An interstellar Walter Cronkite haunted their childhood — until the TV was sold.
by Howard Waldrop
You know how it is:
There’s a bar on the corner, where hardly anybody knows your name, and you like it that way. Live bands play there two or three nights a week. Before they start up it’s nice, and on the nights they don’t play — there’s a good juke box, the big TV’s on low on ESPN all the time. At his prices, the owner should be a millionaire, but he’s given his friends so many free drinks they’ve forgotten they should pay for more than every third or fourth one. Not that you know the owner, but you’ve watched.
You go there when your life’s good, you go there when your life’s bad; mostly you go there instead of having a good or bad life.
And one night, fairly crowded, you’re on the stools so the couples and the happy people can have the booths and tables. Someone’s put $12 in the jukebox (and they have some taste), the TV’s on the Australian Thumb-Wrestling Finals, the neon beer signs are on, and the place looks like the inside of the Ferris Wheel on opening night at the state fair.
You start talking to the guy next to you, early fifties, your age, and you get off on TV (you can talk to any American, except a Pentecostal, about television) and you’re talking the classic stuff: the last Newhart episode; Northern Exposure; the episode where Lucy stomps the grapes; the coast-to-coast bigmouth Dick Van Dyke; Howdy-Doody (every 8-year-old boy in America had a Jones for Princess Summer-Fall Winter-Spring).
And the guy, whose name you know is Eldon (maybe he told you, maybe you were born knowing it) starts asking you about some sci-fi show from the early ’50s, maybe you didn’t get it, maybe it was only on local upstate New York, sort of, it sounds like, a travelog, like the old Seven League Boots, only about space, stars and such, planets . . .
“Well, no,” you say, “there was Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Space Patrol; Captain Video” — which you never got but knew about — “Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers; Captain Midnight (or Jet Jackson, Flying Commando, depending on whether you saw it before or after Ovaltine quit sponsoring it, and in reruns people’s lips flapped after saying ‘Captain Midnight’ but what came out was ‘Jet Jackson’ . . .); or maybe one of the anthology shows, Twilight Zone or Tales of —”
“No,” he says, “not them. See, there was this TV . . .”
“Oh,” you say, “a TV. Well, the only one I know of was this one where a guy at a grocery store (one season) invents this TV that contacts . . .”
“No,” he says, looking at you (Gee, this guy can be intense!). “I don’t mean Johnny Jupiter, which is what you were going to say. Jimmy Duckweather invents TV. Contacts Jupiter, which is inhabited by puppets when they’re inside the TV, and by guys in robot suits when they come down to Earth, and almost cause Duckweather to lose his job and not get a date with the boss’s daughter, episode after episode, two seasons.”
“Maybe you mean Red Planet Mars, a movie. Peter Graves — ”
“. . . Andrea King, guy invents hydrogen tube; Nazis; Commies; Eisenhower president. Jesus speaks from Mars.”
“Well, The Twonky. Horrible movie, about a TV from the future?”
“Hans Conreid. Nah, that’s not it.”
And so it goes. The conversation turns to other stuff (you’re not the one with The Answer) and mostly it’s conversation you forget because, if all the crap we carry around in our heads were real, and it was flushed, the continents would drown, and you forget it, and mostly get drunk and a little maudlin, slightly depressed and mildly horny, and eventually you go home.
But it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t your story, it’s Eldon’s.
When he was eight years old, city-kid Eldon and his seven-year-old sister Irene were sent off for two weeks in the summer of 1953, to Aunt Joanie’s house in upstate New York while, not known to them, their mother had a hysterectomy.
Aunt Joanie was not their favorite aunt; that was Aunt Nonie, who would as soon whip out a Monopoly board, or Game of Life, or checkers as look at you, and always took them off on picnics or fishing or whatever it was she thought they’d like to do. But Aunt Nonie (their Mom’s youngest sister) was off in Egypt on a cruise she’d won in a slogan contest for pitted dates, so it fell to Aunt Joanie (their Father’s oldest sister) to keep them the two weeks.
Their father’s side of the family wasn’t the fun one. If an adult unbent toward a child a little, some other family member would be around to remind them they were just children. Their cousins on that side of the family (not that Aunt Joanie or Uncle Arthridge had any kids) were like mice; they had to take off their shoes and put on house slippers when they got home from school; they could never go into the family room; they had to be in bed by 8:30 pm, even when the sun was still up in the summer.
Uncle Arthridge was off in California, so it was just them and Aunt Joanie, who, through no fault of her own, looked just like the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which they had seen with Aunt Nonie the summer before.
They arrived by train, white tags stuck to them like turkeys in a raffle, and a porter had made sure they were comfortable. When Irene had been upset, realizing she would be away from home, and was going to be at Aunt Joanie’s for two weeks, and had begun to sniffle, Eldon held her hand. He was still at the age where he could hold his sister’s hand against the world and think nothing of it.
Aunt Joanie was waiting for them in the depot on the platform, and handed the porter a $1.00 tip, which made him smile.
And then Aunt Joanie drove them, allowing them to sit in the front seat of her Plymouth, to her house, and there they were.
At first, he thought it might be a radio.
It was up on legs, the bottom of them looking like eagle claws holding a wooden ball. It wasn’t a sewing machine cabinet, or a table. It might be a liquor cabinet, but there wasn’t a keyhole.
It was the second day at Aunt Joanie’s and he was already cranky. Irene had had a crying jag the night before and their aunt had given them some ice cream.
He was exploring. He already knew every room; there was a basement and an attic. The real radio was in the front room; this was in the sitting room at the back.
One of the reasons they hadn’t wanted to come to Aunt Joanie’s was that she had no television, like their downstairs neighbors, the Stevenses, did back in the city. They’d spent the first part of summer vacation downstairs in front of it, every chance they got. Two weeks at Aunt Nonie’s without television would have been great, because she wouldn’t have given them time to think, and would have them exhausted by bedtime anyway.
But two weeks at Aunt Joanie and Uncle Arthridge’s without television was going to be murder. She had let them listen to radio, but not the scary shows, or anything good. And Johnny Dollar and Suspense weren’t on out here, she was sure.
So he was looking at the cabinet in the sitting room. It had the eagle-claw legs. It was about three feet wide, and the part that was solid started a foot and a half off the floor. There was two feet of cabinet above that. At the back was a rounded part, with air holes in it, like a Lincoln Continental spare tire holder. He ran his hand over it — it was made out of that same stuff as the backs of radios and televisions.
There were two little knobs on the front of the cabinet though he couldn’t see a door. He pulled on them. Then he turned and pulled on them.
They opened, revealing three or four other knobs, and a metal toggle switch down at the right front corner. They didn’t look like radio controls. It didn’t look like a television either. There was no screen.
There was no big lightning-bolt moving dial like on their radio at home in the city.
Then he noticed a double-line of wood across the top front of it, like on the old ice-box at his grandfather’s. He pushed on it from the floor. Something gave, but he couldn’t make it go farther.
Eldon pulled a stool up to the front of it.
“What are you doing?” asked Irene.
“This must be another radio,” he said. “This part lifts up.”
He climbed atop the stool. He had a hard time getting his fingers under the ridge. He pushed.
The whole top of the thing lifted up a few inches. He could see glass. Then it was too heavy. He lifted at it again after it dropped down, and this time it came up halfway open.
There was glass on the under-lid. It was a mirror. He saw the reflection of part of the room. Something else moved below the mirror, inside the cabinet.
“Aunt Joanie’s coming!” said Irene.
He dropped the lid and pushed the stool away and closed the doors.
“What are you two little cautions doing?” asked Aunt Joanie from the other room.
The next morning, when Aunt Joanie went to the store on the corner, he opened the top while Irene watched.
The inner lid was a mirror that stopped halfway up, at an angle. Once he got it to a certain point, it clicked into place. There was a noise from inside and another click.
He looked down into it. There was a big dark glass screen.
“It’s a television!” he said.
“Can we get Howdy-Doody?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You better ask Aunt Joanie, or you’ll get in trouble.”
He clicked the toggle switch. Nothing happened.
“It doesn’t work,” he said.
“Maybe it’s not plugged in,” said Irene.
Eldon lay down on the bare floor at the edge of the area rug, saw the prongs of a big electric plug sticking out underneath. He pulled on it. The cord uncoiled from behind. He looked around for the outlet. The nearest one was on the far wall.
“What are you two doing?” asked Aunt Joanie, stepping into the room with a small grocery bag in her arms.
“Is . . . is this a television set?” asked Eldon.
“Can we get Howdy-Doody?” asked Irene.
Aunt Joanie put down the sack. “It is a television. But it won’t work any more. There’s no need to plug it in. It’s an old-style one, from before the war. They don’t work like that anymore. Your uncle Arthridge and I bought it in 1938. There were no broadcasts out here then, but we thought there would be soon.”
As she was saying this, she stepped forward, took the cord from Eldon’s hands, rewound it and placed it behind the cabinet again.
“Then came the War, and everything changed. These kind won’t work anymore. So we shan’t be playing with it, shall we? It’s probably dangerous by now.”
“Can’t we try it, just once?” said Eldon.
“I do not think so,” said Aunt Joanie. “Please put it out of your mind. Go wash up now, we’ll have lunch soon.”
Three days before they left, they found themselves alone in the house again, in the early evening. It had rained that afternoon, and was cool for summer.
Irene heard scraping in the sitting room. She went there and found Eldon pushing the television cabinet down the bare part of the floor toward the electrical outlet on the far wall.
He plugged it in. Irene sat down in front of it, made herself comfortable. “You’re going to get in trouble,” she said. “What if it explodes?”
He opened the lid. They saw the reflection of the television screen in it from the end of the couch.
He flipped the toggle. Something hummed, there was a glow in the back, and they heard something spinning. Eldon put his hand near the round part and felt pulses of air, like from a weak fan. He could see lights through the holes in the cabinet, and something was moving.
He twisted a small knob, and light sprang up in the picture-tube part, enlarged and reflected in the mirror on the lid. Lines of bright static moved up the screen and disappeared in a repeating pattern.
He turned another knob, the larger one, and the bright went dark and then bright again.
Then a picture came in.
They watched those last three days, everytime Aunt Joanie left; afraid at first, watching only a few minutes, then turning it off, unplugging it, and closing it up and pushing it back into its place, careful not to scratch the floor.
Then they watched more, and more, and there was an excitement each time they went through the ritual, a tense expectation.
Since no sound came in, what they saw they referred to as “Mr. Goober’s Show,” from his shape, and his motions, and what went on around him. He was on anytime they turned the TV on.
They left Aunt Joanie’s reluctantly. She had never caught them watching it. They took the train home.
Eldon was in a kind of anxiety. He talked to all his friends, who knew nothing about anything like that, and some of them had been as far away as San Francisco during the summer. The only person he could talk to about it was his little sister, Irene.
He did not know what the jumpiness in him was.
They rushed into Aunt Joanie’s house the first time they visited at Christmas, and ran to the sitting room.
The wall was blank.
They looked at at each other, then ran back into the living room.
“Aunt Joanie!” said Eldon, interrupting her, Uncle Arthridge and his father. “Aunt Joanie, where’s the television?”
“Television . . . ? Oh, that thing. I sold it to a used furniture man at the end of the summer. He bought it for the cabinetry, he said, and was going to make an aquarium out of it. I suppose he sold the insides for scrap.”
They grew up, talking to each other, late at nights, about what they had seen. When their family got TV, they spent their time trying to find it again.
Then high school, then college, the ’60s. Eldon went to Nam, came back about the same.
Irene got a job in television, and sent him letters, while he taught bookkeeping at a junior college.
April 11, 1971
Dear Bro’ —
I ran down what kind of set Aunt Joanie had.
It was a mechanical television, with a Nipkov disk scanner. It was a model made between 1927 and 1929.
Mechanical: yes. You light a person, place, thing, very very brightly. On one side of the studio are photoelectric cells that turn light to current. Between the subject and the cells, you drop in a disk that spins 300 times a minute. Starting at the edge of the disk, and spiraling inward all the way around to the center are holes. You have a slit-scan shutter. As the light leaves the subject it’s broken into a series of lines by the holes passing across the slit. The photoelectric cells pick up the pulses of light. (An orthicon tube does exactly the same thing, except electronically, in a camera, and your modern TV is just a big orthicon tube on the other end.) Since it was a mechanical signal, your disk in the cabinet at home had to spin at exactly the same rate. So they had to send out a regulating signal at the same time.
Not swell, not good definition, but workable.
But Aunt Joanie (rest her soul) was right — nothing in 1953 was broadcasting that it could receive, because all early pre-war televisions were made with the picture-portion going out on FM and the sound going out on short-wave (so her set had receivers for both) andneither of them are where TV is now on the wavelengths (where they’ve been since 1946).
Mr. Goober could not have come from an FCC licensed broadcaster in 1953. I’ll check Canada and Mexico, but I’m pretty sure everything was moved off those bands by then, even experimental stations. Since we never got sound, either there was none, or maybe it was coming in with the picture (like now) and her set couldn’t separate four pieces of information (one-half each of two signals, which is why we use FM for TV).
It shouldn’t have happened, I don’t think. There are weird stories (the ghost signals of a Midwest station people saw the test patterns of more than a year after they quit broadcasting; the famous 2.8 second delay in radio transmissions all over the world on shortwave in 1927 and early 1928).
Am going to the NAB meeting in three weeks. Will talk to everybody there, especially the old guys, and find out if any of them knows about Mr. Goober’s Show. Stay sweet.
Eldon began the search on his own; at parties, at bars, at ball games. During the next few years, he wrote his sister with bits of fugitive matter he’d picked up. And he got quite a specialized knowledge of local TV shows, kid’s show clowns, Shock Theater hosts, and eclectic local programming of the early 1950s, throughout these United States.
June 25, 1979
Dear Eldon —
Sorry it took so long to get this letter off to you, but I’ve been busy at work, and helping with the Fund Drive, and I also think I’m onto something. I’ve just run across stuff that indicates there was some kind of medical outfit that used radio in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Hope you can come home for Christmas this time. Mom’s getting along in years, you know. I know you had your troubles with her (I’m the one to talk) but she really misses you. As Bill Cosby says, she’s an old person trying to get into Heaven now. She’s trying to be good the second thirty years of her life . . .
Will write you again as soon as I find out more about these quacks.
Your little sister,Irene
August 14, 1979
Dear Big Brother:
Well, it’s depressing here. The lead I had turned out to be a bust, and I could just about cry, since I thought this might be it, since they broadcast on both shortwave and FM (like Aunt Joanie’s set received) but this probably wasn’t it, either.
It was called Drown Radio Therapy (there’s something poetic about the name, but not the operation). It was named for Dr. Ruth Drown, she was a real osteopath. Sometime before the War, she and a technocrat started working with a low-power broadcast device. By War’s end, she was claiming she could treat disease at a distance, and set up a small broadcast station behind her Chicago suburb office. Patients came in, were diagnosed, and given a schedule of broadcast times they were supposed to tune in. (The broadcasts were directly to each patient, supposedly, two or three times a day.) By the late ’40s, she’d also gone into TV, which is of course FM (the radio stuff being short-wave). That’s where I’d hoped I’d found someone broadcasting at the same time on both bands.
But probably no go. She franchised the machines out to other doctors, mostly naturopaths and cancer quacks. It’s possible that one was operating near Aunt Joanie’s somewhere, but probably not, and anyway, a committee of docs investigated her stuff. What they found was that the equipment was so low-powered it could only broadcast a dozen miles (not counting random skipping, bouncing off the Heaviside layer, which it wouldn’t have been able to reach). Essentially they ruled the equipment worthless.
And, the thing that got to me, there was no picture transmission on the FM (TV) portion; just the same type of random signals that went out on short-wave, on the same schedule, every day. Even if you had a rogue cancer specialist, the FCC said the stuff couldn’t broadcast a visual signal, not with the technology of the time. (The engineer at the station here looked at the specs and said “even if they had access to video orthicon tubes, the signal wouldn’t have gotten across the room,” unless it was on cable, which it wasn’t.)
I’ve gone on too long. It’s not it.
Sorry to disappoint you (again). But I’m still going through back files of Variety and BNJ and everything put out by the networks in those years. And, maybe a mother-lode, a friend’s got a friend who knows where all the Dumont records (except Gleason’s) are stored.
We’ll find out yet, brother. I’ve heard stories of people waiting twenty, thirty, forty years to clear things like this up. There was a guy who kept insisting he’d read a serialized novel in a newspaper, about the fall of civilization, in the early 1920s. Pre-bomb, pre-almost everything. He was only a kid when he read it. Ten years ago he mentioned it to someone who had a friend who recognized it, not from a newspaper, but as a book called Darkness and the Dawn. It was in three parts, and serial rights were sold, on the first part only, to, like three newspapers in the whole U.S. And the man, now in his sixties, had read it in one of them.
Things like that do happen, kiddo.
Write me when you can.
Sept. 12, 1982
I’m ready to give up on this. It’s running me crazy — not crazy, but to distraction, if I had anything else to be distracted from.
I can’t see any way out of this except to join the Welcome Space Brothers Club, which I refuse to do.
That would be the easy way out, give up, go over to the Cheesy Side of the Force. You and me saw a travelog, a See-It-Now of the Planets, hosted by an interstellar Walter Cronkite on a Nipkov disk TV in 1953. We’re the only people in the world who did. No one else.
But that’s why CE3K and the others have made so many millions of dollars. People want to believe, but they want to believe for other people, not themselves. They don’t want to be the ones. They want someone else to be the one. And then they want everybody to believe. But it’s not their ass out there saying: the Space Brothers are here; I can’t prove it, take my word for it, it’s real. Believe me as a person.
I’m not that person, and neither are you; OR there has to be some other answer. One, or the other, but not both; and not neither.
I don’t now what to do anymore; whatever it is, it’s not this. It’s quit being fun. It’s quit being something I do aside from life as we know it. It is my life, and yours, and it’s all I’ve got.
I know what Mr. Goober was trying to tell us, and there was more, but the sound was off.
I’m tired. I’ll write you next week when I can call my life my own again.
Cops called from Irene’s town the next week.
After the funeral, and the stay at his mother’s, and the inevitable fights, with his stepfather trying to stay out of it, he came home and found one more letter, postmarked the same day as the police had called him.
Dear Eldon —Remember this, and don’t think less of me: What we saw was real.
Evidently, too real for me.
Find out what we saw.
So you’ll be sitting in the bar, there’ll be the low hum and thump of noise as the band sets up, and over in the corner, two people will be talking. You’ll hear the word “Lucy” which could be many things — a girlfriend, a TV show, a late President’s daughter, a 4-million-year-old ape-child. Then you’ll hear “M-Squad” or “Untouchables” and there’ll be more talk, and you’ll hear distinctly, during a noise-level drop, “ . . . and I don’t mean Johnny-fucking-Jupiter either. . .”
And in a few minutes he’ll leave, because the band will have started, and conversation, except at the 100-decibel level, is over for the night.
But he’ll be back tomorrow night. And the night after.
And all the star-filled nights that follow that one.
Photo illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer
©1998 by Howard Waldrop. First published in OMNI Internet March 1998