The year, I would guess from my recollection, was 1953. The TV was a Capehart TV radio and phonograph console in a wooden cabinet with hinged doors that covered the entire front of the console when closed. We never kept the doors closed, though. It had two twelve-inch woofers that would shake the windows in the house when my brother or I turned up the volume on the record player or the radio. The good AM radio stations would only come in at night and our parents were always around in the evenings so the window shaking was reserved for special opportunities on the weekend. But the weekends were for watching the TV!
The only TV station within range at the time was WABI in Bangor, even now the CBS affiliate in central Maine. WABI began broadcasting in 1953 and I'm sure that was the reason my dad decided to buy the big black-and-white Capehart when he did. We lived very close to the poverty line, but television must have become an instant priority for my dad who was approaching retirement at the time.
For my brother and I the priority was on Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon half hour Hollywood westerns. Many of the cartoons were shorter clips that originally functioned the way advertisements and movie trailers now function in the theaters, as entertainment prior to the movie. They were well made and very entertaining but short and with plenty of variety. Most of the westerns were half-hour action shows with lots of fast horses and smoking guns and noise, lots of noise. The characters were simple-minded and belonged in three distinct classes. There were good guys who almost always wore something white and bad guys who almost always wore something black and then there was everyone else who must have all just worn dingy brown. Oh yeah, there were the barkeepers and the girls in the saloons, a class of their own. The good guys were always trying to catch the bad guys for the sake everyone else, the victims. That kept it simple so the directors could focus on the action and the producers could focus on the music.
Most Saturday afternoons also had old World War II newsreels which weren't all that old at the time. They were still fresh in the memories of many adult Americans, but even though they were new to me, they seemed somehow old. Yet they were fascinating in a sense. For one thing they were real. These films were films of events that actually happened. Fighters engaged in dogfights with tracer rounds searching out and then blasting from the sky other fighters and enemy bombers. There were the bombing raids over Europe, flack exploding all around these B-17s, wings blown off, smoking carcasses of airplanes that just seconds before carried the hope of America within their bomb bays and crew decks. There were C-47s dropping paratroopers by the hundreds into the sky, Spitfires, Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Zeroes, and Messerschmitt 109s. There were battleships blasting cannons at unseen targets and torpedoes from unseen subs, depth charges rolling off the sterns of ships and their blasts raising the ocean into the sky soon after the drops. There were burned out buildings, raging fires, people in the streets fighting the fires and digging in the rubble. And it seemed to me that all this happened in what may have been an hour a day each Saturday, or was it on Sundays that all that happened?
The TV man was the person who made this all possible during my childhood. Mr. Kelley brought fresh tubes whenever the TV broke. On rare occasions he would need to take it to his shop but he would leave the cabinet with the radio and record player still working at our house. When the picture tube began to fade, he would come with his rejuvenator and miraculously bring the tube back to life for a few more months. On several occasions I remember my brother and I and our friends pitching tents with bed sheets and blankets to block out the daylight from the faded picture so we could watch our Saturday routine. The TV man was my hero! He was so much my hero that I became him from 1979 to 1994. Oh I had my struggles in those fifteen years. Solid state electronics led to the intermittent failures that plagued TV repairmen. Our shop was always running at least one set testing to see if an intermittent condition had been cured by our latest attempt. Sometimes as many as a half dozen televisions were running for weeks at a time just waiting for that intermittent fault to show itself to us again. Needless to say, we were exposed to a lot of reruns, game shows, and soap operas.
Life was simple back then. Cars and trucks were utilities, not play toys. Some people were beginning to have snowmobiles by the 1970s but it took a decade or two before the snowmobile highways became populated. Most boats were for fishing. Not many people had Harleys and most Hondas were for getting to work. There were no computers that we knew of, no iPods or MP3s, not even Walkmans. Music came on vinyl or tape or in the airwaves and the entertainment stars were real stars and not just bright lights in the city sky.
But that image of the lumbering B-17 being hit by enemy tracers, flashing into a cloud of smoke, dropping into a death spin headed straight for the ground, for some reason that image remains strong in my aging mind. That and the charging horses carrying the good guys to victory and the bad guys to their fate still remain vivid to me. Maybe that's why I found it so easy to get caught up in the America of late 2001.
9/11 triggered something in my head that went all the way back to those childhood weekends in front of the television. My attention was glued to the set just as it used to be when I was a child. The television wasn't just something going on over in that corner, it was front and center. And there were the good guys, the bad guys, and everyone else just like back in those old black-and-white Hollywood westerns. This time around, though, I was one of the everyone elses. I was the helpless little guy depending on the action heroes to capture the bad guys, or at least those bad guys who didn't either kill themselves or get killed in the chase. How easy it was to cheer for the posse that President Bush sent to Afghanistan. How amazing it was that the terrain in Afghanistan resembled the terrain in those old westerns. How fascinating that all the bad guys dressed in black!
But then the war happened. We searched through the old newsreels and found a new face to hate and fear, the face of Iraq. For some untold reason we no longer needed to chase al Qaeda. We needed Iraq instead. So we postured and we stalled and we lied and we faked it and finally when we were all foaming at the mouth we attacked! And then we watched. We saw the flack, the tracers, the smart bombs, the stealth fighters, the bombers, the attack helicopters, the Humvees, the soldiers in full defense gear, the supply trains, the coalition waiting in the wings. We watched CBS and NBC and CNN and Fox and PBS. And we saw it all in black-and-white despite all the color technology. We saw the fall of Baghdad and the toppling of Saddam and the victorious American soldier. We saw Bush on the carrier in early May after the war. We saw it all.
But then, then we saw what we didn't want to see. We saw the darkness. It was as though the picture tube had faded from all the use and we could begin to look inside our own souls and we saw the darkness. At first it didn't seem that dark. There was a little glitch about Abu Ghraib, but that was just a few bad apples. Just a slight symptom of a problem. Most of us weren't alarmed by it. But we started noticing that there was money missing from the oil revenues. We started noticing that Halliburton and other friends of the power brokers in Washington were getting no-bid contracts in Iraq. We started noticing that some of those contractors weren't delivering as expected. We saw as the few billion in war expenses grew to a hundred billion, then to two hundred billion, then more and more. We watched as both the Republicans in power and the Democrat hopefuls embraced the need to win in Iraq, as though we hadn't already won.
But then we started needing to block out the daylight. The picture was getting too dim to see with the light still shining. We started to understand our need for torturing prisoners. We started to understand our need to give up the liberties we depend on for maintaining our own freedom. We started compromising. We all covered our heads with sheets so we could focus on the fading picture. And then it happened. We watched helplessly as that lumbering old B-17 caught the flack and the tracers and finally broke into pieces in a flash of light and a cloud of smoke. The fortress of Iraq became the victim of the war that we to this day still deny and began falling from the sky. The great Phoenix from history is falling from the sky and all we can do is sit and watch.
And the "civil war" that isn't but is rages on right before our eyes. But we can't see what's going on inside that old B-17's crew compartment. We tell ourselves that the inhabitants are fighting for control, but are they? Or are they fighting for the parachutes? Are they fighting to see who gets out alive and who doesn't?
And it's all happening in fading black-and-white. Where are you now, Mr. Kelley, now that we really need your help!