In my childhood, television was very limited. And I mean that in every possible way.
First, it went without saying that the television was never to be turned on when there was work to be done. And there was ALWAYS work to be done.
I remember with ridiculous clarity one day, four girls being left alone in the house while our mother made a quick trip to see a neighbor. Some temporary insanity caused us to decide to go all wild and crazy and turn the television on in the middle of the day.
The picture tube needed to warm up, the screen finally coming to life to some bland, black and white boring old people talking about nothing of interest, when we realized our mother had returned home.
Like juvenile delinquents without a plan, we rushed to turn the TV off. Just as the TV picture never came on quickly back then, it didn’t go away quickly when turned off, either.
My older sister realized that the white dot was emblazoned in the middle of the screen, revealing our guilt. She ordered me to stand in front of the screen so our mother wouldn’t see it. I stood, stick-straight like the village idiot, guilt written all over my face, as my sisters vanished to whatever chore they had been assigned to accomplish. Big surprise: I got us all in trouble and I heard grumblings about it for a very long time.
Each night when the evening milking was done, supper finished, there was a mountain of dishes needing washed, dried and put away. I remember all sneaky-Pete-like offering to carry my dad a cup of coffee as he sat down to watch David Brinkley and Chet Huntley deliver the news.
If I lucked out, the old TV screen would start rolling in the way that only those over a certain age will remember, and I could volunteer to fiddle with the vertical hold button, therefore getting out of drying dishes.
The news was so agonizingly boring back then, though, that drying dishes might have actually been more fun. The old TV was enormous, though not in the magnificent way that today’s televisions are; our screen was a tiny square of gray set inside of a clod-hopper sized cabinet.
I can only imagine that each television must have weighed about as much as an old Buick, though the picture left a whole lot to be desired. We were able to get one station extremely well and two others reasonably well if the skies were clear and we’d been living right. If the wind blew too hard, fixing it required an assembly line of kids to help Dad adjust the TV antennae on the roof.
As the youngest, I was ordered to watch the screen and holler, “No, no good,” or “It’s getting worse!” or “Holy cow, that’s the best it’s ever been!” and anything said would be repeated to the kid at the foot of the stairs, then by the kid at the top of the stairs ,passed on to the kid at the open window to the roof, resonating like an echo all the way. I figure that this was why families had a certain number of kids, just to cover whatever stretch of space a house required from TV to roof.
There were only two shows we were allowed to watch with any regularity: The Andy Griffith Show and Bonanza. Ask anyone alive in the 1960s to whistle the tune to either show and they won’t even have to give it a moment’s thought. Every boy either wanted to be Opie or Little Joe, and every girl likely had a crush on Opie or Little Joe, depending on their age. Hoss was the guy you wanted on your side in a fight.
Mayberry, while perhaps exaggeratedly silly, didn’t seem unthinkable because it mirrored us in many ways. Bonanza was just a gussied-up bunch of farmers who never got dirty and never had to haul manure out of the horse barn, or accomplish real work of any type, for that matter.
Today, most kids have all sorts of entertainment available at their fingertips any hour of the day. They will never know the thrill of getting to stay up late enough to watch the ‘over and out’ sign-off as the airwaves went fuzzy, then silent.
Now we are never truly silent.
(Next week: Color comes to the country.)