Ours was one of the last families in our neighborhood to get a television set. It was either 1953 or 1954. There were starting to be conversations in my classroom about television and programs children had watched the night before. I felt cheated that I couldn’t join in the sharing. I remember many a time running, literally, across the back lots of the neighbors’ properties (in those days there were no fences or horse corrals to impede my progress, and each lot was a full acre, usually with just empty land at the back) to another house about a quarter mile away, without telling my mother where I was going. I was six and seven during those years, and if a child did that today and stayed away an hour or more without the parent knowing where they were, there would probably be hell to pay. Or fear of abduction or other horror. But, I lived through these forays unscathed. I would go to the home of Ann and Squeaker Coats, to watch their set. We would watch Howdy Doody and Pinky Lee. And then my mother would telephone Mrs. Coats if the party line were not tied up, to confirm that I was there and to tell her to send me home for dinner. Or if it were late fall, my mother might drive over with the car so I wouldn’t have to cross the back lots in the dark, and then she would chat with Mrs. Coats while I finished watching Howdy Doody and the antics of Clarabell the Clown. I can still hear the laughter of the boys and girls in the Peanut Gallery laughing as Clarabell romped across the stage with his seltzer bottle, spritzing Buffalo Bob, and honking his horn.
One week day I came walking home, having first been delivered to a neighbor’s house by the car pool, and I walked into our gravel driveway swinging my blue and grey lunch box and noticed that a TV antenna was being installed on our roof. And one of my father’s friends, a man in his car pool named Al DeLong, was there. His car was parked in the driveway. He was in the process of crawling under the house via the vented crawl space on the North side to pull through and secure various wires. I was just at the age where I was beginning to use logic, and it made sense to me that if there was an antenna, then surely there must be a television associated with the endeavor. Could it be? It was almost too much to hope for, so I tried mightily not to get too excited. But it was in vain. I was so thrilled that I was hopping up and down and trembling at the sheer idea of it. We were getting a television! This was the most momentous event to happen at our house since we had lived there. And the neighbors noticed too, as the antenna went up, that the Pursells were joining the modern age and getting a television.
The television set was one that Al DeLong was no longer in need of, as they were getting a newer model. So we were buying his old one. My parents bought it from him in installment payments. It makes sense, looking back, as we couldn’t have afforded a brand new one, and my mother would have considered it a needless luxury. She would say that it was more important to give money to the missions to feed starving children than it was for us to have a television. The tall antenna was mounted on the ground attached to an extension pole, but abutted the roof line as it went up, and was anchored to the eaves of the house to ensure it could survive the high winds that the area is known for. It was absolutely essential in those days long before cable. We lived on the other side of the mountains from Los Angeles, in the high Mojave desert, and the antenna had to extend high up in order to pick up the signals from Mount Wilson.
The magic monstrosity was a Capehart brand in a huge blond wooden box, very nearly cube shaped, a table model, and it had green plastic tuning knobs with ivory colored markings for the channel numbers. It would make a ka-chunking sound each time you turned the dial to the next channel. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, going from channel 2 to channel 7. I remember the very first program I watched on that set later that night. It was an episode of Amos and Andy and I still remember the details. It was about Andy Brown buying a house. And the Kingfish took him to a lot with a painted sign showing a house, yet to be built, and tried to sell him this vacant lot. And Andy was too slow to realize, right off, that the Kingfish was trying to dupe him. It was my first experience of “grown up TV.” And I laughed and thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. And right away I became a devout fan of that series. Of course my parents knew all about Amos and Andy from radio. I didn’t understand about racism or stereotyping back then, but there were no black people in my world in those years, so this whole experience was novel – the television, the black actors, the plots, the humorous dialogue and the way they talked. They might as well have flown in from the moon on space ships.
But the newness of the magic and wonder didn’t wear off for a very long time, because even after I got used to having a set in our house, new and different shows were popping up every few months over the next several years. This was still the golden age of television and I was a television junkie of the worst sort, or the best and loyal sort, depending on one’s perspective. Night after night, the magic and wonder would roll into our living room and I was spellbound. In those early days there were the after-school programs like Engineer Bill and Skipper Frank, who hosted cartoon programs, and Pinky Lee and Webster Webfoot. And later there would be Jack Benny, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton, I Married Joan, My Little Margie, and Mama (one of my mother’s favorites), Roy Rogers and on and on. It was also about life and the world unfolding in wonder at ages seven, eight and nine, but I remember those years in large part by what was unfolding to entertain and amaze me through television. It was dizzying, eye-popping, awe-evoking and mind boggling. I didn’t think much about attaching words to the feelings at the time, because I didn’t have enough vocabulary words, but the feelings affected me physically, viscerally too. I could feel the excitement in my gut, even if I didn’t have the words. It would build in the afternoon, and through dinner time, as I anticipated the magic to come between six and eight o’clock. Later I would be allowed to stay up until nine.
Perhaps that is one of the sad realities of growing up – the simple things that once evoked awe and wonder don’t do it any more. Or it takes more momentous events to evoke that same feeling, like traveling to a foreign country and viewing a completely alien set of circumstances, culture, language and currency. Yet sometimes something relatively small can spark such a feeling, like events in nature, or viewing great art, or hearing certain music or lyrics. Remembering doesn’t totally re-create the wonder, but it is a clear reminder that such brushes with magic do, nonetheless, exist and when they occur unexpectedly we should grab on and hold fast, imprint the memory indelibly, because the splendor can be fleeting. But if the magic is pivotal, the feeling that comes with it can transcend time.