Thursday, August 11, 2011

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 (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…

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 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.]


Jeni said...

Okay! Well, I thought when I first started "following" you (stalker that I am, ya know) that I had read ALL your mucho older posts but apparently I hadn't cause I don't recollect any of the educational stuff here about living with dinosaurs. And heaven knows, if anyone should remember those days it would be me since I am even older than the dirt you are older than! But I do remember those test patterns and how I hated when they came on because that was the end of whatever other inane programming I'd been watching. Today, I think those danged paid programs, infomercials that last for hours, are even worse than the test patterns were. My big thing in way-back land on tv in the early mornings was waiting for Captain Kangaroo to come on. You were lucky though because you had 4 channels to watch maybe differing test patterns while practicing your basketball moves. We only had one channel here and it was so full of snow and static, you were often unsure if there was even a test pattern on the screen. Thankfully, cable tv came along and gave us clearer viewing and now, I can flip through the channels with such ease and find lots of re-runs of favorite old shows that I don't have to have any of those stinking infomercials to have something to actually watch.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea you existed in 2006, so it's all new and yet déjà-vu to me - yeah, I'm that age too.

I do remember the national anthem - with a picture of the Canadian flag proudly floating in the wind, but the prayer? Don't think we went that far.

What WERE they testing with that Indian (oops, native american) dude, how come no one will tell?

The Broad said...

Ahhh, Sully, you brought it all back! Vividly. When I came to England in 1980 they still had test patterns. The BBC had a famous one of a little girl sitting in the middle of the thing. The rumour was that she was 'really' sitting there and had to be perfectly still and not move a muscle! This fascinated me enough to watch her until I realized I had to be a dope! We didn't eat rocks though -- they were our toys...

Craig said...

Aw, c'mon now, Sully. . . everybody knows diplodocuses and triceratopses and stegosauruses wuz plant-eaters. . . you weren't in no trouble from THEM. . . Besides, stegosauri had brains the size of walnuts - barely big enough to keep tellin' 'em to breathe. . .

I remember the test patterns. And the National Anthem. And then the Saturday morning cartoons (I forget which was the first one on in the morning - probably some sort of Little Rascals/Stooges thing, to fill time until 7 or 8, when Bugs Bunny and the real 'toons came on. . .

notactuallygod said...

Now you know some fundamentalist nitwit is going to take this as proof that dinos and people co-existed, thereby reconciling Biblical lore with scientific fact!
One demerit.

Suldog said...

Craig - Yes, they ate plants, but I was a banana brain.

Suldog said...

(Not) God - Are you saying they didn't co-exist? Were you there? I was! I especially remember, with vivid clarity, the T. Rex, and who would have thought such a huge vicious beast could write a great tune like "Bang A Gong"?

Oh, my. There may be youngsters about. Here you go...

Suldog said...

Jeni - My favorite Captain Kangaroo character was Mister Green Jeans. I don't think it was his character so much as it was that I knew the real name of the actor was Lumpy Brannum. Who names their kid Lumpy?

Suldog said...

Haphazard - You wacky Canadians! You didn't have an Inuit on your test pattern? I'm surprised!

Suldog said...

Broad - I've seen that test pattern - came across it while searching for mine, actually. Had that been the one over here, I think my entire life would have been changed. I'll leave it up to you to try and imagine how.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know you in 2006 either, so this post is extremely hilarious to me for the first time.

Thanks for the memories of test patterns, and kinder, gentler programming like Captain Kangaroo.

It was easier to change channels then, too, just get up and walk over to the tv and turn the dial -- compared to these days and me fumbling with the remote control in the dark, hitting the wrong button, cursing, and trying to figure out what I did wrong and how to get the TV programming back.

You ate hamster gizzards???!!!

Suldog said...

Red HAMSTER says - "You ate hamster gizzards???!!!"

Oops! Nothing personal.

silly rabbit said...

Ha! Well I recall getting up long before the parents and staring at that test pattern. More of a shocker to me was the first time I stayed up late enough to see the test pattern come on at night. There was a bee... a symbol of the broadcast company... and it would buzz onto the screen, fly around and then in a very buzzy bee voice say "Good night!" Then the test pattern followed. After that I expected the bee to be there in the morning and say "good morning" but it never did.
As for Captain Kangaroo... my friends used to tell me that my mom looked like Captain Kangaroo.
At the time it irked the heck out of me. But now, I feel quite close to pictures of the Captain since she passed away. Weird.
I got a great laugh out of the "sound of crickets chirping". It figures that considering what you do for a living that you would interject that one... but you know, I never know what to expect here and I half way expected to hear Cricket of Cricket and Porcupine saying something. Or possibly something other entirely. LOL

Buck said...

Even during the hours when there was programming, there were only four channels to choose from. And one of those was public broadcasting.

Ahem. You ARE either (a) younger than I thought or (b) mistaken because PBS didn't exist prior to 1970. But test patterns did and there was no 24-hour teevee in my youth, either. But I do recall 24-hour teevee as early as 1964, out of El-Eh. I know it existed because my buds and I would sit in the barracks dayroom at Vandenberg AFB after a swing-shift in 1964 and watch REALLY dumb old movies and drink beer until the sun came up. You may think we were creatively-challenged, but what else was there to do at 0200 hrs? Answer: Nothing.

Suldog said...

SR - I wish I had thought of having my swell pal, Cricket, chirping. That would have been hilarious!

Buck - I didn't say PBS, my friend. The precursor to PBS was National Educational Television, or NET, and that started much earlier in the 60's. Also, I'm no public television historian, but I know that some "public" stations, such as KQED in Pittsburgh and WGBH in Boston existed before NET.

As for you folks being creatively challenged at 0200, hey, I said that I was sitting around watching wavy colored bars on my TV, so who am I to talk?

messymimi said...

We were lucky, we had 5 channels. But our stations didn't start programming until 6am when i was very young, then 5am later.

Thanks for the memories.

fibrowitch said...

You must have grown up a little further away from the antenna farm than I did. I remember getting 38 for all the professional sports and 56 for those Outer limits and Twilight Zone marathons.

Speaking of channel 5, do you remember Park Street Under? That was must see TV in my house.

Suldog said...

Fibrowitch - My Dad didn't get a UHF converter for our TV until I was maybe 9 or 10? Perhaps you're just slightly younger than I am? But it was fantastic when we did start getting UHF stations. It doubled the stuff to watch! And, yes, I do remember "Park Street Under", locally produced by channel 5!

Michelle H. said...

Strange... younger than you, but I had 5 channels as a kid, and in my teens I had 7 to watch (probably some that Jeni knows). Back country living never afforded us cable television. My father bought two satellite dishes. One big, the other small. We had walkie-talkies and would tell my father, stationed outside to move the satellite by hand, if we found a strong enough signal to watch. Interesting times.

Suldog said...

Michelle - Heh. My Dad got a huge-ass satellite dish when he moved to NH in 1991, since there was no cable in his small town. I know the deal!

fibrowitch said...

I just hit the double quarter century mark. Our first tv was a Radio Shack kit. I don't remember if it was a two dialer or an extra rabbit ears.

Ruth and Glen said...

Well, we're glad you added that PS because we were experiencing an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Of course we enjoyed it the second time around as well.

Chris said...

Test patterns and "this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test. If this had been an actual emergency, there's no chance you'd still be sitting in front of your television. You'd be running for the hills, hiding under a bed, or some other cowardly thing."

Or something like that.

In the NY area, we got 2,4,5,7,9,11, and 13. 13 was PBS.

Remember Zoom?

Weird kids, funny shirts, good times.

Duck Gas 45 said...

UHF converter. How many folks bought those or new TV's when the Red Sox coverage moved to WSBK, channel 38? (I'm not sure what station the Sox were on before, the old channel 5 - WHDH?)

up until that time, channel 38 was the Bruins, endless reruns of Hogan's Heros, The Stooges and Willy Whistle.

CiCi said...

Of course I remember the test pattern. But I was not interested in watching TV back then, rarely watched it except on Saturday nights when my brother and I sat on the floor and watched Spade Cooley with our father. It was just about the only thing we did with him. You do cause me to bring back some memories of the long ago times. And laugh.

Daryl said...

I remember that test pattern, I thought as a kid that it was exclusive to WWOR TV

i beati said...

very informative Shows I never heard of and the test pattern sort of led you into your present work- subconsciously Hmnnn

Shammickite said...

No TV between 1am and 5 am? Oh dear, you obviously led a deptived life. Or should I say depraved?
I grew up with NO ELECRICITY! Therefore no TV! And even if we had electricity, there was no TV signal available. We got elecricity when I was 10. We got a TV when I was 12. One channel. BBC. It started at 4pm for Children's Hour. Then stopped at 5pm. I think it started again at 6:30pm and stopped at about 10pm or possibly 10:30pm. Then no TV until the next day.
Not even a test pattern!
And you think that you had it hard.... pssshhhaw!

Hilary said...

I remember it well. We got our two local stations in Montreal and two Amurikan stations.. Burlington, Vermont and Platsburgh, N.Y as we were pretty close to the border of each of those two states. Eventually Poland Springs, Maine entered the picture.. so to speak.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

I can remember when there wasn't much of anything on before 3pm except for Saturday and Sunday.

Oh yeah, and when I first moved here to this part of California, in 1973, there were only three stations. There was no NBC affiliate. Sometimes there still isn't any programming until 5am... and I don't care.

Clare Dunn said...

My favorite Captain Kangaroo character was "The Banana Man", but he wasn't on very often.

He would sing:
"La - La - La - La,
For some reason, that cracked me up.
(pea brains weren't relished by the dinosaurs, so I survived)

xoxoxo, cd

Anonymous said...

I wasn't up that early very often, but I remember the test pattern and national anthem very well. I hope we had a morning prayer in the Houston area, but I'm not sure. We had channels 2, 11, 13 and (later, probably) UHF channels 39 and 26. How do I remember that? Probably the same reason I remember our original phone number that included letters: GR2-0948. Thanks for reposting this!

lime said...

since i've never been a morning person i didn't see test patterns upon waking but i was known to linger late enough into the evening to catch one and i remember how they signed off with the national anthem too. i guess i am officially old.

as for having a gay old time you must be even older than fred flintstone if you didn't have one because EVEN they did. it says so right in the song!