I grew up in the age that preceded the ubiquity of screens, and one of the absolute and unquestionable rules in our household was that there was to be no television in our rooms, ever. We were already wild-eyed radicals in that we’d pull out the TV guide from the Baltimore Sun at our Sunday dinners and each pick out our four hours per week of programs, at least before we finally wore my parents down and killed that experiment in utopian media regulation. I’d pick Lost In Space, Quark, and my other science fiction camp atrocities, my siblings would pick out their own indulgences, and it’d all be marked off in the book with a highlighter pen.
I chafed at the restriction, and my solution was to sneak out to the yard sales and buy old TV sets, then hide them nearby until the middle of the night, when I’d slip out and drag large wood-clad sets to the front yard, carefully attach them to a net, haul them up onto the porch roof, and push them in through my bedroom window. I’d hide each with great care, and I felt like a super-spy in the process, like I was getting away with something grand and noble.
Only thing was—my father could smell television.
Each of my illegal sets would be swiftly detected and my ability to watch Lucan and the delectably snarly Kevin Brophy from the privacy of the tiny embedded closet in the modern bunk bed my dad built himself would be taken from me, time and time again.
“Son, you know I’m going to know when you’ve got a TV.”
“How is what I’d like to know.”
“Eerie powers, Joe-B. Eerie powers.”
I read a lot, largely because there was no TV in my room, and I came to the conclusion that he was hearing the high-frequency whine of the flyback transformer, so with the next set, I carefully packed blankets and clothes around it until there was nothing but a screen exposed in the depths of my closet. Had I read more, I might have learned that insulating a TV set filled with vacuum tubes was not the best course of action, but we live and learn, and when I left it on one afternoon before heading downstairs to root through the National Geographics, I was again caught.
The smoke alarm shrilled, polyester smoke roiled, my father dashed by with a bucket, and then there was a bang from upstairs.
I suspected I was in trouble, but kept mum.
“Is there anything you want to tell me?” he asked, after stomping down the stairs, looking at me with his eyes narrowed and the loops in his handlebar mustache unwinding from sweat.
“About why there’s a burning DuMont in your closet?”
“There’s a burning DuMont in my closet?”
“It has been extinguished.”
I tried hiding the TVs in the basement, in the attic, in the shed where we kept the cracked corn and mash for the chickens, but he always found them.
Somewhere along the line, I dragged home a boat anchor of a shortwave radio, a black crackle-painted metal box of phasing drifty gorgeous chanting from the Vatican and smart-sounding Deutsche Welle broadcasts and strange farm drama from the BBC World Service and a whole lot of interesting noises that came ricocheting around the ionosphere, which my father approved of as a ham radio operator and a general radio enthusiast. I’d listen and I’d drift off with the monstrous thing warm by the bed like a fireplace with the little glowing coals of tubes showing through the perforated vents, lulled to sleep by the voice of the electromagnetic spectrum, and he never knew when I had a TV again.
Years later, he admitted that he did not, in fact, have eerie powers, but just a keen nose for the scent of hot, dusty vacuum tubes cooking in bakelite sockets, and couldn’t distinguish between the boat anchor shortwave and, say, a smart little turquoise plastic RCA set hidden not in the closet, but in the space behind the built-in drawers in my bed. By then, though, TV had lost its luster for me, so it was largely a hollow victory. The smart little turquoise plastic RCA set stayed cold more and more often, I read and I listened to strange propaganda in peculiar tongues instead, and the world came to me every night.
© 2013 Joe Belknap Wall