Judy Dykstra-Brown said she never saw any new movies on television when she was a kid because she lived in the middle of nowhere. I got to thinking about that. I don’t think any of us saw anything “new” or even close to “new” as kids. I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere. No boonies for me. I ‘m a New Yorker. I was born in Brooklyn and raised (mostly) in Queens, so if something was available on television, we could, in theory, receive it.
The truth is, growing up in the city — from a television point of view — wasn’t much different than growing up in Montana. New movies were not available on television until we got cable TV and that wasn’t until the 1980s. The movies I saw were made long before I was born. The best of them were inevitably shown in the dead of night. The commercial breaks were longer than the snippets of movie they fit in between the advertisements. The quality of the movies they showed was bad, too. These movies had been dubbed, redubbed, edited. They had big pieces chopped out of them. Randomly eviscerated so they would fit into a two-house television slot where 45 minutes were commercials for used cars and “as seen on TV” ads for kitchen gadgets or some other trashy item. It would be many years down the road before Ted Turner and TCM began to restore movies. These very unrestored versions often left you wondering what happened between the last piece you saw and the one that began after the 15 minutes commercial cluster.
On top of that, the quality of the signals we got were terrible too. Unless you had a huge antenna that had been was properly positioned and tuned, you were lucky if you could see much of anything. Are you old enough to remember horizontal and vertical controls? They were supposed to stop the rolling. Horizontal stopped (theoretically) the side to side rolling while vertical dealt with the top to bottom rolling. All of this was accompanied by hissing and a general inaudibility plus “snow.” In an average home, some kid — or mom — was assigned the task of positioning the “rabbit ears” which were designed to replace a real antenna. You would grasp these to metal prongs and its plastic stand and move around the room. You turned the antenna left, right, upside down and wrapped the “receiving” rods in aluminum foil on the off-chance that would improve the signal.
If, in the course of turning this way and that, you actually got the channel to come in relatively clearly, you were not allowed to move until the show ended. Everyone would yell stop and you’d freeze in position for as long as an hour. If you moved — at all — the picture would disappear in a cloud of snow and hissing and rolling. It might do that anyway, even if you didn’t move. Because the signals weren’t fixed well and anyway, a passing cloud or a slight breeze could disrupt the signal.
We had Million Dollar Movie on channel 9. It showed ONE movie each week. It showed the same movie continuously at least 12 hours a day. When I was home sick, I got to watch TV. That’s how come I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy about 200 times. I never saw the entire movie because it had been hacked to pieces and the plot had disappeared. I didn’t really see the whole movie until about 30 years later. On cable.
New movies on TV are recent. HBO — which was originally called “Home Box Office” — was a “pay to play” company. As cable caught on — and it caught on incredibly fast because the world was waiting to get TV signals they could see, that didn’t roll, had true colors. Everyone wanted it. Everyone in Israel had cable, so I was surprised when I came back to the U.S. and a lot of places didn’t have cable. Boston didn’t have cable most places. We had to have it installed both in Back Bay and Roxbury. When we moved out here to Uxbridge, there was no high-speed cable. It took more than a year for Charter to install the new cables and another few months for us to get hooked up. By then, I was already deep into computers professionally, so in addition to television, I needed to be able to use a computer. I was working freelance — in Berkeley, California. I had a fast modem. It ran at 2400 BPS! Remarkably, I managed to write two books using that modem. Getting the modem to connect using an old copper wire? That was fun.
Does anyone remember the “modem signal”? It was kind of a screechy crunchy noise that announced “modem” waiting. You turned on the computer. Then, you hooked up your mode and went to prepare dinner. You cooked it, served it, ate it, and cleaned up afterward and maybe, by then, your computer had connected. Or not. Even if it did connect, how long you could stay connected was dicey. Computer were changing minute by minute. Each day, there was a faster processor. Modems when from 2400 BPS to millions of whatever they count these days. It took a couple of years, but it seemed virtually overnight. I was in the business, so I usually knew what was coming, even if it hadn’t yet arrived. I worked on wireless technology when everything was wired. I worked on “video discs” which never quite worked out, but didn’t become CDs and video discs. I remember writing about the development of CGI before they had a name for it. Back then, I was deep into the high tech biz and while I wasn’t a developer or engineer, I knew what was going on and where the industry was heading.
My son believes he belongs to the last generation who will remember when everyone didn’t have cable. How the world changed when computers arrived. He’s right. By the time my granddaughter was born, even before she could read, she could turn on a computer and knew where to click to turn it off.
Now, we are quarantined with our computers. Irony of ironies. The things I worked at for all those years are part of the bars of the cage in which we live. Don’t think I’m ungrateful. I can only imagine how much worse this quarantine would have been without zoom and other visual linkages through our telephones and computers. As bad as the isolation is, how much worse would it be without at least these electronic connections? Even if we can’t physically emerge, at least we can hang on to the illusion of connection. I wonder how much longer we’ll be able to keep the illusion going? For those of us who have months to wait until we get a vaccine, will we still be sane when our isolation is finished?
I wonder what our world will look like if we get there? Some of us won’t get there. I’m hoping I will. I’m hoping all of us will get there. I’m hoping that we’ll have a planet and water and trees if and when we get there. Meanwhile, there are movies, Zoom, Facetime, and something weird on Facebook.