Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Along Came Television

I was born in 1947 and we didn’t get our first television until 1958. You see, Dad was a rabid fan of University of Tennessee football. And perhaps the biggest game of the year -- The Vols and the Alabama Crimson Tide – was coming up and, wonder of wonders, it was to be on television! But, alas, we had none. But that was no problem to one of the greatest impulse buyers of all time. Dad left the house that Saturday morning and came back home with a large Admiral TV in the trunk of the family sedan.
I know now what must have been going through his mind that day. I know because I inherited his passion for UT football. As he was driving to the furniture store the day of the game--- The cost of an Admiral TV set - $285.00. That was nearly a month’s salary! Ah, but the miracle of watching the Vols play on live TV - priceless! .
My sister and I waited while Dad hooked everything up. An aluminum antenna was rigged to a wobbly pole just outside the living room window. Later it would be strapped to the chimney and work much better. But as it was we could pick up all of the three available channels, even though two of them were a little snowy.
We sat cross-legged on the living room floor, mesmerized by a show called “Sea Hunt” which starred Lloyd Bridges in a series of undersea adventures. We stared in wonder as the scuba diver swished through the water. We listened to the endless audio track of underwater breathing with the occasional voice over of Lloyd Bridges feeding us the plot. There wasn’t much of a plot, really, but we didn’t care. We were hypnotized by the grainy, black and white images and would have probably stared at a test pattern if nothing else was on.
On one of the channels, we found a show called “Robot Monster” where a guy dressed in an ape suit with a goldfish bowl on his head --- “RoMan”, he was called --- ran around trying to kill the last survivors of a nuclear war. I thought this was art of a high nature. But right in the middle of this high drama, Dad came in to change the channel and get ready for the game. I would later learn that this was the first year that the legendary Bear Bryant coached Bama. Tennessee won the game by 14 points. All was well with the world.
The television and I would spend much more time together that year. I would watch “Highway Patrol” with the round-faced Broderick Crawford as the fearless Dan Matthews. Then there was “One step Beyond”, hosted by John Newland, the man with the world’s spookiest eyes. There was also “Cheyenne”, “Your Hit Parade”, and “Annie Oakley”. There was Tommy Reddick as the first of Lassie’s many friends, Jock Mahoney as “The Range Rider”, and Andy Devine yowling “Hey, Wild Bill…Wait for me!” in his odd, high voice. There was a whole world in vicarious adventure which came packaged in snowy black and white, 14 inches across, and sponsored by brand names which still sound like poetry to me. I loved it all.
But I am glad that television came relatively late to the Bowen household.
I am, when you stop to thinkof it, a member of a fairly select group. The final handful of folks who learned to read and write before having TV infect their consciousness. In the last 30 years television has changed. It is no longer squeaky clean. (In the late fifties and early sixties the network censors depicted married folks as sleeping in twin beds, for crying out loud!) These days television strains to find new ways to be shocking, which the industry considers synonymous with entertaining. I am convinced that you could do worse than to strip your television’s electrical plug wire, wrap it around a large nail, and stick it back into the wall and see what blows and how far. But you won’t do that and neither will I. But, sooner or later, there will be another hurricane, or ice storm, that will knock out the power. And once again we will have the opportunity to remember the joy of simple conversation and perhaps find the stories that were there all along in books.