Thursday, September 1, 2011

40 Channels and a Remote

Nothing could bring a family together in the 1980s like cable television.

The day Dad read in our hometown newspaper that cable television was coming to our city street-by-street was a happy day indeed. We were lucky to live close enough to Cincinnati to be able to clearly pick up the 3 networks. But in 1983, 3 channels were starting to not be enough. Dad had risked his life to put a big antenna on the roof that, during basketball season, would get pointed south twice a week to pick up WKYT in Lexington. Rain, snow, or shine, when Dad was home and the Cats were playing, he climbed on the roof to manually point the antenna (the in-house pointer that came with the used antenna was tragically broken) as we monitored the clarity on our old console television.

"It's good!" someone would holler out the front door once the picture was snow-free enough to make out the score. And sometimes Mom would holler out that it was good when it wasn't, just to keep Dad from breaking his neck.

(And here's why kids today should be grateful for DVRs--when Dad had to work during a UK game, it was my and my sister's job to hook a microphone up to our tape recorder and set the microphone close enough to the TV to record an audio version. Seriously.)

So the prospect of cable television in all its glory made our mouths water. I had heard they had a channel devoted exclusively to kids' programming (Nickelodeon, natch) and also this one channel with nothing but music videos (I wanted my MTV.) My mom and sister were eying the movie channels, and Dad was all about an increased number of sporting events. When I saw the installers putting up line on the street next to ours, I came running home to tell the news.

"Don't get too excited yet," Dad said. "Money's tight, and I'm not paying for anything unless they have WKYT in the lineup like the newspaper said they would."

It turned out WKYT was in the lineup--oh, joy! No more roof-antenna extreme sporting! And also, when we looked through the little glossy brochure the cable guy left on our door...Star Wars was coming to HBO.

Oh. My. GOD.

At only 8-going-on-9 years old, I was as big a fan of Star Wars as any freaky dude you'd now see going to Comic Con dressed like Chewbacca. I was obsessed. I had gone to Corbin to see the movie with my family when I was 3, but the only thing I remembered clearly was how scary-cool the Stormtroopers looked on the big screen. No matter. It was a theatrical event that I knew was awesome even when I couldn't remember what was awesome about it. Dad had gotten me the action figures after we moved to Erlanger, and I had them re-enact what little I could remember of the plot on a near-daily basis. Dad had also taken me to see The Empire Strikes Back, and even though it rocked my world with its huge, shocking revelation (that it was Leia and Han who were going to pair off, and not Leia and Luke, of course) I could not contain my utter devotion to all things related to that galaxy far, far away.

"We've got to get Home Box Office!" I pleaded. "They'll have Star Wars! I have to see Star Wars! I don't remember that much about it from the first time, and the third one's coming out this summer, and YOU HAVE TO DO THIS FOR ME!"

"I have heard good things about that new HBO kids' show Fraggle Rock," my sister chimed in, helpfully.

For the first time in my life, my parents made a semi-major family financial decision, to subscribe to a certain cable movie channel, because of me. I gloated in silence. And went to tell Luke, Leia, and C3PO the good news.

Our street got cabled just in time. The day before Star Wars premiered on HBO in February, 1983, an angel in Carhartt work pants came to hook up our house. And he left behind a "remote"--it was wired to the back of the TV, but the cord to this magical box was long enough that we could, technically, sit on the couch and browse our selections. It had an A/B switcher, and through it we could flip through over 40 channels.

40. Channels. So long, playing outside and reading books. That stuff was for the poor saps on the other side of town who hadn't been paid a visit from the cable guy yet. Hell-o, junk television.

Of course, I really only had my mind on one thing: the premiere of Star Wars at 7pm. Mom was in a bowling league, and I was scheduled to be in the kids' area of the bowling alley that night while she and her team, The Gutter Dusters, ate nachos, smoked, and tried to hold steady to their second-to-last-in-the-league standings.

But here's the awesome part of being in a family of avid TV watchers--they get it. They get that sometimes, there is nothing more important than your show coming on. My dad, who usually believed kids in the 80s had it too easy and were going to go soft from being coddled, a man who made me walk home from school on unplowed sidewalks following minor snowstorms because apparently wet shoes and frozen toes build character, a man who only wanted me to stay home from school if I had a fever of around 1000...this man arranged transportation and a paid babysitter for me so I could be picked up from the bowling alley and come home to watch the big event.

"I am serious about this," he told my older sister, who was born early and has been late for everything else since. He peeled a bill out of his wallet and handed over a competitive hourly wage. "I would stay home from work myself if I thought you were going to be late. She has had her heart set on this and you will have her back here by 7. Or else."

She agreed, even though like every other night that winter she had plans to hang out with her fiance. And she was almost true to her word--I didn't get home right at 7, but I got home early enough for Darth Vader's big entrance onto the rebel starship.

It was love. I watched Star Wars roughly 100 times that winter and spring, or until my parents threatened to cancel HBO if I didn't give it a rest. Along the way I met Mokey, Red, Wembley and the rest of the gang down in Fraggle Rock. My mom became a big fan of BET (yeah, I know, don't ask) and, later, the Home Shopping Network. Dad rarely came up for air during what my mom called "sports season", which strangely lasts all year long. He watched the Cubs play at Wrigley on WGN even though he was a Reds fan because, like Everest, it was there. I watched videos on MTV back when there were such things on MTV, and when Mom wasn't looking, whatever R-rated scary movie I could find. It would be years before we got a VCR and started renting movies, so Saturday family movie night often revolved around whatever the big release was on HBO that month. The whole extended family, which soon included a brother-in-law, sat together watching such cinematic greats as First Blood, Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Poltergeist, and, for our sensitive sides, Places in the Heart. My entertainment diet at a young age consisted of blood, guts, violence, and gratuitous boob shots, but there was always stuff like Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas to keep me somewhat wholesome.

My husband is amazed at my wealth of 1980s TV knowledge. He wonders, whenever I recall an obscure show or movie or talk about how I watched Porky's in all its bawdy, uncensored glory one night when I couldn't have been more than 10, if I ever did anything as a kid besides watch vaguely inappropriate television. And I did. I finished my homework each night, I rode my bike, swam, ran, played 4-square, and fell out of trees just like any non-TV-addicted child in the neighborhood.

But when the sun went down, the "remote" went to A 21 to see what was on HBO. I could hardly remember what life was like B.C.--Before Cable.

Some families camp, or hike, or volunteer in their church. Some have family game night or sit around a roaring fire pit. We were, and are, TV watchers. No, it doesn't sound terribly noble. But whether your family is bonding over toasting marshmallows or the pilot episode of The Wonder Years, what really matters is the bonding part.

Now, where's my remote? True Blood's coming on.

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