“This is the happiest day of my life.” Thus I spoke one day in 1967. I was 4 years old and talking to a television salesman. Why was I so happy? My family had just purchased its first color television. Color TV, my friends. It was that simple. I had seen Batman and Get Smart with their tantalizing “In Color” graphics at the bottom. Until that day, I could only dream of what that really meant. Lost in Space, too was in color, as were many other TV shows. Even at 4 years old, I knew that a life-changing event was unfolding.
I think the TV was an RCA. Could have been a Philco or Zenith. Of course, it had a round screen. No remote control, either. The only remote control I had ever seen was on an episode of Dennis the Menace. It was roughly the size of a brick. No, our new TV had a dial. That was okay, because I liked to sit so close to it that I could just reach up and turn the channels as needed. My mother told me that sitting close to the TV would cause me to die of radiation poisoning, but I was willing to risk it. (As a side note, she said standing beside the TV would give one a mega-dose of deadly radiation waves. I never bothered to find out if any of that was true. After all, you couldn’t see the screen).
TVs used to be complex. They were called TV “sets,” for some reason. If you removed the back, the cabinet was full of vacuum tubes of every size imaginable. Those tubes held all the magic, especially the big one–the picture tube. I was never allowed behind the TV. My mother made it clear that to venture to the back of the TV was almost sure to result in sudden and fatal electrocution injuries. I did, however, have occasion to watch the TV repairman work on it.
Oh, yes, there were TV repairmen. They would come to your house and work on the TV. They carried large cases full of vacuum tubes. Once, I mistook the Jewel Tea Man for Mr. Simms, the TV repairman. I furiously castigated him for being so late to fix the TV. I think I was 6 years old at the time. I was serious about the TV.
Remember vertical and horizontal “hold” dials? If you do, you’re as old as I am. For the uniformed, these were tuning knobs you could use to adjust the picture if the screen image began rolling or zig zagging. “DON’T TOUCH THOSE DIALS.” If you messed up the picture, you might never get it right again.
TV was dangerous in those days, too. If you broke the picture tube, the TV would explode, killing everyone in the house. “DON’T HIT THE SCREEN WITH ANYTHING.” There was the poor boy who–for reasons that remained obscure–kissed the screen and died immediately. My mom never said whether he was related to the boy who died under similar circumstances kissing a toaster, but it seems likely. Perhaps my unbridled love of the TV made mom concerned that I would get carried away with passion. At least I understood the toaster story, given that I liked to stare at my reflection in it like a small Narcissus.
TV stations used to go off the air at midnight, some at 11:30. They’d usually sign off with The Star Spangled Banner. You’d just have white noise or maybe a test pattern until 6:00 a.m.
I don’t know the purpose of the test pattern, but someone used it to test something every night. The old TVs were powered by the magic of the cathode ray:
To this day, I don’t understand any of this. To me, here is how it works:
We all know the power of television. Dress up any troglodyte and put him on TV enough, and–PRESTO!–he’ll be elected to public office. Have you ever been on TV? Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re just a little better person than you were before? People will say: “Hey! I saw you on TV!” You could be on TV eating a live squirrel and people would still think: “Hmmm. There’s something different about him, now.” The first time I was on TV, I was probably 8 years old. It was the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival Parade. My brother and I were riding in a convertible. I think it was John L. Belcher’s car. If not, it should have been. It was the kind of car John L would have driven.
Virgil Q. Wacks filmed the parade for his TV show, Virgil Q. Wacks Variety Time. If you’re not familiar with Virgil Q, I can’t describe his show. It was a kind of an advertising/travelogue program. He filmed us in the car and there we were–on TV. His film collection is archived at East Tennessee State University where we live forever.
There were many disadvantages to growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, but TV wasn’t one of them. We had cable. That’s right–cable TV in the 1960’s It was the only way to get a TV signal in the mountains. (As a side note, I am the owner of 1 share of Harlan Community Television, Inc., the longtime local cable company). In those days, TV channels ranged from 2 through 13, with the little understood UHF channel to boot. We had signals on all the channels on the dial: Lexington, Kingsport, Knoxville, Asheville. We might have been Ground Zero in the War on Poverty, but by God we won the TV War before it even started.
I loved that color TV. Eventually, the dial (or channel changer, as I called it) fell off. As most families did, we replaced it with a pair of pliers until it could be located, a minor inconvenience. Sometimes, I would lie on my back and watch the TV upside down just for the hell of it.
I spent many hours in front of that TV. Yes, Batman was in color. Spectacular color, too. By the end of the ’60’s, everything was in color! When I was around 8, I started watching sports on that TV. Hey, kids: There used to be one Major League Baseball game a week on TV. It was called, fittingly enough, The Game of the Week. It came 0n Saturdays, and I always watched. There was also an NBA Game of the Week. My earliest sports memory is Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers vs. Lew Alcindor and the Bucks. You rarely saw some athletes at all. The only time you’d see some players would All-Star games or playoffs. The NFL, being ahead of its time, always had a couple of games on Sundays.
I am part of the TV Generation. I knew the TV schedule every night of the week. When I was 3 years old, I surprised my parents by counting to 100 one night. When my mother asked where I learned that, I could only reply: “From the TV.” I was told–and still am–that TV will rot my brain. Perhaps it has. I know the lyrics to the theme for Gilligan’s Island, yet I will sometimes forget my children’s birth dates.
One of the calling cards of the intellectual is the refrain that “I don’t watch television.” I’m not an intellectual, and I do watch TV. Always have, always will. I watch sports on TV. I watch movies on TV. I watch sitcoms and true crime and reality shows. I’ll watch anything for a few minutes. I’ll watch Toddlers & Tiaras just to get outraged. I’ll watch shows about 900 pound people. I’ll watch reruns of King of Queens just to marvel at how it could have been on the air for years. It’s as funny as a truck load of dead babies, but I’ll watch it. I’ll watch the news, the weather, the History Channel. I’ll watch Road House for 500th time. I may know more about the Beverly Hillbillies than any person alive, and I’m proud of it. TV series, miniseries, short films, previews, reviews–everything.
That first color TV didn’t stay around all that long. Within a few years, my father enjoyed some financial success, and we had TVs everywhere. We even got a remote control Zenith. We had a TV in our bedroom (technically, it was my brother’s). We had a TV in the kitchen, too. The old TV was relegated to the basement where we continued to use it, but it was now like an old horse put out to pasture. Like a horse, it sat in that basement for many years after it quit working entirely.
Now, I have monstrous TVs. 46 inch, 60 inch, plasma, LCD, high def–you name it. Hundreds and hundreds of channels–all at my finger tips. I not only have a remote control, I have a pillow which doubles as a universal remote. None of them, though, ever thrilled me like the first one. I’ve loved them all, but none of them–none–ever made me declare that it was the best day of my life.
One day, there may some disaster which destroys society and forces us to start over. The first thing I’ll do is try to figure out how to build a TV. TVs–like ships and airplanes–work on some kind of magic, I’m sure. So, I don’t where I’d start, but I’d get right on it.
Oh, and it would have to be a color TV.