There’s no magic in something that always works. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous, and maybe even unappreciative, but it’s true, at least to some people of my generation. Or, maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way. I don’t know. So, for some of you, who have grown up in a society where ‘stuff’ just usually does what it’s supposed to do, let me explain.
When I was a child, growing up in rural Maine in the 1960s, (In the ‘60s almost all of Maine was rural. I’m not sure if that is true now. ) Anyway, when I was a child, our family had one of the most modern, state of the art TVs on our street. (The advantage of living on a dead-end street in Central Maine in the ‘60s was that that street was as far as you ever had to impress anyone.) The screen of the TV was actually round, and held in place with a vaguely-square metal frame, to make the round picture tube look somewhat less than round. The frame cut off some of the picture, but no one cared. My point is that every once in a while, our TV, even when only a few years old, would ‘give out’… as they used to say. It would just stop working, and when that happened we would call a very nice man at a local television repair company named Drappo’s, to come over for a house call.
Television repair was common in those days, as were television repair house calls. There was really little choice if you wanted your TV fixed. The things weighed, probably, over a hundred pounds, and were housed in big, chunky, cheap pieces of furniture called consoles. Yup, a console TV was something every household had to have. Ours even had a phonograph and am/fm radio built in. Kids, here’s a pop quiz. What is a phonograph, and what do am and fm stand for? I remember what the tall, skinny man from Drappo’s looked like, and the fact that he would wave a magic degausser thingy in front of the TV screen to make the picture more or less a color one again, if that was the problem. He would often also replace several of the vacuum tubes in the set, and we would be off and running for another year or so. How strange all of that seems now.
My point is that things are better now, but in being better now, they have, perhaps, lost some of their magic. Everyone just expects their TV to work, every single time they turn it on… these days. If it didn’t work, no one would think of taking the thing in for repair, much less asking someone to come to their home to fix it, and no one could have answered that call, if they had. Today we would just haul that big, flat-screen device to the trash and go to a big box store to get another one, on sale.
In those days we also had things called ‘transistor’ radios. Even today, every modern radio actually runs on transistors, but we don’t think about that anymore. A transistor is no longer a new wonder of the world, any more than an incandescent light bulb is. When I was a kid I had what they called a ten-transistor radio. Is there anyone out there who still remembers those? I recall that if you had TEN transistors you were better off than people whose radios had fewer, and you, with yours, would therefore get better reception. I even remember, before that, having a two-transistor radio. My dad told me that if I held the radio up to a particular wall in our living-room, (it was the wall where the TV antenna wire was snaked up through to the roof antenna) I would get better reception. Boy, was he ever right! That little radio blared music from many miles away when I held it against a particular spot on that wall. It was really MAGIC!
In a future column I might even tell you about the crystal radios I used to build as a child. Those things were really cool. They, almost magically, worked without batteries or being plugged in. (Talk about saving energy.) And you could build one with a small block of wood, some thumbtacks, a roll of copper wire, an empty toilet paper roll, a razor blade, a safety pin, and a fifty cent ‘earphone’ from Radio Shack. You could only hear a few stations on a crystal radio… but late at night, when all was quiet, the fact that YOU built that radio, and that it worked, was as magical as if the sounds were coming from another galaxy. And who knows… some of them may have been.
My first camera, which I ‘sent away for’ when I was probably seven or eight years old, cost me a whole dollar, and some number of Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers. It was the cheapest piece of black plastic, with an even cheaper plastic lens, that you have ever seen, but it took pictures. Today, no one would be amazed that a camera worked. They would be amazed at one which didn’t. The ‘roll’ of film for my camera cost more than the camera itself did, and I first tried it at a family picnic, one Memorial Day. I could barely wait for those first developed pictures to come back to me in the mail. I remember how awe-struck I was to see them. Yes, my one-dollar camera actually worked! To me, there really was magic in that. Today, seven-year-olds are taking studio-quality pictures with their phones, and instantly sending them around the world. But who wants to take pictures with a phone? How boring and displaced we are from how things ‘should’ be. How wonderful technology is… but also, how UN-magical. Walt Disney would be sad.
The same story goes for vehicles. Most cars start every single time you turn the key. Many cars don’t even have keys, and start every time you push the button. How unimaginative that is. I remember, as a child, actually thanking God when the car started on a freezing, winter day, especially if my dad had been out in the cold, spraying stuff into the carburetor, (a car part from the past) and drying the spark plugs on the kitchen stove for an hour or so. No one wants to go through that these days, including me. It’s a good thing that people generally don’t have to pray that their car will start in the morning, but are they at all thankful when it does?
A few weeks ago my wife was in Arizona, visiting her dad and his wife. She called me, and we were immediately connected, with perfect sound quality. (No one thinks about a telephone’s sound quality anymore. And no one uses the word telephone.) I remember, back in my childhood days, when my dad would call one of his brothers in California, late at night, on the weekend, because it was cheaper to call then, and wait as operator after operator, (telephone operator- a long-gone occupation) connected his call, all the way across our country. When Dad’s call finally reached one of his brothers’ homes, it was almost a miracle. The sound of one of my uncles’ voices was magical to my dad.
Don’t bet me wrong. I would not trade the technology of today for that of the ‘60s, any more than I would trade modern medical knowledge for what was known back then. I am glad that my car, my phone, my TV and my camera are as advanced as they are. I just wonder what there is left to be amazed by. I know this is a strange question to ask, but, where’s the magic, when everything works?
“George’s World,” a new 740 page collection of George’s columns from The World, is available at xlibris.com, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and your favorite bookstore. “The Smoke And Mirrors Effect,” George’s first novel, can be seen at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Happy Reading!