back when we welcomed the invasion of the first colored television

I’m in my early 50s now, just a little bit more than halfway to a hundred. I know, I know, those elderly gents snort and splash air at me with wrinkled old hands, grin a somber smile, and remind me “Young man, you’re still just a puppy! Only fifty some years outa diapers.”

Tho I imagine another voice cackling among fluttering pigeons not to worry “cuz you might find yourself back in diapers before you get to turn a hunnert years old.”

Once upon a time, however, way back a long, long time ago, long before old folks could depend on Depends,  (wait, little ® there, right?), I was a wee little bitty fella all excited because every Monday night I could snuggle up next to my Momma on the sofa across from the TV and watch “Lost in Space.” Then talk all about spaceships, alien planets, and monsters in school the next day. Especially with my buddy Eddie. I was in First Grade, and our television was black-and-white.

B & W was all I knew. Clear, crisp black, grey, and white. Unless zigzagging zebra stripes took over the screen.

One evening my parents were giddy with excitement and anticipation. They beamed at me with eyes like flying saucers. I looked around in wonder.

“Come on,” Dad said. “Get ready. We’re going up the road to Charlie Watt and Rosella’s new house.”

“What for?” I asked.

“They got a new television!” shouted my Mom as she bounced up and down grinning.

“A new television?” I wondered. “So what? What’s the big deal?”

I wanted a pair of new sneakers. PF Flyers! Yeah, PF Flyers! We already have a television.

“Mom, I already know what TV looks like,” I said.

“But this is a colored TV!” she said and almost shrieked. Even my Dad looked funny. Like they were going to see Elvis and the Beatles at the same time or something.

“A colored TV?” I mused. “Like we can draw on it with crayons and stuff?”

“No, you silly. It’s … well, you know, when you watch it everything on it looks natural-like. Normal. Like we see colors with our eyes,” my Mom said.

“Good gosh, Dot,” my Dad said. “Get a holda yourself! It just means yellow flowers look yellow and green grass looks green …”

“And the sky looks really, really blue!” she shouted.

“Dot!” my Dad said. “Good Lord, get a hold of yourself!”

“Oh, Bill, let’s go!” she yelled.

I have to remember as I recall these old dialogues my parents were young thangs in their mid-twenties. It was the mid-1960s, and the nation was in a tumult of joy and fear, of dread and excitement. They weren’t the snowy-haired couple in their 70s I tend to think of as that’s the way they were when I last saw them alive.

I was kinda fond of black and white. Why, I couldn’t imagine a colored television set. Wouldn’t that be boring, about the same as looking out the window at yellow flowers and green grass under blue skies?

So we piled into the car and drove up the road to the Gates’ house. When I say drove I meant we drove maybe a tenth of a mile. We used to walk it. But now the winding old dirt road was straight and paved with asphalt. We can be “in a hurry” for a change.

Members of the Gates clan are cousins to the Bass and Bruce clans. Together we owned most of the larger dairy farms around the greater neighborhood. We lived in the south-central part of rural Virginia in Prince Edward County. The closest town was actually named Farmville, a local railway hub on the banks of the Appomattox River. Our part of the countryside was often referred to as “Sandy River,” which flowed into the larger Appomattox. Federals and Confederates battled each other here one hundred years before colored TV invaded our homes.

Charlie Watt and Rosella Gates had recently built a new house out of bricks. They finally moved into it from their large, old wooden farmhouse with white siding, a green tin roof, and Victorian trim. Their new brick house smelled new but looked like a giant brick laid out in a cow pasture, which it was. I much preferred the old farmhouse. It was much prettier and surrounded by lush trees and flowering shrubbery and a white picket fences.

I once asked Missus Rosella why in the world did she want to move out of that pretty old farmhouse surrounded by maples and oaks into a brick shoebox out in a cow pasture without even one tree. Turned out I’d revved up an engine.

“Oh, honey,” Rosella bent over me so sweet. “That old house was just OLD. It was cold, and dark, and drafty. Those long, spooky hallways down to the bathroom, they were so dark at night I swear they were haunted. And the bathrooms, all crowded with little bitty flush toilets and the plumbing was all too small. Not to mention all that electricity ran through knob-and-tube wires that’ll set your house on fire. The walls are plastered over with lime, corncobs, and hog bristles.

“Yes, Sir,” she went on, “We got us a real pretty new house now made out of real bricks! That old farmhouse sure was nice and cool in the summer, though. Except those maple trees always dripped sap on everything. Eww. And…oh, my…” her eyes furrowed behind her silver-tipped spectacles with little chains dangling from them oh so cute. “Oh my Lord, you have no idea what it was like cooking inside that kitchen on a summer day. No fans blowing. Oh, it was so hot! Sweat pouring down me, and I don’t like to sweat. Felt like I was inside an oven all day long! And the good Lord didn’t make me to stand around inside sweating in the heat like some turkey being basted!”

Or something like that. She was so kind and sweet, but she went on and on, as she was mighty proud of being the first family in the neighborhood to build a brick house.

“Here ya go!”  Charlie Watt poked me with a half-stick of Wrigley’s chewing gum. “Y’all come on inside. It ain’t Thanksgiving yet.”

The house was full of people from all around the neighborhood. We gathered in their den around a massive wooden box thing with a television in it. The whole thing was a TV.

“It took four young bucks to move that heavy thing in here,” I heard someone said. The television was actually pretty small by today’s standards, and most of it was decorative wood, wires, and vacuum tubes.

“Yep, ya gotta be careful,” another guy replied. “Drop that big bugga and you’ll pop those vacuum tubes and knock wires all a-loose where they’ve been soldered into circuits or something like that.”

I stood there looking at that blank gray-green television screen. I felt so envious. No wonder my parents were all excited. This was the very first colored TV in the whole neighborhood! Imagine that! And not long after brick houses and paved roads, too. Me, I lived in a house built in what used to be a pigpen for hogs. A row of hackberry trees on either side of an elm tree crowned with a magnificent canopy of shade marked where woven-wire fences used to stretch.

Yes, brick houses were for city slickers. City folks hired construction workers to “make” brick houses because there weren’t any trees left to cut down and saw up to build your own house with anymore. These old farmhouses out here? The farmers cleared the land themselves. They sawed down the trees, dug up or dynamited the stumps, and dragged the logs with horses to saw mills they built themselves. They sliced the trees into boards and built their own houses, sheds, and raised their won barns. It was dangerous work. Charlie Watt lost a finger back in those days.

“OK, is every one ready?” Charlie Watt said and laughed.

“Yes!” we all said.

He turned around to face his new colored television. Pushed a button. Turned a couple of dials. Loud, staticky humming snapped and buzzed through the air. I could almost feel those snaps and buzzes. For a moment I was afraid lightening bolts would shoot out of that darn thing and zap my hearing aids and turn me into Frankenstein or something. Lights flashed, colors ran together, and the TV looked as if someone had knocked a bottle of Pepto-Bismol over onto the screen.

We were all amazed. It was incredible. We gaped in awe at the first colored television in our whole neighborhood. In our whole neighborhood! It was the first many of us had ever seen. Blobs of purple and green wobbled and wiggled all across the screen. Somewhere in there were people. Charlie Watt bent over and fussed with the buttons and dials. He turned one to the left. Then back to the right. And back to the middle. Next dial? Repeat. Amazing blobs of purple and green and now blue danced across the screen as we heard the televised voices of characters on the show. I don’t remember the show. Just blobs of color.

My mother was thrilled.

Eventually we got one, too. And another in the kitchen. The old black and white TV’s were put in the closet or just given away. In other households the B & W’s were put in all the bedrooms with color up front. Color was king. Then my parents got a third one for their bedroom. By then I was leaving the nest and I couldn’t stand TV any longer. Mom felt sad. She knew what it was like when all there was … was…radio. And I had the privilege of color TV as a child.

For me it was an invasion. Not intentional, but it did turn people inward away from each other. Something was lost as we watched events in real time on the other side of the planet. It was even more astounding to watch the first men walk on the Moon. Just three or four years later in July of 1969. What felt so weird about that was watching this triumphant and historic moment in B & W on a color TV. I had expected color transmission from the Lunar surface, and so I felt strangely disappointed even though my parents and grandparents were beside themselves in awe.

I got to watch TV turn people into zombies. We either mindlessly zoned out into the surreal ether of The Twilight Zone, or tore each other apart for dinner arguing over broadcast news. Assassinations, racism, sexism, Vietnam, Katanga, Cambodia, Watergate, riots, marches, bombings, Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pak wars, the U.S.S. Pueblo incident, free love, drugs, music, long hair, miniskirts, psychedelia, Laos, atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, nuclear weapons, thermonuclear weapons, long-range strategic bombers and ICBMs, desegregation, nerve gas, switchblades and bicycle chains, Molotov cocktails, German shepherds and firehoses turned on little Black girls in white dresses and horned rimmed glasses by burly White cops, Muhammad Ali, Kent State, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the Days of Rage and the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman, electric guitars, drums, road trips, Star Trek and I Love Lucy and gay riots at Stonewall…all marched across our TV screens breakfast, lunch, and dinner and we were a house divided by civil war.

Yes, I remember way back when … when we welcomed the invasion of our lives by the first colored television in our neighborhood.

Never got those PF Flyers. Didn’t really need ’em.


William Dudley Bass
4 November 2011
Seattle, Washington


  Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.

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