Today, everyone thinks Alexa is all the rage. Hey Alexa, change the channel. Hey Alexa, volume up. Hey Alexa, turn up the heat. Heck Alexa owners, y’all have nothing on the Collins family of the early sixties. We had Alexa back then. Except the name was Ronnie. Hey Ronnie, turn up the volume. Hey Ronnie, change the channel. Hey Ronnie, add some wood to the stove. And on and on it went. Not as sexy, but much more effective! Ronnie did talk back a little under his breath. So, I guess you could call me Alexa with an attitude.
Recently, my remote control to the television vanished. At first, I silently blamed my loving wife, who always places the remote in its proper place, right next to my chair. It was not there. Additionally, the remote was not on her chair either, a sure sign we were talking serious business here. A cursory glance around the room produced no evidence of my clicker companion. Chaos began to slowly creep into my brain. I frantically looked under the chair, sofa, coffee table and in the crevices of all our living room furniture. That search produced fifty-seven cents in loose change, enough cookie crumbs to produce a decent snack, two bookmarks and the spare key to my car. But no remote. I followed the beaten path from my chair to the pantry, the course most frequented by yours truly. Nothing. Bathroom. Not there. Pant pockets. Empty.
I must admit, I began to panic. Surely, I would not have to, gulp, walk across the room and change the channel! Do I even know how to do that anymore? Thoughts of desperation began to flood the very essence of my entire existence!
Where is that dang thing?
My mind wandered back to the days of my youth, when I was Alexa. “Hey Ronnie, turn the volume down on the television,” mom would say, as her command was sequenced number one in the hierarchy of the Collins family.
“Hey Ronnie, change the channel, “dad would bellow, a little less diplomatic, exerting administrator rights as the current number two priority in the command, even though he moved to number one as soon as mom walked out of the room.
Both these Alexa type commands required, double gulp, getting out of my comfy seat, walking across the room, and manually launching the volume control and channel changing app. Being the youngest in the family meant, by default, I was the official remote control for the television.
So, what’s the big deal with simply changing the channel for your parents? I should probably move on and never mention it. I mean, after all, they put food on the table, provided clothing for me and put a roof over my head. How ungrateful on my part, right? Wrong! This task was an overly complicated, detailed, and intricate procedure, needing extensive on the job training. Let me explain.
Life prior to cable television was vastly different than life with 383 streaming on demand channels. Oh no, once the channel was changed on our sixty’s television set, a human was required to go outside and turn an antenna in the direction of the selected station. That human was always me. It did not matter the weather; cold, hot, rainy, or dry. Didn’t matter if I was sick; Hey Ronnie, turn up the volume. Doing homework; Hey Ronnie, change the channel.
Our antenna consisted of an aluminum pole thirty feet in height. It was attached to the side of the house, next to the television location inside the house. Ours was in the migratory path of every fully fed bird in southeast Arkansas, resulting in, well you get the picture. Attached to the pole was the actual antenna. It looked like an old-fashioned clothes line. An electrical wire was attached to the stems and dangled downward where it entered the house and was attached to the back of the tv. Some creative members of the community would string Christmas lights on their antennas. I do not know if this helped reception, but I was convinced Santa came to their house first. “Dad let’s put Christmas lights on our antenna, I shouted.”
“Turn it a little more to the right,” he retorted.
The proper direction of the antenna that corresponded to the channel selected was learned at an early age but was not an exact science. “That’s good,” dad would yell to me from the warm comfort of his recliner, launching the Alexa command of, you can come back inside now. “No, turn it a little more,” he shouted, changing his mind as a gust of wind moved the big aluminum mouse pointer in the sky, as water and bird poop drizzled my upward gazing eyes. Dads voice woke our dogs, which elicited dog barking, which woke the neighbor’s dogs, who started barking. A barking chain reaction resonated through our neighborhood. It became a bark off. Anytime our dogs barked for no reason, I knew someone else’s Alexa was changing their channel.
Some rich people had devices that sit on top of the television designed to electronically turn the antenna. Not us. Why would dad want to spend money on something like this when he had me? This was a special bonding time between father and son, when dads across the land would assess what their sons were made of. “He’s gonna make a fine son,” I can hear dads of that time beaming. “He has the knack of turning the antenna in the right direction!”
Our television had a dial on the front with ten numbers on the channel dial. The numbers showed the designated channel. It also had some letters that spelled UHF. I’m not sure why those were on the channel dial. In our home, we only needed channels eight and ten and sometimes seven, depending on the weather.
Innovation was especially important in filling the job description of pre-Alexa times. Innovation? Most definitely. My fellow pre-Alexa partners know where I’m heading with this. The channel changer on the television was a rotary dial. The dial wore down over time, especially after ten or more years. This flaw produced an illusional phenomenon that allowed the channel number to be pointed on the number 7, but actually be tuned to channel 8. It took magical fingers and extreme finesse to make that channel hang in between stations. These things can’t be taught; only learned over years of pre-Alexa commands.
Another feature of our television was a broken dial. I noticed this feature on many of my friends tv’s. This feature required needle nose pliers to change the channel, many times without the visual aide of worn off numbers. This was very much an advanced app that could only be pulled off by expert pre-Alexers. The technique required a combination of turning and pulling the channel changer precisely at the same time.
But the coup de grace of all tv’s of this era was an ultra-advanced move called the cardboard wedge. While I only got this move correct about half the time, this move required wedging a perfectly folded piece of cardboard between the tv and the channel changer. The desired results were a fine tuned tv on the correct channel with minimal static. But don’t dare touch that dial, or this high-tech maneuver had to be repeated.
Based on the above information, I am not sure I would classify our television as a smart tv or a dumb one. Dumb would classify the changer (me) as not so bright. Smart would give the tv too much credit. I’d say ours was just an average tv.
“Just be glad you have a television,” mom would say, anytime I complained. She made an excellent point, as I banged on the side of the console, hoping for a magic elixir to better reception.
Some televisions came with two aluminum telescoping adjustable contraptions called rabbit ears. These set on top of the television and could be adjusted from inside the house. I am a novice in the art of rabbitearology, but some early geeks claimed one got better reception if aluminum foil was wrapped on the tips. This made the tv look ridiculously similar to a Martian. Over time, these ears would inevitably get broken. A fight here, a stray nerf ball there. These things happen. Untwisted clothes hangers became an acceptable substitute in south Arkansas culture, though half rabbit and half clothes hanger combos were frowned upon.
Our television was turned off promptly each night at 10 pm. The only exception was on Friday nights, when Gillette sponsored Friday Night Fights. This was dads favorite, so I got to stay up late to watch the fights with him. I never truly cared about the fights. I just enjoyed spending time with my dad. I noticed the hey Ronnie commands declined during this special time period. I choose to believe it was because dad wanted me near him.
I was told the television went off air, meaning no television broadcasts, just before midnight. This was a feat dignified by the playing of the national anthem. This event never happened at the Collins household. We were always in bed, listening to dogs barking and whippoorwills whip o will.
We had no video camera recorders, no pause, no fast forward. If a show was missed, we simply had to wait until it was rerun. Commercial breaks meant a quick trip to the bathroom in order to get back before the show started back up.
There it is. My remote somehow got put in my robe pocket. Finally, I can get back to my television. Let me see what’s on. Flip, flip, flip, flip. Well, I went thru 383 channels. Nothing worthwhile on. Guess I’ll watch channel seven. Some things never seem to change.
“Hey Alexa,” I say.
“Hey back at ya, Ronnie,” says Alexa.
I believe I detected a slight attitude in her voice. Oh well, she learned from the best. I have come full circle.
All is back to normal at the Collins household.