Thursday, August 11, 2011
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 (A.K.A. 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 during the hours 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 the under-30's 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, 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, 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 the middle of this absurd revisionist fantasy. 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 newspaper each morning.)
*sound of crickets chirping*
FOUR channels, people! NOTHING ON! Well, nothing except…
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 called 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.
It was the only thing on TV, though, so I watched it. And watched it. And watched it some more. Finally, when even an extremely easily-amused seven-year-old like myself was getting bored, the screen would change to a graphic displaying the station call letters while a deep baritone voice 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, for some unknown reason, by scenes of a bus driving down a hill in what looked like it might be Charlestown, but on channel 5 they showed you a seagull standing on a dock piling, and to this day I', still not sure which one evoked more religious feeling in my childhood bosom.) After the prayer, you got a farm and market report. This was 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 wavy shape-shifting bars of color accompanied by sitar music. 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.
[P.S. If you're experiencing a sense of deja vu, it's probably because you actually were here before. I first published this back in 2006 when some of you weren't old enough to drink yet. Now that you are, feel free.]