I paused the other day when I heard a television producer mention there are 500 “television” series on dozens of “platforms” (traditional networks, cable, Netflix, Hulu, etc.) today. Dozens of platforms? There were only three television networks when we were growing up: ABC, CBS, and NBC. There were no VCRs, let alone DVRs, so if two of your favorite shows were on at the same time, your family had a major decision to make: M*A*S*H or The FBI, a Quinn Martin Production? Hawkeye Pierce or Inspector Lewis Erskine? The pilgrims deciding upon which rock to land had less importance.
Children were the closest thing to a remote control back then. Our dad, in an avocado green chair with emerald green pillows seated underneath a mint green painting of a matador in a shamrock green outfit next to our thick forest green living room curtains would bark, “Turn on Carol Burnett, Butch.” Unless I could elbow my younger siblings Ann and Joe into action, I was forced to get up from our lime green shag carpet, detach myself from the greasy brown Albertsons grocery bag containing a mountain of popcorn that had been popped in a well-worn yellow popper still smoldering in the kitchen. There were no little pre-measured bags to gently place in the microwave back then. No, it was America in the ’70s and we earned self-respect by making our own popcorn the hard way. No one, including the government, was going to give it to us in a neat little bag. Freedom isn’t free my friend.
We’d pour the dubious amounts of vegetable oil into the popper, the bottom of it scorched like the heat shield of Gemini 7 after reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. We’d dump a fistful of golden kernels into the dented popper guestimating the proper ratio of oil to corn. Finally we’d plug in the popper’s black cord, as thick and dangerous as an asp in the weeds next to the Nile. There was no timer to tell us the popcorn was done — we either waited until the commercial for Marlboro cigarettes welcomed us to Flavor Country or we smelled smoke coming from the kitchen. “Popcorn’s ready! Where’s the extinguisher?”
Since I’d been sentenced to change the channel, I’d get up and slowly trudge The Green Mile to the brown Zenith television console the size of the Ark of the Covenant and start turning the dial. Click, click, click. I felt like a Gotham City safecracker at midnight waiting for the tumblers to fall into place. Click, click, click. Working the dial produced the same sound and the same anxiety as if I was playing roulette next to Sammy and Dean at The Sands in Vegas. Click, click, click. The family was on edge, essentially placing a bet there was something watchable on the channel at the end of our journey. One never knew if the show was going to be any good and I’d have to continue the process. Sure there was the TV Guide that arrived every week at every single household in the United States and her territories (it was the law) but the one line summary of the show, “An outlaw gang tries to stop Matt Dillon and take the money he’s recovered from them” in the show’s listing didn’t cut it. Come on TV Guide person, I need more info. Is Claude Akins or Denver Pyle in this episode?
I finally clicked over to the desired network but The Rule of One (parent) could instantaneously make my effort a monumental waste of time. The statement “Oh, I hate that guy” from either Mom or Dad meant I had to continue my dial-a-ride.
The top dial on the television was simple and trustworthy. It had the numbers 2-13 which corresponded with the same numbered VHF channels. Then there was the mysterious second dial below it. It had 70 UHF stations on it. Most of them produced nothing more on the screen other than gray static but spinning that dial fast was fun and it sounded like a Goose Gossage rookie card flapping in the spokes of my orange Stingray as I played chicken in the street with John Jewashack.
Watching television in the 1970s was challenging and could spark an occasional visit from the Tuxedo-Country Club fire department. But it brought the family together and the popcorn was the best. We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Chris Piombo is a local family man, coach and marathon runner.