Back when I was around ten or eleven-years old a new businessman, Mr. C.D. Wells, came to our little town and opened an appliance store. It was located across the street from City Hall and the fire station, next door to Glen Bradley’s Grocery. I have no clue where Mr. Wells came from, or how he came to choose our little town for his business venture. For that matter, I have no clue where he went a few years later after closing his store. He married the lady next door to my family and settled down. I think most people figured the store had to be a successful venture considering that many people were buying new televisions and the necessary antenna, or rabbit ears. Still, one never knows about the private dealings behind the scenes.
It was an era when appliances were just coming into their own just after World War II. Rationing and prohibitions meant all production by the factories had been going into the war effort, but now it was as if the dam had broken and new products were jumping into the stores. Advertising was full of new products that promised to save the housewife hours of drudgery. In retrospect I think that war had pushed technology to do all it could to help the troops, and then follow up with new advances to make life easier all of us. Industry turned their attention to the domestic market and grew in leaps and bounds as soldiers came home and the new products became available. Factories built everything from vacuums, refrigerators, toasters, mixers, and finally, even televisions. All were selling like crazy. Housewives were all excited over new tools such as electric vacuum cleaners that would replace those old, straw brooms. We got excited over ‘pop-up’ toasters and fancy waffle irons, while wood, or coal-burning ranges disappeared.
The most exciting market was televisions. A couple of hardware stores in town carried a line of TV’s, but Mr. Wells, the new merchant, heavily promoted his appliance store as if it had the very best choices of new state-of-the-art appliances. We had already bought a new refrigerator to replace the old ice box we had when we lived at the Louisa Inn.
Now, thanks to some family friends, we had been invited to see a real television program. Won over by the experience we were keen to have a TV of our own. Few households had them in those early days, so it was magic to see a live broadcast.
I still remember standing on the sidewalk in front of Mr. Well’s appliance store and watching a program being broadcast through the air all the way from Huntington, WV. Later, during the same year, we actually saw the real TV studio in Huntington up in the tall West Virginia Building. Even though they weren’t broadcasting when we visited, I saw the hot lights and the big rolling cameras that would be used later in the day. Back then, TV programing was ‘part-time.’ The sessions would start off with a prayer and a movie of the flag rippling in the breeze while the national anthem was being played. We stood up and covered our hearts in our living rooms. Most of the programs we saw were scheduled children’s programs. It was often live, too, meaning anything could happen, and many times actors had to ad lib to get the action back on track after a mishap. The resulting slapstick sent us to tears, especially when things clearly didn’t go the way the actors expected. They had trouble staying in character as they tried to hold back their laughter. Later, in the evening, programing would be aimed at the entire family. Watching TV was magic. It was enough to mesmerize me and send me off to different worlds.
Finally, the day came when we got our first TV. I have no idea of the business end of things, such as whether money was saved up, or we had received a tax refund, or if maybe someone floated us a loan. It was years before the invention of plastic charge cards so it had to be a personal account. The stores in those days often set up ‘accounts’ that allowed for partial payments. I recall that we had accounts at Bradley’s Grocery, Carter’s Department Store, and some others. The adults in my family likely set one up an account with Mr. Well’s appliance store, too. I sure hope we paid it off!
Our new console (floor model) television had a relatively small screen by today’s standards. The earliest one I saw was at a neighbor’s that had a seven-inch round screen centered on a large cabinet that was mostly knobs and speakers. Our television had an approximate fifteen-inch horizontal screen, or at least that’s what I think it was. We put it a corner of the living room to allow maximum visibility from anywhere in the room. I remember that when it was on it cast a bluish glow. Neighbors could see when we were watching TV even if they couldn’t see the screen through our windows. A little at a time we’d see that glow all over the county, even in cabins way out in the sticks. We’d comment sometimes upon seeing a TV antenna that those folks we doubted could afford much still had a TV. Frankly, we were in the same fix given our shortage of monetary resources. We had to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ It was a matter of pride to have a TV.
A wire that was attached to the back of the set had been fed out a window and up the outer wall to an antenna on our roof. We had tried using the less expensive indoor antennas called ‘rabbit ears,’ but they didn’t get a strong signal. The broadcast tower was in Huntington, nearly fifty miles away over some high hills. Even when we got the signal those early pictures were very grainy and color TV was still years away. Everyone had the same problems, so we assumed that was the state of the art. It was certainly better than not seeing a program at all. We experienced ghosts, which were images that echoed the real picture and blurred everything until scenes were sometimes hard to make out. We would ‘put up’ with fuzzy pictures until we all thought we needed glasses. I recall one of us being on the pipe holding the outside antenna while another would be inside shouting out which direction we should twist to get the best picture. We were supposed to have three channels, but we were lucky if we could see a picture on one of them. We watched some kid’s shows like ‘Howdy Doody,’ ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘Sky King,’ ‘Sargent Preston,’ and others. At night we watched variety shows, game shows such as ‘What’s my Line?’ We enjoyed comedies such as ‘Amos and Andy,’ ‘Jack Benny,’ ‘Sid Cesar’s Show of Shows,’ ‘Red Skelton,’ ‘George Burns and Gracie Allen,’ and ‘Bob Hope.’ I know we watched sports, too, including some famous boxing matches, baseball games, and professional football. Between bad camera positioning, weather, and bad connections we likely missed as much as we saw.
My great grandmother was from a different generation. She never got her mind around the miracle of broadcasted moving pictures that were received, unscrambled, and shown on the tiny screen. She absolutely refused to walk through the living room unless she was properly dressed because she said the man in the box would see her. After all, he was company and we shouldn’t parade out in front of him. I remember that many program hosts of the day would thank us for inviting them into our living rooms. Maybe Granny knew about Skyping before we did?
It was on a Halloween night when someone playing a prank that went too far, threw a heavy metal stop sign through our living room window. We all knew we were targeted because my aunt was a school teacher. Maybe a kid didn’t like his grade, but regardless, the sign broke all the glass in the window as well as the wooden framing. Worse yet, it knocked a chip in our TV cabinet. It turned out that the TV was alright and continued to function. Some argued it worked better after that night’s trauma. Try that with one of the new flat screens and watch the tiny glass crystals fly. This solid wood cabinet was better made than the TV itself and was arguably a piece of furniture. We kept that TV for some time, likely because we had to pay it off before having credit enough to buy a new one. I think our next one was a modern tabletop model that had a much bigger screen.
One morning I saw that Mr. Wells, owner of the appliance store was having a crew build a tall tower for his antenna. The structure was made of pipes shaped in a triangular design, but I soon saw the value of installing ‘guy wires.’ One of the crew was adding a new section that towered high in the sky when his motion caused the tower to break apart just below him. When the tower broke he kicked free and fell maybe thirty or forty feet. I watched him fall toward the ground as he screamed just like a scene from the movies. I don’t know if I shut my eyes, or if my view of his falling body was blocked by Lizzy’s house, but I didn’t see or hear him land. I just knew in my heart that he was dead. I was reassured later that he was alive. He had landed in the back of a pickup truck and while seriously injured, he would live. He received several broken bones, but no permanent damage was suffered. As a young kid, I was relieved to hear that. The tower eventually went up, but this time they had guy wires to hold the tower steady.
It was sometime later when the merchant got a divorce, cleared out his store, and left town. I didn’t care much for the personality of Mr. Wells, but I really liked his wife. She has gone on to her reward, but I was able to visit with her during a trip home just before she passed. We had an enjoyable chat.
As I pointed out earlier, this was a time of change. Life was changing for the housewife, the farmer, the factory workers, and the retail world. The homemaker had electrified help to clean the house, cook meals, and wash the clothes. Stores were brimming with new steam irons, waffle irons, electric skillets, blenders, mixers, vacuums, toasters and the like. All of these seemed to happen from the mid-forties through the fifties. Real progress had been made in improving our standard of living.
Wait a minute! Wouldn’t you know it? Our little fuse boxes couldn’t handle the load. Like Oliver Douglas, of ‘Green Acres,’ we would have to count amps before turning on another thing, or we’d be outside screwing in another fuse when life blinked and went dark. ‘Green Acres’ was funny but the predicament would be understood all too well by many. I got good at screwing in new fuses and figuring out the limitations. Homes now have moved from the forty or sixty amp boxes to over 200 or even 400 amps. I know I have two 200 amp boxes and some on the transfer switch for the generator. I still have to reset a breaker now and again, but usually it’s the fault of the appliance itself. Things have really improved.
I remember an early TV broadcast that was widely watched, either at home or at a friend’s house. We noted that Princess Elisabeth looked beautiful when she rode in the carriage in England traveling to her Royal Wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh. Just think! We were seeing action from an event all the way across the Atlantic Ocean! Later, we watched when she was crowned Queen of England. I think I watched both events on our first TV, or maybe in grade school, but it is possible that I saw it in a newsreel at the Garden Theater, instead. The timing was near enough to my personal beginnings to be confusing in this old brain. Of course, I’ve seen rebroadcasts of those events several times since. In any case, the world had grown smaller when we could see an event so far away.
Still today, with satellite, cable, Netflix, Blue-ray, and streaming internet programs, communication is changing fast yet. Everything is digital and connected. In some ways life is easier, but in others there are new fears such as viruses and hacking. To address that passwords are everywhere. The potential for more inventions, or applications of technology is obvious. I have a mysterious Droid I can barely use. I’m learning slowly, but we old folks need some of our grandchildren around to do the technical stuff, so we can watch that favorite program or movie.
The humor on television in those early days was the kind that would make your sides hurt from the laughter. Some was scripted, but a lot was accidental. All of it was funny. There was no sex, no realistic violence, and no bad language. The networks made sure the negative was controlled. Government was respected, as was family life. The villains of that day wore dark hats and the heroes wore white. Parents could watch the programing with their children without fear of corruption of the little ones. ‘I Love Lucy’ was hilarious and clean, as was ‘Dick VanDyke.’
How I miss those days, but I have to admit they were for their time. The entertainment industry stretched its wings so we the viewers have become more sophisticated and have demanded that which really isn’t good for us or our families. Today, I watch Disney with my grandchildren and Hallmark movies with my wife, but little else. I have grown tired of primetime TV and look forward to seeing a ‘clean’ movie instead of something like a soap opera. These stressful programs remind me too much of that which I wish to escape. I have found that life is full enough of the negative, so I prefer to keep on the ‘sunny side.’ “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” It’s not easy, but that should be our goal.