November 6, 2021

From the Vaults: No TV!


     In one of the earlier segments of The Simpsons Tree House of Horrors, they do an extremely funny lampooning of The Shining (the Jack Nicholson version, only here called The Shinning).  After Marge discovers Homer’s writing consists of nothing more sinister than, “Feeling fine,”  she expresses cautious optimism about the situation.  A sudden flash of lightning then reveals that every surface of the room is covered with a less optimistic message:  “No beer and no TV makes Homer go crazy.”  Thus ensues a conversation between Homer and Marge that ends with Homer cooly channelling Jack (Nicholson):  “What do you think Marge?  I was thinking of calling my book, ‘No Beer and No TV Make Homer . . . something, something.’  Marge offers, “Go crazy?”  Homer erupts at her suggestion with, “Don’t mind if I do!  Hummana, Zit Zit, (and a bunch of other Homeresque sounds),” before he is startled by his own reflection in a mirror and knocks himself out.   Like the families isolated at their mountain top lodge in The Shining and The Shinning, I spent four consecutive summers without TV (a little over a year in total when added up).  Unlike Homer (and Jack), I did not go crazy.  I wasn’t deprived of beer during either period

but as for the other kinds of ‘crazies’ induced by this substance… we won’t dwell on them here.

      The first three summers sans TV were courtesy of my time at the Huron Mountain Club.  AT the HMC, Homer’s lament would have been more like, “No phone and no TV make Homer go crazy” because the other deprivation of working at the Club was the lack of a phone.  Making a personal call  required a trip to Big Bay to use the payphone next to the general store (and yes, in those days pay phones were not confined to old Superman movies).  The club office did have a radio that could be used for emergencies, but not for personal messages.  Before my dad retired, we never had a phone at camp either so I was kind of used to living off the AT&T grid, at least for small chunks of time.  Ma Bell got more of my business on my one day off when I would go back to civilization to catch up on a week’s worth of business.       

     Part of this business my first year at HMC included getting signed up for orientation and classes for my freshman year at Northern Michigan University.  In these days of ‘everything can be done on-line’, only those of us who registered for college in those primitive times will remember the amount of paperwork and the number of phone calls it took.  My second and third years ATC (at the Club), meant returning the half a dozen (sometimes more) calls my mother had taken about band jobs.  I always had a three month calendar of our current jobs filled out for the summer.  A working copy for the first months of the fall schedule was posted by the phone.  God Bless her because mom used her best secretarial skills to eliminate the calls for dates already booked (“I am sorry, they are already playing somewhere that weekend”), it saved me time on my day off.  I only had to call back the names on her list inquiring about open dates.  On Saturdays when we were playing a gig, my ‘day off’ consisted of no more than the hours between noon and seven pm (rising time after a late band job and departure time for the next one), so any time saved was much appreciated.

     There was a TV in the employee recreation building ATC, but I only remember it being turned on twice.  The first time because one of our resident Packer fans tried to watch a pre-season football game.  They gave up because the reception was so poor the picture resembled watching polar bears run through a blizzard (in other words; ‘snow, snow and more snow’ as the static  rolling across the screen was called).  The second time, one of our co-workers from Canada expressed confidence that our far northern location (she was from Windsor, Ontario) would allow us to find at least one Canadian station’s signal.  She found out  this might be true in southern Ontario where she hailed from, but it did not hold true in far northern Marquette County.  The TV sat in the corner of the smaller recreation building lounge like a large, unblinking eye.

     On my one day off each week, I would be in town, but watching TV was far down on my agenda of things to do while back in civilization.  The first year I worked ATC, I had to catch up with my friends back in town and cram a week worth of recreation with them into one day.  As previously mentioned, I also had things like college orientation to attend to.  The second and third years employed at the HMC, I was commuting back and forth two or three nights a week for band jobs.  After tossing my social and recreational activities into the mix, there wasn’t any spare time to spend watching TV.  When those in my social circles would discuss some event they had seen on TV, I would have to profess ignorance because (as I would remind them), I was living in the land of no TV.  They would shake their heads and laugh about me spending my summers like a hermit.  The truth be told, I absolutely didn’t miss it one bit.  It doesn’t mean the TV went into the dumpster once I got back home in the fall, but after each three month run without the boob-tube (my dad’s favorite description), it didn’t seem to be that important.  Once school resumed, the only real ‘must see’ programming on my schedule were Packer games on Sundays and late night music programs like Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert or Bert Sugarman’s The Midnight Special. 

     After three years washing dishes by day and playing the drums on some nights, I approached the summer before my Senior year in college with no band and no job.  The regular crew I had worked with at the club had all moved on to other things.  The idea of being the oldest kitchen staff guy didn’t really appeal to me, so the decision to find something else had already been made.  My neighbor up the street (and one of my Geography profs) Pat Farrell took care of the problem when he casually asked me what my plans for the summer were.  He was in charge of the summer program at NMU’s Field Studies Station at Cusino Lake just east of Munising.  Ordinarily, one of the graduate students in the department would be hired to be the Assistant Manager, but there weren’t any available the summer of 1974.  He asked if I was interested and suddenly I had another job out of town, only this one stretched past the summer and into the fall.

     Pat knew I had spent three summers at the HMC because I had delayed taking the summer Field Studies class all Geography majors were required to take.  Every spring semester he would ask when I was going to get around to taking Field Studies and he always got the same answer:  “When I don’t have a summer job at the club anymore.”  Once I was on board for the NMU job, he sat down and reviewed the ‘need to know’ basics for the summer season.  First up, I would be expected to get a Chauffeur’s License so I could drive one of the university vehicles to Cusino Lake.  It turned out the license would also allow me to drive the field station truck on garbage and supply runs.  Secondly, I would be required to stay at the FS on the weekends and if any other students stayed, it would be my job to cook meals for them.  “Have you ever cooked on a gas stove?” Pat inquired.  I assured him I had both at camp and some at the club when I got pressed into service during the breakfast rush.  Lastly, he asked if I knew how to change the oil in a car but I must have looked perplexed when answering in the affirmative.  “Good,” he said, “because we have to change the oil on the diesel generator there after so many hours of operation.  If I am gone when it hits the magic number,  you will have to do it.”  Never having worked on a diesel engine before, it made sense to not mention that fact until he showed me how it was done.

     Almost as an afterthought, Pat said, “Oh yeah, there won’t be a phone or a TV.  You have to drive to Melstrand to use the pay phone and there is no TV because there is no reception there any way.”  When I informed Pat this was exactly the conditions I had lived with for the previous three summers, he said, “I never thought about it before.  I guess they built the Huron Mountain Club where they did for a reason, but the lack of TV and any phone service does make a better camping atmosphere.”  Pat is no longer with us but I still wonder what he would have thought of his Field Study students lugging cell phones around the swamps of Alger County.

     The biggest difference between the three summers at the HMC and the one at the FS?   At the club, there were always other people around.  At the FS, the majority of the weekends I stayed there by myself.  I kept myself busy during the day doing maintenance duties like cleaning the kitchen and dorm rooms, mowing the lawn, doing my own laundry, and yes, on occasion, changing the oil and filter on the generator.  The first time I shut the generator down on a weekend, it dawned on me that I could shut it off for a few hours every Saturday and Sunday.  Not having to hear the incessant ‘thrum’ of the generator and with no one else around to keep me company, it provided some peaceful hours.  If there were others staying over the weekend, I made sure I cleared it with them first in case they had laundry to do.  The first weekend I had company, a teacher from the Flint area asked if it made me crazy to be out in the middle of nowhere for a couple of days at a crack without any communication with the outside world.  After explaining my previous three summers at the HMC, I pointed out that there was always the radio for company, but I assured him it was rather nice playing hermit for a few days.  Even though I knew everyone would be back for class on Monday morning, it was always a little disappointing when they began to trickle in on Sunday evening.

     One of my first memories concerning television dates back to age four.  I can be certain of this time frame because we were in our new house on Norway Avenue.  My brother and sister were at school and I recall spending many mornings with Captain Kangaroo as my mother went about her home chores.  We had a Setchel-Carlson black and white TV with the picture tube housed in a big wooden box elevated on four spindly looking legs.  One day, a TV repairman came to the house to work on our set and mom told me I could watch as long as I sat on the couch and didn’t get in his way.  He unscrewed the back panel and was going about his work when there was a ‘pzzztt’ sound and a flash, followed by him leaning back against the wall with a thump.  His eyes were open but he looked a little dazed.  He shook his head as if he was clearing the cobwebs from his brain when noticed me watching him with what must have been bug eyes.  The TV guy said, “That’s why you never play around with the inside of a TV kid.”  It is advice that I have religiously followed ever since.

     In my later elementary school years, cable TV came to our neighborhood.  We signed on and instantly expanded our viewing selections from one to three channels.  During my junior high years, my dad had decided that cable had nothing to offer and had it disconnected, thus forcing me to visit my buddy Nick Gorski’s house to get my weekly dose of Star Trek.  Eventually, my mother decided a couple of her soap operas made it worth having the cable reconnected.  Except for my two years attending JH across town at Graveraet, I was able to walk home for lunch every day.  The way my senior year schedule was arranged, I actually had a ninety minute lunch, a half hour of which would be spent watching Graham Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet program with my mother (and I will confess, even without her if she was not home).

     My first year in Ontonagon was almost as spartan an existence as being without TV.  I inherited a small black and white set with heavy emphasis on the ‘small’ part.  Had I not been in a small apartment with a very small living room area, it would have been difficult to watch without a magnifying glass.  I resolved to upgrade to a bigger color set by the time I came back to Ontonagon after summer break.  Having misjudged my summer finances, I had to borrow the money to purchase my new set from the folks, but I wasn’t returning without a better TV.  

     A couple of years ago, we attended a wedding reception in Escanaba and my wife and I ended up seated at a table with three other couples who were all from Marquette.  One turned out to be the son of the man who sold me my first colored TV back in the summer of 1976.  When I told him about our connection, he rattled off the exact specs of the set I had purchased from their family shop.  “How in the world can you remember one sale from over forty years ago?”  I asked.  “Easy, it was the only color TV model we sold back then.  It was a good one, so we didn’t bother to stock any others.”  It must have been a good set because when we married in 1979, we gave it to my folks and they watched it in their downstairs rec room for many years.

     Can humans exist without TV in their lives?  The simple answer is, “Yes,” and there are a lot of things one can do to entertain themselves if they aren’t glued to TV.  Unfortunately, TV is the least of our worries as a new addiction has pushed the old fashioned TV aside.  Now that everything can be streamed to just about any device, people are exposed to more screen time than ever before.  Nobody saw this coming during the gestation of ‘the TV generation.  Today, with mom and dad also glued to screens of all sizes, is anyone concerned about what happens to growing brains bombarded by streaming media?

     Before signing off, we need to revisit Homer’s adventures in The Shinning in case you were wondering why the episode wasn’t just called The Shining.   Groundskeeper Willie is performing his maintenance man duties in this version of The Shining, only he is an enhanced Willie who can ‘shine’ or read minds, as can Bart.  Bart asks Willie about his ability to ‘shine’.  When Willie corrects him (“Shush boy, do you wanna get sued” which is said telepathically in his thick Scottish brogue), Bart rolls his eyes and changes his question about his gift from ‘shining’ to ‘shinning’. 

     Remember when futurists kept promising us flying cars and personal jet packs?  We haven’t exactly withered away without them have we?  Can we similarly live without TV?  Probably, but it would have been a shame if it meant missing out on The Simpsons of The Packers.  

Top Piece Video:  Dire Staits performing one of the all time great songs name checking TV!