Silencing the circus we call television

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A month or so ago, the manager of this one-dog farmette clipped the coaxial cable that linked our rural home to the yellers at CNBC, CNN, Fox and the 264 other big-haired television airheads bloviating about other bloviators.

Our children, both fulfilling their destinies on the East Coast and therefore no part of the coming Great Silence, were stunned. “What will you do for, like, Jon Stewart or Cardinal baseball?” they asked.

Don’t know, but once you’ve given up nicotine — I ended that torrid, 35-year love affair last August — you discover you can live pretty happily on four life-sustaining essentials: love, red meat, a couple of newspapers a day and Guinness.

Managed to survive

Somehow we managed to survive and thrive on less than that on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth. Even more shocking, we did it with only one television that received just four St. Louis stations.

Pretty skinny menu for, at the time, five children, two parents, an occasional live-in grandmother, a poodle and Uncle Honey.

Our television, however, projected in color; two of ’em, in fact: black and white. The only person I knew who had a real color TV was Uncle Wally. (Once, during a visit to Uncle Wally’s, we watched Gunsmoke’s Marshal Dillon walk into a gunfight wearing a pink Stetson. Lame hat notwithstanding, he drilled his opponent.)

Filled the void

To fill the colorless void of our upbringing, my brothers, sister and I often played baseball in the nearby pasture, rode bikes, went fishing, searched the fields for arrowheads, built model cars, swam in the pond, hunted rabbits, quail or squirrels, made and drove go-carts and, later, rebuilt a super cool ’47 Ford pickup.

In our spare time we baled hay, hauled silage, canned vegetables, milked cows, peeled potatoes, fed calves, cultivated corn, picked peas, washed windows, sowed alfalfa and… well, we kept so busy we simply didn’t have time to miss today’s eyeball-grabbing, silence-shattering necessities like cable TV, cell phones and iPods.

Disadvantaged

Despite this lack of 24/7 connectivity, I didn’t know how disadvantaged we were until 1965 or so when I spent a weekend at my friend’s 160-acre tenant farm.

Its house had a wood cookstove and no bathroom. But the farm did sport chickens, pigs, a Jersey milk cow, a small flock of almost-pet sheep, some beef cows, a nicely appointed outhouse and a working windmill.

Who needed television when there were chickens to chase, sheep to ride and a windmill to climb? It was easily the best weekend of my young life.

Sometime in the late 1960s, a tiny black-and-white portable TV sprouted in the corner of our big farm kitchen.

It was less to entertain my mother during the day — Oprah? What’s an Oprah? — than to keep my father, and later us boys, company when we ate supper alone after the evening milking.

Window on the world

That TV, far more than the one in the family room, became our window on the world. On it I saw Jack Nicklaus win his fourth slate gray jacket at the 1972 Master’s, watched Archie Bunker’s pasty face darken when he yelled at his meathead son-in-law and witnessed Sen. Sam Ervin shake his Deputy Dog jowls at Watergate conspirators.

Looking back, my guess is media scholars will likely peg that time, not today, as television’s premier age. We were a better informed, better entertained and far-less divided nation before today’s satellite monkeys began their circus acts.

After all, if I want to see a circus, I’ll buy a ticket, and if I want the news, I’ll buy more newspapers.

With the $780 a year I’m not sending to some nicotine-ingesting media titan, I can afford both.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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