Larry Penkava Column: Don’t touch that dial — it’s really snowing

Published 4:53 pm Tuesday, October 9, 2018

“How’d we ever survive without cellphones?”

That’s a question I often hear, mostly from other ancients like myself.

We’re the ones who grew up with clunky phones that were heavy enough to give a pickup truck traction during a snowstorm.

Of course, you couldn’t load those phones on a pickup truck. They were connected to thick black cables that disappeared into the living room wall.

If you ever broke the cable, there would be hades, and the phone company, to pay.

I’ve spoken often, and boringly, about having party lines with two or three neighbors. So I won’t repeat how we sometimes had to wait to make a call until Gertrude down the road finished exchanging gossip with her old girlfriend from high school.

Back then we had to deal with what we called operators. They were highly-efficient ladies who sat on stools all day and plugged wires to connect our long-distance calls, say from Asheboro to Ramseur.

Our answer to cellphones back in the day was pay phones. They could be found on many street corners in town or at lonely gas stations out in the boonies. If you had change in your pocket, you could call just about anywhere.

“Hi, Dad, I have another flat tire and I didn’t have time to get the other one fixed. Can you bring a spare out beyond Lower Nowheresville? It’s only about two hours from the nearest public road.”

But I’m not here to talk about phones. Everybody has horror stories about the serious need for a cellphone.

My question is, do you have a TV antenna? No? You got rid of that architectural eyesore back when Perry Mason was in law school?

Truth be told, antennas were required for watching TV back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most homes had them mounted on poles beside the door and the antenna reached above the roofline.

The reason the antenna pole was beside the door was that it was in easy reach when you had to change channels. If you were switching from Greensboro to Winston-Salem, the antenna direction had to be adjusted.
“Can you see it now?” came the call from outside. “Give it another twist to the left,” was the cry from inside. “Now back a hair. That’s it.”

Then, if you were lucky, your dad got one of those rotary dials that was hooked up to the antenna. You could adjust the direction by moving the dial.

That still required getting up from the couch, changing the channel on the TV and then adjusting the antenna with the rotor.

I guess the question we should be asking is, “How’d we ever survive without remotes?”

Hopping up from the couch wasn’t just to change channels. We also had a dial to stop horizontal flipping of the picture, bright and contrast dials, and, of course, the volume control.

“Larry, turn the TV down. I’m trying to talk to your grandmother on long distance.”

Grandmother was five miles away. They could have shouted at each other.
It was always frustrating, when I had found a comfortable position on the couch or easy chair, to have to get up and stop the picture from flipping, or to turn the volume down so Mama could hear Grandmother.

I guess that’s why so many of us kids became nearsighted from sitting so close to the TV. It was more practical to sprawl on the floor near the TV so we wouldn’t have to get up for adjustments.

When I was growing up, there were just three or four channels we could pick up with our antenna. A station in Roanoke came in snowy but decipherable. Every morning they had a show with musicians.

Every morning one guy would sing Jim Reeves’ “Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone” and another guy sang “Running Bear.” This was every morning, folks.

But what I’m getting around to is this: I have a TV antenna.

No, not the kind you put on a pole outside. It’s a digital antenna that I keep atop a bookcase, adjusted just so to get the best signals from the most channels.

It works really well when the weather is sunny, not so well when there’s rain or wind.

I use it for backup, actually. Today’s TV services, whether cable or satellite, can be interrupted. When that happens, I switch to my antenna to watch local broadcast channels.

If the weather is so bad that there’s no TV available, I curl up with a book.

How could we survive without books?

Larry Penkava, who has written Now and Then since 1994, is still trying to figure out how to program his remote.