August 03, 2017

TV Wars

A long time ago
In a neighborhood far, far away . . . .

When television viewing leads to strife in the average American home (think way back when the typical American home had only one television), the battle typically concerns what somebody wants to watch, doesn't want to watch, or what somebody does or doesn't want somebody else to watch.

Not so during my childhood. My parents have never owned a television and probably never will.

Only once (well, twice) did they (officially) agree to allow a television in our house for an extended period of time. The summer I turned eleven, some friends of ours went on a long vacation to Canada. Before they left, they suggested that we tend their television while they were away. As it was a temporary arrangement, my father agreed.

My brothers and sisters and I were delighted! The veil of darkness was lifted from our lives! No longer would we miss all the great programs everybody else got to see; no longer would we have to put up with the strange looks people gave us when we told them that we didn't have a television.

The celebrations lasted exactly five days.

All it took was one more "somebody" up past his bed time, one more "somebody" late for dinner, one more argument about who was going to watch what. Up to the attic the television went, despite wailing and gnashing of teeth. Our dad knew what he didn't want in his house, and had garnered all the evidence he needed to put television back at the top of the list.

About that time, however, he inadvertently opened a backdoor in his defenses. An alumnus of the California Institute of Technology with a doctorate in physics, he had been teaching me something of his trade. I was soon building radios, making lightning with Van de Graaff machines and Tesla coils, and creating impressive explosions with my chemistry set.

I gained a reputation in the neighborhood as a junior mad scientist.

People began asking me to repair their frayed power cords and loose antenna wires. As payment they gave me old appliances they didn't want anymore or that couldn't be cheaply repaired. One day I was offered a broken portable television.

The first thing I did when I got it home was to plug it in. It didn't work, so I did the next best thing. I ripped it apart. Seeing the guts of that television spilled out over the basement floor made me think constructively. Sure, it was a complicated mess, but it was the same stuff radios were made out of. Perhaps I could fix it. What a thought!

In short order, I scrounged up several more televisions. Vacuum tubes were on the way out, color was on the way in, and many people discarded the old black and white the moment it balked during the Saturday afternoon baseball game. Neighbors were glad to part with their burned-out television sets, and my father didn't seem to mind. It was hands-on experience after all.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Before long had I coaxed a 1956 cabinet model, troubled only by a blown fuse and aging phosphorus, into producing a foggy, wavering picture. But a picture nevertheless! I discovered a cache of factory repair manuals at the library, but because I was still not very good at reading circuit diagrams, my methodology was still pretty much hit and miss and I tended to miss a lot.

Television chassis began to stack up: under tables, on shelves, in closets, behind book cases.

My mom fired the first salvo across my bow. My television carcasses were taking over the basement. The chassis were a valuable source of spare parts, I argued in my defense. I lost the argument. After scavenging all of the parts I could, my father and I hauled them out to the landfill, including the '56. Better prospects were on the horizon. Time for a fresh start.

The better prospect was a 1970 nineteen-inch Zenith. It required one new vacuum tube and a bit of soldering to replace a shunt resistor. When the cathode-ray screen hummed to life with a crisp, bright image, I rejoiced cautiously. Here was a television worthy of being watched, and in my house, that was dangerous news.

I lay low for about a week, watching my television only while pretending to make further repairs. I wired my stereo for closed-circuit sound and installed a remote switch. Then one quiet afternoon I moved the television into my room, carefully rearranging the furniture in order to make the new addition as inconspicuous as possible.

As Baldrick (from Blackadder) would say, it was a cunning plan. Fact was, It just took my farther a little time to figure out what to do. After all, it was his fault I was able to fix the television in the first place. But he thought up a simple solution. One morning he stopped by my room before going to work and deftly plucked several radio tubes out of the chassis.

Fair enough, I thought. I collected up my schematics and spare parts and soon had the Zenith working again. As a precaution, I made sure to remove the several indispensable tubes and stash them away every night, thus lending to the appearance of disrepair. But I was not above suspicion, and my father performed other acts of sabotage on a weekly basis; still I always managed to stay one step ahead of him.

He finally got tired of the game. In fact, I don't think he was playing at all. One day, he simply took all the tubes out of the television, and my back-ups as well!

I protested! That was going too far! He answered pragmatically: it would be unfair for one member of the family to have a television if everyone couldn't. My mother had a more philosophical approach to the matter: television was a bad influence. "It's television that causes all these arguments." Q.E.D. End of discussion.

So while other teenagers fought with their parents about getting in on time from dates, using the family car, or failing geometry, I was engaged in a losing battle over the disposition of my televisions. My friends couldn't understand. How could they? I suffered in silence. Deprived, cold-turkey, of the soothing, metallic light of the phosphorus screen, I solemnly returned to radios, Bunsen burners, and books.

Six months later, a friend of my father who came to my rescue. His television was on the blink, he mentioned to me one day, would I look at it? Lo and behold, it was a 1970 nineteen-inch Zenith black and white. The transformer was burned out. I didn't know what I could come up with right away, I told him, but I did have a fine set in prime condition that I didn't happen to be using at the time . . . .

My father produced the tubes, and his friend went happily on his way.

It did not take me long to dig up a matching transformer for the Zenith. After a successful transplant, I was back in business again. I had learned my lesson, though. I installed a more convincing set of dummy components and never left a tube in the chassis overnight for which I did not have a backup available in a safe and secret place.

Somewhere in this timeline is the (officially sanctioned) television I "lent" to my brother when he broke his leg and was bedridden for a month in traction. That set had a remote based on high-frequency sound waves. We discovered that any loud clanging sound would change the channels too.

My television viewing went on uninterrupted for the rest of my high school years, and I grew quite proud of my skulduggery. Then one day my mother asked me about a controversial program she read had been on television the night before.

"What television?" I replied (Baldrick again).

"Oh, come now," she said. "You don't think we don't know, do you? Your father decided that it wasn't worth the bother any more. If you wanted a television so badly, you could keep it, but he wouldn't condone it."

After all the planning and conspiracy! After all the effort! Victory had been wrested from my grasp. I slunk back to my room, wounded to the core.

Parents never surrender, though. When they moved to Maine, they got rid of every cathode ray tube, chassis, and television in the house, including an ancient oscilloscope I started working on two decades before and never finished (the electronic equivalent of your neighbor's 1968 Mustang that's been up on cinderblocks since the Clinton presidency).

On the other hand, they now have several computers. Which, of course, can stream video. But that's not television. Because it isn't. And, quite honestly, I agree. If I ever get serious about streaming, I'm plugging a Roku into the television. Because you watch television. You work at a computer.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
I love the covert revolution here; after all, we all grew up to own television sets :)

And yeah, streaming is not television--it's not relaxing at all!

So did you watch the controversial program? Star Trek? Family Freud? What was the viewing of choice?

I reference this post in my latest post: "Why I'm not Anti-Disney".

Hey, did you watch The Wonderful World of Disney?
8/04/2017 5:57 AM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Star Trek, of course. By then it was in reruns. I remember being annoyed by the absurd premise of Space 1999 but watched most of the episodes (I can only vaguely recall part of one). I probably watched the occasional movie on Wonderful World of Disney.

I saw original episodes or fresh reruns of Hawaii Five-0, Mission Impossible, It Takes a Thief. I distinctly recall The Bridge at Remagen, a war movie that holds up well, and Paint Your Wagon, the ending of which I thought was the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

And, of course, You Only Live Twice. The greatest movie ever!
8/04/2017 8:23 AM