Somewhere fairly early in my life we got a television. While the details remain sketchy, I do remember that for the longest time it was Black-and-White. In my memory the box was big, and the screen was small. Back in the day (which is what we all said “back in the day”) all the televisions had big tubes. The most obvious was a humungous glass cathode ray vacuum tube with a heavy lead glass screen, deeper than it was wide. Behind it, in the furniture-sized cabinet with spindle legs that held everything together, were a dozen or so smaller tubes that did, well, I’m not sure what they did but there were plenty of them back there. Every so often we had to replace one or two or many.
Dad, of course, was in total control of the television. What he wanted to watch, we all watched. Luckily, at least in a sense, there weren’t very many choices. You had ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and some other stations that were mostly spots on the dial and snow on the screen. Snow was what we called the visual static that some channels seemed to broadcast all but a few hours of the day. [In retrospect, I wondered if we used the term “snow” because we had long, cold, snowy winters while folks down South or West used a more regional term, like “sand” or “dust.” But I digress.]
That total control included the ability to order one of us kids to change the channel whenever he barked his command. The nightly news would end and, depending on the day, he would tell one of us to get up from wherever we were sitting (or in my case, sprawled on the floor) and physically turn the dial to the desired station. If needed, and it was almost always needed, we would jiggle the rabbit ears or other inside antenna to alleviate the blizzard and get a clear(ish) picture. Occasionally we would have to get up on the roof to adjust the big flying external antenna, though to the delight of my mild acrophobia, Dad usually took on that responsibility himself.
I should mention that the most used channels were all VHF (very high frequency) stations, with numbers like 2, 4, and 7. We had a second dial with UHF (ultra high frequency) stations, most notably Channel 38, our source for our sometimes obsessive-compulsive watching of the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots (and for one season only, the Lobsters).
At some point in time we got a television that came with an actual remote control and our days as human remotes were over. The Black-and-White television went Color sometime after I entered my teen years, which was good because I had recently been zapped onto my butt trying to unplug an old TV billowing smoke into our rented house. My life getting zapped is a story for another day.
Not surprisingly, Dad controlled the remote control like he was Charlton Heston making his stand at an NRA convention. We still watched what he wanted to watch, we just lost a lot of exercise watching it. As we got older we often found something else to do anyway. Today he continues to lounge in his favorite recliner, remote in hand, ready to turn off the sound as each commercial roars to life at twice the volume of the program. The remote now seems to be something off a future starship, so complicated that even turning off the television takes several tries and yet another look at the 30-page operator’s manual.
Given the quality of programming today, however, Dad is most likely dozing off in the middle of whatever, the television remotely controlled as background noise. Life has moved on, but sometimes when I’m home visiting I find myself wanting to sprawl on the floor, poised to leap up and change the channel in anticipation of Dad’s wishes.
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David J. Kent is President of the Lincoln Group of DC and the author of Lincoln: The Fire of Genius: How Abraham Lincoln’s Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America and Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America.
His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World and two specialty e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.