Things were a long time coming to the county or that's the way it seemed when we were kids. Now I know that it was just that we couldn't ever afford to buy anything new. There is an old saying that "You don't really miss what you've never had" but I can tell you here and now that that's just not so. Older folks often say that when they were kids they had to walk ten miles a day to school and back, they didn't have shoes either and they really didn't mind. Well, take it from someone who walked plenty, they really did mind but they didn't have any choice in the matter.
When Uncle Hal and Aunt Cassie bought their first television set around nineteen fifty-eight, we were just as excited as they were about their new purchase. We rushed down over the hill to view this wondrous invention. We'd sit as close to the glowing screen as we dared and watch the snowy, ghostly, black and white images as though our lives depended on it.
We'd all get interested in a good detective story like Parry Mason and just as the murderer was going to kill the victim, the screen would go all fluttery and white and static would fill the room as the television signal slid away into the heavens somewhere beyond Mars. Uncle Hal, frustrated that he might miss a really important part and being unable to do anything about it, would yell a blistering epithet at the television that would have peeled the skin right off a person. Just as suddenly as the signal had left, the program would resume as though nothing had happened, leaving us wondering who the hell the killer really was. If it hadn't been for Uncle Hal's and Aunt Cassie's kindness, we wouldn't have seen a television program for four more years.
We weren't allowed to go down to their house during the week when we had school and homework but on the weekends and holidays, nothing could keep us away. On Saturday nights, we'd rush down over the hill and watch Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Hour and scare ourselves half to death. Uncle Hal, knowing that when we finally left, we'd have to walk the half mile back up the dirt road to our house in the pitch dark, would wait until just before we were leaving for home and then tell us a God-awful scary story that would set our teeth on edge and our hearts racing.
As soon as the program or Uncle Hal's story had finished and the late night news came on, we'd head for the door and begin the dark, scary walk up over the long hill for home. For folks who lived in the big cities and were used to streetlights, lots of traffic lights or just lights of any kind, it wouldn't have been so scary. But we lived in the outskirts of a very small town in the huge, desolate Aroostook County of Maine and there wasn't a street light or many other houses for miles around. The only lights we'd ever see were the soft glow of a distant falling star or the shifting, frightening bands of iridescent colors from the faraway Northern lights.
We'd scurry around the corner of Aunt Cassie's house, down the circular dirt drive to the road and Walt would be off. He'd be home, in bed and asleep long before the rest of us made it up over the long hill to home. If it was Jake, me and Bub, we'd hunch over, dig in our toes and walk at a brisk pace until a leg cramp or a side ache caused us to slow down to a normal pace. It was all uphill until we got to the top where Mr. Beaulier lived.
During the day, we often snuck down to Mr. Beaulier's barn and played in his haymow unbeknownst to him. We probably knew his property better than he did but at night, his familiar property was an entirely different story.
With the scary television program lingering in our minds, along with Uncle Hal's frightening story, every shadow and sound was magnified a thousand times and even the most common sound of a night owl, hooting in the trees off in the distance behind Mr. Beaulier's barn, put the fear of the unknown into us. Somehow, the most common sounds of everyday life in the county were completely changed by the time and place and dark of night.
It seemed as though Mother Nature conspired against us on those long, cold walks home near midnight. The owls would begin to hoot, the wind would shift direction and blow out of the north and the aurora borealis would begin a dance of shifting light that made us tuck our necks in, pick up our feet and head for home as fast we could go.
For some reason, every time we got to the spot directly across from Mr. Beaulier's barn, we were deathly afraid. We always thought that someone was going to come out of the dark barn and get us. We'd be about three quarters of the way home, sacred half to death and the skies would begin the eerie dance of the northern lights. Some folks would sit for hours and watch this mystical display of shimmering, sliding, colorful lights in the northern sky but it was just plain frightening to us. No matter how many times Dad explained that they were just light beams glancing off the polar ice cap thousands of miles away, we were still afraid.
But after a couple of days had passed, we'd forget how scared we'd been a few days earlier and off we'd go again. The magic of television was a more powerful pull than our fear of the dark and the unknown and the lights that shifted and danced in the sky over our heads.
There finally came the day when we thought we'd died and gone to heaven when we overheard mother saying to Aunt Cassie that she'd like to buy a television. When she'd first broached the subject of buying one a couple of years earlier, Dad had rejected the idea right away. His reasoning was that we didn't "need" a television because we always went to bed so early and besides we were all "readers." Dad had taught us all to play checkers and card games like poker and our favorite game, sixty-three. We spent many happy hours playing cards or checkers with Dad on a Saturday night. Dad said that we didn't need a TV and that was that. End of argument.
It was nineteen fifty-nine when he finally capitulated and the only reason we finally bought one then, was because all of us kids, along with mother, picked potatoes that fall and we pooled our money to help buy a set. Thinking back, I'm sure that if Dad had had the money, he'd have been happy to buy us one earlier. Perhaps, it was just a proud man's way of saving face.
We were so proud of ourselves on that final day of picking when we finally received our money. We had just enough to pay for the television with a little left over to buy a few new school clothes.
The very next morning mother counted the money one more time and then she hurried the two miles across the swamp to Grandfather Colbath's house so that her father could drive her to town to buy the television. Mother walked into Collier's Appliance Store, slapped the money down on the counter and our hard-earned television set was ours.
I'll never forget the day it was delivered. Mother had spent the morning re-arranging the living room to accommodate the newest acquisition. She'd torn the whole room apart, washed the curtains, scrubbed the linoleum and dusted what few pieces of furniture we had. She cleared off the top of an old chest that had been her grandmothers and shoved it into the corner next to the double window. She pushed the heavy, sagging sofa across to the long wall of her bedroom and she carefully arranged Dad's chair so that he would have the optimum view and she was done.
Tired of hearing us whine to turn on the television, she sent us all outdoors so that she could concentrate on getting everything just the way she wanted. Finally, she stood back and gave a tired, satisfied sigh. Everything was perfect, clean and perfect! She was going to wait till Dad got home to turn on the television so that he could experience seeing it come on for the first time along with the rest of us.
When she finally let us in the house, we all hurried into the living room to see our wonderful treasure. We were all discouraged when she announced that she wasn't going to turn it on till Dad got home then she went to the kitchen to start supper. We were all sitting in the living room and it didn't take Jake too long till he discovered that the setting sun from the Western window, reflecting off the dark glass made a prefect screen for hand-puppets. He began twisting and bending his hands into all kinds of shapes and positions and he soon had us rolling around on the floor in laughter. Mother, preparing supper in the kitchen, and hearing all the commotion, yelled at us, demanding to know what we were doing. "We're watching TV!" Jake yelled back and there was a clatter of dishes as mother dropped what she was fixing and came rushing to the door. She had to laugh along with the rest of us when she saw what Jake was doing.
Finally, Dad was home, supper was over, the dishes done and we were allowed to turn on the wondrous machine.
Anticipation and excitement burned inside us like a flame. The sound came on first and the screen lit up but there was no picture. All we saw were snowflakes dancing on the black screen and static crashing in our ears. Disappointment fell on the room like a dark cloud on a sunny day. Mother ran to adjust the rabbit ears and finally we were able to get the snowy, faraway broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Dad sat back in his old chair with a red headed child on one side and a blond headed child on the other. We were mesmerized by the commercials even though the screen was so snowy that we really couldn't see them all that well.
Dad took a little time to warm up to the idea of having a TV. We were all readers and Dad was used to seeing us kids with a book in our hands. Now all we did was spend every spare moment glued to the television set. Since Dad was up at four every morning and went to bed with the chickens every night around seven o'clock, we didn't get to watch television all that much.
Finally, the show that really made him a die-hard television fan was the televised fight from Lewiston between Mohammed Ali and Sonny Liston. Dad was an avid boxing fan after that. It was always funny to watch Dad, watching a televised fight. It was just as though he was actually doing the boxing himself. He'd creep to the very edge of his chair and make all the boxing moves just like the fighters on the screen. He'd swing his powerful fists and feint and duck the same way the real boxers did. Mother warned us to be careful and not go too close to Dad when he was watching a boxing match. She was afraid that in a really exciting round, he might take a wild swing and accidentally knock one of us kids out cold.
Since our reception with rabbit ears was lousy to say the least, our next action was to buy an outdoor antenna. Our house was situated in a wide open potato field and in a fairly high area so Dad figured that with a better antenna, we ought to be able to pull in Pluto if we had a mind to. We roamed the roads for miles around and lugged home every beer bottle and soda can we could find and we found plenty! We used this money to buy the much needed antenna.
Jake went down in the woods and cut down a good-sized tree and then he cut off all the limbs and we were ready. Dad bolted the antenna to the top of the pole and then we carefully lugged it up on the house roof. Once he'd attached the antenna pole to the side of the chimney we were ready to run the wire for the TV. Finally, everything was ready and we ran down the shed roof and jumped off. It didn't take too long before the antenna wires were all hooked up to the television and with baited breath; we turned the set on.
We were in heaven! Finally, we could really see what was going on on the screen! We were beside ourselves. It was like a miracle! Not only could we get the local channels from Presque Isle and faraway Bangor but we pulled in some of the Canadian stations too. We couldn't understand French but that didn't matter, we could see the pictures and understand what was happening anyway.
Having grown-up with French speaking people all around, we were used to hearing this spoken language but not in our house. Jake began to mimic the Canadian announcers and tried to speak French the same way they did. Dad, after hearing Jake doing his latest French pronunciations, looked at mother and said that he guessed that someone must have "jumped" the fence with that one. Mother cast Dad a long look that said, "If you value your life, you'd better not say another word."
Dad was finally won over when spring and baseball season rolled around. He was a baseball fan all his life and the team he truly loved best was the Boston Red Sox. Dad seldom laid a hand on any of us kids but we knew that we'd better shut-up when he was watching a Red Sox game. He'd pull down the shade on the western window to cut the glare off the television and then he'd move his chair so that it was perfectly aligned in front of the screen. Then, he'd sit back with a cold, homemade brew, a Chesterfield cigarette smoking in the ashtray on the arm of his chair and watch the game like a man who'd fallen in love for the very first time. And he really had.
Mother said that Aunt Cassie had been to visit to see why we hadn't been down to see her lately and when she learned that we now had a television set too, she said that it probably was going to be a long time before she saw the likes of us again and that she sure missed our visits.
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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