Friday, April 28, 2006

Dinosaurs, Living Room Basketball, And The Pre-History Of Television

I'm afraid this might end up being one of the strangest bits of writing you'll ever see here. When you take into consideration some of the things I've written, that’s a mighty tall order to fill, isn’t it? Well, you know me; I’ll do my best to deliver. Here goes.

Today, I’m going to tell you about my love of test patterns.

I hear everybody under the age of 30 saying, “Huh? What the heck is a test pattern?”

I hear everybody over the age of 80 saying, “Are you daft, boy? What can you possibly have to say about test patterns that might be even vaguely interesting?”

I hear everybody between the ages of 31 and 79 saying, “How do you know how old I am?”

Nevertheless, less get on with it. The quicker we get this over with the less it will hurt.

To begin, you’ve got to understand something about people my age, AKA old farts with nothing better to do than reminisce about ephemera that nobody in their right mind cared about even when it was current. We grew up in an age when there was no TV programming between 1am and 5am.

(A collective gasp from the 30-and-under crowd.)

Wait! It gets even better. Even when there was programming, there were only four channels to choose from. And one of those was public broadcasting.

(I think we’ll have to wait for them to get up off the floor. They’ve fainted.)

Yes, I grew up in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I could hardly walk to school, the streets were so thick with Allosauruses. If you wandered away from your friends during recess, you stood a good chance of being dive-bombed by a Pterodactyl and taken back to its nest as a snack for its young. As a matter of fact, that’s why I’m bald now. One of them had me in its claws, but I managed to escape. However, in the process it ripped off my scalp. But in those days, we didn’t pay no nevermind to such baby stuff as that. I just scooped up a pile of dodo feathers and shoved ‘em on top of my head and tweren’t hardly nobody what knew the difference.

(That’s the way we talked in those days. We were ignorant and bloody-headed and we ate rocks for lunch because we were too poor to afford dirt, but my! Didn’t we have a gay old time! And gay old times were illegal back then, too, even in Massachusetts.)

Be that as it may - and it usually is - there were only four channels to choose from in Boston when I was a kid. You had channels 2, 4, 5, and 7. And that was it. And all of them went off the air overnight, so if you turned on the television at, say, 3am? All you were doing was wasting the electricity. And the electricity was produced by 20 hamsters running in wheels in the basement. None of that uppity power company electricity for us! No, sir! And the tyrannosauruses and diplodocuses and wooly saber-toothed porcupines stood outside just salivatin’ to beat the band because these was gigantic prehistorical hamsters the size of giant prehistorical Buicks and they was good eatin’, let me tell you! 23 skidoo and up the cat’s pajamas with your bee’s knees! Nothin’ quite like a twice-baked giant hamster gizzard. Sticks to your bones on a cold winter morning. And to your shoes, too, if you don’t watch where you’re walkin’.

The thing was - and probably still is if you look real close - a kid like me, with a bedtime of about 8pm, would be up at 4:30 in the morning. Since there were no television programs on at that time, I would do something nice and quiet like play basketball in the living room.

(Here we have glimpsed an actual example of truth in this… thing I’m writing. I would actually get up at 4:30 and bounce a damn basketball on the carpet and pretend I was John Havlicek. I would drive for a game-winning lay-up, with the space of the wall between the top of the hall closet and the ceiling as my basket. I’m surprised I lived past the age of eight. If it was my kid, I would have fed him to the Triceratops that the paperboy rode on to deliver the Globe each morning.)

(*sound of crickets chirping*)


FOUR channels, people! NOTHING ON! Well, nothing except…

Test patterns.

On those mornings when I wasn’t bouncing a basketball off the walls, I would fix myself a bowl of cornflakes and plop myself down on the carpet, turn on the TV, and stare at the test pattern until an actual program came on. If you’re about my age, chances are you did the same thing at least once or twice, although if you’re more intelligent than me you aren’t going to admit it in public.

For those of you underage slackers who have nothing better to do at work than read the sort of crap I’m foisting upon you today, I have included a helpful visual aid at the top of the page. THAT was a test pattern. It did nothing. It didn’t change one bit for the entire time it was on the screen. And I sat there and stared at it, trying to figure out just what in hell it was for, for fifteen minutes at a time. I mean, I knew it was for testing of some sort, since it was a test pattern, but what sort of tests did they have to run on a picture of an old Indian chief? And what did all of those lines and numbers mean? To this day, I still have no idea.

However, it was the only thing on TV, so I watched it. And watched it. And watched it some more. Finally, when even an extremely easily amused five-year-old like myself was getting bored, the screen would change to a graphic displaying the station call letters and a deep baritone would tell you that you were watching WNAC-TV in Boston, broadcasting at 83.7 jigahertz and licensed by the Federal Authority Of Bureaucrats Who Couldn’t Find Any Other Public Teat To Suck On and a whole bunch of other junk no kid could understand, but at least it wasn’t the test pattern and there was actually sound. Then they’d play the national anthem.

Yup. Every day, just like at the start of a ballgame; the national anthem. Then there would be the reading of a morning prayer (which was accompanied on channel 4 by, for some unknown reason, scenes of a T bus driving down a hill in what looked like it might be Charlestown.) After the prayer, you got a farm and market report, because who the hell else would be up at that hour watching the TV besides farmers? Finally, there were a handful of public service announcements before the first exciting show of the day, which was likely as not Sunrise Semester.

Sunrise Semester was a show you could actually earn college credits by watching. I’m not kidding; you really could. And I’d sit there, eating my by-now soggy cornflakes, listening to some dry-as-dust bow-tie-wearing professor drone on about ancient Egyptian hydraulics during the reign of King Hottotrot. It was either that or switch to the test pattern on one of the other stations that hadn’t begun its broadcast day. Or I could stick my head out the door to see if the paper had arrived. Of course, if I did that, I might get it bitten off by a passing Stegosaurus.

(OK, I’ve run the dinosaur bit into the ground and stomped it dead with both feet. Sorry.)

Somewhere in the 1970’s, Channel 5 was the first station in Boston to deliver programming all night long. The show was called 5 All Night. It was considered a daring experiment by some and outright lunacy by others. Who in hell was going to watch TV at that time of night?

I can tell you who Channel 5 thought would watch TV at that time of night: stoned-out freaks and kids on acid trips. Half the programming was a “light show” comprised of sitar music accompanied by wavy shape-shifting bars of color. And they knew their audience. My friends and I spent many a night sitting in front of the TV saying, “Far out, man!” like some Cheech & Chong wannabes.

(By the way, the host of 5 All Night was Matt Siegel, now of Matty In The Morning on KISS-108. He’s even older than me. And I had my hair ripped off by a Pterodactyl, remember?)

Anywho, once the other stations saw that Channel 5 actually found an audience for overnight programming, they followed suit and that was the end of test patterns. It was also the end of morning prayers, as well as farm and market reports, though they probably still played the national anthem for the first month or so following 9/11.

Now, if you have any brains whatsoever, you should know better than to show up here again on Monday, but I’ll be here with a whole new bunch of nothing if you do and God bless you.

Soon, with more better stuff.


adamg said...

Yes, us dinosaurs must stick together. I was one of those sickly kids you used to hear about, and I often couldn't get to sleep and my parents would let me watch TV late at night, even when the only thing on was a) "The Late, Late Movie" (whose theme song, I now know, was "Syncopated Clock") on one channel and test patterns on all the others (this being New York). I tended to favor the test patterns.

Then I got my tonsils out and was able to grow into the fine example of an adult I am today :-).

Shelley said...

You're forgetting channels 38 and 56, and 27 if you got reception from Worcester. Great movies on Sunday afternoons (how could you not love a Shirley Temple triple feature from noon to 6 p.m.?!), not to mention Bruins and Celtics games every other minute. Of course, compared to cable these days, it's nothing, but compared to other cities at the time, we were actually pretty lucky here with the independent stations on top of the network affiliates and PBS.

Suldog said...


We had a VHF-onlyt TV, so didn't have any of that fancy-schmancy UHF stuff until I was 9 or 10, at least. My Dad actually bought a little box that you hooked up somehow and that made the TV able to receive the UHF. I remember what a thrill it was to double the number of stations in one day!

Suldog said...

And, Oh God, I could do a whole blog on "Creature Double Feature" on 56 :-)

Dave said...

OK, does anyone else remember this: One day one of the stations that was hard to get in the Boston area (I think it was Channel 6 out of New Bedford) ran a test pattern *in color* that worked on black and white TV. This would have been in the late 60's or early 70's. I remember it was blue and green and made a buzzing static sound on our B&W tv. It was something that they announced they'd do beforehand for a brief time. I don't know why they did it, but it was cool.

Dave said...

OK suldog...

What was the theme music for Creature Double Feature (in the mid-late 70's, at least)?

Dave said...

Shelley wrote: "You're forgetting channels 38 and 56, and 27 if you got reception from Worcester."

HA! Channel 27 didn't even go on the air until 1970! Whippersnapper!

Shelley said...

A VHF-only TV?! And I thought *I* was deprived!!! You poor thing! I didn't even know there was such a thing -- or the equivalent of an FM-radio converter to add UHF to such a contraption. (And yes, I had an FM converter on my first car -- a 1969 Chevy Impala ... a convertible, I'll have you know. It was as big as a whale and seated about twenty ....)

I guess I must be a relatively young dinosaur, among this group ... frankly I don't have much recall of *anything* that happened before I turned 5, and that was indeed in 1970.

Shelley said...

Oh, and no, Dave, I don't remember any colored test patterns. In fact, there was nothing colorful that ever happened on any of our black & white TVs, unless you count the language spoken near them when hitting one of 'em to tune in Channel 7.

Stu said...

I like how you couldn't resist one more dino reference, even after admitting you had driven it into the ground. A good writer knows when to rein it in, a great writer knows when to be a bull in a china shop. Dude, sincerely, you have a savage talent. This piece is a gentle example of that, but it is palpable none-the-less. Keep it up, and screw me for talking about your Art instead of just letting it be, peacefully shedding light on the noble earth.

Barbara said...

Okay Suldog, I read the whole thing hoping you could decipher the test pattern for me.

I never woke up early enough to see test patterns, but I did go to bed late enough to see them.

Suldog said...

OK, first, thank you, everyone, for reading. And for the kind words about my writing.

Dave - That would be "Tocatta" as performed by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, from "Brain Salad Surgery". I listen to that CD now and still see a Channel 56 logo in my head when it gets to that part.