Day after day, Patch watched the children from behind the bushes. Soon he knew each child by name. He especially liked to watch a red-headed boy named Joey.
The purpose of this sound filmstrip is to help combat the problem of child molestation through education by—
-teaching the meaning of Patch the Pony's safety rule:
"NAY! NAY! FROM STRANGERS STAY AWAY."
-impressing children with the danger of being lured or enticed by strangers.
We're squarely in the world of stranger danger here— horrific, gut-wrenching, and headline-grabbing when it happens-- but rare. Depending on whose statistics you believe, something like 10% of molestation cases involve strangers. The school that introduced me to Patch later sheltered a child molester, and he knew and cultivated the little girls he victimized. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to inform kids to be careful, and, say, not take rides from strangers.
Our first-grade teacher actually told us that Patch was a friend of Elmer the Safety Elephant, but they came from different programs in different countries, and I doubt they've ever met. Still, we looked forward to filmstrips in 1970, we naïve little nestlings, existing as we did before the World Wide Web, the World of Warcraft, and the world of a hundred channels. The strip went up, and our teacher dropped the needle on the vinyl record. We were warned that "The Legend of Patch the Pony" would be a very special strip, with an important message.
Legend? Yes, apparently, someone believed a PSA character required a back story, and a theme song to rival Davy Crockett's.1
Patch looks like a stud for My Little Pony, an aggressively cute brown and white horsie who wears an eye-patch and snorts when angry. I'm guessing the people behind the program figured the nice pony would appeal to little girls and the butch patch would resonate with boys. He lives in the hills but has many friends on the farm. He likes to visit "Mr. Farmer" when he milks the cows; Patch always gets free milk.
Despite his pastoral existence, we learn he suffers from profound loneliness and he desires to be useful. In a dream accompanied by horror movie music, he imagines children playing around him and realizes how sad their absence from his life makes him. "I like boys and girls very much," thinks Patch. "How I wish I could really be with boys and girls and do something for them!" I expect this is supposed to recall the lonely moments a child might have. His thoughts could even be those of a brooding would-be parent. However, the worldly viewer might wonder if this particular anti-molestation feature will be giving us the molester's point of view. Even given that Patch is a talking pony, it's difficult to reconcile his next movements with the film's eventual message.
For Patch formulates a plan; he's going to follow the train tracks to the city and find a school, where he can be around children. Having discovered such a place, he hurries to the playground and hides "behind some bushes." From his covert position he watches the children play. "Maybe my dream will come true," he thinks. "Here at last I can be around children." He gradually learns the names of each child (without ever revealing himself), and develops a special affection for little red-haired Joey.
Friday afternoon, while Patch creeps around the bushes near dismissal time, he notices an unfamiliar car parked near the school, occupied by a Charles Addams character in businessman's clothing. "Now, who is that man?" thinks Patch, turning to the viewer. "I believe he is a Stranger!" Patch, exhibiting classic stalker behavior, refers to the children as his "school-friends," even though he has not yet met any of them. We also learn that Patch believes he shares characteristics with Spider-man; his ears twitch whenever he senses danger. The Stranger calls to a passing child: none other than "little red-headed Joey." The man mesmerizes idiotic Joey with a candy bar, and offers him a ride in his new red automobile. Patch, realizing the danger (or fearing that the man is muscling in on his territory) leaps from behind the bushes and calls out his safety rule. Joey, naturally, yells, "Ah! A talking horse!" and leaps into the Stranger's car. No, not really. Patch lowers his head and "gently" nudges Joey away. "But Patch wasn't gentle with the stranger!" we're informed, as the equine Travis Bickle violently kicks the car door closed.
The Stranger drives away, but one bright kid writes down the license plate. About then the principal and some female teachers arrive. The principal informs Officer Hopkins, who has just walked off a PD public relations pamphlet circa 1962. Putting on his siren, he races to the school so he can tell the lingering kiddies to exercise greater caution, and to deputize Patch, assigning him the job of protecting children. Apparently, talking ponies do not require background checks. Indeed, everyone begins treating Patch like a hero; no one questions his presence in the schoolyard. The children want "to pet their new friend." The school holds an assembly for him, where he teaches everyone to fear strangers and gets rewarded with a freaking saddle so the kids can ride him.
The production concludes with suggested activities and Patch's theme song. The lyrics are predictable, but the tune is strangely melancholy, as though intended to be performed by the spirits of murdered children. Despite the film's progressive 1970 contribution to anti-racism—-the bright kid who writes down the license plate is also the token minority—-the song keeps with traditional gender expectations, insisting we report mysterious Strangers2 to "your police-man."
Patch the Pony, Inc.3 remains in business, operating out of Orangeburg, South Carolina. They've caught up to the 1980s, and they now offer Patch's "Legend" on VHS tape. They've added other stories, also available on VHS. "Patch and his Special Eye" informs children that the eye-patch is no cosmetic affectation, while teaching them about the dangers of child abuse. The "Home Alone" video teaches about general household safety, and gives special attention to those children who return to empty houses after school. They also sell program-related leaflets, coloring and activity books, posters, and badges.
Patch has obviously touched a cross-section of North American children. WMMS in Cleveland remixed and rerecorded the original theme song into various pop music genres, so that we can hear rap, techno, and other variations. Meanwhile, the "Legend" may be enjoyed online, at least until Patch, Inc. drags out the copyright lawyers.
I must, of course, acknowledge that, although I mock, I still recall watching the filmstrip and learning the rule, four decades later.
"The Legend of Patch the Pony"
Adapted from an original story by Margaret H. Liles
Illustrated by Alfred N. Simpkin
Narrated by Anthony M. Mockus
Approximate length: sixteen minutes.
1.Sure, Smokey Bear has an origin story, but that's because a real-life cub conveniently got himself orphaned and burned shortly after the American Forest Service established the program and they were able to graft his life onto the fictional spokesbear's. And, in all fairness, the real story of Smokey likely helped make the program appealing to many kids, especially back when "Smokey" was still alive.
2. Officer Hopkins informs the kids that the police have been seeking this particular Stranger for some time, and we learn he gets arrested the next day.
3. In 2009, when I wrote this piece. More than half a decade later, an empty space occupies the former site of Patch the Pony.com