

P.S. May I borrow the plans for your roadster?

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Mar 24, 2020

liked your blogs

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