There are many things I don’t care pretend to understand, one of them being how messages travel through the air to our various devices. One of my irrational fears is that the air around us will one day be as crowded with planes, drones, internet chatter and streaming movies as our highways have become crowded with cars and trucks. The changes in my lifetime are highlighted by this story that my mom told me this week.
It started with a discussion about the holes that the husband is always cutting in our doors and walls to balance the air flows in the house. Mom remembered a door in the farmhouse I grew up in. She had to stuff paper, cloth, whatever she could find, in the cracks around it to keep the breeze out. Dad eventually paneled over the door which was the best solution to the problem. The door was in the corner of our living room and that corner was where our first TV sat. It rested on a square table, designed for it, with a cut out to keep the bottom of the TV from overheating.
As mom recalls, we were among the first in our rural neighborhood to even have a TV. We would not have had it except for Uncle Bob and Aunt Irene from the “big city”. Uncle Bob was an artist working for Western Printing illustrating children’s books. They were not rich but it seemed so to us. They took real vacations and brought their speedboat up to the lake near our farm where we all learned to water ski. Uncle Bob liked new cars and traded up frequently. They had a dog of recognizable breed and a house in the suburbs.
They were also generous and passed things along to our family (Dad was Aunt Irene’s little brother). In the early 1950’s one of the hand me downs was a used TV. They got a new model and in those days no one would have thought they needed two so they brought us the old one. It was such a miracle, that pictures could come from hundreds of miles away into our living room. We gave no thought to them looking like they had been filmed outdoors on a snowy day. To make out anything at all on the screen was fascinating to us.
We did have one neighboring farmer who had television and he showed my Dad how to get a better signal from the one broadcasting network 240 miles away in Minneapolis. As I pictured it from Mom’s description, it was a uni-directional array of poles and wires in the field behind our house, designed to “suck in” Ed Sullivan and Lawrence Welk from the sky. Other factors frequently interfered and kept picture quality down but that didn’t keep our family from hosting others to come and experience the wonders of television.
My hands on memories of TV watching came later. A new station originating only 90 miles away in Duluth gave us options, but that also meant upgrading our so called “antenna” in the field. We graduated to a tall pole mounted on the side of the house with a grid of rods that could be rotated in any direction. One of us kids would station ourselves to watch the TV while another would go outside and turn the antenna and a third would relay messages back and forth.
“No, go back, it was better before!”
“Are you still turning?”
“We’re getting nothing now, turn some more!”
“Wait, I saw something!”
The flat, plastic coated, double wire, had to be stripped and the exposed copper threads were twisted around two screws in the back of the tv. That, the on/off switch and a dial with no more than 10 positions for channels, was as complicated as it got.
As exciting as it was to watch shows like “Sky King”, “Roy Rogers”, “Rin Tin Tin” and “Robin Hood”, our real excitement came one day out of a clear blue sky. Our antenna towered above our house which sat in a clearing surrounded by forest and fields. I suppose because it bore a remarkable resemblance to a lightning rod, nature mistook it for one and sent a bolt of lightning its way. Electrical conduction being what it is the lightning zoomed down the wires and into the house, where it burned a hole in the bottom of our TV and scared us half to death. We could have been electrocuted.
But it was the start of the television era for us and we were hooked. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the lightning strike making a bit of difference in our TV watching habits. After the TV was repaired, we just sat a little further away.