Saturday, February 15, 2014

Who needs Wii when you have rabbit-ear aerobics?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems the sizes of televisions today is an embarrassment of riches.

I grew up in a middle-class Midwestern family, so the fact that we had one, 19-inch television for all six of us was normal. (We also only had one bathroom and one car for all six of us as well, but don’t get me started down that “when I was a kid” road.)

This television was a Zenith, and it sat on a metal trolley on wheels, for easy transition from one area of our small house to the other. Not that we ever moved it, but just having the option felt like we were important, on-the-move kind of people. Clearly my bar for extravagance was set pretty low.

In the ‘70s, there were exactly four stations to choose from: ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. Once the ‘80s rolled around, we caught whispers of another option out in the big world called “cable,” but we still hadn’t upgraded to a color television at that point, so cable seemed like a pipe dream.

Most Americans made the transition from black and white to color in the mid-1960s, according to Wikipedia. But my family held out until 1985. Keep in mind, however, that my mom refused a microwave until well into the ‘90s, claiming, “Life moves fast enough as it is. Why would I want to speed it up any more?” So my sister took matters into her own hands and bought my mom a microwave for Christmas one year. The tag may as well have read, “Time to move it along, mom.”

The rabbit ears are what I remember most about the Zenith. “Rabbit ears,” for those of you under the age of 40, was the term we used for the antennae that sat atop every television to help with reception. The box had a dial and the two antennae, which resembled a rabbit’s head. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but the accepted belief was that if your reception was bad, you simply moved the antennae in the direction of the closest television tower and it would improve the picture.

This resulted in some hilarious escapades between me and my three sisters performing acrobatics just to get a clear picture. I remember wanting to see one episode of “Welcome Back, Kotter” so badly that I stood through the entire episode with one hand on the antennae and the other pointed out the window in the general direction of the television tower. Hey, you made sacrifices for John Travolta, even back then.

If the reception was extra bad, you’d bring out the tin foil. For some reason, wrapping foil around the ends of the antennae seemed to improve the television rays beaming to our house from the tower. It was all very mysterious, but we did what we had to in order to ensure that we saw the next episode of “Barney Miller.”

Of course there wasn’t the option of taping shows back then, so you had to be at home at 8 p.m. on Tuesday (sharp) if you wanted to see “Happy Days” in its entirety. And if you had to use the bathroom, you had better not take more than the allotted three minutes for a commercial break. Television viewing was an exercise in efficiency.

This is why today’s television viewing is such a contradiction.

Not going to be home Tuesday at 8? No problem; you can just DVR it. Have to use the bathroom during a football game? Go ahead and push pause and take all the time in the world. See? It’s just different.

Do we own a big-screen television? Yes. Do I like to watch television shows on demand, what I want to watch, when I want to watch it? Yes. But I also pine for the days when television was an event, and you couldn’t wait to get home Sunday evening, make popcorn and watch “The Wonderful World of Disney” at 7 p.m. on Channel 5. And I must admit, there was something magical about knowing that many other children across American were doing the same thing at the same time.

And their antennae probably had tin foil on them, too.

Eileen Burmeister is a Winchester-based freelance writer. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com or you can follow her on Twitter at EBurmeister.