Being Raised With, and By, Television

boy

When I was a baby, my parents very dutifully documented every occurrence in my life and the world around me, in a rag-tag scrapbook they called a “baby book.”  There are lots of black-and-white snapshots documenting those early days, weeks, months and years (in logarithmic fashion, as my Dad tired of being the family photographer). Some of these have stood the test of time well, but many of them less so as the stains from poorly manufactured, yellowed Scotch tape will attest.
tape
There are newspaper clippings about the Orioles (they had pennant aspirations in 1961 with a crew of young pitchers called the “Baby Birds), popular cars (the Ford Thunderbird seemed to catch my Dad’s fancy), fashions (have some plaid with your plaid) and technology’s impact on everyday life.  As Dad documented, “Well, it looks like both air conditioning and television are here to stay.”Television.

baby bird

As the years have gone by, what I have come to cherish the most about this homespun photo-journalistic effort is the narrative written in my Dad’s longhand.  He wrote about television a little bit, and the shows he said we watched together.  I vaguely recall watching Dragnet, The FBI, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Yep, Dad and I were all about the ABC lineup on Sunday nights.

 

vbs

old tv

The earliest television set (they were called that then) I can recall was a piece of furniture on legs, finished in blondish wood with a round, greenish screen a little larger than a dinner plate.  Manufactured by a long-since-defunct Baltimore company, it had four-detente channel positions:  2, 11, 13 and off.  UHF channels (14 and above) did not yet exist and the TVs of that era did not have the capacity to pull in stations from far-away locales such as Washington DC. Three channels, beaming from the “Candelabra” tower I could see from our driveway, provided more than all the electronic entertainment I ever could want.  Or so I thought.
tower
The television set itself had peculiarities of interest to little boys, not the least of which was learning the magic behind just how they worked.  Mind you, I was the kid who dismantled his etch-a-sketch and got that silver powder all over the floor, in a quest for technical understanding.  The living room television set had an odd backing made of heavy cardboard with little round air holes for ventilation, but the holes were not big enough to see through clearly.  The TV had vacuum tubes and took awhile to warm up, and during that time something magical clearly was happening behind those little round air holes, but the time of being old enough to understand how to remove the screws holding the cardboard in place also meant that I was old enough to read and understand “Electrical shock hazard.  Death may occur…”  I did open the back for many an inspection, but never touched anything.
rear
I vaguely recall that television stations in the early and mid 60s would not necessarily broadcast all day. They would go dark overnight and sometimes even over the mid-day hours.  “Pete the Pirate” would begin the afternoon telecasts on WMAR for example, which did not broadcast between about 10AM and 3PM because, one supposed, that station managers judged that not enough people would be watching to justify the expense.  Yes, it’s true.  Imagine.
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By the mid 60s, the big three Baltimore VHF television stations were on the air from roughly 6AM to midnight, and I would be up at 5:30 or 5:45 watching the test pattern, waiting for the Star Spangled Banner and perhaps thereafter, agricultural reports or something called Sunrise Semester.  It did not matter what and little was aimed at a kid audience – I was hooked.
test pattern 11
Despite this childhood fascination, for most families of my peers the television occupied a position of even greater prominence than in my house.  My parents were decidedly not TV-addicted.  They eschewed mainstream televised entertainment for being insufficiently erudite and lacking in overall artistic value and sophistication.  They generally saw the value of news, public affairs programming and once it came along in the 1970s, public television.  My Dad did have a soft spot for cop procedural dramas; Hawaii Five-O was a weekly staple in our house for that reason.
hawaii five-0
As I got a little older it was cartoons, and then standard-fare network-offered sitcoms and dramas. For me the best part of childhood and teenage television watching was the late afternoon daily airing of a Star Trek rerun. Total escapism for teenage boys. Also, staying home from school for a sick day offered an interesting and rare window of TV reruns from about a decade before my personal awareness: sitcoms and dramas from the 1950s and very early 1960s. No matter what was on, the basic kid TV-watching experience was unchanged: few choices, commercials every 15 minutes or so, and one basically did not do anything else while watching TV. It’s how and my generation still remembers ad jingles of the era, unless the commercial afforded a bathroom break.
start
In the 60s and early 70s, regularly programmed television could be preempted for large news events.  How I came to be a “fan” of NASA and the space program was through preemption of whatever else I was watching for launches, splashdowns, historical achievements and other “special reports.”  Similarly, even through still a pre-teen, television helped make me aware of the Vietnam War, politics and other world events. I remember cartoons being preempted for the JFK funeral and I remember my Mom glued to the set for the Watergate hearings.  Though I now consider myself politically astute and knowledgeable, at the age of 12 nothing was more boring than senatorial hearings on Nixon’s wrongdoings. But nothing else was on.
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I became the household expert at various technological skills lost on the present generation such as the vertical and horizontal hold knobs, aiming and tuning VHF and UHF antennae, and most of all, the deft surgical touch needed to tune in narrow-bandwidth UHF channels including the tight beam of the often-evasive but kid-friendly Channel 45. And, of course, if something went wrong, there was that daunting cardboard backing with the little round air holes.
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During my teen years my house had two televisions and still relied on over-the-air broadcasts.  The “big TV” was a 19-inch black-and-white in our living room, that had to be watched with the volume low because Dad ran his home-based real-estate business from the adjacent dining room and often would be on the phone with clients. In my parents’ bedroom upstairs was a 12-inch black-and-white set, on which I can recall watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon at an hour otherwise past my bedtime.
cronkite
Ultimately and sometime during college, I came home for spring break and found that my parents had lost all control of their anti-TV erudite sensibilities and tumbled hard into the late 20th century, television-wise.  There was a 25-inch color television where the 19-inch black-and-white had been, and there was a channel controller on a long black cord that emanated from a cable box on the floor under the TV.  There also was a new piece of furniture for the TV, for the one on its own legs was gone.  I gamely turned it on, spun the dial, found MTV and my television-watching life instantly had changed forever.
mtv
Martha Quinn. Rock music. Color TV. Television had grown up and I had too.
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