By WENDY HODGE
Technology has opened the universe … we have robotic surgery and driverless vehicles, digital money and quantum computing. We can program everything in our homes from a thousand miles away with a tap of an icon on our cell phones. We have 3-D printing and fiber optics, micro-artificial intelligence and quantum graphics (I have absolutely no idea what those last two things even are).
But, by far, the most thrilling innovation in my life is the fact that our Smart TV has an entire channel running every episode of the classic Unsolved Mysteries show from the 80s and 90s. The original one, with Robert Stack, not the reboot that was nowhere as good as the real one. Do you remember that show? There was never a more perfect host than Mr. Stack. For an entire generation of television/mystery junkies, his voice became synonymous with murder and spooky encounters.
My family loved that show. Wednesday nights, after church, we gathered around the TV. The opening music was like a siren song, and we all came from various rooms in the house for another dose of whodunit.
Each episode was usually broken down into several parts: an Unsolved Murder, the Supernatural, Wanted Fugitives, Hidden Treasure, and Lost Loves were the typical stories.
The segments where family members described how their loved one “just disappeared one night” were my favorite. People last seen climbing in a truck or walking down a lonely highway made me shiver with the possibility that anyone could just vanish at any given time. And then I would reward myself with the realization that I was safe and at home where I belonged.
The Supernatural segment featured stories about UFOs and ghosts that made me roll my eyes. I am a born skeptic, so I mentally refuted all the eyewitnesses who claimed their toaster was possessed by a dead Civil War general or their attic was infested with other-worldly squatters from five centuries ago.
The Wanted Fugitive part was always exciting. Robert Stack would describe a bank robber or kidnapper who was last seen in New York City or Chicago and had so far evaded capture for months or even years. And then Mr. Stack would ask the audience to be on the lookout. And we were… we all were!
The Hidden Treasure tales were fun. Who doesn’t like the idea of chests of pirate gold or barrels of outlaw bounty being found in the desert by a group of wannabe cowboys who were lucky enough to find a cross-shaped pile of rocks behind the one tree for hundreds of miles around? Of course, they rarely actually dug up anything of value, but they sure seemed to have fun trying. They would hold their breath expectantly, and I held my breath right along with them.
The Lost Loves stories were my least favorite. I found them overly sentimental and usually featured older folks who had time on their hands to cry and reminisce. I was not one of those old folks. My tastes were much less misty-eyed and more cloak and dagger. This was the best time to take a bathroom/snack break and then race back to the TV set just as I heard the theme song start to play.
Often, at the end of a segment, there would be a blast of music and the word ‘Update’ would scroll up the screen. We would all sit up straighter, ready to hear what mystery had been solved. And then a mug shot would appear, or if we were lucky an actual video of a suspect in handcuffs being led from some seedy motel room in the middle of nowhere. And our sense of justice had been restored, our faith in law and order renewed.
Watching Unsolved Mysteries with a group of people is one thing. Watching it by yourself is an entirely different prospect. By the time I was in college, Unsolved Mysteries had moved to Friday nights. One of my favorite hobbies was to frighten myself to death by leaving off the lights and tuning in when my roommate was not home. Robert Stack would look straight at me while he described a young girl, home alone, who never made it to Saturday morning. The curtains seemed to move, the shadows flickered on the walls, and I would have goosebumps on every square inch of skin. Inevitably the phone would ring, and I would race to answer it, eager to hear another human voice. Once the show was over and the lights were back on, things returned to normal.
But I was more watchful and more suspicious than I ever would have been without that iconic show to fill my mind with enough true-life horror stories than the world should be able to hold.
As an older woman, with decades of life behind me, stumbling upon the Unsolved Mysteries channel has been like reuniting with a part of myself that never really went away. I have always been, and I imagine will always be, a fan of the unsolved and a chaser of the unknown. The music is exactly the same, and it still sends a child up my neck. Robert Stack’s voice is as resonant as it ever was. It’s been so many years since I heard it anywhere but in my memory. When he looks at the camera and says, with the tiniest smile that hints that he already knows the answers, “Perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery,” I find myself nodding and answering, “Why, yes, Mr. Stack, perhaps I can.”
The ironic thing is that, although the whodunit part is still my favorite, it’s the Lost Love stories that I find myself waiting for. The Vietnam veteran who searched for the Army nurse who helped him learn to walk again, waiting ten years for his chance to be able to thank her – that’s pure gold. Just the other morning, that segment came on, and I stood in the bedroom crying like a little girl. Last month I saw the one about the five children in Louisiana who had been separated at birth and adopted by five different families. It took ten years, but they all found each other. And I wept as if I myself had been lost for a decade.
My heart just soaks up those stories like rain after a drought. There will always be death and pain, mystery and murder, but there will also always be people who search and wait for and find each other. There will always be love and kindness.
And, thanks to technology, there will always be Robert Stack and his deep commanding voice to guide us through it all.