Odd hissing sounds emanated from an otherwise silent Chieftain.
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The deliverymen muttered unintelligible sounds to each other as they strained to position the huge walnut box onto the floor next to the fireplace. It was our first television—a hulking mountain called a Philco; bigger than our wringer washing machine. As if summoned to audience by the Wizard of Oz, our family sat in rigid formation on the sofa, like crows upon a telephone line.
“Wait!” Shouted my mother, leaping up to dash over to the TV and place carpet-covered floor protector disks under its cabinet legs. The deliverymen grimaced, obviously irritated by having to hold the dead weight a foot off the floor for what must have seemed like an eternity. Disks now in place, they set the giant down with a grunt.
The store’s technician plugged the set in, and we waited as a green light glowed from the center of the tube, eventually radiating out to fill the screen with shimmering and snowy images. The black and white picture was fuzzy and the sound seemed to be coming from a train tunnel. A sudden panic seized our family. Is this all there is to television?
“Turn the antenna a bit to the east and a little more angled,” one man said. “Ears should be pointing about ten o’clock and two o’clock.” The picture began to crystallize. We could see people in a living room setting. It was a program called “The Guiding Light”—something my mother was familiar with called a “soap opera.” The show was a clone of the long-popular radio program of the same name. I remember how Mom cried after the first fifteen-minute episode. She said that the actors did not “look” like her minds-eye portraits from the radio days. Her sadness soon passed and she accepted that Bill Bauer didn’t have to have blond hair, or that Trudy could have actually been that skinny. We were so thrilled over the advent of television that even soap operas had value. We all watched them religiously—even us kids, when not in school.
I quickly noticed that soap operas were devious. Unexplained things happened, like a cast member being killed but showing up a few months later like it didn’t happen. Such fiddling around with a character was just one of many examples of “script shifts.” Shifts were wildly-concocted events that writers dreamed up to lengthen a cast member’s life-expectancy, or to exchange set-props made obsolete by changing times. We never saw the crank telephone being removed from the wall, but suddenly there appeared a bakelite dial phone on the coffee table. I guess we weren’t supposed to notice that the men suddenly quit wearing spats, or that ladies’ hemlines had shifted skyward. Thus while the scenes were being subtly altered, the players seemed to stay eternally young. Unlike we the audience, the passage of soap opera time occurred at a trickle.
Other shows soon made the trip to television. I suppose we all went through some degree of Mom’s character-image agony as each new program emerged from radio’s darkness. Each family member soon had his or her favorite, and we scrawled the channels and show times beside our names on a tablet. Treaties emerged so that one person gave deference to another’s favorite show when conflicts arose. I endured The Guiding Light and Ted Mack so I could watch Gangbusters and the Lone Ranger; but we all had to stand down for Dad’s Gillette Friday Night Fights.
New and totally original programs were developed. Now there was something to watch from breakfast until the midnight Air Force fly-over and National Anthem signaled the end of the TV day. Our family spent almost all its evening hours in front of the hypnotic screen, soaking in all it offered. Saturday mornings at the downtown theatres no longer held me captive. I had serials to watch right at home. Indeed, even the popcorn made in our own pan rivaled what the Paramount lobby offered. And maybe best of all, I no longer had to endure sweltering nights clogged with swarming insects so my parents could enjoy the outdoor screen at the Capri Drive-In. The films they preferred were syrupy love stories where we were led to believe married couples only had single beds separated by lamp tables.
It is written that all good things must end. Out of nowhere there emerged a rumor more threatening than the scariest scenes in Flash Gordon’s battles with the villain Ming. Someone was proposing a terrifying possibility. The very words made our family cringe:
I don’t know who first uttered those words, but suddenly everyone began talking about it. We heard that the practice had been invented by something called the “BBC” in England, which charged the public a “viewer license fee.” To us, it seemed completely unnatural for the two words to even be hooked together. “Pay” and “Television” was the world’s most obvious oxymoron, and completely un-American. Would we also be forced into afternoon tea, cricket, and funny pronunciations of our words? Would we have to fire Ike and hire a queen?
The concept became increasingly ominous as we began to hear more detailed rumors. It was said that a uniformed bobby would come to the house and install a little meter, like cab drivers used. Another version was that a metal coin box would be welded to the television like a newspaper rack, to be emptied once a month by armored car guards. Handfuls of quarters would need to be deposited into the slot before Roy Rogers would be permitted to mount Trigger. A month’s allowance might be required to find out if Superman would fall victim to stolen Kryptonite.
Then came the most frightful possibility of all: What if Dad, who controlled all family finances, decided that our budget could only afford The Friday Night Fights? He who held the purse would have command of the tuner.
The newspapers wrote about Pay TV being inevitable. Kids at school talked about it in cataclysmic terms. When we practiced duck and cover drills in the cafeteria, it seemed to me that the frenzied cold war risk of a Russian atom bomb should yield to the real threat—a condition of national urgency where basic TV freedoms were suddenly being held hostage to Cockney Channel Annihilation. How could our country have its priorities so misplaced? We should have the Brits ducking for cover because they thought of the dumb idea to start with.
The stress had risen to stellar heights when suddenly the rumors stopped. As if an earthen dam had been installed across a river, there was no more discussion about the looming catastrophe.
The mystery of what happened was never clear. It just ended. Free TV would continue.
I never knew for sure, but I figured that Ike arranged for the Brits to just shut up. After all, they still owed us a bunch of ships we loaned them in the war.
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